violence against women

An Open Letter To Downton Abbey

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TRIGGER WARNING and SPOILER ALERT
 (season 4, episode 2)

Dear Downton Abbey,

First, let me make one thing very clear: I adore you. I’m coming from a place of love. My favorite bag for the longest time was my canvas tote screen-printed with “What is a weekend?” (I carried my books to the library in it on Saturday mornings.) I firmly believe that Dame Maggie Smith is a god in human form. And I’ve been shipping Sybil and Branson for longer than was reasonable, especially as I continue to do so long after Sybil’s death. So I’m not writing this out of spite, or any deep-seated dislike of English period dramas. (My friends and family can attest to this.)

No, what I’m trying to do is speak to you like I would any friend who has made a terrible, disappointing choice that caused me to seethe in anger for longer than ten minutes. Keeping aggression inside is not healthy or helpful. Consider this my constructive criticism.

Why, why, why did you have to end the second episode of your new season with a melodramatic, completely pointless, vicious and gratuitous rape scene?

No really, why. I want to hear your reason.

It certainly wasn’t to drive forward an existing storyline. The rapist, one Mr. Green, the valet of a passing houseguest, was completely phoned in for this episode. He appears out of nowhere. He doesn’t even get a first name as best as I can remember, and if there’s a less distinct name than “Mr. Green,” please let me know. He seems to have no other purpose other than to seduce Anna and then rape her when she refuses his advances. After which he promptly disappears into the night. He was created to fill the role of Visiting Rapist. So clearly, writing a rape scene for its own sake was your goal.

It also wasn’t to pick up a dragging storyline and spur things along. You have no shortage of drama. You have Edith and Gregson’s (slightly unrealistic, but I’ll go for it) divorce-clandestine-not-secret-romance, you have Lord Grantham’s total inability to cope with anything that happens around him (I could rant about his character too, but that’s not the point), you have Mrs. Crawley’s mourning and you have Thomas Barrow, an enigma unto himself. But none of these have the sensationalism factor of a rape. Sex sells, and violence sells, and when you bring them together you know you’re going to get people talking. There’s a reason I’m not writing a blog post about Branson’s class standing and existential crisis.

Although I would like to. Because that’s my favorite part of the whole show. #TeamBranson.

You might argue, and not without reason, that you’ve leaned towards the dramatic and the violent before. You’ve almost given Mrs. Hughes breast cancer, you’ve had Matthew crash his car into a tree (though really I’m told that was a casting issue with Dan Stevens, so I’ll let it slide), you’ve killed Sybil. You killed my Sybil. But I let that go, because you had narrative work to do there. You were able to humanize Mrs. Hughes in a way that might have been difficult otherwise, and to look into Edwardian and Georgian medical practices, which the dork in me liked. You were able to deal with the issues of primogeniture and patriarchy in the estate system while having Mary navigate the aftermath of Matthew’s death. You gave me this tragic and beautiful storyline with Tom Branson holding a baby he loves while trying to fit into a world that is not his. Go you. All these things are great.

What has Anna’s rape done for the story, except sensationalize the reality of sexual violence that happens to someone in the United States once every two minutes, or an estimated total of 237,868 people per year?  What has it done except force her pain and suffering and abuse into the limelight, glamorizing and dramatizing the very real pain of sexual assault and violence that an estimated 35% of women in the world have gone through?

Don’t tell me that you’re trying to raise awareness. The only possible constructive message to be taken from this scene is that rape is “a thing that happens.” Women are already very aware. 

You’re trying to get people to talk. You’re appealing to an audience you think you have that glories in violence and sex and rape and murder and torture and vulgarity and violence and nudity, because that’s what modern culture tells you people are into these days.

Here’s a hint: maybe that’s what people watch because that’s what they’re given.

I can’t even think of a show within the past five years that hasn’t featured murder, death, assault, or sexual violence of some kind. Some of these are dealt with tastefully, some of these are not. But this isn’t ancient Rome, and I don’t need to watch somebody be fed to the lions to be entertained.

No. Actually, I'm not.

No. Actually, I’m not.

I think it’s possible to make a show where the drama comes from the human interactions on-screen. And so far, Downton, you’ve done a great job with this. If you want to have cruelty and underhand manipulation, do it like you’ve been doing it with Thomas Barrow. He’s my secret second-favorite character, which I realize is weird, but you know why? Because he’s a villain and he does evil, seemingly purposeless things, but they’re not exploitative or sensationalized or gut-wrenchingly awful, and his motivations are there and waiting for me to parse them. I think of him as an Edmund figure from King Lear (please humor me, non-English-literature-people): I can’t justify anything he does, but I can see why he would behave that way. And it’s just soul-wrenching enough that I can sympathize with him, and I want things to work out for him in the end. Treat your villains as people and your victims as people, not as mindless rapists and plot devices. It’s just offensive to everyone involved.

So, Downton Abbey, the ball’s in your court. I realize that Season 4 is already done filming, and that it’s already aired in the UK, and that you’ve probably already set the script for Season 5. And I will continue cheering from the comfortable sidelines of #TeamBranson, but it’s my responsibility to hold the things I love accountable.

As Dame Maggie Smith would put it, if she had access to the internet: “I’m a media-literate feminist, Mary, I can be as contrary as I choose.”

All I’m saying: just think about it. It didn’t work.

Until next Downton Day,

-Allison

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Body Pacifism At War: Silence and Sexual Assault

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I didn’t think it was going to happen. At least, not on this trip.

I’m not the kind of girl who keeps pepper spray in her bag and continually thinks the worst is going to happen, but I did take a self-defense course in college. I read frequently about rape culture and sexual assault. I speak out against street harassment and the oppressive nature of the patriarchy that makes women into objects of sexual attraction. I know all of this.

And yet, I didn’t expect to know a friend who was sexually assaulted.

It happened while traveling. A friend of mine was followed, groped, kissed, and cornered by a group of drunk men after a gay pride parade. They would not take no for an answer, and my friend was forced to push them away and run, using another friend as a decoy significant other to try and ward off the men’s attention. We’re lucky that my friend escaped to this extent, but it’s still a harrowing experience to think about, something that I know has affected my friend more than they’re letting on.

My friend, by the way, is a nineteen-year-old male.

Not that this should matter.

Sexual assault, while a gender-based crime, does not discriminate along male-female lines. The myth that men and boys cannot be victims of sexual assault is pervasive (they must have wanted it; men always want sex; men are strong enough to get away and would have done so if they really were uncomfortable), and so it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of resources about how to support sexual assault survivors is female-directed.

But this doesn’t help my friend, or the other men who are trying to grapple with this invasion of their selfhood, this loss of control, without anyone to help them.

What makes it worse is that while survivor support for men is dramatically lacking, victim-blaming is not.

So much of what society tells us about how to prevent sexual assault comes from a place of concern. We are told not to walk alone at night. We are told to keep our phones in our hands, ready to dial 911 at a moment’s provocation. We are told to always have a safe ride, a backup plan, one form or another of self-defense up our sleeve in case we meet a sketchy stranger in a back alley.

All of these are practical ideas. They give us some feeling of safety, and allow us to regain some form of control. In a situation when our feelings of safety and control are being forcibly removed from us, this feeling is invaluable.

But it’s important for us to remember that while all these things can be helpful, what happens is not the victim’s fault.

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We shouldn’t be telling survivors not to be assaulted, we should be telling assaulters not to assault.

While the society in which we live doesn’t allow us the liberty to frolic through dark alleys at three in the morning, footloose and fancy-free, what all this focus on prevention does is, on some level, blame the recipient of the harassment for allowing themselves to be placed in that position. Our bodies are a safe space, and that any attempt to enter that safe space without express permission is a violation and a crime on the part of the violator.

Any attempt to teach us otherwise is false, cruel, and unacceptable.

I called this blog The Body Pacifist because our world, as it appears to me, is engaged in a perpetual state of body warfare. Not only are our bodies expected to look a certain way, take up a certain amount of space, exist within a certain gender paradigm, but they are considered public property by people who have no right to enter our most private spaces. “No means no” is not enough.

Our bodies belong to us. They are the vehicles in which we carry ourselves through the world, day in and day out. Just because their shape does not define who we are does not mean that they are not an intrinsic part of who we are, or that we are not entitled to decide what does and does not get to happen to them.

Our bodies are part of ourselves. And I refuse to let anyone tell me otherwise, whether it be well-meaning advice or outside force.

For the record, I am absolutely, physically fine. I was in a different part of the country from my friend when this event happened, looking at cows and sheep and seagulls on the coast. My friend is physically safe as well, thank goodness.

But the point is, until we are all able to move through public spaces within our private selves, no one is really completely safe.

Feminem: A Contradiction in Terms?

ImageI’ve said it for a while now: coming to college made me a feminist. I don’t know if it was having to defend Jane Austen as legitimate literature to endless streams of my male friends, or my first Halloween when the general expectation was that my costume would involve more skin than costume (no. Midwest Octobers are cold), but I’ve evolved from having more or less no social justice views to going off on fem-spired rants after just about every commercial on TV. What can I say? Feminist rants are kind of my thing.

That said, I’ve also discovered a trait about myself in college that would, I’m sure, make most of my feminist counterparts flick holy water in my direction and shun me: I really like Eminem.

Yes, I know. I listen to the lyrics.

It started nagging at the back of my mind this morning, when I put the Recovery album on shuffle as I geared up the treadmill at the gym. (I find I’m more likely to work out if there’s an angry person yelling in my ear.) Should I really be listening to songs with lyrics that not only describe but idolize violence against women, homophobia, and straight-up assault and murder? The objective answer is, “probably not.” How to explain how many songs are on my iPod, then? (Confession: it’s 37.)

I want to make it clear right from the get-go that under no circumstances am I supporting the trivialization of violence against women. Every time I hear a rape joke, it turns my stomach. The Steubenville case makes me want to throw up inside. I don’t think that music needs to stoop down to shock value and the most horrific scenarios possible to send a message. And there are a few Eminem songs that I’ve removed from my music library when they made me too uncomfortable to listen to.

But this isn’t me trying to hedge. I’m trying to make sense of it all.

Straight-up: I think, by and large, Eminem is more clever than a lot of the other rappers currently getting airtime. Very rarely do I laugh out loud while listening to rap, but Eminem has caught me off-guard with some of his lines, and I appreciate that. I like to listen to people who are trying to say something, and if they do it in a witty way, then I’m all for it. Sure, a lot of these are innocuous, not-that-important jokes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good line when I hear it: 

            “My filet is smokin’ weed / my steaks are high” (Cinderella Man)

            “Dick’s too short a word for my dick / get off my antidisestablishmentarianism” (Almost Famous)

            “I’ll rip a tree out the ground and flip it upside down / before I turn over a new leaf” (W.T.P.)

Okay, they’re not Chaucer. I’m not pretending they are. But I’m comparing them to the likes of “Rack City,” and I’ve got to say, at least there’s some effort here.

Yes, I hear you in the back there. “Are you seriously justifying his violence and mysoginy because he can make a handful of puns?” And no. No, I’m not. But hear me out here for a second. I listened to the song “Space Bound” this morning, and it really struck me: he’s actually considering the consequences of domestic violence. There was one verse in particular that stood out to me as a new way of looking at violence against women; I’ll transcribe it here to prevent unnecessary scrolling.

          You won’t even listen so fuck it, I’m tryna stop you from breathing

          I put both hands on your throat, I sit on top of you squeezing

          ‘til I snap your neck like a Popsicle stick, ain’t no possible reason

          I can think of to let you walk up out this house and let you live

          Tears stream down both of my cheeks now I let you go and just give

          And ‘fore I put that gun to my temple I told you this

          And I woulda done anything for you to show you how much I adored you

          But it’s over now, it’s too late to save our love

          Just promise me you’ll think of me every time

          You look up in the sky and see a star…

Again, not condoning violence. But this is actually discussing domestic violence from the male point of view, which I don’t think we get very frequently as a society. Attention is focused on the victim of domestic violence, as it should be. These women need our support and our understanding, and by no means should we abandon them.

But there’s a movement in the feminist circles that runs something like this: “Don’t teach women how not to get raped; teach men how to stop raping.” We focus so much on the victims of abuse and violence that often we forget to look to the source of the problem. What is there in our culture that is so insidious that it teaches men that in order to be powerful, they can or should use violence? How can we hope to address this problem if we don’t look at both sides of the issue?

“Space Bound” also recognizes the guilt, shame, and despair of the cycle of domestic violence on both sides of the spectrum. Maybe it’s because I’m an English major, but I was put almost instantly in mind of this scene of Shakespeare’s Othello, immediately after Othello has killed his wife Desdemona (by strangulation, as in the above lyrics):

          Whip me, ye devils,

          From the possession of this heavenly sight.

          Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulpher,

          Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!

          O Desdemona! Dead Desdemona!     (5.2.284-8)

I don’t think anyone would argue that Othello celebrates domestic violence here: this seems a clear enumeration of its horrible consequences. Is it possible that some of these songs can be a warning against domestic violence, rather than an affirmation of them? Is the shock value attempting to show the horrors of violence, rather than encouraging it?

I’m not arguing that Eminem is a great feminist activist, nor that he deliberately intended his songs to be interpreted that way. All I’m saying is that it’s tough to listen to a song in which the speaker kills himself out of remorse and despair after having assaulted his wife and come away with a positive feeling on violence.

Whether or not you like rap, it’s art. And art is always up for interpretation. If we can interpret songs that seem on the surface to be violent and destructive and use them in a productive, empowering way, then I see no reason not to. And if it happens to come with a handful of clever rhymes along the way, so much the better.

I’ll keep cueing up Marshall Mathers on my morning runs, and someday I’ll learn all the words to “Lose Yourself.” But in the meantime, don’t think that I’m accepting all the controversial language in his albums without critical thinking. I’m keeping a skeptical ear open. No matter how much I like your flows, Eminem, you’d better remember that your audience extends across the gender lines.

(Author’s Note: Sweet merciful heavens, I just did a cross-textual analysis with Eminem and Shakespeare. Every one of my academic advisors is probably in agony right now, like I’m stabbing their literary voodoo dolls.)