This is a large portion of the video made by a friend of one of the convicted men in the Steubenville rape case after he received photographs of the victim on his cell phone. Examining this video reinforces the impact of the original photographs being circulated from the perpetrator’s cell phone to friends’ cell phones and then to other forms of social media. The photographs, and the video, were then picked up by online newspapers and websites, and further discussed, shared, and argued via the comments section of these online venues, as well as Facebook and Twitter. The social media fueled case is an example of how a rape victim’s pain is circulated, contested, and examined in the public eye. In relation to social media and sexual assault cases, I am interested in how the language use in the news and social media often perpetuates stereotypes and assumptions about sexual assault. Social media has allowed for a rise of rape culture language use where spectators and social media onlookers determine the validity of sexual assault cases. In the Steubenville case, in particular, social media commentators contest whether the victim was truly a victim of rape. Barbara Johnstone (2008) suggests aspects of sexism such as this are embedded in familiar ways of talking in cultures and communities that are often more dangerous than overt language. This also invokes Shannon O’Hara’s (2012) argument that the news media, and I argue the social media too, perpetuates myths and stereotypes regarding the circumstances of rape, which is problematic because of the media’s role in shaping public opinion. The research I have done thus far suggests there is also a different cultural perception portrayed in media outlets of sexual assault in America versus the perception of what is occurring in nations such as India, where the rationalization behind these assaults are instead suggestive of faults of that particular society and distinctly separated from American cases. The Steubenville case is a pertinent example because it exemplifies the conflicting role social media plays in sexual assault cases. On one hand it affords empowerment like in India, where it is used as an outlet for gathering a rally cry against the defendants. Even in the Steubenville case, it was vigilantes who actually exposed the video to social media outlets, but the video and photographs instead became fuel for rape culture banter over the validity of sexual assault cases.
Thanks for a great post on a
Thanks for a great post on a very complex set of ethical issues surrounding a highly charged instance of how online circulation can complicate these issues further, especialy in light of how the images are handled by traditional news outlets. I'm curious as to what you see as the similarities I think you're hinting at between cases like this in the U.S. and similar cases elsewhere and why you think a distinction is made on the basis of "culture" in foreign countries even though the cases are similarly handled in popular forums and interpersonal discussions. I find it intriguing that the argument against the culture of India, for example, as one which simply facilitates such behavior, is one which gets a lot of pushback domestically. Do you see this happening in the discourse of other countries as well?
April, thank you for this
April, thank you for this thought provoking post. I am thinking about the discussion here of how one might see this incident, but also how the media is used differently. I have not studied the cases. So, the videos and pictures were captured by the attackers and those standing by, shared on what I am assuming these boys though were closed social medias (texts, closed instagram accounts) and then leaked out of those spaces by individuals on the fringe? Also, as we discuss this example to discuss rape culture in America, that discussion seems to primarily revolve around whether there is a rape culture in America, which can be seen discussed on the YouTube link you posted. I wonder if we can meaningful conversation beyond the identification of rape culture in social media spaces? Or if the fragmented forum of social media is a place to discuss instead of 'circulate' content?
Great post, April. We're often told sunlight is the best disinfectant and that transparency protects us, but the power to shame and punish the victim is often overlooked.
Thanks for this post April. This was the first time I watched this footage and I was instantly struck by its similarity to the Delta Chi rape case in Florida in 1999 (which later became the subject of a documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent), which I discuss in my book Public Rape. You see the same kind of aggressive male camaraderie and bonding over the body of a raped woman and what is immediately striking to me is just how many times the men use the word rape. While the Delta Chi incident was also captured on tape it was pre- social media; the Steubenville case clearly escalates questions regarding the ‘question of our complicity and participation in scenes of violence’. It is really troubling/fascinating to think through the implications of what it means to have the public sharing of such images on the Internet. How does the circulation of such images impact on how rape gets talked about in public spaces? How does it redraw the lines between private/public? I would also like to hear more regarding the extent to which the circulation of such images opens up the possibility for resistant voices. In her article on the case in The New Yorker, Ariel Levy has talked about how ‘The Internet is uniquely qualified as a venue for public shaming; it is a town square big enough to put all the world’s sinners in the stocks’.
considering resistance in a media "torrent"...
Thank you April for the very thoughtful post. Tanya’s point about the “circulation of such images” evokes for me the challenges of not only creating the possibilities for resistant voices, but whether they can even have a meaningful impact and visibilty. I think they can, but one of the problems seems to be the conditions of the “media torrent” (to borrow Gitlin’s notion), over-choice, disposability, etc. Would you add pornography (a torrent in itself) to the notion of wider “rape culture” (especially some of the extreme subgenres)? I would. For me, this relates to the question of complicity in a “rape culture,” such that, given the way consumers and marketers categorize and compartmentalize content, complicity is not known or felt. I also think the “boys will be boys” point is very important here, in contrast to those in India being somehow, less familiar, other. Surely cultural differences abound, but any popular masculine ideologies which naturalize aggression (sexual or otherwise) need to be a part of the dialogue.
As dead as...
Thank you for this April. Even though I have to say, I find this video almost unwatchable. While I see what Tanya means about the verbal repetition of the word "rape", what struck me is how often the main subject of the video says "dead", and how much energy (if not imagination) he puts into finding analogies for this "death" that he has "seen" (mistakenly) in the photo on his friend's phone. Layer upon layer of abjection are intertwined here. Speaking out of a culture in which the intention of murder is intrinsic to rape, rather than incidental to it, he seems to be trying to enact, as if by incantation, a death that the photograph does not sufficiently prove, nor, for him, adequately execute. His rhetorical display seems intended to compensate him for his not having been present to participate in the crime, and in doing so, he succeeds (this is what for me makes this tape unbearable) in verbally reenacting that rape, over and over again. On another level, tho, by repeating the word "dead" at such ridiculous length, while dispersing its meaning among a myriad figures of speech, some of them self-consciously shocking, some of them simply ludicrous, he seems to be trying to drain it of any possible power, let alone any power over him. In this sense, his display is less a demonstration of violence by proxy, than a desperate and futile attempt to exorcise a kind of terror - of being himself dead, of being himself raped. The more he seeks to mimic and reenact this violence against the other, the more obvious it becomes that his fantasy of power is the flip side of his inability to recognise, let alone begin to come to terms with, his own vulnerability, that is, his own humanity.
That's a really brilliant reading of the clip Peter, which I agree is quite unwatchable. You are right that the repetition of word dead is striking as are the kind of bizarre and extreme analogies he comes up with (she's deader than Caylee Anthony etc.) I think your focus on the notion of the reenactment of violence is very important. It made me think of research I am currently doing on reenactment, crime and affective engagement. Bill Nichols, for instance, in 'Documentary and the Fantasmatic Subject' (Critical Inquiry) has written of how the attempt to conjure lost objects and 'come to terms with death, catastrophe and trauma' are at the heart of the 'fantastmatic project' of reenactment. Your point that the reenactment of the violence against the other in this clip is revealing of the subject's own inability to register his vulnerability and humanity is fascinating. Thank you.
THE POSITION OF THE VIEWER
Thanks Tanya. I'm also wondering whether this clip is differently unwatchable from different viewer positions? That is, I wondered if I found the main subject's riffing on death and rape differently, or specifically, unbearable, as a man, i.e. as mirroring a kind of masculinity which is specifically intended to include, not exclude me (and not simply because men and women always everywhere identify on a gendered basis, which seems too simple an analysis). I'd be interested to know how other people receive that. And how they receive the role of the filmer, whose attitude towards his friend is, at least initially, ambivalent, before his admiration/appreciation become apparent. I spent quite a lot of time at the beginning of the video asking myself: Why is he filming him? Is he feeling the same things as I am?
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