‘Rolling Stone issues despicable, victim-blaming apology for its own shoddy journalism’

I couldn’t agree more with U. C. Berkeley professor Bryan Wagner when he calls out Rolling Stone magazine for its “despicable, victim-blaming apology for its own shoddy journalism.” Have you read this bullshit? What makes me so frustrated is that we live in a culture where rape survivors are so shamed that they usually choose not to tell their own stories publicly using real names and real faces. Therefore, survivors are easy prey for high priced lawyers punching holes, for not knowing, say if the rapist was a member of the frat or if the rapist just happened to be at the frat that night. I mean, really, who doesn’t get her facts right about her rapist’s recreational habits? And for these discrepancies that Rolling Stone should have fact-checked, the survivor gets her entire experience discredited. It makes me sick. Once again, it is us, the culture that needs to change so rape survivors can feel safe coming forward and naming their attackers. I’m reposting something I wrote for Salon in 2002 about the media’s role (and the public’s role) in shaming survivors.

The “shame” of rape

Why does the media hide rape victims who fight back instead of honoring them as heroes?

When 7-year-old Erica Pratt was abducted on July 22 and tied up in a basement by her kidnapper, she chewed through the duct tape that covered her mouth, freed her hands and feet, and broke through a door to escape. Electrified by the young girl’s feat, the media celebrated Pratt with a prolonged blitz of coverage. She smiled luminously for cameras as awed police officers praised her bravery. Her photo graced the front pages of newspapers across the nation, and she was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Week.”

When Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris were abducted at gunpoint nine days later from a remote teenage trysting spot in Lancaster, Calif., they devised a plan to break free by stabbing their abductor in the neck. When one girl had the chance to escape, she didn’t take it for fear that the other girl — whom she hadn’t met before that night — would be killed if she abandoned her. These were brave and loyal girls — heroines who endured mind-numbing terror before police found them and killed their captor, who authorities believe was preparing to murder them and dump their bodies.

But Brooks and Marris were not honored by Time magazine or identified as heroes in other media outlets. Why not? What made their story so different?

Just as newspapers and the networks were scrambling to cover the story, they learned that the girls had been sexually assaulted during their ordeal. Because most mainstream media observes a self-imposed policy of withholding the names and faces of sexual assault victims, the coverage abruptly, and somewhat awkwardly, ground to a halt.

Newspapers and TV broadcasters explained the shift as a matter of courtesy. But in concealing the identities of the young women on the grounds that rape is so intimate and horrendous that they should be spared undue attention, the media helped to promote the unspoken societal belief that somehow, when sexual assault is involved, the victim is partly — or wholly — to blame, and should be hidden from view.

TV stations began digitally obscuring the girls’ faces. Newspapers like the New York Times rushed to delete the names and photos of the girls from the next day’s paper. Some publications, like USA Today, had already gone to press, and printed the story with photos and names on the front page.

The lopsided coverage was especially disorienting because early in the story, the girls’ identities were broadcast everywhere — constantly — as a means of saving their lives. The idea was to familiarize as many Americans as possible with the girls’ names and faces so that average citizens might assist in tracking them, and their kidnapper, down. And it worked. But once the teens went from being kidnapped youths to rescued rape survivors, their status changed. They were branded with the Scarlet R. They had been raped. It was suddenly better for them, and us, to contemplate this shame without fanfare.

In effect, the girls disappeared twice — once when abducted, and again when the media erased them.

The policy of hiding the rape survivor makes the media complicit in shaming and stigmatizing her. It reinforces the myth that women are too weak, traumatized and tainted to decide whether they want to tell their own stories — of victory, not victimhood. And this assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If raped women were granted the same status as Erica Pratt, there would be no reflex to make them disappear. Their survival would be cause for public honor and respect. Their rescues would be complete; their recovery would begin with heartfelt acceptance by everyone who prayed for their return.

Silence and shame protected the Catholic Church and one of its dirtiest secrets for years. And church officials made the right assumption: If you can’t see it, no one will believe it is happening and, more importantly, victims who are shamed and controlled will be quiet, silenced by a sense of complicity and sin. What if all those alleged male sexual assault survivors who went on “60 Minutes” and “20/20″ had their faces covered with a gray dot? What if no newspapers or magazines had been willing to publish their names? How much credibility or validity or power can you have when you have no face and no name? Would the public have believed these things had happened if faces had not been attached to the charges?

You can’t put a faceless woman on the cover of Time magazine.

Not all rape survivors take the media’s cue and withdraw. Many have told their stories as part of their recovery, most famously authors like Maya Angelou in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Dorothy Allison (“Bastard Out of Carolina”), and singers including Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. Current bestselling author Alice Sebold has said repeatedly in interviews that she could not have written “The Lovely Bones” until she wrote the story of her rape in her first book, “Lucky.”

With each of these acts of bravery has come further acknowledgment that rape is a horrible event and that everyone abhors it, yet hypocrisy — public and institutional — still exists. Rapists are rarely successfully prosecuted. For every 100 rapes reported in this country, only five rapists end up in prison. Sentences are relatively light, averaging just 10.5 years, and the usual time served is approximately five years.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft doesn’t support the notion that a raped woman should have the right to an abortion. And U.S. foreign policy does not include sanctions, even strongly stated warnings, against countries like Saudi Arabia where men are allowed to rape their wives, and married women raped by men other than their spouses are punished for adultery. In Pakistan, when a young woman was ordered raped by a tribal council as punishment when her brother was seen in public with a woman not in his family, the U.S. State Department took no action.

At the same time that it is no longer socially acceptable to blame or stigmatize a rape survivor for what has happened to her, it appears to be socially unacceptable to recognize her as a hero and honor her for survival. But that may be about to change, thanks, in large part, to Marris and Brooks, two rape survivors who demanded to be seen.

A day after she was rescued and her identity had been quickly masked in the media, Marris appeared on KABC, the local Los Angeles news station, to talk frankly, without embarrassment, about her ordeal. She revealed, among other details, the fact that she and Brooks had tried to escape by stabbing their abductor in the neck.

A few days later, Brooks and Marris both appeared on the “Today” show to tell the story of their capture and captivity, a gripping account in which they described being threatened with a loaded gun, smashing their abductor in the face with a whiskey bottle, and later watching him die.

When asked why they chose to talk about their experience, Brooks said that she wanted to do it, and came forward with the support of her parents, who braved some criticism about the decision. She and Marris, Brooks said, “want to get the message across to everybody to never give up on anything. If you ever give up, you’ve lost. Whatever obstacles you have, you’ve got to fight your way through it.”

Who has courage to gender flip a classic hero: Rolling Stone or Disney?

Yesterday, I posted about the excellent and amazing Disney made for TV movie: “Avalon High.” The story is about the reincarnation of heroes and villains from the King Arthur legend of Medieval times to a contemporary high school in the U.S. The protagonist of the show, Allie– brave, smart, strong, and kind– turns out to be…King Arthur. With that gender flip, this Disney movie shows girls and boys that females can be heroic and at the center of the action.

Then, I got this comment from Lesley:

In the book, the Allie character is NOT King Arthur, but the Lady of the Lake, who gives Arthur the powerful Excalibur. Will is Arthur. The twist is that there are hints she is Elaine (her character is called “Ellie” in the book) the weepy victim of unrequited love dumped by Lancelot. So, she turns out to be a crucial element in Will’s development as king but she doesn’t become king herself.

My daughter Callie and I both loved this movie for the same reasons you did, and we were crowing with delight at the changed ending!

As I wrote back to Leslie, I am totally shocked. I can’t think of another time– tell me if you can– where a kid’s book has been changed by the kid’s film (not grown up film) to be more feminist.

I am amazed Disney did this. Really. And also, Meg Cabot, the writer: WTF? Lady of the Lake? She is not cool, powerful, or that important in the story. If you are seeking remnants of evidence of female power, she will do, but obviously, King Arthur is the central figure in the legend. The best line of the movie is when Mordred says to Allie something like: “You? I thought maybe you could be Lady of the Lake, but Arthur?”

The translation of that quote goes way beyond the specific characters of Arthur and Lady of the Lake: Mordred is saying that a girl can’t be a hero and Allie shows that villain how wrong he is. I love how that is done here, through the characters and action, and not in the usual, boring way where the bad guy says something to the effect of– ew, you’re a girl. That, to me, kind of reinforces sexism: we’re all supposed to get the insult is wrong but too often, we don’t see it in the story beyond a moral/ ethical issue. Here, we get it: Don’t underestimate me. I won’t underestimate myself either.

It’s interesting because right after we saw the movie, I went to Amazon to buy my daughter the book, and I didn’t buy it. I wasn’t sure exactly why I didn’t want to. The cover didn’t grab me. I know, don’t judge a book by its cover, but  Meg Cabot’s other books looked very pink and seemed to be about girls who were mostly interested in boys. Of course, that could easily be the marketing department who designs the cover. Maybe I thought I needed to do more research, and I didn’t have time right then. Whatever the reason, I didn’t click “buy.” Thank goodness Lesley commented because if I got that book, I would have been so pissed and disappointed. Though Lesley is more considerate than me with her spoiler alert, I feel it is my duty to warn you : )

I NEVER thought I would say this but KUDOS TO DISNEY. I am quite curious to know the story behind this adaptation. And also, Hollywood: Are you listening? Here is an example of how to use some imagination and innovation– 2 things you are, after all, supposed to be known for, supposed to encourage– to remake a classic without girls going missing. This gender flip is not about “girls being boys” or “girls acting like boys” or any other ridiculous justification to keep girls on the sidelines because that’s just where they belong as we recycle the same narratives, generation after generation.

After I read Lesley’s comment, I saw something quite incredible posted by Sara on Reel Girl’s FB page. Here is the new Rolling Stone cover, and quoting Vulture: “Why is Tina Fey Lois Lane?”


Why is Tina Fey riding bitch? This same old image of the male driving, the girl along for the ride is ubiquitous in the imaginary world. Why did Rolling Stone put Tina Fey, one of the most successful women in the world, in that position?

Vulture writes:

Tina Fey co-hosted the Golden Globes to universal praise. Her seven-season critical darling 30 Rock — which is still really damn funny — is ending in two weeks. She has seven Emmys, two Golden Globes, three Producers Guild awards, four SAG awards, and a Mark Twain prize. She’s synonymous with contemporary humor. Out of curiosity, Rolling Stone, what would it take for her to be Superman on the cover?
Do you see how fucked up it is for women to continually contort themselves into the sidekick? The distortion is not in the gender flip, in the rare times it is actually made, but in continually keeping women secondary to men. Our cultural imaginary (to borrow a phrase from Lucy Irigaray) is so warped that Tina Fey is cast in the sidekick/ girlfriend role here. If Tina Fey isn’t a superhero, I don’t know who is.
The real world and the imaginary world are endlessly intertwined. What is happening to Tina Fey, on Rolling Stone, happens every day to all women everywhere in the world: Move over lady, a man wants to fly.
Who would have thought that Rolling Stone magazine would be so pathetically conventional and a Disney made for TV movie could be so radical?