Tag Archives: rape

While Wearing Their Pretty Dresses, They Ruined Lives: 12 Years A Slave & the Role of White Women in Slavery

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I saw 12 Years A Slave this weekend. Aside from crying uncontrollably for about 80% of the film—not an exaggeration: please take a box of tissue to the theater if you see it—I was struck by many things the film did in its portrayal of the institution of slavery and the people that upheld it. For starters, I think a spectacularly effective job was done in imparting the terrifying helplessness and profound unfairness of the system: long moments of silence juxtaposed with instances of extreme violence emphasized the normalcy of brutality; the environment that black children were raised in and alongside, an environment in which their parents and elders were subject to torture, degradation, and murder. That was life, 12 Years informs us. A life in which a child can play tag alongside a man hanging from his neck by a tree…because there was nothing that could be done. There is much more, but what I want to talk about is something that 12 Years A Slave illustrates that is often glossed over in other depictions of American slavery: the complicity and cruelty of white women in upholding the institution.

Mistress Ford is the first white woman we encounter, the wife of the first slave master Solomon comes into contact with. When Solomon and Eliza, a black woman who, like Solomon, was kidnapped and brought to the South, are brought to the Ford plantation, Eliza is weeping in the back of a wagon. Mistress Ford appears and asks why and is told that Eliza has been separated from her two young children. Mistress Ford looks something like sympathetic, and for a moment I thought we were going to see the traditional representation of white women: the sensitive counter to her emotionless husband, the empathetic Eve in the midst of a savage system in which she lacks control and finds herself as much a prisoner as the black humans being treated as chattel. But 12 Years had other plans, something more along the lines of reality. Mistress Ford’s regard for the humanity of black people is made explicit in her next line: “Some food and some rest,” she says. “Your children will soon be forgotten.” The idea of a black woman as a mother—a human mother and not merely a baby machine whose uterus is a factory more slave labor—is completely foreign to Mistress Ford. Her countenance is emotionless as Eliza is led away sobbing. She eventually has Eliza sold because she “cannot tolerate that sort of depression.”

Later, when he ends up on the wrong side of the insidious overseer Tibeats, Solomon is nearly lynched, saved only by another white man under the employ of Mr. Ford who was concerned about the debt that Solomon’s death would incur. Solomon is left hanging by his neck, his toes barely touching the ground to keep him alive, for an entire day. For a short time, Mistress Ford watches from the porch, doing nothing. Her coldness is tangible. All the supposedly feminine qualities of tenderness and regard for other people is absent.

The coldness of Mistress Ford is minor, however, when we meet Mistress Epps, the wife of Solomon’s next slave owner.

Mr. Epps, her husband, is a brutal—and insane—man known to be a “slave breaker.” He is notorious for his cruelty, which Solomon and the other slaves on the Epps plantation witness firsthand, and often. He is also obsessed with one of the slaves, a woman named Patsy. Mistress Epps is aware of this, and her cruelty toward Patsy knows no bounds. She strikes her in the face with a heavy bottle, scars Patsy’s cheek with her fingernails, denies her soap, and more. She delivers one or two monologues about the animal nature of black people, how they are prone to violence and should be beaten and ground down. She demands that Mr. Epps sell Patsy, but he refuses, partially because Patsy picks more cotton than any other slave on the plantation and partially to let his wife know that he is in control. Patsy endures rape and harassment at the hands of Mr. Epps, and brutality and cruelty at the hands of Mistress Epps. Her life is so tortured, she begs Solomon to kill her as an act of mercy, an act he cannot commit. There is a brutal scene in which Patsy is whipped, and Mistress Epps is there in the midst of it, demanding that Patsy be whipped harder. Mistress Epps cries that she wants to see blood.

By documenting the extreme suffering of black women during slavery—the explicitness and unapologeticness of which I have only previously seen from Toni Morrison—12 Years A Slave shines a light on the experience of millions during American slavery: the lives of black women, the double-edged sword of black femaleness; victim to violence from all sides. And by shining this light on black femaleness, 12 Years also shines a light on white femaleness, which, in my opinion, has previously gone without serious examination in mainstream film, and even in the way that we talk about slavery. I have distinct memories from middle school and high school history classes in which we discussed the role white women played in slavery…lessons in which that role was described as a non-role. White women’s economic inequality translated in my education as a complete lack of power (and responsibility) not only in the plantation household, but in slavery as a whole. When I heard about white women in the teaching of American slavery, it was as abolitionists, friends on the Underground Railroad, spotless conveyors of goodwill and empathy. 12 Years A Slave calls this representation of white women a lie, and I applaud it.

Although lacking in significant legal and economic power, white women generally controlled the household, existing in the domestic sphere as society dictated. The way we talk about white women in this context paints them—indeed, us—as the gentle, docile, humane creatures that a woman is “supposed to be.” White women upheld notions of feminine morality, history tells us; they didn’t uphold the institution of slavery. The Mrs. Epps and the Mrs. Fords are absent in this characterization. The Delphine LaLauries are absent. The cruel, racist women who called for the blood of women like Patsy—out of hatred for their black bodies and also out of jealousy as white husbands raped the black women they owned—aren’t mentioned when we talk about the people who upheld slavery. We talk about men, both rich and poor, but rarely of their wives; women who were as participative in the perpetuation of white supremacy and human bondage as their male counterparts, as eager to dehumanize, debase and brutalize black bodies as their men.

It’s true, white women lacked the agency of their husbands, fathers and brothers, so their hand in slavery did not extend to the buying and selling of human chattel, the laws being made that called black people only a fraction of a human being. But white women whipped black bodies. They burned them. They posed next to the murdered bodies of black people who were lynched. They called people n*ggers. They scratched faces. They separated families. While wearing their pretty dresses, they ruined lives. If we’re going to talk about slavery and the people that upheld it, we should talk about everyone, as 12 Years A Slave does. If we are going to continue to heal this nation that remains torn and disfigured by its brutal past, then we must take accountability and not hide behind the gentle stereotypes that present day feminists struggle against: women are fully capable of committing acts of savagery, fully able to dehumanize other human beings, truths exhibited by the many Mrs. Epps and Mrs. Fords we know existed in the history of this country. The privileges white supremacy afforded were not handed only to men: women accepted (and accept) those benefits that provide them status and wealth. If we’re going to talk about white supremacy and its role in the foundations of American slavery, no one is exempt. No one. Not even me.

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Chris Brown and A Nation of Raped Boys

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Yesterday I read an article in which Chris Brown discussed the age at which he lost his virginity. He was 8, he says, and the girl was 14 or 15. He mentions that in “the country” he and his cousins watched a lot of porn, so by age 8 he was “hot to trot.” Maybe so. Children can have sexual feelings at 8, but whether they can consent to sex at age 8 is an entirely different subject. Sex at age 8 is rape, especially given the fact that the girl involved was significantly older, a teenager. Chris Brown was raped, but to hear him tell it, that experience was positive, healthy. Something to brag about. “At eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it.”

And the worst part? This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this from a man.

I’ve personally dated two men who described these early sexual experiences, and have heard these stories from friends as well. In terms of my former boyfriends, one was seven when he lost his virginity, the other nine. Both saw this as a notch in their tiny, child-like belts. The girls in their experiences were teenagers also, so the men seemed to think that this was a testament to their own irresistibility: at eight years old, their sex appeal was so overwhelming, so potent, that teenage girls were compelled to have sex with them. The idea that this was rape—and it was—never crossed their minds. Why? Because the same poisonous system that tells women they are rape-able tells men that they are not.

We know some of the behavioral signals that occur when girls have been raped. Depression, promiscuity, unexplained anger, anxiety. These are words we use when we describe the ways victims behave. It’s interesting that I have seen these same symptoms in young boys—alongside me in class when I was a child, in boyfriends as I got older, in men beside me on the bus in Chicago—yet no one looks at male anger and male promiscuity as symptoms of anything. These are just classic male behaviors. “Boys will be boys,” and boys sleep around. Boys have bad tempers. Right?

Wrong.

What if we have been normalizing male rape victims’ symptoms for centuries? This is not to say that every man has been the victim of sexual abuse, but I know more than a few who have been, and their cries for help—the ones that get such attention when our “ladylike” daughters act out sexually and/or aggressively—went unnoticed, chalked up to a male standard of behavior that not only turns a blind eye to promiscuity but rewards it. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being sexually abused and then growing up being told that this is a good thing? That your sexual potency has been enhanced? That rape was a “head-start” into the wonderful world of sex? The damaging system that tells girls they are worthless after rape has a disgusting flip side for boys: you have worth now. This violence has made you a god.

And we wonder why our boys grow up sex-obsessed, equating violence with pleasure (“be a beast at it”), and imagining that rape is only something that happens to women. We wonder why they grow up hating women; women who might look like their abuser, or women who were raped and actually had their violence addressed by a society that believes men are immune from that kind of crime, a crime that when committed against a male goes woefully under-reported.

Boys will be boys. And boys can be hurt. We must stop viewing patriarchy as a weapon that wounds only women. To do so silences generations of victims…and often creates more.

Update 10/08/2013: I just came across this post by Colorlines on this same subject and I encourage you to read it as well.

Update 10/09/2013: I’ve been told numerous times that I am misinterpreting the phrase “be a beast at it.” I am aware of this and it was done deliberately, as I believe it’s important to acknowledge and understand the role of semantics in patriarchy and rape culture.

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Riddick Thinks Lesbians Are Just Kidding About Being Lesbians

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I saw Riddick this weekend, against my better judgment. Watching Vin Diesel act is like watching a lump of cookie dough animate and plod across the kitchen floor, but I like movies with aliens, so give me a break. Yet the film was confounding. Not just because Vin Diesel’s attempts at acting are so one dimensional that your brain will go numb, but because somehow Riddick—and thus its director, David Twohy—seems to think that lesbians are just playing hard to get when they say they aren’t attracted to men.

There is only woman in the movie—except for a woman of color who was onscreen for all of four minutes before she was shot like a dog while running braless—and her name is Dahl. Dahl is a white, blonde, tough lesbian. Her sexuality is made clear when she says very plainly that she “doesn’t fuck guys.” She is referred to as a “lesbo” by the human antagonist. Her character is what could be called “masculine”—if “masculine” indeed means one is gun-toting, strong, somewhat muscular, and possesses the ability to throw a mean right hook.  Dahl makes it clear that she has no interest in any of the men in her crew, let alone Vin Diesel’s character Riddick, who is unpredictable, arrogant, and extremely violent. Despite her disinterest, Riddick spies on her while she’s naked in the bathroom, makes repeated advances to which he receives no positive encouragement, and, while chained up, vows that when he’s free, he will kill the antagonist and also go “balls deep” in Dahl. This would be shockingly rapey if he didn’t follow up with, “But only because you [will] ask me to…sweet like.”

If this sounds wack, that’s because it is. (And follow-up or not, it’s still rapey.)

In the end, Riddick does indeed kill the antagonist and survive some aliens. The “good guy” inexplicably rescues Riddick in a spaceship, and who repels down with a harness to bring him onboard? Dahl. She straddles Riddick and, as they are towed upward, says that she has something to ask him “sweet like,” and he grabs her ass.

<slow applause>

So according to Riddick and Twohy, lesbians are just kidding. They don’t really “not fuck guys,” they just don’t fuck guys until some irresistibly masculine, bald-headed lump of clay with two chins struts along and renders their sexual orientation invalid. Twohy and his screenwriters have given themselves away as the overcompensating, adolescent jackoffs that they are: “what’s hotter than fucking a lesbian?” they giggle to one another under their Superman bedsheets. “Nothing!” They could’ve written Dahl as straight and set up the typical “bad boy gets to have sex with girl at end of action movie” trope. But no. Why stop there in their subjugation?

Dahl—who was named “Dahl” for a reason: the joke is they’re really calling her “doll” throughout the entire movie—is strong, necessarily violent, muscular, a great shot with numerous weapons, and smart. Yet Riddick renders her passive. Despite her strength and capability—and despite her sexual orientation—her identity is subject to the whims of the men onscreen: she is a rapeable object lacking agency and even a real name. Riddick, on the other hand, is subject to nothing: not even Dahl’s humanity.

Why? Let’s face it. In Hollywood—in America?—the male hero must get the prize. Despite the fact that Riddick didn’t really do much to redeem himself (his actions were in pursuit of his own survival; in retrieving the power cells from where he’d hidden them, he ensured his own well-being: the fact that the others also survived was coincidental) Hollywood still thinks he should get the prize. The prize is the girl, of course: the flesh dowry of male success awarded like cattle to any penis that patriarchy deems worthy. Riddick gets the prize simply for surviving. The message here, friends, one that we see over and over and over, is this: men deserve to have women awarded to them like chattel, simply by virtue of their maleness. You don’t even have to do anything good or moral or prince-like or gentlemanly to receive this prize: continuing to breathe is enough. And your prize? She doesn’t even have to be attracted to you. She doesn’t have to like you. Heck, she doesn’t even have to be straight. She’s all yours, pal. Enjoy. The prize is yours, even at the expense of others’ agency, humanity, and identity.

Fail. Riddick, you fail. On so many levels. You can’t “convert” a lesbian with a bald head, forty-six year old muscles, and a comically emotionless voice. In fact, you can’t convert a lesbian at all. Will Smith can’t convert a lesbian. Christian Bale can’t convert a lesbian. Barack Obama can’t even convert a lesbian. Do you know why? Because lesbians are lesbians. And that means truly, actually, in real life….they don’t fuck guys.

Really.

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For men who don’t understand how street harassment is a problem

ImageThis started as a series of tweets. I think it deserves a blog. For men who don’t understand how street harassment is a problem, let me explain.

You know those Greenpeace workers who block your way on the sidewalk and demand your time and money? Who stare at you as you approach? The ones who you can see in your peripheral and you try not to make eye contact with? The ones you really don’t want to give any time or money and you know that they’re going to say something no matter how much you pretend to be on the phone and you just wish you could be invisible for the ten seconds it takes to pass?

It’s like that. But imagine they want your dignity instead of your money.

Then take it a step further. Imagine them blocking your way on every sidewalk. Imagine they follow you onto the train. Imagine you want to take a cab to get away from the Greenpeace workers, but it turns out a Greenpeace worker is driving the taxi and is staring at you in the rearview mirror. Imagine those Greenpeace workers staring at your ass and telling you what it looks like, imagine them cussing you out and threatening you with violence for not caring about the environment. Imagine you want to tell the cop on the corner to tell the Greenpeace workers to stop harassing you, but then he tries to start telling you about whales too. It’s midnight, and you just want to get home. But it’s whales, whales, whales.

You would hate them, wouldn’t you? Those Greenpeace workers. Every time you saw one you’d be pissed, afraid, suspicious, cold. You’d do anything to avoid them. People would say “They’re not all like that” and you’d say, “Prove it.”

Image courtesy of http://stopstreetharassment.com/

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A Stool at the Golden Phallic Table

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When I was thirteen I would steal words from my male classmates, hoping they would like me. A girl in eighth grade was raped and somehow we all knew about it. The boys said “She’s a hoe, you can’t get raped if you’re a hoe.” And I said, “She’s a hoe, you can’t get raped if you’re a hoe.” The boys said, “She’s fat. Who’d rape that? Don’t flatter yourself, honey.” So I said, “She’s fat. Who’d rape that? Don’t flatter yourself. Don’t flatter yourself. Don’t flatter yourself.”

Even now I meet women like thirteen-year old me: using words stolen from men to barter for their love. I never know how at twenty, at thirty, at forty, she hasn’t yet learned that saying these things, taking their side, does not protect you. Nothing you say will earn you an honorary seat at the golden phallic table. There is no room for you there. At the most you will get a stool at the corner of the room, which can be knocked out from under you at any time. The thing about patriarchy is that anyone can participate. But only men will benefit.

Boys like girls that like boys. If you “like” girls, that’s hot. But if you protect girls, you’re a dyke. Which is the same as a lesbian, but somehow not hot? These are not laws, yet we live by them. We are connected by a chain too heavy to be broken alone. Casting her under a bus, you go with her. Both bodies crushed.

Sometimes I still feel the old spell come over me:  it’s so easy to say the words, to avoid responsibility. To point a finger and get a pat on the head. Resist. The chain is pulling tight. Where she falls, you fall too.

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Sometimes the only answer is misogyny

Two years ago, an eleven-year-old girl was gang-raped in Texas. The twenty—yes, twenty—men and boys who raped her ranged from middle-school-age to twenty-eight years old. Now, the lawyer for one of the rapists is likening the girl to a “spider” drawing “flies” into “her web.”

Oh?

You, if you are a sane, empathetic, reasonable human being, are probably wondering, “Wow, how could an adult look at the gang rape of an eleven-year-old girl and blame her for a horrible, violent encounter that will probably haunt her for the rest of her life?” You’re probably wondering how an eleven-year-old—just out of the fifth grade—could be held responsible for “seducing” twenty people into sexually assaulting her. You’re probably wondering if the lawyer ever had a daughter, or a sister, or even a mother. If you’re sane, you’re probably wondering why female victims of sexual assault are so often dissected, dehumanized and blamed for something that happens to 1 of every 6 women in the United States.

The answer is misogyny. Only a culture that harbors a deep-seated hatred for women and girls would look at this scenario and blame an eleven-year-old child for what happened to her, for what her society allowed to happen to her. The fact that some would look at this scenario and rather lay down the tired old mantel of “whore” than look honestly at what is happening to women in this country and in the world makes me tired.

Our culture hates women so much and is so uneasy about confronting the problem of rape that even eleven-year-old children are not exempt from being ostracized for the violence they have had to endure. Get me out of here. It might be time to start building my spaceship.

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