I recently listened to an edition of “Q” on CBC radio, in which the question, “Do we live in a rape culture” was posed to two “experts” for debate. The interview was a disaster as one of the “experts”, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, hijacked the interview and used it as a forum to express her theory that rape is at least partly the fault of women who irresponsibly drink to excess. Too bad – not only for the fact that such shockingly wrongheaded propaganda could be given voice on public radio, but also for the fact that a chance for a good debate about culture failed to happen.
To see evidence of rape culture, we need look no further than popular motion pictures from my lifetime (I’m 49 years old).
Recently I re-watched the 1980s film, “Tootsie”. In the film, Michael Dorsey, unable to find work as an actor, dresses in drag so he can be cast in a female role on a soap opera. In one scene, a male actor, believing Michael is a woman, follows him home from the soap opera set, tries to woo him by singing to him from the street, and once invited up to the room for one drink, tries to force himself on Michael, not knowing that he is actually “going for it” with another man.
In the 80s there would have been few people who didn’t think this scene to be hilarious, due to the awkward case of mistaken identity, but in order to laugh, the audience had to accept that the only thing that made the scene unusual (and therefore funny) was the irony in the fact that the philandering character was trying so hard to get it on with a heterosexual man, not taking no for an answer. Otherwise, of course one would have expected this sort of thing between a man and a woman.
In light of 25 or so years of social enlightenment largely due to the feminist movement, one can now understand that the scene really depicts stalking and sexual assault that is all too common, and that certainly was (if it isn’t now) culturally accepted when the film was made. The smitten tried to rape his colleague, and we just laughed. It is quite uncomfortable to watch that scene now.
Similarly, many films eroticize sex assault. “The Postman Always Rings Twice” famously does so. In many films, the lead male kisses the lead female without her consent, and the audience watches as she progresses from surprised resistance to seduced capitulation (or at least curiosity). Obviously, she desired him all along and could no longer hold out. In such scenes we attribute to the woman (and by extension to all women) a latent sexuality that defies her intellect, and must be awakened in her against her initial reticence. These scenes certainly showed men and boys a perverse version of reality. The thinking goes, “If I just plant a good one on her, she’ll be mine.”
Interestingly, it was pointed out to me just this Christmas how “rapey” the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is (“What’s in this drink?”). And I confess, I didn’t want to hear this about a song that I thought was rather romantic.
We have fetishized the female body and mythologized female sexuality to the point where the knee-jerk reaction of young male students at University of Ottawa who are angry at their student president is to imagine her in rape scenes; or to the point where young UBC freshman participate glibly in rape chants just to “blow off steam”. Ask any man my age, and he’ll look both ways to see who’s listening before he tells you that such misogyny is not surprising.
We may not like the term “rape culture” because we don’t want to believe that “rape” is a defining feature of who we are as a people, but we certainly live in a culture that has not only failed to prevent rape, but has enabled it.
We need to face this fact, but it’s tough because to do so is to admit that most of us share at least a little blame in this phenomenon. Most of us know better now, so we need to put the past behind us, re-educate ourselves, and do better in the future, but we can’t put our heads in the sand and deny that our culture has problems.