Trigger warning: rape
We looked at the function of female characters in storytelling, a couple of weeks ago. This week, I watched another film with a woman as a prize. Yup, A Bug’s Life is the story of an innovative ant who breaks the mould and saves the colony from a gang of bullies. His reward? He gets to hold hands with Princess Ata. Previously, she was bumbling along, worrying and fretting but not actually doing anything beyond waiting to be rescued. When she is, she is, of course, happy to be the protagonist’s prize for his manly leadership.
This week, I’d like to look a bit at the consequences of the attitude that women are there for men’s reward, enjoyment and pleasure.
In August 2012, a 16-year-old high-school girl attended a party in Steubenville, Ohio with a bunch of people who also went to the same school. At this party, she drank to excess and passed out. All pretty standard stuff so far. When she awoke the next morning, however, she was in a different house and her underwear was missing. Over the course of the next few days, social media began to fill in the blanks for her. It seemed that some people had put parts of their bodies into parts of her body, that other people had watched this and that everybody thought this was great entertainment.
To cut a long and sordid story short, two boys from the school went to prison for about 12 months each, convicted of rape.
Ma’Lik Richmond was released early this year, to get back on with his life. Quoted in the Huffington Post, Richmond’s lawyer said
The past sixteen months have been extremely challenging for Ma’Lik and his extended family. At sixteen years old, Ma’Lik and his family endured hardness beyond imagine for any adult yet alone child. He has persevered the hardness and made the most of yet another unfortunate set of circumstances in his life. As with each other obstacle, Ma’Lik has met it squarely, lifted his chin, and set his shoulders; he is braced for the balance of his life. While away, Ma’Lik has reflected, learned, matured, and grown in many ways. He is a better, stronger person and looks forward to school, life, and spending time with family. At this point, Ma’Lik wants most to be a high school teenager.
Reading this, I was reminded of the tone of the coverage at the time. Several news outlets were very concerned about the effect that being sent to prison would have on these promising young athletes, the stars of the school sports team. It will ruin their lives, so sad to see boys so young stuck with the term ‘rapist.’ Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that missing the point somewhat? Being sent to prison was a direct consequence of these boys’ decision to abuse, assault and rape a person who had no possible way of giving consent to what was happening. They decided to do that to her. If the consequence of that is that they end up with a criminal conviction for rape, then nobody has any grounds for whinging about it. It was not the police, the courts or even the girl who drank too much who made them do that thing. Had they chosen to let her sleep off her stupor in peace, they would never have gone to prison and would never have carried that stain on their character for the rest of their lives.
Obviously, Ma’Lik’s lawyer isn’t Ma’Lik himself, so we cannot tell from the quotation above whether Ma’Lik has changed during his time behind bars. His lawyer, however, is still missing the point.
Ma’Lik may well have faced prison with all the strength and dignity he could muster, he may well be looking forward to getting back to school and beginning the process of piecing his life back together. That’s fine. What we do not see is any acknowledgement of why he was in prison in the first place. Prison is not a happy place for anyone to be, and it is never a pleasant prospect to be sent there. Ma’Lik’s lawyer neglects to mention even in passing that his client was sent to prison for rape. A rape that he committed against a living, breathing person. Being that drunk takes away your consciousness: it doesn’t take away your humanity. He, and a crowd of his friends, treated that girl like a piece of meat, lying there for their own amusement. After that, they destroyed her reputation with photos and stories on the Internet. The press release makes no mention of this, and makes no mention of Ma’Lik’s regret for his actions. We are left to hope that he does, indeed, regret what he did rather than simply being annoyed at being caught.
When we see women’s bodies as prizes for manliness, when we see women as things to be acquired, when we see them as objects for our pleasure to be taken whenever the opportunity presents, we take away their humanity. We treat them, not as people, but as things.
If we see a thing lying in the street, we might stop for a moment to pick it up and play with it. If the thing is tied down, or its owner is nearby, we will probably leave it alone. If the thing actively prevents us from picking it up, we will also probably leave it alone. When she drank too much, the girl in this sorry tale left herself without an “owner” to protect her and without the ability to say no. The boys who raped her decided that this meant that they could pick up the shiny object and play with it themselves.
They didn’t see a person there, they saw a thing. And Richmond’s lawyer’s statement suggests that he still hasn’t admitted the humanity of his victim.