Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Open Letter to Michael Moore

This article originally appeared on the Students Active for Ending Rape Facebook fan page
Click here to link back to the original article


Dear Mr. Moore:

Roger and Me changed my life. You probably hear that a lot, but it’s worth saying. Even now, whenever I hear Wouldn’t It Be Nice by the Beach Boys, I wonder where that man you interviewed is, and I feel the kind of sadness that makes me want to make the world better. When I first saw Roger and Me, I was 17 and still figuring out who I was. That movie planted some of the first seeds that eventually turned me into a social justice activist.

When I got to college and learned that Columbia University was responding to reports of sexual assault between students by ignoring and bullying victims, I knew that the powerless could force the powerful to engage an issue by using the media. I knew that the best way to get Columbia’s administration to deal with the epidemic of sexual violence on campus was by embarrassing the school until it was willing to talk to its students about the problem. I learned that, in part, from you.

Along with a lot of other people, I started a grassroots student group called Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), and by refusing to go away and refusing to be quiet, we won a sexual assault prevention program that continues at Columbia today.

Shortly after that, SAFER became a national nonprofit organization devoted to creating better campus sexual assault prevention and response policies nationwide. I was disappointed when you declined to give us seed funding, but I figured you had a lot of requests from a lot of important causes. I knew that you supported us in spirit. You were, after all, a progressive. You believed in justice and compassion. Of course you would fall on the side of the anti-sexual violence movement.

I’m sad to say I was wrong.

Last week, you donated $20,000 in bail money for WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, who has been charged with rape. When you posted that bail, you said this on your blog:

For those of you who think it’s wrong to support Julian Assange because of the sexual assault allegations he’s being held for, all I ask is that you not be naive about how the government works when it decides to go after its prey. Please — never, ever believe the “official story.” And regardless of Assange’s guilt or innocence (see the strange nature of the allegations here), this man has the right to have bail posted and to defend himself.

I don’t know whether Assange is innocent or guilty, and I don’t think we can know, without hearing all the evidence. I simply think he should be given a fair trial, without assumptions. Of course it is “strange” that he is being prosecuted. Rape charges are virtually never pursued. When I accompanied one rape survivor to the police station to report her assault, I remember very vividly how the detective leaned back in his chair, legs sprawled wide, while he listened to her describe how she vomited during the attack. As tears ran down her face, he put both hands behind his head and casually told her that she could pursue charges if she “really wanted to,” but that without physical evidence she didn’t have a case. As you might imagine, she “chose” not to press charges. In my experience, this is how rape cases usually end.

As you yourself note, it is very rare that rape charges are taken seriously and pursued by authorities. It’s almost certain that the charges against Assange would have been ignored in most cases. But rape charges should be taken seriously. They should be pursued. Political motivation has resulted in a rare case being taken as seriously as is appropriate, and the response from those of us who believe in social justice should not be to try to malign the alleged victims. The problem is not that the charges against Assange are being taken too seriously. The problem is that rape charges against nearly everyone else are not taken seriously enough.

In your statement, you reinforce our cultural unwillingness to take survivors of sexual violence seriously, and to hold perpetrators accountable.

First, you tell us that we shouldn’t believe the “official story” regarding these accusations. What you mean is that we shouldn’t believe the statement of the alleged victims. Without having access to the evidence, you encourage us to adopt the belief that these women are lying.

Second, you tell us that the facts of this case are “strange,” implying that there is something unbelievable about a rape case when a victim willingly consented to some sexual activity, or was reluctant to prosecute.

Psychologist David Lisak has been profiling rapists for years, and his work very clearly shows that the accusations in the Assange case are not “strange.” They’re in line with the way sexual violence usually happens. That is, it is usually committed by someone the victim knows, and it is usually committed by someone the victim did have some sexual interest in. These perpetrators play on the victims trust and perception that they are “good guys,” which in concert with a common tendency for self-blame, an expectation of official apathy, and a fear of community retaliation, often makes victims unwilling to pursue criminal charges.

Victims are not wrong to expect such things. In fact, here are the names of some other high-profile men who have been accused of violence against women:

William Kennedy Smith
Kobe Bryant
Ben Roethlisberger
Roman Polanski
R. Kelly
Isaac Brock
Mike Tyson
Charlie Sheen
Mel Gibson
Chris Brown

In every case, I have heard apologetics and denial. In every case, the majority of people I’ve spoken to have believed that the alleged victim was lying. In every case, the alleged victims were harassed and threatened. In every case, the alleged rapist/batterer continued in a successful public career. That’s because people have a hard time believing that someone who seems nice, or who does work they like, could be capable of violence. And because people have a perception that women are less trustworthy than men.

I believe in openness and transparency in government. I believe that many, many rapes have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan that we could have prevented if we had more of the transparency that WikiLeaks promotes. Widespread rape is what happens when you have a war. As an anti-violence activist and a believer in democracy, I like WikiLeaks.

But, as someone who has spent a lot of hours listening to survivors talk about their experiences of sexual violence, I also know that “good guys” who do good work can do horrific things to other people. We can support WikiLeaks as a project without supporting the culture of disbelief and victim-blaming that currently exists when it comes to sexual violence.

And it is a culture of disbelief. This is not an isolated incident. In every community I have been a part of, I have seen the ostracism and harassment of women reporting sexual violence. The kind of vicious anger that is currently aimed at Assange’s accusers rears its head all the time. As a culture, we reflexively respond to people who report sexual violence with distrust and anger.

I could go on. I could give you a lot of statistics. I could tell you how low the false report rate is for sexual offenses. I could describe common psychological responses to sexual assault, and how they line up with the “strange” details of the Assange case. I could tell you some heartbreaking stories. But it is with sadness that I say I now question your ability to listen to a woman on this subject. Given the fact that you have almost certainly had a chance to read Jessica Valenti’s piece in the Washington Post, and Sady’s post at TigerBeatdown, and still have not responded (or provided the apology and $20,000 you owe), I question whether you take us as seriously as you do men. I question whether you believe we can be trusted. So I will direct you to Men Can Stop Rape and Jackson Katz. Both offer education regarding sexual violence and its dynamics. I believe that you will be able to hear them in a way that you can’t hear us yet.


The reason so many people are continuing to press this issue is because we believe in you. We know that every social justice activist screws up and shows their privilege sometimes, but that sometimes they learn and grow from those experiences. They become better activists, and better people. We believe that you have a good heart. We believe that while it might take some time, you will listen to us.

For now, I will save all those statistics. You’re not ready to hear them. But what I will say is this: believing in social justice means believing in social justice for everyone. Oppressions are interdependent. We won’t win universal healthcare until opposition to women’s reproductive freedom can’t be used as a tool to stop it. We won’t win social services until the racism that is used to defeat so many of these programs is addressed and done away with. We won’t pull the reigns of power from corporations until those corporations are no longer able to gain government control by manipulating the public’s homophobia. Even now, when it comes to this issue, your failure to recognize the importance of responding to sexual violence is distracting people from the WikiLeaks cause. It is sucking up the energy of people who would otherwise be your allies. It is fragmenting progressives. That fragmentation will continue within our movement until all of us in the movement fully commit ourselves to working against each and every form of oppression. Until we stop minimizing and denying other people’s suffering because our pet cause is “more important.”

Everything you say you believe in depends on an end to all oppressions, including both imperialist war and rape culture. Those of us in the progressive movement challenge ourselves to understand and oppose all forms of oppression. We take the time to educate ourselves about liberation movements we aren’t directly involved in, and to understand how oppressions intersect. We do the hard work of unlearning our biases and challenging our unearned privilege, every single day. This is what the progressive movement stands for. We hope you will join us.

In love and struggle,

See also: Jill, brownfemipower (twice), Kate, Melissa, Harriet, Miranda, BluePlatypus and Dani. (Leave links to others in comments if you’ve got ‘em)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

WWE, Wrestling, and Popular Culture

As children, adolescents, and adults we are ubiquitously exposed to images regarding gender in the media; we are bombarded with messages reinforcing gender stereotypes and social norms. The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) provides examples of how to be a man by wrapping displays of hegemonic masculinity around what many consider to be a male version of a soap opera. In the WWE world, men define their masculinity by bullying others, often using vocal taunts which include derogatory comments as regards to women and gay men. Women are portrayed in a hyper-sexualized manner while beaten, humiliated, and at times stripped of their clothing. This behavior is reinforced by the WWE’s story lines that lead announcers and audiences to conclude that these women have somehow brought the punishment upon themselves. With a worldwide viewing audience of more than 14 million fans weekly, the WWE inundates viewers with messages about gender roles thereby reinforcing the acceptability of violence against women in our culture.

Men & Masculinity

Masculinity in our culture is often represented in one of several ways. The version discussed here is often referred to as hegemonic masculinity. Men are expected to possess qualities such as being physically strong, in control of their emotions, and dominate. This type of masculinity is often represented in our popular culture through beer commercials and sporting events. Research has shown that the WWE frames masculinity as: real men are aggressive and violent, men settle things physically, a man confronts his adversaries and problems, real men take responsibility for their actions, men are not whiners, and that men are winners (Soulliere, 2006). In an effort to defend their manhood, wrestlers will question other men’s masculinity. This can be done by referring to other men in terms reserved for women, such as bitch, sissy, and pussy, or by questioning their heterosexuality. Other ways of reinforcing their manhood is by using women as props, sometimes forcing themselves on the women of the WWE world. In this imaginary world women are portrayed as enjoying this forcible kiss. In one episode we see Lita, a female wrestler who is unconscious, and Dean Malenko who walks up to her lifeless body, we see him grab her and make out with her. We then hear one of the announcers, Jerry Lawler, saying “She likes it, she likes it!” (Jhally, 2003). So we see this image of men perpetuating violence against women in a sexual manor and it is being glorified.

Men’s heterosexuality must also be reinforced because of the homosexual overtones that exist. These connotations are squashed with images of men forcing themselves upon women and by devaluing wrestling characters in the WWE world that display any nuance of homosexuality.

The women of the WWE are primarily used as demonstrations of the men’s heterosexuality, thus dispelling any notion of homosexuality.

Women of the WWE

Before the 1990’s women were not represented much in the WWE except to accompany a man to the ring, generally as a girlfriend or wife. Now “the conventions of pornography have made their way more and more into the main stream” (Jhally, 2003). Women resembling porn stars are used to “provide a spectacle for men” (Jhally, 2003), all the while reinforcing their heterosexuality. Women play small parts in the WWE and are often seen as “bit players in a male narrative, as sexual playthings” (Jhally, 2003). Men abusing and humiliating women is offered as entertainment; when this occurs it is almost always presented in the context that the woman deserves it or her actions have led to the punishment. “When you make this sort of abuse fun and entertaining, it has the effect of normalizing, justifying, and rationalizing men’s violence against women” (Jhally, 2003).

In the WWE there is also glamorization of sexual assault in the workplace and the humiliation of women in relationships. During one episode Trish Stratus’ punishment for crossing Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWE and her theoretical lover, is to get on her hands and knees and bark like a dog. That wasn’t enough though, she was then told to remove her clothing, further humiliating her. Vince McMahon’s justification for this when questioned by Debra Austin, Steve “Stone Cold” Austin’s wife, is that Trish deserved it because she is trash (Jhally, 2003).

All in the Name of Entertainment

It has been argued that the WWE is just entertainment; it’s a soap opera for men, and there is no harm in a little fun. Soulliere’s study (2006) found there to be positive messages in the WWE such as “encouraging responsibility, accepting defeat gracefully, and success through winning” (p. 9). But the messages that are being sent and received by the audiences who watch WWE programs are more insidious than the fans may realize. The WWE’s display of hegemonic masculinity leaves little room for alternative forms of masculinity, “such as non-violent, emotionally centered masculinity,” (Soulliere, 2006, p. 9) which is often ridiculed. Men who internalize this dominant form of masculinity may be putting themselves at physical and psychological risk and men who emulate this hyper- masculinized culture “provide erroneous justification for physical and sexual aggression against women . . . the WWE messages stifle both minority and homosexual versions of manhood” (Soulliere, 2006, p. 9). The beating of women shown in the framework of a story line creates desensitization to this violence and makes it more difficult for fans to relate to the victim because they are rooting for the aggressor. In order for us to change the culture of abuse and violence we need to “confront the jokes that are at the basis” (Jhally, 2003) of it.


The WWE is a part of the culture that is represented in the spectrum of violence against women. On one end of the spectrum there is physical violence that actually occurs in reality and on the other end are culturally significant mediums that create imaginary worlds, where there are no consequences for the violence. This is what creates a culture that is more accepting towards violence against women. There is no causation between professional wrestling and violence against woman, but it does provide a culture that is conducive for it. It provides a narrative where women become objects and are viewed for their sexuality, not as human beings. In addition to its degrading depiction of women, the WWE also provide a “hyper-masculine wrestling subculture” that is “infused with homophobic anxiety” (Katz, & Jhally, 2000). By only providing a hegemonic form of masculinity the WWE has taken us back fifty years to where sexual harassment in the workplace is deemed acceptable, beating up women is OK if they deserved it, and alternative forms of masculinity are deemed as weaknesses. So while many may argue that this is just entertainment and to not take it seriously, there are lasting effects on our popular culture and the viewers who watch it.

Works Cited

Jhally, S. (Director). (2003). Wrestling with manhood boys, bullying, and battering [VHS]. Northampton: Media Education Foundation.

Katz, J., & Jhally, S. (2000, February 13). Manhood on the mat: the problem i snot that pro wrestling makes boys violent. the real lesson of the widly popular pdeudo-sport is more insidious. The Boston Globe, Retrieved from http://www.jacksonkatz.com/manhood.html on 2010, December 5

Soulliere, D. (2006). Wrestling with masculinity: messages about manhood in the wwe. Sex Roles, 55. Retrieved from http://www.springerlink.com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/content/h10w36l087v288k5/ doi: 10.1007/s11199-006-9055-6

Written by Kari Anne McDonald