WHY DOES THE REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN POP CULTURE MATTER?
Representation matters. We are constantly being told how important it is to be able to look at media and see people who look like us, act like us, and live like us. Representation matters. Media is a powerful tool. It is a reflection of the culture and people that produce it. It tells us about their values. The struggles, the change the was (and is) happening can all be seen in the stories and characters that are created. For example, the X-Men were a reflection of the Civil Rights Movement and the idea of people who are “othered” fighting for equality. Barbie also changes generationally to reflect the expectations and perceived abilities of women. If representation matters, what do our stories say about sexual assault? What is the message that we are broadcasting, in a passive way, about how sexual violence should be treated? What are our stories?
Violence of all kinds is often romanticized in media. Explosions are operatic, designed to take the audience's breath away. We, the viewers, are meant to feel awe, arousal, and excitement--not fear. Not paralyzed and helpless. Violence in relationships, too, is rarely shown as it is in real life. The emotional manipulation, the isolation, the difficulty in discovering how unhealthy the situation is when it is your reality. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has one of these relationships. It isn’t portrayed perfectly--Buffy and Spike are both abusive. Their relationship starts with a fistfight. Violence is woven into the fabric of how they relate: they don’t know how to feel or communicate with each other, but they know how to hurt each other. It culminates in Spike attempting to rape Buffy after she finally leaves him. The scene is brutal. Buffy’s pain and shock is visceral. Afterward, she sits on the bathroom floor curled into herself. Her concern isn’t for herself. It’s that other people not find out because she doesn’t want to burden the people she cares about with that knowledge. She sees it as her pain alone. The whole relationship had been one she kept secret--but more than the secret of their relationship, she doesn’t want to share the assault. As though it’s shameful. As though it’s her fault. Because even in stories, society has programed us to worry about being a credible victim.
Secrecy is a common reaction to assault. If no one knows, we can question whether it really happened. If no one knows, we never have to answer questions about what we did to make it happen. If no one knows, we never have to be looked at differently. But surviving rape and assault makes you different. You don’t go back to the person you were before. Some characters, however, embrace that difference; their assaults mark a turning point in their lives. For Veronica Mars from the show of the same name, her rape is the final straw that turns her into the sarcastic badass that doggedly hunts for answers. The hole in her memory from being drugged haunts her across seasons until she finds out exactly what happened that night. She uses that experience to help others. Her flashes of memory help solve one mystery. Her empathy is seen with other rape victims. She is persistent in the final season as a survivor, and her understanding of sex crimes helps her stop a serial rapist. Her experience as a rape survivor shaped who she became. Her sense of justice and her suspicion of law enforcement partially stem from that event because she had reported the crime and was dismissed, leaving her to find her own answers and her own way to cope--not only with her experience, but with the slut-shaming and rumors that she faced following her assault. Veronica Mars's experience is the reality for many women. For Veronica, and sadly many others, there are no answers, and there is no justice. There are questions and hostility turned on the victim. Yet despite that, she found a way to turn it all around and not only survive but thrive in flawed social and legal systems.
Veronica Mars is not the only victim turned detective in contemporary media. Jessica Jones frees herself from the Svengali-like hold of Kilgrave only to drown herself in vice. She drinks, she smokes, she falls into bed with available men. Her body, her person, and its value have been tainted in her eyes by the repeated abuse she has suffered. Killgrave took away her agency, owning not only her body but her actions. Kilgrave has the ability to make a person do anything he says, because of his complete control of Jessica his rape of her was more than physical. He completely robbed her of her agency. He controlled her actions, her thoughts, her feelings. He violated her body and her mind. When she regains control, she exerts that control by testing her limits by drinking too much--because it doesn’t just help her cope with what was done to her; it is her way of taking control of her body. Yes, she is hurting herself. But she is the one doing it. It is a reclamation of the power that was taken away from her. Her role as a detective is less about helping others and more about finding a way to stop the man who hurt her. Her first instinct is to run from him, but she realizes that she can’t, and that she can’t have the weight of the other people he will hurt trying to get to her. Jessica then spends her energy and skills trying to stop him. Through it all, she still copes by drowning in the bottom of a bottle. She can’t let herself be vulnerable. She has a facade that keeps her from falling apart and remembering her time in captivity. She can’t begin to heal, or think of healing until she is secure in the fact that he won’t come back. Until she knows that she is safe, she is still indirectly under his power, even when she has powers of her own.
For victims of sexual assault, feeling safe and being safe are often two different things. Narratives make this often ephemeral difference clearer. There is a bad guy; the bad guy makes you unsafe. For the Liars in Pretty Little Liars, some of that uncertainty is captured. There is still a bad guy, but through the use of technology and surveillance, he is everywhere and nowhere. The enemy could be anyone, and the Liars are faced with constantly being controlled, having to hide the truth, and living double lives--they are in an abusive relationship without knowing it. A controls their actions, who is allowed to be in their lives, and manipulates their emotions. The constant fear that the Liars live under may have blinded them to the instances of rape culture they face outside of interactions with A. Hanna blaming herself for Aria’s mother’s fiance making inappropriate advances and placing his hand on her thigh. Aria never thinking twice about her relationship with Ezra, her teacher, which was statutory rape. It’s not romantic; it’s not a love story; it is a sex crime. The show never takes this point of view, and the viewer is expected to root for this couple that has never had a healthy power dynamic. He has always been a predator. But, as with many older man/younger woman narratives, we are supposed to see it as thrilling and romantic. It is sold as true love. In truth, it is manipulative and creepy. Aria does not understand what a healthy relationship is because she has been groomed by Ezra. She expects what he gives her, and that is for him to be the authoritative older man who solves all of her problems.
The older man solving all of a woman’s problems trope comes up too often in regards to sexual assault and female agency. Sansa in Game of Thrones threw her hat in with Littlefinger early on in the series and has followed wherever he has led. His guidance has, unfortunately, led to her marriage, and repeated rape, by a sadist. Sansa’s rape is the final nail in the coffin for her idea that she can have a perfect life without fighting for it. She watched her father die, and she was tortured by Joffrey, but her violation in her marriage are the first time she is not protected simply because she is who she is. Indeed, she is victim in part because of it. She comes out willing to fight for control of her life, but still under the influence of Littlefinger. She sees him more clearly, having become more like him than the innocent he first manipulated, but she still turns to him when she needs help. She still lacks power.
If representation matters, the media we are producing and the stories we are telling about women and violence matter equally. Our heroines are changed by violence. They become harder, more damaged; they turn in on themselves. They often keep what they went through secret. We see law enforcement failing them time and again. We see women blaming themselves. There are stories of manipulation. There are glorified relationships between young girls and older men. Young women being groomed by predators, power imbalances that are portrayed as healthy. Our society is telling the stories that women are living, but they aren’t telling the stories about the world that women should be living in. The ones where there is no shame. Where the only consent is the enthusiastic kind, where the perpetrator pays the price and the victim isn’t the one who has to fight back against judgment and shame. These are the stories we need to demand from our media. Because representation matters.