Skip to content

Sympathy for the Devil

There’s plenty more to be said about it, but let me drop a quick note on the ‘Steubenville rape case’.

Rape is awful, but the case isn’t about rape, and it isn’t even legal. Yes, it has legal aspects, but that’s not the meat of it. Quick diagnostic question: remember the guy who shot up a cinema where Batman was playing? The one with the googly eyes and orange hair. What is his name?

Yeah. Him. Jog your memory?

Yeah. Him. Jog your memory?

His name is hard to remember because in the media show that episode was ages ago and that character is no longer relevant to the plot.

If the rape case were legal from a criminal perspective, the point would be to restore conditions under which Americans could live together in peace by showing what happens if they break certain rules. Consequence Y will happen to anyone who breaks rule X, and the State is going to make sure that happens, so we can all go through our days without having to worry about people violating X.*

So what is X in this case? If it’s a legal rule, it’s a legal case. If not, it’s about something else.

The tragedy and crime of rape is the violation of another person’s autonomy by violating their body. Getting a tattoo is personal preference, but holding a person down and injecting ink under their skin against their will would be torture. Same logic applies to the ol’ slap and tickle, which is why it makes sense that Ohio’s law allows for non-consensual vaginal penetration by anything to be considered rape.

For the last several months, the two boys who raped that girl have been bombarded with discourse about their actions on one night in August. They spent several hours each day listening to people tell them what they did wrong and have probably thought about little else. So when it came time to apologize, what did they recognize as the crime:

“No pictures should have been sent out, let alone been taken,”

This has nothing to do with autonomy. That apology would be more like, “I’m sorry that I reduced her to a piece of meat and in doing so made her and myself less human.”

What crime did they recognize and apologize for?  They apologized for the existence of pictures. And not for taking the pictures, but just that pictures exist. Why do the pictures matter so much? It sounds too simple to say that this is just the natural progression of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’, but it does imply that no pics = it didn’t happen. This is profound. Pictures aren’t just a representation of reality, they constitute it. You are your recorded self,** your life is what’s recorded, and there’s a certain hierarchy to different kinds of representation. A textual resume is nice, but pictures are more convincing, and I suspect the highest form would be the biopic. A real life can fade into the background once we have a video representation of it. Biopics also have the pretention of comprehensiveness (i.e. they’re about biographies, not events in biographies), and they’re also related by celebrities whose authority is already established. You know how I know that Johnny Cash never popped a zit? Joaquin Phoenix never had one; it wasn’t in the movie.

...but only one future

…but only one future

So the rapists’ crime wasn’t the rape, it was ruining a perfectly good reality, which is to say a compelling narrative. If they had been basement-dwelling outcasts, we could fit them into the standard ‘unremarkable Guy next door, always kept to himself, would never have thought’-narrative based on an established stock character – probably somebody like Steve Buscemi. But these kids are good looking athletes. This isn’t the right story for them. They’re supposed to be able to unload their copious hormones on plentiful, good-looking, publicly chaste but privately raunchy cheerleaders.

This sounds harsh, but it’s the story CNN regrets not being able to tell:

And it might not be a coincidence that this regret came from a woman who looks just a few years beyond her last cheerleading gig. How can you not mourn the loss of your illusions? These kids not only ruined their potential as marriage material and congressmen, they went off script, they bent reality in the wrong direction.

The rule they violated isn’t legal at all. They broke a cardinal rule of show business (number 9 to be precise). They went off script, dammit.***

This is why all the outrage about sympathizing for the rapists rather than the victims seems almost quaint. Somehow out of the wrong century. There may have been a time when the fact mattered more than the image. But that time is gone. Everybody gets assigned a role, and once you’ve been typecast, you better follow your character’s arc. Otherwise, how is anybody supposed to know what story to tell, what pictures storyboard the right reality?

Yes, these Guys bear as much responsibility as stupid young men can, and there’s probably some value in making sure other stupid young men and women know that nobody has the right to treat anybody else like a piece of meat (though the State should set a better example). But they were born into this world. They didn’t make it. This is a tragedy, but don’t mistake it for a particular tragedy; it’s general.


*In a civil case, the point would be to restore conditions under which those involved could meet each other on the bus or in a restaurant without losing it, and the State’s function is to serve as a Higher Power that imposes a resolution neither party has the power to change. Either or both might think the resolution is unfair, but they can still live with it so long as they realize that neither of them is responsible for it, and the responsibility is beyond their grasp.

**This might also be why CNN has to explain that they have a policy of not identifying the victims of sexual assault. That is, they don’t just take it for granted that the victim’s identity is not public business, they explain that they will not record this information, because people would … what. Feel cheated otherwise?

***Not totally accurate. There’s also the ‘Told you so!’-script that revels in perpetual victimhood. If the narrators of this story ever got what they wanted, the story would die, so it’s vitally important to them that macho-bullies continue to exist and continue to be evil. What better way of doing so than making sure the world/plot/narrative consists only of bullies and victims?

Categories: Arcana, Communications & Media Studies, Current events, Pop Culture.

But wait, there's more! Follow @PoMoDotCom or subscribe to our feed.

Comment Feed

10 Responses

  1. You’re singing a familiar tune…

    Hey now we won’t be raped
    Hey now we won’t be scarred like that

    …or… too late. (it was always this way)
  2. I think there’s an interesting parallel here between the football player rapists and Nachlasse’s review of Moonrise Kingdom. What if these players were just testing their limits to force the adults to become adults in order to punish them? Or otherwise, discover just how far their privilege goes? After all, these are the heroes of the town, and I don’t think anyone outside of small-town, football obsessed rural America can entirely understand to what degree this is true. Maybe there are similarities in European soccer (football for the rest of the world)? But I digress, the point is, when people don’t feel they have adequate limits, perhaps the reaction is to force the imposition of such limits.

  3. Another point in case. It isn’t merely that pictures are that which makes reality. The issue is that the rape in itself was done knowing that they could definitely have gotten away with it.

    Apparently, the girl was drunk, both of them decided that if no one knew, it was okay to rape her. But the problem is, the only courage that they could have mustered to commit that act is if they knew they could be absolved from it. In other words, they being the stars of their football team made them understand that the rules do not apply to them. Rules that govern the whole societal frame work do not apply to them.

    The problem is that they believed that there are no “adults”, but only because they have already been absolved because they have been told that there is no system. Which incidentally, is true – I doubt they would have gotten caught if they didn’t take the picture – which is why they responded like that as well. They were shocked – they were being told there was no system; how the hell could they have been charged?! However, the system thus only arrives during public outrage; to quell stuff down, the system arrives to make pretend that there is a system.

    The problem is that there isn’t – (but!) only because those two boys were already within the top of the system that they could have believed that there was no system.

    The reason for their reply was that they believed all along there was a system, and when the “real but made believe” system showed up, those boys realised that there is no system. Thus the collapse.

    If you get the nonsense that I’m spouting, you’ll get the deep implications of this insanity.

  4. what the hell is this?!

  5. This is a really interesting interpretation (props to Frugal too). So there’s kind of an implicit deal between the young heroes and the town, where the town will treat them as gods/presidents/kings as long as they don’t profane this status by not acting like gods/pres… should act. The stupid teenagers, though, are naturally gonna blow this, because they’re stupid teenagers, and they force adults to act as adults. When did you go and get psychoanalytic, Frugal?

    But the catch is that the movie is a dramatic device to show people something. It exists to generate such nifty interpretations and maybe get a little smarter (like a good blog, in fact). The Steubenville business is real (i.e. the lives, not the representations of them). Yeah, we can take something from the narrative, but that narrative is made of people, not just characters. It’s more soylent green than Shakespeare. This doesn’t invalidate the interpretation, but you do have to be careful with the comparison. To push the point beyond sensible limits, Hiroshima & Nagasaki showed people the insanity of atomic weapons, but you don’t nuke cities in order to sensitize people to the insanity. The interpretation might be a function of the case, but not its use.

  6. Clearly I’ve been hanging around here too much (not enough?). But seriously, where I differ from you and Nachlasse is in my focus on the motivations of the rapist teenagers. I think your deal has it backwards, it isn’t that they get treated like gods/kings/etc as long as they act correctly and within the limits. They act outside those limits *because* they are treated like gods/kings/etc.

    My virtue ethics spin on this is even in the absence of outside punishment, they knew what they were doing was wrong, even if they can’t admit it to themselves or others even now that it’s all been exposed. No one ultimately avoids the punishment of our own characters. The prodding of adults to be adults is the symptom of guilty consciences.

  7. Drama – brought to you free of commercials by the United States of E.G.O. Department of Edification.

  8. I was just going to say that Guy read me wrongly. I’ll write in a longer post instead. Maybe.

  9. Rereading it, the other way I can see to make sense of it is that the system is kinda like a lazy god who does nothing until there is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, and only people who are at the top in terms of status and visibility can inspire that. Except that nobody really believes in this shiftless layabout, and just give him the responsibility whenever they take matters into their own hands. ‘Loki made me do it’ sorta thing, except nobody, me included, really believes that.

    I’ll write in a longer post instead. I’ll believe that when I see it, and even then only as a provisional hypothesis.

  10. … and even then only as a provisional hypothesis.

    By definition, (synonyms: order, method, process) wherever a default exists, there must exist a system.

Got insight?