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March 18, 2013

Steubenville and Madhya Pradesh: Rape, Media and the Visual Politics of Victimhood

Swiss woman gang raped India

Whether we’re talking about the Swiss woman in Madhya Pradesh, India, as we see above, who was gang raped while on a bike tour on Saturday, or the images below that stand for the rape victim in the just-completed Stubenville trial, what I’m thinking about is what the visual’s have to say about the dynamics surrounding this heinous act.

ABC6 Ohio Stubenville

This screen grab from an ABC6 Ohio news video of an empty witness chair and a tissue box was the method the station employed to make reference to the Steubenville victim’s testimony.

This image — of two cups utilized to demonstrate a drinking game — was also used by the media to represent the Steubenville victim’s time on the stand. The woman, by the way, was present in court to testify, and for the verdict, but remained hidden from the view of the cameras.

Even more awkward is the use of this photo. In running this photo without any caption in a slapped together post (largely quoted a NYT story) about the victim’s testimony, Salon leaves the impression (perhaps not all that unintentionally) that this woman is the victim.   Although the Daily Mail and dozens upon dozens of other outlets did run the photo with caption (see photo 4 credit below), they leave the same ambiguity, the caption failing to note that the victim and her family are extreme right and off camera.

Obviously, many women insist on anonymity as a consequence of the shame or trauma arising from the horrible event. Rape shield laws also back up that right to have one’s identity protected. In other instances, testifying (and disclosure of one’s identity) can elicit physical danger. (In the Steubenville case, the question of identification is further qualified by the fact the victim is still a minor.)  From a visual and cultural standpoint, however, I’m wondering whether hiding the woman from public view is itself a stigmatization, reinforcing the message that shame is in order and a confirmation that the woman is now damaged goods? (That’s especially the case when Steubenville’s “Jane Doe” is otherwise visually defined for posterity by the screen shots from her attack on social media.)

If you read the last line in the caption of the first photo (the Swiss woman being guided by two policewoman), the AP emphasizes that it’s Indian law to hide the woman’s face. I’m interested in your thoughts on the dynamics of this practice, and this imagery. It seems the case there is too much shame and degradation to present a face to the world. So women are empowered to report and expect arrests, but the media has only a few ways to put a face on it. With the Scarlet Letter in mind, it feels to me the “victim” suffers either way.

(photo 1: AP. caption: A Swiss woman, center, who, according to police, was gang-raped by a group of eight men while touring by bicycle with her husband, is escorted by policewomen for a medical examination at a hospital in Gwalior, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Saturday, March 16, 2013. Thirteen men were detained and questioned in connection with the attack, which occurred Friday night as the couple camped out in a forest after bicycling from the temple town of Orchha, local police officer R.K. Gurjar said. The men beat the couple and gang-raped the woman, he said. They also stole the couple’s mobile phone, a laptop computer and 10,000 rupees ($185), Gurjar said. The woman’s face was concealed with a hood, a common practice in India, where law does not allow rape victims to be identified publicly to protect them from the stigma attached to rape in the conservative country. photo 2: ABC6 Ohio. photo 3: Keith Srakocic, AP. caption: Two plastic cups are seen in Jefferson County Juvenile Court on Friday before the start of the third day of the rape trial for two Steubenville High School football players. Defense council used the cups during testimony to demonstrate the drinking game beer-pong. photo 4: AP. caption: Trent Mays, 17, (left), stands and apologizes to the victim and her family after he and co-defendant Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, were found delinquent on rape and other charges after their trial in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio today.)

  • Scarabus

    Responding to your question, I was struck immediately by two thoughts. First, it sounded to me more like Pakistan than India. Might be because I’m a dullard — but I can’t help thinking it’s more a question of Americans’ general lack of understanding of the culture of a nation that’s very important to us. Second, I thought about what wasn’t said. The victim is shamed, but not the rapist?

    I also thought about the woman’s husband. They both were beaten, then she was raped? Was he forced to stay and hear if not watch?

    BTW, that cup on the stand reminds me of another.

  • bystander

    re: So women are empowered to report and expect arrests, but the media has
    only a few ways to put a face on it. With the Scarlet Letter in mind, it
    feels to me the “victim” suffers either way. [emphasis mine]

    Michael, you confuse me with the quotes around the word victim. I don’t think you intend to suggest that the individual on the receiving end of rape is not-a-victim. So, I’m not sure what the quotes signify. Perhaps I’m not reading closely enough. Or, my irony meter is broken. Or, something.

    Because – indeed – the rape is one level of victimization, and the internal (if not social) stigmatization of having been raped is another level, I think it has to be the woman herself who gets to choose when, how, and to whom they make that revelation. I can only imagine that it takes some time for a woman to wrap her head around something so simultaneously hideous and invasive.

    Do we acquiesce to the nameless/faceless crime by allowing that the victim should be shielded? Sure. And, do we perpetuate the potential for social stigmatization by assuming it’s there and participating in enforcing that shield – that anonymity? Quite likely. But, what is the alternative when – in this young woman’s case – the victim is the butt of all manner of jokes, lewd/compromising pictures, and – no doubt – social opprobrium by some (I understand twitter offered plenty of that). Given the nature of social media, it’s not enough that her community now sees her in some “new light,” but everyone who gets access to the story via the internet or social networking channels filters her through their own lens and level of social maturity/emotional intelligence.

    Imagine applying for a job and having your interviewer squint at you and your resume, and then catching the “affect flash” when you recognize the moment they figured out why your name looked familiar to them… And, you brace… waiting to see how they handle what they’ve just recalled.

    I dunno. Are we participating, aiding, abetting stigma? Maybe. But, I’d argue until the whole idea of the *utter wrongness* of rape – that there is *no* such thing as asking for it – is a larger part of the culture, I’d err on the side of letting the woman (or, man, in maybe more cases than we know) divulge that information when it feels right to them… if ever.

    • Michael Shaw

      The quotations marks were meant to capture the same ambiguity you express in your second paragraph. On the one hand, and formally, the woman has been victimized. On the other, we hope she’d be the one to ultimately define what that means.

  • another bystander

    Try this on for size– Rape Survivor–

  • Cactus

    Maybe it’s time to
    see where the differences between “us and them” really lies. The pro-war
    rightie christians in this country are the first to condemn muslims for almost
    anything, especially the way they treat their women. And yet . .

    And yet, I fail to
    see the difference when it comes to the way our men treat women. Just like
    muslim men, ours shame the woman victim for not wearing the burkha. SHE must be
    scorned and publicly called out. This is a form of honor killing with words.
    Except the people doing it are the perpetrators of the crime. Good boys all, if
    you just overlook that one little flaw of battery and abuse. Oh, that’s right,
    it was only a woman.

    Let’s not forget the
    sports angle. Back in the day someone said that the stronger women get, the
    more men like football. Here’s a prime example. These criminals probably
    cannot deal with women (teachers?) so they take out their rage on a 16 year old
    girl who was apparently fed very strong drinks made by a volunteer coach. Let’s
    assume the coach was at least an adult – the ‘party’ was at his house. Where
    the hell was he when all this was happening? One can be charged and/or sued for
    providing alcohol to minors, but not for rape and battery?? So she made bad
    choices — so did the criminals who raped her. And what teenager do you know
    who doesn’t make bad choices? The punishment should be no cell phone or TV for
    a month and grounding, not being gang raped.

    This is not sex – this is all about power – and bullying. Where
    that starts is, I believe, with all those teapublican pols who scatologically
    describe & sneer at & pass laws to control or limit a woman’s body.
    What is that except bullying behavior? They want to bully into ‘behaving’ all
    those feminazis, all those women who just can’t wait to get an abortion, who
    leave their battering husbands. Tell me how that makes this country any ‘holier
    than thou’ than the muslim countries.

    What do you think would happen if they had assaulted and battered a
    fellow teammate – even without the rape? My guess is at a minimum, they would
    be kicked off the team and perhaps out of the college. Or not. Football is

    And Fox and CNN have taken the ‘bold’ step of releasing the name of the victim. When she recovers (if she ever does), I wonder if she will turn to face them and bark back, as Ms. Fluke did. If only…..

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