In one of my late-night blogging binges this weekend, I came upon the above PSA video issued by the White House. Released under the campaign “1 is 2 Many” and spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden – who initiated the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1990 as a senator – the video features a list of male celebrities addressing the issue of rape and sexual assault as it pertains to women and female victims.
Upon first glance, I was absolutely ecstatic. This video got so many things right, and it wasn’t only because of Benicio del Toro’s tracksuited grace and beauty…
With such impactful statements as “If she doesn’t consent, or if she cannot consent, it’s rape, it’s assault” and “If I saw it happening, I’d never blame her, I’d help her,” I could sense a newly-lit ray of hope for humanity bursting in my bones and slowly conjuring its way to my brain.
For once, a campaign against rape and sexual assault was addressing men directly and saying, “Don’t be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution.” More importantly, it was also directly countering the horror show response that is victim blaming, transferring the blame and the responsibility away from the victim to the perpetrator and also to any applicable bystanders.
However, something kept gnawing at my mind. Something was a bit off. Something wasn’t quite working. Rewatching the video, I realized the main issues.
The second issue, the one that made me want to peel my eyes off while nails scratched all the chalkboard surfaces of the Earth, was the good old “sisters/wives/daughters argument.”
For those who might not be familiar with or attuned to this line of rhetoric, the cliche of the “sisters/wives/daughters argument” centers around the whole issue of “Sexual assault can happen to your sister, wife, or daughter” or “These female victims are someone’s sisters, wives, or daughters.”
So when Steve Carell and Daniel Craig stared at the camera, dove-eyed and endearing, and repeated the words, “It’s happening to our sisters, our daughters, our wives, and our friends,” with poignant violins playing in the background, I couldn’t help but feel wilted.
As an only child of a single mother, these words meant nothing to me.
When a sexual assault campaign, or any campaign for that matter, uses these tired and scripted words, what they’re really saying is you (male viewer) should open your eyes and exert an emotional response to this highly important and tragic social issue only because it pertains to you and your loved ones and not because of the fact that maybe, just maybe, women are human beings.
I understand that the intention behind the act is all good and dear. Humanizing the statistics entices emotional responses and bringing the issue closer to home can ward off any alienation male viewers might feel when watching the video. The underlying connotation of the argument, however, is still highly problematic.
Labeling women as merely sisters, wives or daughters designates them as possessions and mere extensions of their male counterparts as opposed to distinct beings. This extension becomes their whole identity.
Thus, that male counterpart, the oh-so-glorious brother/husband/father, becomes the center of attention again. Through this centralization of the male perspective and dominance, not only is the main issue dismissed but the problematic tropes of the “watchful father” or the “protective older brother/boyfriend” are replicated.
While it is essential that men know their place within rape culture, how they perpetuate the issue and hence how they can be a part of the solution, it is also important to address the main fact that they are a (BIG) part of the problem as well.
Language is a powerful tool, and by using the line “What would you do if this happened to your sister/wife/daughter?” one is perpetuating a colossal amount of patriarchal ideology. This might be unconscious perpetuation, but it is perpetuation nonetheless.
We need to change the way we address the issue of rape and sexual assault. You shouldn’t care because rape might be enacted on your sister, wife, daughter or possibly a friend/acquaintance, you should care because rape might be enacted, period.
You shouldn’t give a shit about women just because they might one day be an extension of you (or already are) but because they are human beings.