by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
I’ve spent much of my time working this year on a manuscript for a book on rape-revenge film that will be published in 2011. Most academics pick up these admittedly often nasty and ugly films with tongs while they hold their noses, with Jacinda Read and Carol J. Clover proving to be brave exceptions to this rule. While the work of these two women is of great interest to me, my research led me to ask how rape was been represented pre-cinema. The art historian Diane Wolfthal has observed that while critical memory privileges the so-called “heroic” rape imagery of the Italian Renaissance period (paintings like Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, where Zephyrs is shown heroically ‘conquering’ Chloris the nymph), our focus on these types of paintings from this region blind us to strikingly different (and often far more sympathetic and comparatively progressive) depictions of sexual violence from areas such as Germany and Scandanavia being produced at the same time. It sounds simple, but the force of Wolfthal’s observation that “diverse notions (of rape) coexisted contemporaneously” cannot be underappreciated today.
Film, television, and even news coverage sends out not only conflicting but often flagrantly contradictory attitudes to and representations of rape in a seemingly constant barrage. As German feminist academic Sabine Sielke has noted, rape exists in many ways to underscore the seriousness of issues other than rape itself: by its sheer proximity to other issues (class, race, etc.), what she calls the ‘rhetoric’ of rape has become a narrative tool with broad thematic clout. When stirred into the pot of contemporary screen narrative (be they fictional or otherwise), rape ‘makes’ things serious.
Enter Julian Assange. The first whispers of his rape charges appeared on Twitter on the night of the Australian election, an evening that spectacularly displayed the political ambivalence of the Australian public that ended with the return of the ALP government and Prime Minister Julia Gillard only after the comparatively dull backroom machinations by a group of otherwise negligible independents. For those of us—and there were many—who saw the Kevin07 campaign dethrone John Howard and place Kevin Rudd in the Prime Minster job, the rise-and-fall of both Rudd and the hopes of left-leaning Australia were less Scorsesian in their gritty melodrama than simply depressing. In bidding farewell to John Howard in 2007, I knew I was not alone in David Hicks’ story playing a large part in celebrating Howard’s loss: while few (including Hicks himself) view the initial actions that led him to be imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay as anything but really stupid, that the Howard’s government so easily sacrificed his rights as an Australian citizen so we could cozy up to the US was grotesque. The longer Hicks’ circumstances were ignored by the government that we assumed would protect us, the more difficult it became to not question the value of Australian citizenship itself.
Last night Melbourne time, Julian Assange was arrested in London for rape and offenses of a similar nature in Sweden. I’ll raise my hand as one of the few self-identifying feminists online who doesn’t pretend to be an expert in Swedish criminal law: I’m not quite sure what of these charges is about a broken condom, and what is about forced sexual assault. Like many, my first assumption was that this seems a lot more to me about old-fashioned psy-ops rather than violence against women. The USSR were pulling identical stunts like this by inventing bogus rape charges against dissidents,so I figured it was a neat little trick the US picked up during the Cold War. I’ve even heard today rumours online that one of the women accusing Assange was thrown out of Cuba while on holiday there for being a suspected CIA agent as well – if this is true, its a fact that adds weight to suggestions of political conspiracy.
The danger here is that I think we can by now safely say that we can’t rely on the courts – in any country, in any situation – to be able to distinguish a real rape claim (and protect the rights of violated women) and a ‘fake’ one (protecting the rights of falsely accused men). It scares me that I so easily assumed these women were lying, and that has made me question who I am and what I stand for, both personally and professionally. It scares me that ideologically the best case scenario here is that these women are telling the truth and the system works to find justice for them – if they are lying for political reasons, then a rape trial getting this much exposure where the public find themselves questioning even once the truth of the accusations does so much damage to the plight of actual survivors of sexual assault that it will put us back centuries.
If Assange really did assault any of these women but we are happy to dismiss these charges as political conspiracy reliant upon what appears to be Sweden’s unusual rape laws, we are in real trouble and it is far too close to regressing back to the figure of the ‘heroic’ rapist for my liking. But if our governments are prepared to mock the real trauma of actual rape survivors by promoting fraudulent charges to their own ends – which is not a definite, but certainly a possibility here – then for citizens, media consumers, and people who rally against the horrific reality of rape that faces legions of women on a daily basis, the outlook is equally as grim.
Assange has been charged not for anything relating to Wikileaks, but for rape. But whether guilty or innocent of these charges, the stain of sexual violence will contaminate the public image of his personal morality in relation to the leaks regardless. This is guilt by association: if he is a rapist, the logic goes, then surely everything else he does is morally questionable too. It’s all about the story: even today, I’ve seen people actively indifferent to what he’s been charged with, only focused on the fact that he’s been charged at all. Once again, the narrative function of rape seems to have trumped the reality of sexual violence itself.
In this situation, we are looking at a lose-lose scenario: either these women are lying, which does diabolical harm to the plight of actual rape survivors, or Assange is guilty and we’re championing him as the hard-done-by victim. Naomi Wolf has written a smart, fun piece on this topic for the Huffington Post that’s worth a read, but in thinking about these matters—and remembering David Hicks—I can find nothing to smile about.