There are weeks when it seems like you can’t find a single ray of light peeking into the cellar of rape culture that we’re all trapped in, and last week was one of them.
To begin with, two of our biggest political figures, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, are both dogged by troubling past rape and harassment accusations that have resurfaced during the campaign. A Buzzfeed piece about Clinton’s credible accuser, Juanita Broaddrick, has led to some expectedly serious intra-left consternation. We’re supposed to believe survivors’ stories, but what do we do when one such story is being exploited by the loathsome, sexist Trump campaign? Online, public attempts to wrestle with these conflicting ideas have led to anger and apologies and counter-apologies, but no clear conclusions about what the hell those of us who support Hillary Clinton’s campaign are supposed to do.
But who had even had time to think in depth about the Clinton story? In the cultural realm, we had not one but two rape stories to contend with. Indeed, even as Metzger-UCB-Amy Schumer gate (see our previous posts on the subject) was tearing Twitter apart with accusations of “rape apologist” flying back and forth, yet another upsetting story began to gain traction. This one was about Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker’s previous trial for rape, which hit the media echo chamber the same day. The Parker incident stems from the director’s college days as a wrestler in Penn State; there are trial transcripts and tape recording transcripts and they are seriously disturbing, and not easily dismissed; nor is the uneasy feeling that arises from the fact that Parker’s accuser was white and many at the time thought he wasn’t getting a fair trial due to racism.
And so the debate begins, an inevitable period of public agonizing that arises when people (male people, usually) who have made major contributions to society are discovered to have been accused of having done harmful things to women. If we like them and their work, we feel implicated, defensive. Dozens and dozens of examples of this pattern emerge, and with no clear blueprint for how to behave except (and I’m guilty of this as well) to read and write dozens of think-pieces about how rape and harassment is bad but this person’s work means a lot to the culture and therefore Everyone Must Follow Their Conscience. Others find solace by yelling loudly on social media at the predictably bad responses that arise, pieces that ask ignorant questions like, “Why can’t the cops just handle it?” or, “Prison is evil so why is rape treated as such a criminal offense?” Or in the case of Parker, the first impulse is to lash out against those who are more concerned about Parker’s film and its Oscar hopes than about the people involved. In the Hollywood Reporter, the debate is framed as a juicy one, pitting race against gender in an Oscar-season cliffhanger: “Parker’s current situation may turn out to be Hollywood’s version of the Clarence Thomas hearings, in which race and sex were horribly intertwined. How it is resolved will depend on which of these two important social issues — racism and sexism — proves more compelling.”
The Nate Parker story has raised many of the same questions we never fully put to bed around other public figures, especially those whose work, like Parker’s new film, meant something significant to minority groups, disenfranchised people or a noble cause: Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, even Julian Assange. Already on social media, lines are being drawn. But it does feel as though the last few years, with renewed interest in the Cosby and Allen cases, has allowed different voices to rise above the fray. In this case, it’s crucial to pay heed to the words of black women and sexual assault survivors, who demand to be heard and valued in a conversation that threatens to erase them. At the Atlantic, Morgan Jenkins takes on the pervasiveness of patriarchy:
The push to protect Nate Parker is based on the fact that he’s trying to uplift black people through The Birth of a Nation, but what if that comes at the expense of black women? In Parker’s movie, Nat Turner’s masculinity is a key element of his revolutionary power—an inspirational quality. But for women that same quality, in light of Parker’s history, is dangerous. Those prioritizing the significance of the movie over its creator’s history exemplify how often black women’s experiences are pushed aside, and to what extent discussions of black leadership and black liberation are filtered through a male lens, both in real life and on screen.
Roxane Gay has a personal take as a survivor, writing in the New York Times about her attempt to reconcile a belief in redemption and empathy with the facts of the case: “I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.”
Do we throw the art out with the artist, the deeds out with the man? Do we have to choose between race and gender? “I’m not fracturing myself between my gender and my race. I am standing against sexual violence in all forms. I am standing against a system that finds avenues for perpetrators of sexual violence to succeed, while simultaneously destroying the people they violate,” writes Tarana Burke.
We shouldn’t have to even consider these questions. After years of covering these high-profile rape stories, I want to imagine something beyond having such binary choices thrust upon us so regularly, choices which assume that toxic masculinity is a typical part and parcel of success, and the determination it takes to achieve it. We have to reject the idea of women’s lives being ancillary to the careers of gifted men. Beyond this art vs. artist question lies an unrealized world in which the brilliant creative souls who have the willpower to see their passion projects through are also able to treat others with dignity as a matter of course, and where leaders and athletes who commit gendered violence are an aberration to be shunned, not the shrugged-off norm. And most importantly, it’s a world where the artistic and real-life narratives of women, queer folks, and women of color in particular are taken as seriously as anyone else’s.
I think a lot of people who wade into these discussions — like Kurt Metzger and others — are taken aback by the fury and indignation with which they are met from survivors, because they don’t understand that we’re living very, very far from that imagined world. But when you have nothing else, no other recourse to redress your sense of violation, and this happens again and again and again, anger is the only way to claim any power at all.