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.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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