On the heels of the strange re-opening of the Anita Hill v Clarence Thomas sexual harassment memory, last night’s episode of The Good Wife was a capsule lesson on how America treats the victims of sexual assault (or any form of violence, really). From the female attorneys who doubted her story more than the male attorneys to the questions about whether or not this particular victim made a “good” victim — the episode captured the many threads of how we blame victims in our culture.
When it comes to victim-blaming, sexual assault is right at the top of the list. Right from the start we question whether the victim is telling the truth. The show did a good job of illustrating this from the beginning — the attorneys don’t believe the woman who has come to them to get representation. They check into her story as well as her background. But we don’t need TV to tell us that we blame the victim. Think about the questions we ask when we hear about a rape case. Does s/he have an ulterior motive? Is s/he credible? Was s/he drinking/dressed slutty/out late/seen talking with the perpetrator beforehand/single/broke? Does the victim have the wrong kind of pictures on her/his social networking account? Is the alleged perpetrator someone who is in a position of power (because clearly, that means the victim is making it up to get money/power/fame)… I could go on. But I don’t need to. Because you already know all these questions. Because you ask them yourself, automatically, every time you hear about a case of sexual assault. Did Kobe Bryant rape that woman? Did Al Gore assault that massage therapist? (Indeed, the episode’s plot seemed to be a take on the Gore situation.) Well, those women were…you know…those kind of women.
This passage from Susan Estrich’s “It’s a Case of the Powerless Versus the Powerful” from Debating Sexual Correctness (ironically about the Hill case) sort of says it all:
Doctrines of consent, corroboration, fresh complaint, and provocation have long been used in the law of rape to shift the focus from the wrongs of the defendant to those of the victim. In rape law it has been all too common to ask what she did to invite the attack; why she didn’t fight back; why she didn’t complain immediately; why there are no witnesses. In rape cases too many courts have applied standards of objective reasonableness that expect women to stand up against stronger men and to fight back when attacked — to behave, in short, like reasonable men.
This wove directly into another aspect of victim-blaming that happens all the time. In the show, the victim was a massage therapist who got attacked on the job in a famous and powerful man’s hotel room. When asked why she didn’t leave at the first sign that things were going into a potentially dangerous direction, the victim said she thought that the situation would get better and she could collect her things to leave (she needed to get her massage table, which is necessary for her work). In addition, she feared having a bad review get back to the hotel, which might then stop booking her. So, she decided to brave the chance of a sexual attack for fear of losing work and therefore a loss of income. This is almost a textbook example of sexual harassment. The male client in this scenario had power over her (and the innuendo was that he knew it).
The show did an excellent job of a major aspect of victim-blaming: Women don’t believe women. Call it a by-product of the oppressed class keeping itself in check. We see this across different minority groups all the time. Slaves rebuked other slaves who dared to get to “uppity.” Some gays try to diffuse homophobic settings by making sure to not be too “obvious.” Early feminists were chastised hardest by other women to get back in the kitchen. (In modern times just cue Sarah Palin to give us gals an earful about over-stepping our female boundaries.) But even in less-heated scenarios, it’s that one woman in the office that reminds us to act like ladies and not emasculate the guys in the conference room with our powerful (and threatening) ideas. It’s fashion magazines at every checkstand that tell us ladies how to dress, act and conduct ourselves so as to appear appropriately attractive (but not too sexy!), appropriately clever (but not too brainy!), appropriately capable (but still a domestic godess!). It’s commercials that remind us what attributes make up a good woman. And it comes from friends at barbecues who tell you that they don’t consider themselves feminists because they don’t hate men.
I thought it was an interesting layer that on the show the victim was a woman who did not emote like a stereotypical victim. She was cool and calm. She wasn’t crying, hysterical or outwardly shaken. And to the attorneys on the show, this was a liability. At one point she said, “Would it help if I was crying?” And then she proceeded to explain that it wasn’t going to happen because she wasn’t that kind of person. But in real life if a victim had that kind of personality, the public wouldn’t believe her. For people to believe you they have to feel sorry for you. You have to be a perfect victim. But not too victimy that we have to think unpretty thoughts at the dinner table. Just victimy enough. Like a sad puppy. Not like, say, armidillo roadkill.
But where I felt the episode really drove the point home was when the victim decided not to pursue the case because she knew she would be found guilty in the court of public opinion through the media. She knew she had skeletons in her closet and it wouldn’t look good compared to the goodwill the public had toward her powerful attacker. She sized up the second victimization she would get in public as the case played out and she took her chips off the table. Not because she lied but because she knew that even if she won in court, she’d lose in infamy forever. And that’s exactly what stops so many sexual assault victims from coming forward, from reporting and from prosecuting. To go through it is like being raped all over again.