Empower—and not victimise—rape survivors in the media
Using symbolic images to represent sexual crimes is very common in news media. Vague stock images that visually represent sexual crimes or gender-based violence are widely used. Still, even these faceless images manage to reflect the hold our society's patriarchy has on the media's portrayal of sexual crimes.
Most commonly, the victim is found at the centre of the image, either covering her face with her hands or with a "strong" hand gagging her from behind, or even shadows of menacing hands reaching for her from a corner. The background of these images is usually filled with dark colours, and the victim is shown to be completely helpless when such a crime is taking place. She is always portrayed as being inactive, sad, scared and perplexed. In some cases, the constructed image of the victim is presented as being naked, having wounded skin with scratch marks on her. Sometimes, the creators of these images go the extra mile and paint the victim's nails red, perhaps to highlight her "femininity." The victim portrayed is always apparently young and slim—as if sexual violence only happens to young girls of a certain body type. These images are generally victim-focused, but the perpetrators are always in the shadows or "anonymous."
So, why are these representational images of sexual violence created to portray the survivor as having an "ideal" body type? Why are inaction and passivity imposed on her? Why is she shown covering her face instead of fighting back—as most survivors do? And why is the perpetrator always missing from these images?
In a patriarchal society, all eyes are focused on the victims of gender-based violence. Whenever such a crime occurs, our society obsesses over the details of the victim: Where is she from? Why was she out at so-and-so hour? What was she doing there? What was she wearing? Was she really innocent? The list of such questions is endless. While they do not hesitate to blame the victim for the crime, they show little interest in knowing the particulars of the accused. The media, while covering incidents of sexual crimes, also reflect this patriarchal ideology of its audience. News houses often sensationalise such events so that people click on their content more. The symbolic images discussed above help serve that purpose, too: attracting viewers to click on a news piece and bring in more profits for the media house. But by portraying survivors as being helpless and weak, the media is essentially commodifying their sufferings.
Legendary feminist scholar Laura Mulvey provided an explanation for why the media is so focused on creating the female structure on-screen. In her article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," she explains how the patriarchal unconscious controls the creation and consumption of visual content. She argues that women are represented in the media to give visual pleasure to the audience. According to the documentary, "Miss Representation," only 16 percent of content creators in the media are female. Hence, the 84 percent male creators present women according to how they see, or want to see, women on the screen.
The way in which the media portrays rape and rape victims is vastly harmful for women. They are recreating the same patriarchal horror in these images, and indirectly putting the blame and shame on the women while also holding them hostage to the audience's visual pleasure. At the same time, the media often fails to capture the stories of victims fighting back against sexual crimes. Given their tremendous power over the masses, their inability to confront or move past patriarchal discourses mean they are also furthering the structures of oppression that create the conditions of women's systemic subjugation.
The media needs to re-evaluate these symbolic images and find better alternatives. The focus should be on the perpetrator, not the victim. The shame, therefore, needs to be transferred from victim to the perpetrator—that is, to the one committing the crime. The resilience of the survivors and their fight for justice need to be highlighted, instead of portraying them as being passive, inactive, or helpless. The media must be more responsible when reporting and investigating the crimes of sexual abuse, rape, and gender-based violence. Symbolic images of women fighting against gender-based violence should be used so that we can get closer towards the end of survivors being victimised twice—first, when they suffer a sexual crime and second, when the media portrays their abusers as being anonymous while putting them at the forefront of the crime.
Mst Nasrin Akter is assistant professor of journalism, communication and media studies at the State University of Bangladesh.