I’m fond of saying I learn something new from my students each quarter. It’s happened again, though I half wish I were still ignorant.
For the second day of class, I asked my intro to WGS students to check out Jeff Fecke’s post on that appalling “political cartoon” depicting Obama as having raped Lady Liberty. (Go check out Jeff’s post and then come back; I will not have that “cartoon” befouling this blog.) I’ve taken to starting the term with a blog post or two along with a few canonical articles on gender and oppression. My hope is always that a few very current examples will upend the assumption that we’re all post-feminist and colorblind now. I was afraid this post could upset students badly because it was so vile. It did rile them up – but for all the wrong reasons.
For one thing, several students thought that calling the cartoon racist was “pulling the race card.” Lady Liberty was green, after all, not a white woman. And we do have a Black president, after all, so what color should they cartoonist paint him? One bright young woman brought up the myth of the black rapist. Yep, I said; what do you know about its history? After a few minutes of circling around Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movements, my students gave up. Lynchings, I said. Lynchings! They had no bloody idea that the history of lynching is largely history of black men being murdered on the pretext of allegedly raping white women. I guess this hasn’t trickled into the high-school curriculum. Maybe it’s not taught in Texas and thus not in the books? Or maybe teachers just don’t go there because sex and race are taboo enough on their own, god forbid they’d have to mix them? Or am I just encountering the same unflappable colorblindness that I saw last fall, too?
But while I was prepared for some resistance on the cartoon’s racism, I was sure someone would take umbrage at the rape metaphor. I asked if it didn’t trivialize actual victims of sexual assault. Forty faces looked at me blankly. Then one of the talkative men, who’s struck me as no dummy, said: “Well, it’s kinda like ‘fag.’ People use it all the time and don’t mean anything by it. It’s just slang.”
One of the women said, “Yeah. Like: ‘Wow, their soccer team totally raped us.’”
I picked my jaw up from the floor just long enough to ask if this was common. Forty heads nodded.
I wondered if this inflationary use of “rape” stems from the right wing’s frequent use of rape metaphors to protest Democratic policies and ideas. I tend to think not; Rushbo and his colleagues want their audience to be deeply outraged, which presumes that “rape” still holds some power to shock.
But my students are only rarely ideologues. Few of them listen to Rush or Glenn Beck; those guys are just too old. The young folks aren’t using rape as the ultimate metaphor for violation. They’re using it like my mom might say, “Oh, heck!”
So have any of you heard “rape” used as casual slang? “Fag” is problematic enough; as C.J. Pascoe shows in Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, it’s used to harshly police both boys and girls’ expression of their gender and sexuality.
But “rape”? As slang? I mean, I remember it from The Who’s Tommy (We’re not gonna take it!) but that’s about it.
An hour after class, one of the young women showed up at my office hours. “I just heard someone say ‘That test raped me.’ I wouldn’t have even noticed it before.”
What have you noticed? Is this a generational thing? Do I just live in a bubble? I’d be grateful for any clarifications and insights.
Update 4/13/10: Yesterday I spoke about all this with my neighbor, who’s a historian of 19th-century America. He said that he actually works with high-school teachers regularly and when he discusses lynching with them, they are very nervous about creating a local scandal if they were to include it in their curriculum. The intersection of racism, sex, and violence is just too explosive for many parents and school boards. I thought this helps clarify my students’ experiences (and confirms that they are not clued out – in fact, they’re a pretty sharp lot. And as Shinobi notes in comments, hearing about how rape allegations were employed in lynching later in life can lead to an potent “aha” moment.