In comic books and fairy tales, there are always heroes and villains. No matter how edgy or imaginative the retelling, you can always tell who’s who. And that’s how it is for the vast majority of media we consume. We know who’s side we are supposed to be on and we root for them. We have this deeply seeded cultural impulse to separate characters into “good” and “bad” people.
If only life were that simple. If it were, we wouldn’t be processing the news about Asia Argento, one of Harvey Weinstein’s first accusers and godmother to the #MeToo movement, who according to the New York Times this week, allegedly sexually assaulted a minor. We wouldn’t be trying to make sense of author Junot Diaz publically coming forward in the New Yorker as a rape victim only to later be accused of sexual misconduct.
Are they victims or attackers? Are they wounded souls acting out? Or conniving hypocrites who use their painful history to “get in front of” their bad deeds, as many suggested about Junot Diaz (and may yet about Asia Argento)?
Perhaps your answer depends on the media you consume. Certainly, we should be able to see both the sins of the monsters and the resistance of the injured in our media. We know that both rapists and survivors make our movies, TV shows, and books. Apparently, sometimes with a single creator inhabiting both spaces.
For the question of how to understand the headlines, there are media that would cast these perpetrator/survivors as villains and media that would have them as heroes. On the “bad guy” side are all the serial-killer movies you have watched where the murder’s penchant for evil is explained by a history of abuse or neglect. In these films, the past misfortunes, however horrible, do not absolve the current misdeeds. Think every horror plot since Psycho including last year’s Killing Eve.
On the “good guy” side are all those gritty stories of good people who do Very Bad Things — lie, murder, steal — on their hero’s journey. Have you watched Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes? Or Rami Malek as Mr. Robot? Then you know the heroes I mean, the ones who do the Very Bad Things but who we love anyway.
Or is there another formula we could use? Perhaps the redemption story where a “bad guy” becomes a “good guy” through various learnings and making amends? I like Groundhog Day if you’re looking for a classic. The problem is that we generally don’t allow rapists forgiveness and I’m certainly not rooting for a Louis CK or Charlie Rose’s comeback story, regardless of their personal history.
The truth is, we don’t have a strong cannon with which to process the real-life headlines around Asia Argento and Junot Diaz. Statistics show that victims of abuse are more likely to be perpetrators but that a history of abuse doesn’t fate you to relive it. That’s a difficult thing to create a plot around and so we don’t have a lot of stories about complicated people who both are victimized and perpetrate abuse. No, we get stories of victims, heroes, and villains — with so many storytellers using rape as a way for a third party male (like the survivor’s partner, father, etc.) to learn his own limitations and strengths.
These stories show rapists as monsters — and to their survivors they are. But what about to the other people in their lives? Sometimes these monsters are our brothers, husbands, and fathers. Sometimes they are our neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Sometimes they are our bosses, priests, and idols.
How do we live in this world where the people we love and admire can be hurting others in the most profound and vile ways? How can we hold two truths about a person, that they were both good in so many ways but also capable of doing terrible things at the same time?
Well, we could have more media that tells this story. I’m not asking for media that makes excuses for rape and other sexual crimes — these acts are always wrong and always a choice on the part of the perpetrator — but rather that shows the complex ways that humans are never all good or all bad and that those very categories are useless.
We can also change our society so that survivors of sexual abuse get the help they need immediately — yes, I mean counseling and support, but also justice. Our world is not filled with rapists but rather void of consequence for rape, so that serial predators go unpunished. We can change this.
Rape Victims Are Common. Rapists Are Not.
The White House spent this week rolling out its task force for combating sexual violence on campus, and part of the…
But we cannot change it if we ask survivors to wait decades and assemble a group of similarly hurt individuals in the hopes that the voices of the many will overpower the voice of the single assailant. We cannot ask them to hold their pain in indefinitely so it festers without recourse or outlet. That is not a path to healing. It is the path to further pain and suffering. It is the aching, complicated, terrible world we live in now. And it is not working.