Saturday, 27 December 2014

Loving People You Don't Like: Family!

Happy Holidays, everyone. (I generally don't enjoy using politically correct Americanisms, but I will admit to liking this one). Don't you just love Christmastime? 'Tis the season to be jolly, eat too much rice, and dust off all of your coping-with-family techniques. What fun.

Okay, okay, the sarcasm is a bit much; I don't actually dislike Christmas. In fact, I don't really think about it at all; my nuclear family never really made a fuss about it when I was growing up. However, as we've grown older and started our own families, there's been a bit more of a deliberate effort to make time to bond over the holidays. In my experience, there are few things more appealing-sounding than family bonding, and even fewer things that generally tend to go South so quickly. (So I guess what I'm saying is I don't mind Christmas; what I mind is my family at Christmas. *sigh*).

Whenever my family is in one place, it is inevitable that some sort of debate will ensue. We all have very strong opinions, and most of us don't have any issues with airing them. What makes this interesting, for me at least, is that I have a lot of ideological/political positions that my conservative third-generation Christian family doesn't understand, and relating with them around the deeply entrenched beliefs that they have can be intensely frustrating and emotionally draining.

This holiday, the topic du jour was rape. Thanks to Tyler Perry's shitstorm of a movie Temptation, a heated discussion about women's culpability in their rapes (as if there is even such a thing!) was struck up. I pointed out what I believe is the immense irresponsibility of the rape scene. Tyler Perry's films occupy an interesting niche in Hollywood, and so many people of Black and African descent (including my own family apparently), take his films seriously. He has a massive audience, and this is chiefly why I was (and continue to be) so upset over the problematic message about women's sexual agency and consent, among other issues, that this film sends.

In case you haven't seen the film, don't. In the scene I'm referring to, the lead character Judith is on her way back from a business trip to New Orleans with a client on his private jet. Said client has made it clear he is interested in her sexually, and so far she has made it clear she is very married. Still, they've been in Nola, they've danced and drunk wine, she's awed by all his money and good looks etc, so when he comes on to her on the plane, of course she consents to sleep with him, right?


Harley slides over to her side of the plane. He starts touching her. She says "no, get off of me, stop it", repeatedly. She physically pushes him off her. But Harley, as written by my dear friend Tyler, only gets more turned on by her resistance and tries harder. He eventually tells her to stop it, adding in a suitably sexy voice, "now you can say you resisted." Judith stops struggling, and we cut to the next scene where Judith is visibly distressed and disgusted with Harley. She never wants to see him again. She is crying.

This means she was raped, right?

Again, wrong.

In the Tyler universe (as illustrated by a steamy flashback), she wanted it. She calls him first. She is upset that he doesn't pay her attention. She tells him he's the best sex of her previously unglamorous life. She wanted it. She sneaks out of her house under a false pretence for the most bizarrely lit sex scene in the history of weird lighting in filmmaking. So obviously, you know, she wanted it all along.

Dear Tyler Perry, I just have one question. How did we get from "no, stop it" to literally steamy sex in the bath tub?

I find it distressing that it does not appear to be common knowledge that when a woman says no, it doesn't mean yes. It doesn't mean maybe. It doesn't mean 'I want to be able to say I resisted because I'm actually a good woman'. It means no. When the media muddies the waters of consent, they perpetuate rape culture. That scene sends the message to everyone that women don't know what they want, women can be convinced to change their minds about wanting sex regardless of what they're saying about wanting sex, 'good' women secretly want 'bad' sex but can't admit it, men need to help women deal with their guilt about wanting sex by 'reading between the lines' of their refusal and interpreting 'no' as 'yes', men's sexual desire takes precedence over women's consent... I could go on. The point is, that scene makes rape seem okay by invalidating the need for consent.

This is what I was trying to explain to my family, but because of how rampant rape culture is in Christian circles, it wasn't surprising to me that they thought I was the crazy one for thinking there was something wrong with that scene. I wasn't surprised to hear family members say things like, "what does a woman expect when she goes to a man's house late?", "women have a responsibility to protect themselves", "anyone who has been raped will not make the same mistake twice", etc. I have been raped and I blamed myself and didn't want to tell anyone - not even my family - because even at 16 I knew how most people responded to rape. I know there are people who think 'no' is an invitation depending on the context. But to hear my own family, who are aware of my personal experience, confirm to me that they do believe women have a hand in their rapes? It was devastating.

As an adult and an unmarried mother, I've started to explore and adopt a lot of -isms that my family doesn't understand, and until fairly recently I have tried to accommodate their expectations of me by watering down my beliefs, pretending to believe different things and even outrightly lying just so as to not ruffle any feathers or cause them discomfort. More and more, however, I realise that the cost to myself of doing this is far too high to be healthy. One of my friends said to me that I ought not to take their comments personally, yet I don't know how to do that. The dominant narrative about family is that it is always and forever a safe space. This is however not true. Families are made up of human beings, and every human being has the potential to be horrible. This is not to say that my family is all bad, either; I've had a vast amount of support from them at different times in my life. This holiday has just cemented to me that I need to find new ways to deal with them...

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