Dr Dre, Josh Duggar, Ray Rice –
have said sorry, but it’s tough to tell
real apologies from attempts to save reputations
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP
That’s a good start, I suppose – but it does sometimes feel like the expectation is that we just get over it if they “repent”. I’m wondering what you two, as an academic and a cultural critic, think about all this: is forgiveness possible? How can we tell a real apology from an attempt to salvage a reputation?
Rawiya Kameir: Forgiveness is one of the most fundamentally human acts, so it’s always possible. But I think it’s a misnomer when we’re talking about people in the public eye. When Dr Dre issues an apology that we hear about on the news, it’s not so much an apology as it is a first step toward rehabilitating what’s perceived to be an optics issue. Forgiveness, and whether or not it’s a desirable outcome, shouldn’t be mediated by the public.
Claudia Garcia-Rojas: We ultimately won’t know if the apologies issued are sincere or not. What actions and consequences follow the apology to dignify the person who endured the violence?
Part of the reason that forgiveness is hard to talk about is that there is not one single model of redress. Depending on the survivor, there are different paths to heal – some of which involve forgiving, others which do not. This is why transformative justice as a process is ideal – it focused on healing, for the individual, and for the community.
I find it imperative to listen to the woman who’s been harmed, to hear what she thinks, feels and, most importantly, what she needs. Is forgiving her partner something she desires?
Photograph: Danny Johnston/AP
RK: When Chris Brown said he was “truly, truly sorry” to Rihanna and she openly forgave him, the public refused to acknowledge that as a real apology, even though she – the person most directly affected by his actions – did. I think that tells us a lot about how forgiveness works when it intersects with celebrity.
So who is to forgive Josh Duggar: his family or the rest of us? When we talk about forgiveness in pop culture, what we’re looking for is permission to continue to engage with people we think have acted immorally or guidelines on how to treat them.
Can you continue to watch the Cosby Show? Are you to feel away when Woody Allen launches a promo cycle?
JV: Rawiya, I think you’re right that when we talk about forgiveness in pop culture, we’re not really talking about what that means for the people involved.We’re talking about how soon we can get back to enjoying the abusers’ art/celebrity.
Rihanna is such a good example: here was this woman essentially telling the public what kind of support she needed and people responded with a lot of disdain. There’s a part of me that understands the frustration people feel when a woman forgives her abuser, but ultimately if we’re talking about survivor-led justice, our own feelings are kind of irrelevant.
Straight Outta Compton on 10 August.
Photograph: John Salangsang/Invision/AP
JV: It is so disturbing that when we talk about forgiveness we’re talking about what we can do to get the abuser back to a place where the community or public trusts them again. But often victims never get the same kind of opportunity. Obviously victims have nothing to say sorry for, but that doesn’t mean that their lives don’t change or that the public doesn’t make them pay somehow for coming forward.
Also: how are we failing survivors – or what are we doing right – when we talk about stories that involve violence against women?
CGR: Language matters. We do not see reporters using the right words when reporting on stories that involve gender-based violence, especially if those stories involve girls and young women of color. Using accurate language is imperative in maintaining ethical reporting standards, yet what we often see is the media opting for sensational language.
RK: Reporting on violence against women simply as gossip or headline scandals is irresponsible; we should be making efforts to discuss how that translates to real life.
After all, pop culture is valuable and instructive in large part because it provides a lens through which to view, analyze and understand our daily lives. So when we talk about rich and famous men being protected by managers and other people who have vested business interests in their careers, we should also talk about how regular men are protected by powerful systems and institutions.
JV: Yes! Absolutely. I’m thinking about this a lot in terms of the recentSt Paul’s rape case decision, where the young man was acquitted of the most serious rape charge. It isn’t just celebrities who are protected by institutions.
We see this happening again and again with everyday men accused of violence against women, and I’d love to see more of an acknowledgement that it isn’t just being a public figure that gives you power and access to power – it’s being male, it’s being white, and on and on.
Photograph: NCP/Star Max/GC Images
Those come from two tropes about black women that are super-normalized, and can directly be traced throughout America’s long and violent legacy with black women. On the other hand, it’s also important to acknowledge how abuse is most loudly criticized when the perpetrator is black.
CGR: In our media spaces, black men are admonished whereas white men are not.
What I fear is that there is an underlying desire on our society’s part to see women forgive because it fits the gendered narratives that we’ve been given of women being the ones that sacrifice themselves for the sake of the relationship, the family and/or the community. Or worse, because women are told that they must forgive the person who violated them in order to move forward with their lives.
JV: It also seems that it’s a lose-lose for women in that if they don’t forgive, they’re not “moving forward”. But if they do, they’re weak or somehow a bad example.
CJR: Indeed. This is not only a societal norm but also a challenge we see in advocacy circles, where we expect certain responses from victims of violence that do not align with our image of the “perfect victim”.
The image of the “perfect victim” has been intrinsically woven into our daily discourse of rape, intimate partner violence, popular culture and media discourse more broadly, yet we know that this image of the virtuous woman is a myth that was historically scripted for white women.
While white women are given more leniency in the public eye to fail, non-white women – in particular black women – are not given such leniency in media spaces.
JV: Can you say more about that?
in New York City on 5 November 2014
Here we have a young black woman who was never meant to fit the image of the “perfect victim”, and therefore doubly fails us by not living up to our white cultural expectations of how black women should respond to such situations.
We did not pause to think for a moment about how the public release of the video violated Rice’s right to consent and privacy. We did not pause to think about how the public release of the video triggered Rice to relieve the experience of her abuse all over again. We did not pause to think about how the public release of the video led to material ramifications that added to financial loss, added stress on the relationship, which can lead to increased violence.
JV: Any last thoughts?
CGR: Violence is not a singular narrative. If we turn back and look at the histories that have shaped our world, we see different histories of violence that have architected hierarchies of race, gender, sex, class and power – and other different forms of oppressions. We need to center these histories of hierarchies and oppressions in order to understand the politics of violence and how violence is produced, and more specifically, how it is that these histories inform our tendency to victim-blame and maintain a culture that deems it not only acceptable but necessary to commit violence against women in order to thrive.
RK: I think, too, it’s important to be mindful of how these issues are directly related to legislation, policing and other state-controlled factors. In addition to providing support individual-to-individual and community-to-community, we should be thinking about policy, culture, and how to effect social and structural change.
- Claudia Garcia-Rojas is a PhD candidate in the Department of African American studies at Northwestern University, and co-director of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women. She is co-author of Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence: A Toolkit to Better Media Coverage.
- Rawiya Kameir is a senior writer at the Fader in New York, where she covers music and culture, often through a critical lens.