“Jesus Christ, What Happened?”: Rape Culture in the World of Kids

 “Casper: Jesus Christ, what happened?”

-Final dialogue, “Kids” (1995)

Polaroid by Larry Clark, 1993

 

Created by Ernest G. Bormann, fantasy-theme criticism was created to provide insights into the shared worldview of groups of rhetors.[1] Through studying the processes of communication in small groups, Robert Bales found that group fantasizing or dramatizing often included an increase of excitement, a quickening of the tempo, and a tendency for participants to forego their self-consciousness. By extending Bales’ fantasizing phenomenon into Bormann’s symbolic convergence theory (based on the assumption that communication creates reality, and that symbols found in this communication can create a shared reality) and fantasy-theme method, one may also apply this criticism to social movements, political propaganda, organizational communication, and other various types of rhetoric.

To elaborate on symbolic convergence theory, it is important to note that as a part of communication creating reality, “the chaotic and disorderly sensory world is organized and made manageable by the symbols that are devised to dominate it.”[2] When in the midst of social, religious, cultural or societal disorder symbols are introduced and agreed upon, a kind of tangible, impermeable clarity becomes possible through linguistic expression. In 1967, Robert L. Scott argued that rhetoric was not intact for the purpose of lending usefulness to truth, but of creating truth. Just as the metaphors of the brain are manipulated and molded with the advancement of research, these metaphors and symbols are connected to the reality we define and experience. When two or more symbols converge to create a shared reality, the second assumption of symbolic convergence theory is fulfilled in convergence. It is through this very means that humans commence in building a shared consciousness, and achieve mutual understanding. Although the rhetoric’s actual literature is essential, because fantasy is the “creative and imaginative interpretation of events”[3], it is the sharing of the word, phrase or statement – the message itself – that is seen as most significant.

Within feminism, rape culture is a concept that links rape and sexual violence to the culture of society where the prevailing attitudes may allow for, turn a blind eye toward, or even excuse rape.[4] In the 1995 film “Kids,” often criticized director Larry Clark paints an extremely controversial picture of a group of teenagers’ daily life in urban Manhattan. Through a lens of glorifying addiction, manipulation, high-risk sexual behavior and violence, rape culture is introduced, and permeated. With Clark’s provided insight into some of the darkest depravities faced universally by youth today, one may use fantasy criticism to identify the three themes necessary in creating the drama to describe the world from a group perspective: settings, characters, and actions.

The setting of the scene is inner-city New York in the mid 1990s, away from most adult supervision, resulting in what the New York Times then labeled “a wake-up call to the modern world.” The setting is one of substance abuse, the rise of the AIDS epidemic, and rape culture. Although the lone teenager may serve as minor protagonists (notably the female leads Jenny and Ruby) offering the brief glimpse of hope for humanity in their efforts at solidarity and moral responsibility, “Kids” has no heroes. As main characters (male) Telly and Casper make no attempt to hide their motives, their “fallen” nature is easily identifiable. As Ruby and Jenny’s principle objective is to warn others of the rapidly spreading AIDS virus (perpetuated by the leading men’s sexual behaviors), Telly and Casper’s main intent remains to engage irresponsibility, recklessness and manipulation in seemingly any mode possible. When Jenny learns she has contracted AIDS via Telly, the sole individual she has ever had relations with, she sets out on a mission to locate, inform, and stop him. Unfortunately, as reality often echoes, this undertaking ends in atrocious tragedy, with Jenny unknowingly and unconsciously left in the hands of Casper to confirm the ultimate expression of rape culture.

Due to the highly sensitive nature of the offense, it is estimated that anywhere between seventy-five to ninety-five percent of sexual assault crimes go unreported.[5] Unfortunately, this makes the publicizing of unambiguous statistics in regard to sexual violence a challenge. Regardless, it is no secret that many have dealt with such tragedy personally, or by means of someone they know. It is because of this singularity that the dramatizing and sharing of a group fantasy become possible. While the release of this film caused much concern for multiple people groups, it is safe to say much discourse has been had surrounding the depicted rape in the final scene of the film. In 2000, Roger Ebert plainly stated “Kids is the kind of movie that needs to be talked about afterward.” When a piece of rhetoric enfolding a reality that gives way to this type of reactive conversation occurs, it forms a rhetorical vision called fantasy type. By establishing this fantasy type, a larger rhetorical vision becomes possible, capable of providing a “credible interpretation of reality.”[6] When a group is able place new events and experiences into familiar patterns, a shared consciousness is either born or reinforced, and the rhetorical vision may forge a larger rhetorical community lending to a new, shared reality. It is through this shared reality that motives for change are borne, and carried out. This is one of the predominant reasons a fantasy-theme critique is appropriate in the analysis of social and political movements.

In the same way that diegetic and non-diegetic music take turns in film, so do the characters and audience take turns in dramatizing the shared fantasies. As assuredly countless viewers of the rhetoric have engaged in the shared rhetorical vision surrounding the portrayal of rape culture in the film, so too have the protagonists and antagonists performing. The female roles (specifically Jenny and Ruby) are often seen complaining or protesting in regard to the many ways they are objectified by men. During these conversations, namely one discussion at a sleepover, the classic idea of the sharing of fantasy-themes and a rhetorical vision is frequently evident. Each time one of the females describes something (be it an act or attitude) that the male desires/requires, she is met with the exchange of shared laughter, bodily posture shifts, moans in annoyance and other general expressions of commonality. The male roles (not only Telly and Casper, but frequently the supporting actors throughout) are also seen sharing fantasy-themes and a rhetorical vision, only from the opposite perspective. Whereas the women desire to be independent and empowered, the men are portrayed holding the desire to conquer, occupy and manipulate. This is apparent in arguably every scene of “Kids” in which a male character is present.

Although many fantasy themes are exhibited either by image, dialogue or concept, the two chief opposing forces revolve around a patriarchal archetype of domination, the expressed desire for control either by subversion, persuasion or force, and the constant underlying (yet apparent) representation of rape culture. With the females expressing either the desire to transcend this theme (or the disputably feigned façade of “female empowerment” by giving in to the male’s primal desires) and the males expressing little more than a dogged determination to obey their animalistic urges at all costs, the audience is provided a robust platform on which to fashion their own version of collective consciousness, rhetorical vision, and shared reality. In a culture where the atrocities depicted in the film occur far too often in reality, through questionable to be sure, “Kids” remains a film hailed by many to be a documentary style work of art, succeeding at very least in bringing to light some very important issues.

Fantasy-theme criticism uniquely illuminates the artifact because it allows for the deconstruction of a complex and sensitive rhetoric into smaller, more tangible symbols. As a final example, one of the most telling fantasy themes portrayed may be found within the film’s 90 second trailer. Regarding the symbol of travel, the male is often seen running, jumping, or most importantly, skateboarding. In contrast, the female is seen walking slowly from the clinic, stumbling in a club under the influence of an accidental hallucinogenic ingestion, and despairingly transported in a male-driven taxicab. Where the male is free to participate with his surroundings with freedom as he chooses, the female is constantly depicted as slower, more ‘weighed down,’ and restrained. The film begins, and ends, with the complete theft of female innocence. By giving this type of heartbreak a voice to speak, we may not only open previously nonexistent dialogue circuits and enable the unifying of diverse audiences, but pave the way for “affecting the nature and outcome of public controversies.”[7] It is not only women who suffer from this culture – males are also victims. Overall, few are immune to the tragedy the loss of innocence through the loss of personal will. When the devastating, horrifying utilization of the word “rape” becomes heard in the same breath as “culture,” we’ve no choice but to ask ourselves, “Jesus Christ, what happened?”

Polaroid by Larry Clark, 1993

 

 

 

[1] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1996, p. 121

[2] Ibid, p. 122

[3] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1996, p. 123

[4] Williams, Joyce E, George Ritzer, J. Michael Ryan, ed. The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 493

[5] “Without consent: A report on the joint review of the investigation and prosecution of rape offences.” Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate. January 2007, p. 8. Retrieved 24 March 24, 2014.

[6] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1996, p. 125

[7] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1996, p. 130

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