“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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Sing me to sleep: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

 

We accept the love we think we deserve

 

            How does one interpret reality? Psychologically speaking, one may take a number of viewpoints. Countless factors come to play, first and foremost being the common argument of ‘nature or nurture.’ Aspects such as religion, race, culture, gender, sexuality, economic status, and mental health history can all work together to create vastly differing versions of reality. In stories, “narratives help us impose order on the flow of experience so that we can make sense of events and actions in our lives. They allow us to interpret reality because they help us decide what a particular experience ‘is about’ and how the various elements of our experience are connected.” (Foss, 399).

When someone reads a story, listens to a song, or watches a film, what determines their overall opinion and stance on what has transpired? As we mature from children into adolescents and adults, our methods of discernment have the capacity to shift radically. Not only upbringing and the norms of childhood, but also life experiences contribute to the process of modification in how one perceives their world.

Many narratives are chronologically organized, that is, organized in a time-observant sequence of events, while others may focus more on a specific character or theme. Narratives may come in the form of graphic novels, films, television, conversation with others, speeches, short stories, graffiti, music and other folklore. The use of symbols throughout the different forms are what arguably best categorize them as such, and to demonstrate this, I’d like to look at a poignant and inspiring ‘coming of age’ narrative entitled The Perks of Being A Wallflower. How does one interpret reality; but even more importantly, how is the construction of a narrative used to determine how we interpret reality?

Set in Pittsburgin the early 90s, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a story of the transformation of desperate introversion in an extroverted high school universe. Throughout the novel, the protagonist Charlie anonymously writes letters to an undisclosed recipient detailing the meaningful and turbulent journey through his freshman year. As the narrative begins, Charlie’s best (and only) friend has just committed suicide. Due to this, Charlie’s introversion and acute timidity as a new student are greatly challenged as he meets a spectrum of new friends along the way, not least of all, his English teacher Bill. As his relationship develops with this mentor, he is introduced via his surroundings to music, literature, love, sex and drugs. Throughout the novel, the reader is constantly subjected to perceptions of reality from many different perspectives. Sam, the beautiful and popular but taken woman of Charlie’s affection, her gay stepbrother and Charlie’s new best friend Patrick, and others including his family and peers make up the vastly different interpretations that all come together to challenge and question Charlie’s previously understood ideas and worldview. As Charlie as introduced to new musicians like The Smiths, Ride, Nick Drake, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, U2 and Nat King Cole, his journey becomes increasingly personally psychoanalytic as he learns to relate, in one way or another, to these musicians.

To begin analysis, I’d like to start by looking at our main question: how does the author use the narrator and protagonist’s surroundings and cultural arena to construct a perception of reality? Charlie begins his textually prominent setting of high school in the immediate aftermath of an incredibly traumatic event: losing his best and only friend to suicide. Not only do we commence our journey in what is known already to be a daunting period, we also begin through the eyes of a painfully shy boy who is emotionally damaged and alone. Our opening and lasting impression of him describes the death of his favorite aunt, and later in life, dear friend.

Throughout the first portion of our novel, we see Charlie’s more intellectual habits develop-the way he rereads books twice to more fully understand them; the way he accepts all the extra essay assignments from his English teacher (and later mentor) Bill with a vigor. In the beginning, our perception of reality is formed through the eyes of an overachieving boy who simply wants to get through, and possibly fit in. His definition of reality is one of survival-of holding it all in as long as he possibly can.

The second way we are introduced to his existence is the mode in which he meets new people. Through his surrounding of stronger, more single dimension characters such as Sam, Patrick, his family and teacher Bill, we are shown how Charlie slowly enables himself to become a somewhat social being. In a largely stable environment, however, Charlie remains the wildcard, frequently being prone to crying over what is termed “silly things” and repressed feelings of guilt from the tragic death of his aunt in particular. The deeper in to the narrative we go, the more objective our surroundings seem, and the more subjective Charlie’s character dimension and experience prove. As a deliberately vague description of what happened between his aunt and he at a young age reappears throughout the work, we begin to slowly understand this trauma has played a far larger role in shaping who he is than previously thought. It is himself, and his aunt that prove to be the most round and conflicted characters of the narrative, thus allowing them the greatest space for growth. Charlie is a radically dynamic figure growing in knowledge, experience, and maturity more and more until he finally accepts his loss of innocence.

Another way we can examine Charlie’s social worldview is by asking what parts of his culture are privileged, and what parts are repressed. Through Charlie’s friend Patrick’s secret homosexual relationship with the quarterback of the football team, Charlie’s heightened embarrassment over his frequent display of emotion in crying and his family’s unrealistic expectations of Charlie’s older brother’s college success, we may see his culture is not too far from our own. The ‘popular’ kids in school remain those in financially advantageous situations; the outcasts remain the quiet or socially awkward. In Charlie’s world, blending into the crowd is desirable, while individuality and deviance is highly discouraged. In this way, Sam is able to retain a strong sense of acceptance due to her beauty and class status, while her brother falls socially down when word gets out of his sexual identity. What this says about their system of ethics is that the patriarchy reigns. The privileged prevail while the less privileged do not. The beautiful thing in Charlie’s developing social situation is that these lines become more and more blurred as he is able to find true acceptance from the outcasts and privileged alike.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about Charlie’s point of view as narrator. Chbosky has given Charlie a very human and humble tone, beginning quietly and ending more confidently. As the overall theme of the work is coming of age, loss of innocence and psychological resilience, it should be noted what Charlie learns, and most importantly, what he realizes in the end. As a child, Charlie was repeatedly molested by his favorite aunt. He only comes to understand this in the final pages-in the epilogue, no less. Through all of his pain, loss and personal turmoil, Charlie tells us a story of hope through friendship, love and music, how to get by in the tough world of adolescence, and the upside of being a wallflower. Charlie is not omniscient or omnipresent-he is just a boy, trying to figure out how to become a man. In Charlie’s indirect narration, we are shown a world of people who are tangible and relatable to every era. His story is trustworthy, reliable and raw. By the sense of established confidence in Charlie’s letters, we are shown a brilliant world of living splendidly through trial.

In conclusion, applying a narrative criticism best illuminates this artifact because it allows the reader and critic to more closely examine what is revealed about the individual’s or culture’s identity. It allows us to ask probing questions into their worldview and motives for action by looking at subjectivity in character dimensions. Narrative criticism enables one not only to analyze the content of the worldview, but the form and structure of that worldview as well. By looking deeply into the sexual and emotional trauma Charlie has undergone, by looking at all of the external factors including ethical, cultural, religious (or lack thereof), social, economical, and intellectual combined with his internal processing revealed to us by the author, we can truly appreciate what constitutes this hopeful ‘reality’ our protagonist has found.

Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Ed. Sonja K. Foss. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, Inc. 1996.