A couple of months ago, President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden, joined by a legion of well-known and well-meaning male celebrities, spoke out against sexual assault in a public service announcement played in movie theaters before films. I had heard that there was a new anti-gendered violence PSA starring some recognizable faces from politics and the entertainment industry, but before watching Godzilla atomize San Francisco, I was personally notified of the “big problem…called sexual assault” by James Bond, Michael Scott, and the guy who plays Nerod, the receptionist at “Appalachian Emergency Room” on Saturday Night Live. Now, that is what I call a dynamic trio when it comes to “putting an end to sexual assault.” Ordinarily, when celebrities become figureheads for social and political issues, my feelings range from excitement that they are using their renown to speak out to mildly annoyed that they are speaking out while oftentimes being so ill-informed. This time, however, I can honestly say that I felt frustration and disappointment at this attempt to effectively take a stand against sexual assault.
My issue is not with the “real men don’t hurt women” rhetoric that essentializes and reifies masculinity as the proper aim of all members of the male sex. In fact, I understand that dangling the carrot of an enviable masculinity by featuring political power, financial power, physical power, social power, humor, and attractiveness in this PSA and identifying this masculinity with anti-gendered violence and anti-victim blaming perhaps appeals to those who seek to assert their power over women by violating them. My problem is that this PSA does nothing to change what lies behind physical violation of women by men – that is, the struggle for and lording of power over women.
Not one female is featured in this PSA. I get it, though – male abusers might not be accustomed to paying heed to women and would feel that the PSA loses gravity when it features females. But note that women are being represented and spoken for by men in this statement. In their charitable move, men as protectors of women and spokesmen for women have silenced and eliminated the presence of women in this campaign to speak out against sexual assault. Nowhere in this video are we told that “real men” recognize the equality and power of women or that “real men” listen to women or that “real men” let women speak for themselves, learn from women, serve women in mutuality. No, this is no female-empowerment video. Instead, this is a new iteration of male chauvinism. The power still lies in male hands – to speak, to choose between assault or gentleness, to pay heed to the PSA or ignore it, to be like those attractive men on the PSA. And what power do women have, according to this announcement? Well, we are told that we can consent to or refuse sexual advances but that men retain the power to respect or disrespect women’s wishes in this regard, but this is about as close to sharing power as we get in this PSA. We don’t speak in this PSA. We aren’t even given a cameo.
So what does this have to do with religion? As a member of the Christian faith, I have often fielded questions (many of them self-imposed) regarding the “maleness” of Jesus Christ. According to orthodox belief and historical and cultural record, the person Jesus who is regarded as the founder of the movement that became Christianity was of the male sex, and in many eras, spaces, and groups, this physical identity has been used to silence women and secure power with those who are physically male and normatively masculine. However, a closer inspection of Christ’s “maleness” reveals a surplus signification that irrupts conventional notions of masculinity, both then and now. Jesus’ physical maleness allowed him to move about and speak with a freedom that would have been impossible for him had he been a female. Instead, Jesus embodied his identity in a way that broke with codes of masculinity and that ceded power to females in many instances. For one, Jesus does not speak for women but instead speaks to them and with them, according to the gospels. Jesus allows them to speak for themselves and is even changed by women, as he was as a result of his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman. Furthermore, Jesus uses them as examples to others (e.g. the hemorrhaging woman, Mary, and the poor widow who gave two mites, etc.) and commissions them to speak to and lead others (e.g. the Samaritan woman at the well and the women at the tomb). By commissioning women to share his good news instead of by speaking for them, Jesus affirms the power of voice that these women have and refuses to allow his maleness to usurp this power from them and all women after them.
And now, with the example of Christ in mind, I wonder how we might rewrite this PSA in a way that really changes gendered relationships and strikes at the true issue at play instead of just becoming a new, nicer, more palatable iteration of the same old dis-empowerment of women.
Imagee Source: Chaminako (Attribution via Google Images)
I am a student and teacher, minister and congregant, organic (aspiring) intellectual, and humorist (both accidentally and, perhaps more rarely, intentionally) who is passionate about examining and reinterpreting Christianity, power, and morality in ecumenical, creative, liberating, and culturally engaged ways. Haley was selected as one of three Outstanding Contributing Scholars to speak at State of Formation's workshop held at the 2014 American Academy of Religion.