In my first post on this topic, I defined rape culture and discussed misconceptions involving consent. I also looked to some of my favorite Disney characters to help demonstrate the principles of consent in action. Today, we will be looking at myths involving victim-blaming.
This is likely the most insidious of the misconceptions within rape culture: the idea that the victim is at fault for being assaulted. On the surface, this seems like an absurd idea that would not be common. However, victim-blaming is often difficult to recognize, especially in the moment. In my previous post, I discussed the stereotypical image of a woman in a dark alley being sexually assaulted. If this woman were to press charges against her perpetrator, she would likely face a number of questions, not only from attorneys, but from her loved ones, and even herself. A good way to catch victim blaming is to be aware of “Why” questions: “Why were you out so late? Why didn’t you scream? Why did you drink so much?” Also, any type of assumption that the person could have avoided being assaulted is a form of victim-blaming. “She should not have worn that outfit. He was just asking for it. It was only a matter of time.”
An underlying assumption that can lead to victim-blaming is the just-world hypothesis: the idea that we consistently and predictably get what we deserve for our actions. When taken to the extreme, this view suggests that if there is suffering, then the victim did something to deserve it. Let’s look at a few examples of how victim-blaming and the just-world hypothesis show up in our Disney films.
In The Little Mermaid, King Triton becomes angry when he learns Ariel went to the surface of the ocean to visit Scuttle the seagull. It is natural for us to want to keep our loved ones from dangerous situations. However, this dynamic often turns into victim-blaming if a loved one is blamed for putting themselves in a dangerous situation. This shows up in statements like: “Well, what did you expect to happen?” Actually, we all make poor choices and put ourselves in dangerous situations at one time or another. While poor choices may put us at risk for harm, it does not mean we deserve to be harmed or wanted to be harmed. It can also be difficult to acknowledge that there are many situations outside of our control that could lead to harm.
In The Princess and the Frog, Prince Naveen lies and tricks Tianna into kissing him because he believes she is a princess. Rather than breaking the spell, Tianna is turned into a frog herself. Naveen then blames Tianna, because she was wearing a princess costume…to a costume party! This is an interesting dynamic because he and Tianna are both in a precarious circumstance together. Rather than examining his poor choices (e.g., making an agreement with the Shadow Man, conspiring to trick Charlotte into marrying him, and lying to Tianna in an attempt to save himself) Naveen focuses on Tianna and places all of the blame for their circumstances onto her.
In extreme cases, victim-blaming can be a component of abuse. In Tangled, Mother Gothel uses victim-blaming as part of her emotional abuse and manipulation of Rapunzel. In the song “Mother Knows Best” Mother Gothel lists off the dangers of the outside world in order to keep Rapunzel inside the tower. Later in the film there is a moment where Rapunzel has been tricked into thinking Eugene has betrayed her. She tells Mother Gothel “you were right about everything” and goes back to the tower willingly. The story of Mother Gothel and Rapunzel is an excellent example of how powerful emotional abuse can be. Victim-blaming is an important component of the abuse because, over time, the victim absorbs the messages and begin to blame themselves for the things that have been done to them. This is common for victims of sexual trauma as well. The messages we receive over our lifetimes regarding the just-world hypothesis can become internalized so that we repeat them in our own minds. In the case of Rapunzel, there was a point at which Mother Gothel no longer needed to repeat her messages of control, because Rapunzel was repeating them to herself. Sexual trauma victims often return to their own prison of victim-blaming, just-world hypothesis, and guilt in much the same way as Rapunzel returning to her tower.
So far on our journey together, we have covered how myths regarding consent and victim-blaming can contribute to rape culture. Next time, we will take a closer look at misconceptions regarding gender roles.
References and Resources
Buchwald, E., Fletcher, P., & Roth, M. (1995). Transforming a Rape Culture.Milkweed Editions: Minneapolis, MN.
R.A.I.N.N. (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) http://www.rainn.org/statistics
Russell, K. J., & Hand, C. J. (2017). Rape myth acceptance, victim blame attribution and Just World Beliefs: A rapid evidence assessment. Aggression and Violent Behavior.