Rape has been constructed, and defined, differently across cultures and history. Depending on the context of a culture, rape has variously been defined as a violation against family property and a violation of an individual woman’s rights. In addition, rape has been constructed as both an expression of sexual desire and, partially through the work of feminists, as an expression of power. These constructions are not necessarily mutually exclusive; they exist concurrently to varying degrees in most societies. The construction of rape as a crime against family property “is a legacy of patriarchal societies that contained women’s sexuality within the family for the purpose of producing legitimate heirs” (279-280). In this construction, raping an unmarried virgin is punishable, but only because the woman is now unmarriageable.
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Similarly, raping a married woman was a crime not against the woman, but against her husband, or “owner”. While this allowed virgins and wives a certain degree of protection, “presumptions of sexual availability entitled elite men to engage in nonconsensual sex with working-class, slave, and native women” (281). The construction of rape as an expression of uncontrollable sexual desire also allows for the protection of only certain women from rape. Since women are seductresses who constantly tempt men sexually, and men are base animals driven by lust, a woman can almost never be raped; by her very nature she has invited the rape.
There are several “rape myths” which feminists have both perpetuated and fought against. One of the most prevalent is that of the black rapist, especially the black rapist of white women. According to Freedman, “Rape myths helped justify racial segregation in the United States by inciting fear of assault by African American men” (283), despite statistics that defied this myth. Another myth is that it is strangers on a darkened street that are most likely to be rapists. In reality, rapists are usually known by their victims. Rape is based on a system of gender entitlement, but has often been represented as an aberration brought on by lust and feminine wiles.
In an episode of The King of Queens, the storylines often center on conflicts between the married protagonists, Carrie and Doug. Several things struck me watching these episodes. The first has to do with physical space. Doug is a large, burly man who unapologetically takes up space. In contrast, Carrie is thin and petite, taking up as little space as possible. Even in a show like Roseanne, where the woman is larger than other women on TV, her husband has to be bigger than she is. In addition, the storylines, while focusing on Carrie and Doug, often focus on Doug’s problems and issues. Carrie is a foil for him; because they are having an argument we see Doug talking to his friends, going out on his own, and generally moving the plot forward. These episodes are illustrative of the rote manner in which much of the mass media deals with gender role stereotyping. Still, this does not mean that the King of Queens is a ‘bad’ show, or that there are not messages with subversive power within it. One of the most important critiques of second-wave feminist ideas about liberation (from housework, marriage, and sex roles) has come from working-class communities like those depicted on the show. There is a thread of Roseanne, that paragon of feminist subversion in popular culture, in King of Queens as well. Both shows are critical of a privileged version of feminism that discounts the day to day pressures of working-class life. King may easily fall back on such stereotypical fare as ‘women dislike sex’ or ‘women are competitive with each other’, but there are numerous examples of ways in which Doug and Carrie co-exist in an egalitarian manner, and nothing is made of it when Doug does the laundry or the groceries, or when Carrie has to work late. It is this constant give and take that allows room for feminist analyses to flourish, and provides for critique informed by multiple viewpoints.
Identity politics are politics based on a shared identity. For example, some liberal and radical feminists tried to “elevate gender at the expense of race or class identity” (89) by defining the experience of womanhood as a single, shared experience. Rather than basing politics around a political ideology, feminists, the Black Power movement, and other cultural groups have based their politics around the solidarity of the group.
One of the ways that identity politics has been changed and redefined is through women of color claiming multiple identities and refusing to be defined solely as women or solely as people of color. This “theme of bridging different female identities” (91) led to coalition building in the US feminist movement. Engaging in feminism from a multicultural perspective has both broadened and strengthened women’s movements through cross-cultural collaboration. Freedman notes that “Facing common opposition and learning to trust across differences, though never an easy task, helped sustain grassroots feminism in the face of opposition” (93). It has been through an expansion of what feminism is that different feminisms have flourished and grown.
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