Section Editor: Venessa Garcia
Phillips, Nickie D. (2017). Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Reviewed by Alison Cox, B.S., M.S., Michigan State University
A strong debate remains over whether popular media influences our behavior, and in particular, if it directly causes violence. In her new book, Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media, criminologist Nickie D. Phillips uses a cultural criminology framework to demonstrate how the concept of rape culture has entered our collective imagination, and in turn, provides a cultural space where violence against women is often ignored, implicitly condoned, or explicitly encouraged (2017). Primarily focusing on rape culture in the United States, Phillips purposively samples content from numerous popular culture and media outlets. While some academics or scholars may pejoratively dismiss this data analysis as “low culture” (Phillips, 2017, 175-176), Phillips does an excellent job of revealing how current conversations over rape culture has created a media-cultural environment which ultimately impacts our politics and policy making. While conceptualization and measurement are still implicit in our understanding of rape and sexual assault, Phillips argues that in order to further this understanding, we need to explore the social meaning of rape culture.
Chapter 1 provides the reader with the origins of rape culture and demonstrates its evolution from the halls of academia to its increasing presence in popular culture. A term emerging from the radical feminist movement of the 1970s, Phillips highlights how scholars such as Susan Brownmiller (1975), Noreen Connell and Cassandra Wilson (1974), and the Cambridge Documentary Films release of Rape Culture (Lazarus & Wunderlich, 1975/1983) first introduced the concept. She then traces how the concept has come to be recognized in low culture spaces where, simultaneously, a culture of casual misogyny is revealed. By using various (and offensive) definitions of rape culture supplied by online users of UrbanDictionary.com; discussing its feminist and gender performance history through Riot Grrrl and SlutWalk initiatives; and by detailing the different types of microaggressions experienced by women in their everyday lives, including the debate over whether their trauma is a real struggle or not, Phillips reminds us just how contentious this topic can be. Furthermore, as measuring rates of sexual violence has proven to be quite the challenge, public discourse around the concept of rape culture frequently relies on the validity of the data. While these measurement issues remain, Phillips is clear that one aim of her book is to address criticism over rape statistics in the context of rape culture (p. 34).
The meat of the book, Chapters 2 through 6, focus on some of the various outlets in popular media that help shape and create context of rape culture. In Chapter 2, Phillips provides recent examples that emulate the concept of rape culture and demonstrate how they have permeated our mainstream media coverage. For instance, she first highlights the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, which occurred in New Delhi, India in late 2012. Attempting to show how “rape culture isn’t just India’s problem” (p. 36), Phillips compares this case with the infamous juvenile trial of two high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio, who were found guilty of raping Jane Doe, an unconscious sixteen-year old girl; the 2013 “Song of the Summer,” “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke; and the increasing number of allegations of “America’s Dad,” Bill Cosby, drugging and sexually assaulting women throughout his career.
Next, Phillips discusses depictions of rape and sexual violence against women in the popular media form of television in Chapter 3. Highlighting several televised dramas that pull in a large number of viewers in each week such as The Walking Dead, House of Cards, Downton Abbey, The Fall, as well as several of Shonda Rhimes’ televised dramas including Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, How To Get Away With Murder, and Scandal, Phillips recalls the varying levels of reactions from the audience through a collection of articles, websites, blogs and Twitter hashtag campaigns urging a call to attention to sexual violence against women on TV. She also features a focused analysis of the popular series, Game of Thrones, and discusses several problematic instances of rape and sexual assault that are riddled throughout its six seasons. So why are we compelled to watch? Based on Phillips’ analysis, this helps explain how our responses and reactions to rape and sexual assault are not solely intellectual; viewers are most passionate when they discuss how the scenes made them feel rather than how they made they think.
Chapters 4 and 5 continue this discussion through an analysis of the territorial “geek spaces” of online gaming and comic book communities. Through detailed examples of doxxing attacks on popular-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian and game developer Zoe Quinn (#GamerGate), Phillips discusses the pervasiveness of misogyny and sexual harassment in the gaming community. Although she is clear to point out that mainstream media coverage was generally supportive of the notion that there is evidence of a gendered problem within gaming and online harassment, Phillips ultimately argues that one legacy of these doxxing attacks may be how its supporters have been successful at reframing sensitivity to rape culture and sexual violence itself as a form of political correctness that is a threat to the broader societal culture at large and to free speech (Phillips, 2017).
These issues continue to resonate in comic book culture. Returning to her wheelhouse and reminiscent of her first book, Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and the American Way (2013, co-authored with Staci Strobl), Phillips underlines how women have historically been shunned from these spaces, or if included, how they have primarily been perceived and received by “traditional fans:” white males aged thirty to forty-five (Bringham-Grette, Thaller & Wilson, 2015). Like gaming culture, women in comic books are hypersexualized and riddled with sexual harassment and violence to fuel their storylines. For example, Phillips highlights how female characters are drawn in sexually explicit and anatomically impossible poses, a phenomenon known as “broke back” and how female characters tend to be relegated to supportive or passive roles, or in situations where they need assistance from a male. To close the chapter, Phillips discusses what seems to be pervasive sexual harassment at comic book conventions and the lack of (and resistance to) anti-harassment policies in order to make these conventions safer.
In Chapter 6, Phillips brings back the concept of rape culture to its original research setting by focusing on the pervasiveness of rape culture on college campuses and how conversations have shifted around the topic. While there have been a myriad of reactions and responses since its conceptualization, Phillips sadly demonstrates how rape culture has been dismantled in more recent times through increased scrutiny and the enforcement of Title IX. Despite President Barak Obama establishing the White House Task Force on Protecting Students from Sexual Assault in 2014, the “one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college” (Krebs et al. 2007) statistic remains hotly contested and unproven in regards to the social understanding of rape culture. While this result may come as a surprise for some of us familiar with the literature, or for those of us who are regularly immersed in academic circles, however, Phillips is superb in explaining where this breakdown occurs. Recalling previous chapters, Phillips reminds us that we must understand this transformation, or dismantling, within the larger cultural context of how rape culture has been negotiated. She is keen to point out that although college campuses have traditionally been the dominant space through which these debates have evolved, popular culture has also contributed to our understanding of what rape culture is (Phillips, 2017). In other words, our social meaning of rape culture, which has been largely shaped by popular culture, has come to influence our understanding and acceptance/rejection of sexual violence against women.
What does this mean for our politics and overall policymaking? Phillips ends her book on a bit of a grim note, concluding that our failure of policy reflects our cultural ambivalence around what constitutes sexual violence (Phillips, 2017). So where do we go from here? While there are indeed no easy solutions to the problems of sexual violence, regardless if you accept the concept of rape culture or not, Phillips optimistically concludes that the term is here to stay. As it has evolved from the halls of academia, she claims that it “is now ubiquitous in popular discourse, showing up in news reports, social media outlets, and television crime dramas” (p. 185). It is through this observed discourse that more broadly contributes to larger ideological debates around feminism, social justice, academia, censorship, free speech, and due process of the law (Phillips, 2017). Regardless, Phillips insists that there is no going back now when she writes: “There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle; there’s no erasing the concept” (p. 185). It would be a disservice to the field if we dismiss the social meaning of rape culture and how it has been shaped by our popular media culture.
Even though Phillips expects her analysis to easily be dismissed as “low brow” or “irrelevant” (p. 185), she makes an important and noble stride in her work. By focusing on more recent events (nearly all examples in the book are from the year 2012 and beyond), this type of analysis is a breath of fresh air in what can be our sometimes-confining academic halls. I applaud her for providing a low-culture analysis and feel that she did an excellent job in exploring how the social meanings of sexual violence are contested through popular media outlets, and how the concept of rape culture enters our collective imagination. I feel this is a major advancement to study of rape and sexual assault, as well as, our sociological behavior and expectations associated with it. Although each chapter takes on a different outlet, community, or institution present in popular media (mainstream news coverage, television, video games and online gaming, comic book culture, and college campuses), Phillips seamlessly weaves each of these arenas together to serve her narrative purpose. She successfully argues that the concept of rape culture cannot be fully understood apart from these prime arenas, as these spaces are the very ones that inform our collective imagination and influence our perceptions of sexual violence. As our society becomes more immersed and/or dependent on social media, it is important that we expand our research settings to include empirical analyses of these spaces.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Phillips’ book, I hope the following critiques are taken as helpful and constructive. The methodology is provided in the Appendix, and Phillips does a good job explaining how she collected the original data, but as a fellow qualitative researcher I would have liked to read more detail, especially in terms of data analysis. For example, this section only seems to mention newspapers. Did Phillips gather data from blogs, Twitter accounts, hashtag campaigns, and other websites from these academic and newspaper sources? How that specific data was collected was a bit unclear. It is clear, however, that Phillips did extensive work and pulled from several media and popular culture resources – the Resources and Notes sections total 99 pages alone – so giving a little bit more time and attention to the methodology behind her low culture analysis would have been appreciated.
Additionally, the first chapter provided a few handy tables and figures, which I would have liked to continue to see throughout the text. While I was personally satisfied with the amount of qualitative content included (quotes from articles and interviews, tweets, and eye-catching headlines from news media outlets), perhaps others would appreciate increased visuals to go alongside with the text. Lastly, Phillips claims that she is using a “cultural criminological framework” (p. 3) and while it may interrupt the flow of the text, perhaps a chapter or sub-section on cultural criminology theory would be helpful for readers. I think this would also help satisfy those academics who require a deeper theoretical analysis and connection.
Despite the occasional appeasement to academics, the audience of this book is quite broad. I highly recommend this book and feel that many would benefit from reading it. Besides academics, this book can be easily digested by educators, journalists, politicians and policymakers, members of law enforcement, those involved in the entertainment industry, as well as social media and the tech industry. Beyond Blurred Lines is especially a good resource for undergraduate students that may help them better connect the concept of rape culture and problems associated with sexual violence to their everyday lives, the lives of their peers, and to the lives of victims and survivors. I honestly wish I had this text when I taught my first course in the Fall of 2015, Women in Criminal Justice. It would have really come in handy.
- Bringham-Grette, J., Thaller, M., & Wilson, G. Willow. (2015) “Conference on World Affairs,” Colorado.edu, Boulder, CO, April 2015, http://www.colorado.edu/cwa/search_results.html?year=2015&words=G.+Willow+Wilson.
- Brownmiller, S. (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Penguin.
- Connell, N., & Wilson, C. (1974). Rape: The First Sourcebook for Women. Plume.
- Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C. H., Warner, T. D., Fisher, B. S., & Martin, S. L. (2007). The campus sexual assault (CSA) study: Final report. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice.
- Lazarus, M., & Wunderlich, R. (1975). Rape Culture. Cambridge Documentary Films.
- Phillips, Nickie D. (2017). Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.