This piece originally appeared in The Age
Two quotes and a movie was all it took. I scratched my Labor column. Others could examine the party’s existential nausea. I’d reached a combustible temperature on something else: rape and the creeps who defend it.
The first quote was a text sent by a 16-year-old rape victim to her perpetrator, and tendered as evidence in a recent US trial. “I’m not stupid. It’s on YouTube. Stop texting me.”
The teenage girl was refuting her abuser’s arguments that he had, one fateful night, only been caring for her after she passed out at a party. The disturbing truth was obvious to the victim, as it was obvious to the court that convicted him this week: he—and one other teenage boy—had sexually penetrated her unconscious body, filmed the degradation and circulated the photos and video on social media. Not enough the ritualistic humiliation of that night, the evidence of it was cruelly broadcast.
For those who haven’t followed the trial, two high-school footballers from Steubenville, a small Ohio town, were this week convicted of the rape of a teenage girl, and for distributing naked images of a minor. The case was notable for the role social media played in coalescing national interest, for the implication that the school’s football coach had downplayed the squalor, and for the various, rotten lamentations of the boys’ spurned sporting careers. It’s dispiritingly familiar, but no less sickening for it.
The second quote I read contrasts powerfully with the circumstances of the first. It is from a father I interviewed. This week I sat down to transcribe a part of our conversation, and I paused on him talking about his advice to his young sons: “What’s the rite of passage for a young man in a modern, Western society? How do you define your behaviour? Well, boys, you start by treating women with respect and compassion, not contempt. And no means no. When it comes to physical contact, be gentle and affectionate. That’s what works in a relationship between consenting adults.”
It’s simple, tender, wise. It’s also piquant: the father’s teenage daughter had been murdered eight years prior.
These two quotes come from two parallel worlds. One is a world inhabited by apologists for trespass, degradation and rape. A world where parents and coaches rest destructively on the tenet “boys will be boys.”
The other world is made of parents who thoughtfully inculcate respect, compassion and moral gravity in their young men. A world that respects multiple forms of courage, not just the slim physical courage exercised on sporting fields.
The Australian footy film, Blinder—out now at cinemas—has bracing similarities with the Steubenville case, and provides sickly illumination of both quotes. And while it wishes to occupy the latter universe I described, it is a shabby occupant of the former.
Its fictional footy team—the Torquay Tigers—is riven when, at a victory party, a 15-year-old girl is drugged and raped. That she is raped is not in doubt for the audience—she is both underage and high—but the crime is never described as such in the film, despite lurid photos splashed across the front page of the local rag. The team is fractured, careers dashed.
In Blinder’s fictional universe, there are, arguably, more aggravating features than occurred in Steubenville, but never are the words “rape” or “crime” mentioned. Not once. Nor does the law ever make an appearance. Despite ample evidence of the night’s abuse, not one police officer appears in a scene, let alone a trial or conviction. Rather, the “mistake” is framed as a serious downer for professional prospects.
The film makes great claims to courage, but demonstrates none itself. While similar in some respects, the film breaks with the Steubenville story in that in Ohio we saw the fullest scale of consequence: ineffable agony for the victim, juvenile detention for the perpetrators, and the informal indictment of a community.
Blinder is ignorant and cowardly in that this spectrum of consequence is gruesomely shrunk to what that night meant for camaraderie and sporting careers. If you want further proof of its moral cretinism, I give you this: half of the nearly two hour film is given to lovingly detailed football sequences, which is ruinous for the film’s pacing but more damaging for what it reveals about its makers’ priorities.
Now, a film doesn’t have to be about anything. But Blinder voluntarily takes rape as the linchpin of its plot, and so can’t complain when it’s damned for its grossly inadequate handling of it.
The casual molestation of women is an uncleaned stain on our culture, not just of footy clubs, and it’s unfortunate that women, not men, disproportionately articulate this fact. It is not for women not to be abused, it is for men not to be abusive. It is, then, a conversation to be had between blokes: between fathers and sons, between teammates and friends.
So allow me to kick-start the conversation: if you touch a woman without her consent, you’re scum. Zero excuses. Pass the word.