Placing Blame


With the recent Steubenville rape case revealed a bias in the media against the victim by sympathising with her rapists, Laura Woulfe examines the role of the media in generating social prejudices.

Last month, high-school football players Ma’Lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, were found guilty of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl in the town of Steubenville, Ohio on the night of August 11th 2012. Numerous offences occurred over a period of six hours, when the girl, referred to in the media as ‘Jane Doe’, was dragged from party to party while being sexually abused unknowingly to her, as bystanders observed, photographing and filming the countless violations.


One of the most disturbing aspects of the case however, is the initial response from the media, in particular CNN’s Poppy Harlow who placed her sympathy with the perpetrating “star football players” of the crime rather than with the victim. UCD Students’ Union Gender Equality Co-ordinator Ciara Johnson commented: “The rapists were held accountable for their actions, yet the media sympathise with them and lament the fact that their once bright futures have been ruined. Rapists are not victims, why are we sympathising with them?”

The media focused on the loss of Richmond and Mays’ bright futures with little concern for the prospective future of ‘Jane Doe’. The revelation that male futures and careers are still considered more important than their female peers’ highlights the blatant sexism that still exists in the media. As said by Johnson: “The media definitely plays a large role in influencing society’s perceptions of gender roles. So often women are portrayed as homemakers and housewives who exist to serve the needs of their husband or partner and men are shown to be the dominant in relationships and the breadwinner… Just because you are a woman it doesn’t mean you’re a sexual object.”

Dr Sara O’Sullivan, whose main areas of research include media and gender, commented on the subject saying: “I wouldn’t make any generalisation about mass media…but there is no denying parts of the mass media have very problematic representations of both men and women in terms of how masculinity and femininity are represented and the power of that.”

AP, USA Today and Yahoo all focused on the victim’s intoxication level on the night of August 11th, without referencing whether the convicted rapists were drunk or not. “It is not viewed as “feminine” to drink large amounts whereas it is seen macho to drink pints and large quantities of alcohol,” says Johnson. In the trial Walter Madison, Richmond’s representative, stated; “The reality is, she drank, she has a reputation for telling lies,” even despite the large amounts of visual evidence, such as photographs, video recordings and text messages, proving the cases of sexual assault against ‘Jane Doe.’ Is this to say the victim is not worthy of our trust because of her blood alcohol content while the perpetrators level of intoxication is irrelevant?

Yet, it has also been argued that the case is not only prejudice on account of gender but also in relation to societal class. “I think this case was more prejudiced in relation to class. While there was also sexism involved…I think the idolisation of the football players played a greater part in the prejudice involved in this small town case,” said Johnson. Arguably, this feeds into a prevalent “Jock Culture” whereby these teenage athletes are held in such high-esteem by their school, peers, community and indeed media and popular culture, that they are endowed with a sense of superiority above everyone else. This is seen as the cause to why many citizens of Steubenville aligned themselves with reporters like Harlow, sympathising with the victims, while two young girls made threatening comments to the victim via Twitter. “There seemed to be a perception that since these guys had such a bright future and had so much gunning for them that it couldn’t possibly be their fault,” said Johnson.

Broadcasters are certainly accountable for showing a prejudice against the victim during the Steubenville case however media is, according to Dr. O’Sullivan: “A two way relationship, it both creates and reflects influences”. Therefore, as said by Johnson: “Ignorance and lack of respect for other genders causes more than just power distance but also leads to violence and a belief of superiority which isn’t easily erased… Media shapes society’s norms but we shape the media, so maybe it’s time to change what we think is acceptable.”

What many believe is at the heart of this case is the issue of rape culture which exists socially and therefore was reflected by the media. According to Dr. O’Sullivan: “They are doing a lot more in the commentary than just criticising it as sexist; they are talking about how this normalises a culture of rape.”

One of the most chilling aspects of the Steubenville rape case was that there were bystanders who observed, photographed and condoned the numerous sexual assault acts done unto the victim. These photos were then sent around and shown to numerous other teens for their own amusement clearly illustrating how we’ve descended the existence of culture that condones rape. As said by Johnson: “We live in a rape culture where incidents like this are perceived as common and are so often dismissed. Constantly we hear of cases of slut shaming…People think that girls are easy if they wear a revealing outfit or have a drink too many. This is not okay. This should not happen, yet it’s become part and parcel of society today.”