Review by Heather Stewart.
In Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape (Columbia University Press, 2016), Vanderbilt philosopher Kelly Oliver examines the role of recent popular culture narratives in contributing to the increasingly violent sexual predation of young women and girls. Specifically, she focuses on the space of the university campus as a site of the creation and promulgation of violent rape myths and increasingly dangerous situations for the young women who occupy these spaces (12). Oliver, whose philosophical specializations include the areas of ethics, social and political philosophy, and aesthetics, has written several papers that bring these areas into conversation, including research which examines the ways in which films (especially the suspense films of Alfred Hitchcock and the film noir genre) reflect patriarchal social realities. Her arguments in Hunting Girls can thus be viewed as making a contribution to a larger corpus of work which brings together these seemingly diverse philosophical interests to analyze the ways in which popular media portrays gendered relations and experiences and reflects upon facets of our social reality.
In Hunting Girls, Oliver argues that recent popular works of literature and film, including The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Fifty Shades of Grey, have contributed to the proliferation and increased cultural acceptance of images that situate young women as prey to be hunted, who are subsequently captured, beaten and battered on screen and on the page (18). While these popular works have been analyzed as feminist insofar as they purport to give us images of strong and empowered young women through their respective protagonists, Oliver argues that these novels and films are simultaneously functioning to normalize violence against women and girls by making viewers accustomed to, and ultimately comfortable with, seeing women battered and beaten (21). The narratives in these popular fictions invoke questions of power, control, and danger as they relate to young women’s developing sexualities (28). In effect, they render young women’s sexuality reducible to their being hunted by young men, and far from giving us the empowered, liberatory female figures feminists have long called for, we are instead presented with young women who are always ultimately sexually submissive to men. Films such as Twilight and The Hunger Games “answer a call for empowered girls by giving us violent girls who beat and get beaten” and who “also seem to satisfy a perverse desire to see girls abused and beaten as punishment for becoming strong and independent” (46). They teach us, then, that when women violate their culturally determined and socially prescribed subordinate status through cultivating strength and independence, they are retaliated against accordingly. For being strong (and thus for going against the feminine social norms of passivity and docility), they “have it coming”—they deserve the violence they ultimately receive (46).
These pop culture representations of physical abuse of young women have contributed to the “eroticization of sexual violence” and the mainstreaming of violent sex, as evidenced by the popularity of series such as Fifty Shades of Grey (51). Though she doesn’t engage the literature that gives a more positive reading of Fifty Shades, Oliver argues that the representations of sex presented in this series undermine the importance of consent, and in fact make lack of consent sexually appealing (54). These “fictional” representations, then, contribute to the creation of a material reality that celebrates the lack of consent (56-7). One example of how the sexual appeal of non-consent manifests in the actual world is through the rise of the “creepshot”—the use of cellphone cameras to capture photos of unconscious or otherwise unaware women without their consent, which are often distributed without their knowledge through the use of social media websites (57). Other parties, who themselves might not have been present for the assault and/or the taking of the photos, can then participate in the continued violation of these young women by consuming the images or videos at a distance that is just removed enough for them to feel innocent. In this way, the valorization of lack of consent cultivated through narratives such as Fifty Shades has contributed to a social reality that constructs rape and sexual assault as a “spectator sport,” where bystanders and witnesses are increasingly present for the act or consume “creepshot entertainment” from a “safe” spatial and temporal distance (59). Popular fiction is thus creating a society that is increasingly complicit in violence against women, witnesses that are ever more comfortable standing by as assaults take place, and consuming violence against women as a source of their own entertainment (95).
Oliver’s analysis is particularly concerned with the space of the university campus, and the role of these popular fictions in creating campus cultures that are conducive to pervasive rape and assault. If we accept Oliver’s arguments about the increasing normalization of violence against women—including the tendency to view college-aged women as prey to be hunted—we might wonder how to begin combating these issues on college campuses and elsewhere. In considering this question, Oliver first turns to an analysis of Title IX legislation. Oliver argues that the meanings and applications of Title IX have been shifting away from a narrow focus on formal equality toward broader gender-based social justice efforts. She argues that this shift—while generally a good thing—needs to take place within a context hat is also shifting away from politics of liberal individualism and towards understandings of social or collective responsibility for rape and sexual assault (156). Part of this shift, Oliver suggests, involves the recognition that notions of consent are limited by the frameworks of liberal individualism and sexual autonomy, and that more attention must be paid to the ways in which consent is socially governed by the norms and values of dominant culture. Beginning to make sense of our shared responsibility for the social environment we create, including the ways we view women and our norms of consent, often requires having incredibly difficult conversations. For this reason, Oliver expresses a concern about what she takes to be the inappropriate overuse of “trigger warnings.” Oliver’s worry with respect to trigger warnings is that if we don’t approach these issues head on, we will fail to confront the pressing issues that the pervasiveness of campus rape and sexual assault create. Instead of shutting down uncomfortable conversations, Oliver hopes that we will begin to open up more conversations around rape culture with the end goal of making these issues less prevalent. After all, as Oliver writes, “if educational institutions are to address the problem of sexual assault on campus, then they can’t shy away from difficult discussions” (159).
Overall, Oliver’s work constitutes an important contribution to scholarship on recent popular culture, and specifically the role of popular literature and film in contributing to social norms and attitudes which have (often damaging) material consequences for those who operate within that social context. Her work, importantly, suggests an entry point for interventions into the problem of pervasive sexual assault and rape, as well as increasing cultural complicity in them. More precisely, Oliver’s work suggests that if we want to intervene in the ongoing violence and brutality against young women and girls, we need to pay attention to our popular culture representations of young heroines—particularly those that we situate as feminist. One shortcoming of this work, however, is that Oliver does seem to take her own readings of these works as authoritative—she fails to seriously engage with much of the scholarship that would contradict her analyses of these works. In particular, Oliver doesn’t engage the more positive readings of Fifty Shades, nor does she look to the extensive feminist scholarship on series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If Oliver intends to take definitive positions on what effects these fictions are having on our society, she should engage more seriously and thoroughly with scholars who read these works in ways which do not support her own thesis.
Another downside of Oliver’s work is that it is not sufficiently intersectional. In making her argument, Oliver predominantly focuses on protagonists that are white, cis-women. This might cause readers to wonder if there are more diverse pop-culture icons that Oliver could have analyzed, and if doing so would have supported her claims or posed a challenge to them. Additionally, we might wonder if the effects of pop-culture on our social interactions that Oliver identifies affect all people equally: do diverse groups consume mainstream pop-culture equally? Do diverse populations of people consume different types of fiction with different representations and possibly different narratives? I am not sure about the answers to these, and I intend for them to be open questions directed at Oliver’s analysis. Future work in this area would benefit from a more deeply intersectional lens.
Oliver’s Hunting Girls provides a useful entry point into difficult conversations about rape culture and the influence of popular pieces of fiction in contributing to its construction, the pervasiveness and general acceptance of sexual violence against women, and the need to rethink norms of consent. While her work could have been made stronger by more critical engagement with pop-culture scholarship and alternative feminist understandings of the fictional pieces she examines, she has nonetheless provided an important analysis that should be read by those with a general interest in popular culture studies, a concern for improving the safety of young women on college campuses and in society more generally, and those engaged in broader feminist politics.
Heather Stewart is a current PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. She holds an MA in Philosophy and a graduate certificate in Women and Gender Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her main research interests are within the areas of applied ethics (bioethics, psychiatric ethics), feminist philosophy (epistemology and ethics), social and political philosophy (global justice), and queer theory. At present, Heather is working on research pertaining to improving health outcomes and medical experiences of transgender patients.