Book Review: Hunting Girls

twitterlogoBRReview 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.

27781446In 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鈥檚 developing sexualities (28). In effect, they render young women鈥檚 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 鈥渁nswer a call for empowered girls by giving us violent girls who beat and get beaten鈥 and who 鈥渁lso seem to satisfy a perverse desire to see girls abused and beaten as punishment for becoming strong and independent鈥 (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 鈥渉ave it coming鈥濃攖hey deserve the violence they ultimately receive (46).

These pop culture representations of physical abuse of young women have contributed to the 鈥渆roticization of sexual violence鈥 and the mainstreaming of violent sex, as evidenced by the popularity of series such as Fifty Shades of Grey (51). Though she doesn鈥檛 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 鈥渇ictional鈥 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 鈥渃reepshot鈥濃攖he 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 鈥渟pectator sport,鈥 where bystanders and witnesses are increasingly present for the act or consume 鈥渃reepshot entertainment鈥 from a 鈥渟afe鈥 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). 聽

Oliver鈥檚 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鈥檚 arguments about the increasing normalization of violence against women鈥攊ncluding the tendency to view college-aged women as prey to be hunted鈥攚e 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鈥攚hile generally a good thing鈥攏eeds 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 鈥渢rigger warnings.鈥 Oliver鈥檚 worry with respect to trigger warnings is that if we don鈥檛 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, 鈥渋f educational institutions are to address the problem of sexual assault on campus, then they can鈥檛 shy away from difficult discussions鈥 (159).

Overall, Oliver鈥檚 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鈥檚 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鈥攑articularly 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鈥攕he fails to seriously engage with much of the scholarship that would contradict her analyses of these works. In particular, Oliver doesn鈥檛 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鈥檚 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鈥檚 analysis. Future work in this area would benefit from a more deeply intersectional lens.

Oliver鈥檚 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.

StewartHeather 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.

Book Review: The Butchering Art

twitterlogoBRReview by Tom Bragg.

Both the title and subtitle of Lindsey Fitzharris鈥檚 popular medical history鈥The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister鈥檚 Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine鈥攈int at the sensationalism, the often lurid details with which the author baits the hook of her narrative. The creator of popular websites and a Youtube series about medical and surgical subjects, Fitzharris is clearly at home with such material, and weaves shudder-inducing factoids and interesting digressions freely throughout the book鈥檚 general story, that of Lister鈥檚 career, his developing interest in microscopy, his suspicions about the miasma 鈥渂ad air鈥 theory of disease, and his eventual role as the founder of antiseptic medicine.

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In its essentials, this account might take up half as much space as the (already slim) book鈥檚 230-odd pages, while a more personal and introspective account might occupy many more. Joseph Lister lived to a ripe old age鈥攊ndeed, his life straddles the entire Victorian Era鈥攁nd his accomplishments are legion and impressive. According to the book鈥檚 blurb, Fitzharris鈥檚 aim has been to 鈥渄ramatically {reconstruct] Lister鈥檚 career path,鈥 and thus to celebrate the surgeon and innovator by contrasting his achievements with the 鈥済risly鈥 situations and contexts in which he worked. Continue reading “Book Review: The Butchering Art”

Book Review: Stand Your Ground

twitterlogoBRReview by Julia Brown.

Though an avid reader, I typically stray away from one genre: histories. In the case of Stand Your Ground: A History of America鈥檚 Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense (Beacon Press, 2017) by Caroline E. Light, I am glad I broke my trend. Stand Your Ground is a page-turning account of the cultural and judicial history of self-defense and armed citizen laws in America, written at a time when understanding how the last 200 years shaped these laws is more important than ever. 聽In her second book, Continue reading “Book Review: Stand Your Ground”