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Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture.

WATCHING RAPE: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture

Sarah Projansky

New York: New York University Press, 2001; 311 pp.

Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture provides a systematic examination of the ubiquity and versatility of rape narratives in American cinema and television, and articulates the intersections of such narratives with discourses of "postfeminism." Sarah Projansky contends that there is a "discursive effectivity" (p. 3) to rape narratives that contributes to a rape culture. Therefore, representations of rape must be a site for feminist activism. Most importantly, Projansky details intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender. She argues that "rape narratives help organize, understand, and even arguably produce the social world; they help structure social understandings of complex phenomena such as gender, race, class, and nation" (p. 7). Projansky also maps how postfeminism structures the ways that rape is portrayed, and works to limit the possibilities for feminist mobilization against rape. Projansky's critical reading practice opens space for multiple interpretations as her analysis does not work towards closure on these issues; rather, her work points to important directions in feminist cultural studies.

In her chapter, "The Postfeminist Context," Projansky details feminism's co-constitutive relationship to postfeminism through the idea that postfeminism perpetuates discourse around feminism even as it declares feminism obsolete. Critically, Projansky challenges the type of feminism that postfeminism implies--an implicitly white, heterosexual, middle-class feminism. I found this critique to be particularly useful. What Projansky does is dehomogenize postfeminism, by identifying five categories of this discourse: linear, backlash, equality and choice, (hetero)sex-positive, and men-can-be-feminists-too. The effect of this critique is to provide techniques for identifying, deconstructing, and resisting postfeminist discourse. As Projansky argues, it is necessary to take on postfeminism because it has become the dominant version of feminism taken up in popular culture as well as the media. Thus her analysis of this phenomenon works to dehegemonize post-feminism as well.

In "Film and Television Narratives at the Intersection of Rape and Post-feminism," Projansky illustrates that postfeminism constitutes the dominant framework for understanding and responding to violence against women. This framework has several effects: it positions women as individually responsible for challenging rape: positions men as "better feminists" who educate women about appropriate responses to rape: elides the importance of feminist anti-rape activism; reinscribes whiteness: and depoliticizes feminist messages about rape. She notes that, "postfeminism and rape narratives work together to define feminism in particularly limited ways in terms of gender, race, class, and sexuality" (p. 231). Projansky's later examination of feminist anti-rape videos across three decades in "Talking Back to Postfeminism?" exposes the ways that postfeminism operates in this context to limit representational strategies, as well as to limit the potential for anti-racist work.

The effect of her arguments is to provide a wake-up call to feminists, warning us to be aware and extremely concerned about the prevalence and insidious influence of postfeminist notions, not only within popular culture and media, but within feminist work as well. In my experience as a feminist academic from the mid-nineties until the present, I cannot recall much attention given to postfeminism. Perhaps feminists had hoped to declare post-feminism dead; however, Projansky illustrates that postfeminism continues to have a profound effect on portrayals of, and responses to, rape narratives.

Projansky argues that one of the most dangerous elements of postfeminism is its ignorance on issues of race, class, sexuality and ability. Throughout the book, Projansky is relentless in her critique of rape narratives as discursive strategies for naturalizing notions of class, race, gender, sexuality and nation. While her research shows that there is versatility in terms of the roles played by differently racialized characters (for example, villains might be either white or black), Projansky illustrates that racial categories in particular have been portrayed as fixed categories. Characters may move across gendered and classed boundaries (although often with disastrous consequences), but they are unable to transcend the narrowly constituted limits of race. Projansky argues that rape narratives are positioned as essential to these themes, so that depictions of violence against women then naturalize "the policing of gendered, classed, racialized, and national boundaries [that] these films engage" (p. 63).

Watching Rape also explores the "persistent displacement" of Black women in rape narratives. While mainstream representations have reproduced, through the invisibility of women of colour, the notion that women of colour are inherently unrapeable, films that do explore the rapeability of Black women structure Black women as a "present absence." That is, they may be visible, but lack voice. She notes that Black women's experience of rape is effectively elided as it is subsumed under larger narratives about racism (which tends to mean racism against Black men). Even films that have more nuanced depictions, such as Rosewood (1996), She's Gotta Have It (1986), and Daughters of the Dust (1991), subsume the experience of rape for Black women under Black men's experience of racism, even as these films challenge the colour-blindness of postfeminist representations.

Watching Rape also highlights the invisibility of whiteness, even as whiteness dominates representations of rape. I think Projansky's analysis opens space for a more thorough examination of how rape narratives, in conjunction with postfeminist discourse, work to constitute, maintain, and reproduce whiteness and white privilege. I would argue that this is a critical location to take up the challenges offered by Projansky.

Projansky's methodology would be useful in a Canadian context, and I am thinking here of film and television representations of rape and First Nations women. The construction of First Nations women as unrapeable in contrast to white European women has structured the gendered space of the nation. How do Canadian rape narratives challenge or reinscribe this history?

Watching Rape is a compelling account of the role of rape in making meaning and reinscribing inequalities within visual media, and as such it is a necessary and valuable research contribution. Projansky successfully interrogates the power of postfeminism to define and delimit popular and feminist responses to rape. The broader question posed by Projansky points to an important debate that must continue, that of how to use "the power and politics of representation against itself" (p. 230). Representations of sexual violence are a critical subject of this debate.

Leslie Kern

School of Women's Studies

York University

Toronto, Ontario
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kern, Leslie
Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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