The following includes discussions that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised.
Talking about rape culture can be depressing stuff. First there’s the content matter – it’s just stomach churning. Then there’s the absolute failure in fostering understanding sometimes. Just today, I noticed a bump in traffic from a message board. I popped over to see what the conversation looked like, only to read comments about how I’m some sort of feminazi, and exemplary of all the reasons people hate feminists. Sometimes you end up feeling like you’re running full-force into a brick wall… over and over and over again.
But that’s why it’s important to take a step back and appreciate the victories, however small they might seem.
In one of my recent posts on rape culture, I referenced the unfolding Rick Ross scandal as an example of rape culture. For those of you who didn’t follow that story, Ross wound up in hot water for a portion of his lyrics in the song U.O.E.N.O., where he sang:
Put molly all in her champagne/ She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that/ She ain’t even know it.
To be clear, lyrics like these are part of rape culture. It glamorizes date rape, categorizes it as no big deal, and makes it seem like a fun joke. It ‘s not the first time a songster has erred in this way, and it probably won’t be the last. But what came next is way more important than the song itself.
Activists and concerned citizens took to social media to lament the lyrics and what they represented. Don’t get me wrong – there were still a great deal of people defending him and his lyrics – but it opened up a huge amount of conversation on rape culture. Anytime that happens, it can be hard to not get blue over the fact that we’re having the conversation for the umpteenth time, but the way the conversation progressed in this instance is noteworthy, because it wasn’t just you and me who were rattled. For whatever reason, this story had lots of bigger names weighing in.
One of my favorite examples was the exchange that took place between musicians Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli. While the two are not completely innocent themselves, they wound up having an in depth conversation about the responsibility of artists to their community, and how important it was to better address the pervasive violence triumphed in too many rap songs. You can read more here, but it was awesome to see two celebrities engaging in a mature and measured conversation about cultural struggles, and rising above them.
But in this instance, talking was not enough, and money talks. An effort spearheaded by the group UltraViolet called on Reebok to drop their endorsement deal with Ross. Though this prompted Ross to put out an apology, the initial go round almost made things worse:
It was misunderstanding with a lyric, a misinterpretation where the term ‘rape’ wasn’t used. And I would never use the term ‘rape’ in my records.
For the record, this is, again, an example of rape culture. The idea that the word rape is the problem is a part of the problem. People weren’t angry because they thought they heard him say “rape.” They were angry because his lyrics made it seem like drugging a girl and having your way with her was desirable and hilarious. Dismissing that disgust as a “misunderstanding” was essentially an attempt at sweeping the issue under the rug.
But there were people fighting the good fight. The New York Times summed up the efforts quite nicely:
UltraViolet began circulating an online petition asking Reebok to end its endorsement deal with Mr. Ross. In the first 24 hours the petition received 50,000 signatures, Ms. Chaudhary said. A week later the group organized a protest at the Reebok flagship store, in Midtown Manhattan, in which about 100 people held signs denouncing rape and began sending Twitter messages to Reebok. That day members of UltraViolet also started a phone campaign, calling Reebok’s headquarters in Canton, Mass., to complain about Mr. Ross.
The phone calls were necessary, Ms. Chaudhary said, since earlier efforts to talk to Reebok executives had failed. “Basically we felt like we had no option,” she said.
As UltraViolet’s campaign gained momentum, other feminist bloggers and commentators weighed in, among them Rosa Clemente, an activist whose YouTube video responding to Mr. Ross’s lyrics was viewed almost 17,000 times.
The group also bought digital ads on Facebook that were aimed at people who “liked” the Reebok Facebook page and ads online that were aimed at people who were using search engines to look up “Reebok.” The final step was a letter sent to the company on behalf of 550 rape survivors.
AND IT WORKED. Reebok officially dropped Rick Ross with this statement:
Reebok holds our partners to a high standard, and we expect them to live up to the values of our brand…Unfortunately, Rick Ross has failed to do so. While we do not believe that Rick Ross condones sexual assault, we are very disappointed he has yet to display an understanding of the seriousness of this issue or an appropriate level of remorse.
What’s more, Rick Ross actually issued an apology worth listening to. While a day late and a dollar short, it was precisely what should have been said the first time around:
Before I am an artist, I am a father, a son, and a brother to some of the most cherished women in the world. So for me to suggest in any way that harm and violation be brought to a woman is one of my biggest mistakes and regrets. As an artist, one of the most liberating things is being able to paint pictures with my words. But with that comes a great responsibility. And most recently, my choice of words was not only offensive, it does not reflect my true heart. And for this, I apologize. To every woman that has felt the sting of abuse, I apologize. I recognize that as an artist I have a voice and with that, the power of influence. To the young men who listen to my music, please know that using a substance to rob a woman of her right to make a choice is not only a crime, it’s wrong and I do not encourage it. To my fans, I also apologize if I have disappointed you. I can only hope that this sparks a healthy dialogue and that I can contribute to it.
Let’s take a step back for a minute. A celebrity made grossly insensitive and problematic comments about rape. People didn’t tolerate it; they fought back through consumer and social advocacy. That advocacy opened the door for important conversations with people watching the situation unfold. Corporations responded to the efforts by making the responsible and right decision in refusing to reward the behavior. In the end, the celebrity in question issued a heartfelt apology, and called for further discourse on the matter.
THAT’S A WIN, and it should serve as inspiration to keep fighting the good fight.
It’s not just Reebok and Rick Ross here; we’re actually starting to see traction from these efforts on a broader level. As the New York Times pointed out:
That an advertiser would cut ties with a spokesman after a scandal is not a new phenomenon. Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Chris Brown and Rhianna have all recently lost endorsement deals.
But the speed with which brands have been forced to react has increased significantly with the prevalence of social media. More recently the Ford Motor Company apologized for an online advertisement that it ran in India that featured three bound and gagged women in the rear of a vehicle driven by Silvio Berlusconi. The apology came after women’s groups and others complained on its advertising agency’s Facebook page.
When people wonder what the point of engaging in digital conversation is, this is it. It matters. It has an impact. Social media, and the internet in general, provide an invaluable communicative tool if you are willing to put in the work and use it for good.
Is everyone going to agree with your advocacy? No. Are you going to convince everyone you engage with of your perspective? No. But the impact of your words is still incalculable. You will never know how many people viewed the conversation, and did change their perspective. If you’re lucky, you might get a few hints of it now and then, but most of the time you won’t. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of encouraging others to keep the faith, too. If you’re willing to stand up, maybe they should, too. Either way, adding your voice to the chorus calling for change is a good thing.
There are still a lot of battles ahead, and a lot of good left undone. Sometimes the scope of those battles can be enough to make you want to throw in the towel. Don’t. Your voice matters, and we need it.
Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare The truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare.