Aoife McBride of the campaigning group ‘Grrl Activistas’ explains the group’s aims and how the group started
Update May 2006: Please note since this article was published in 2002 Grrl Activistas is no longer active.
Grrl Activistas is an online, international organization, which campaigns against the media’s mis-representation of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. We do this by researching and creating emails in response to complaints about misrepresentation sent to us by our membership. We then ask our members to forward these emails, creating a protest of some volume against each individual incident.
I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. It has been a year since I first attempted to find online resources for survivors. I found the excellent site www.welcometobarbados.org, and became an active member of the community there, Pandora’s Aquarium. Participation within this group piqued my interest in the wide range of issues that face survivors.
Grrls was the product of procrastination. I first had the idea whilst taking a break from writing up my MSc thesis. Christine and Neil Hamilton and just been accused of sexual assault by Nadia Milroy-Sloan and the media – particularly but not exclusively the Red Tops – wasted little time in attempting to us her status as a single mother and council tenant to discredit her. This provoked a flurry of commentary in the Aquarium. Many of the survivors there expressed anger that the media routinely questioned the veracity of survivor testimony on the basis of spurious reasoning and apparent prejudice. Also of concern was the portrayal of survivors and their issues in television and film drama.
The apparent disproportionate presence of storylines in television programs that support so-called false memory syndrome, depict women who ‘cry rape’, and describe the aftermath of rape as recoverable-from seemingly within weeks, causes serious emotional distress to survivors. More dangerously, it also serves to reinforce societal myths that surround rape and sexual assault; that women are likely to lie about rape, that rape isn’t ‘that bad’, that rape survivors who pursue healing are self-indulgent, and that therapists are likely to try to inculcate their patients with ‘false memories’. Crimes already shrouded in secrecy and shame and further marginalized by their representation as trivial or false occurrences. The widespread promulgation of theses inaccuracies surely impacts the treatment survivors receive from the police, courts, colleagues and friends. All of these institutions are composed of individuals who are exposed to the mass media.
Television shows such as EastEnders are congratulated for their ‘grittily realistic’ portrayal of issues of sexual violence. The EastEnders publicity machine is, at the time of writing, cranking into gear to promote the representation of the trial of Little Mo, who murdered her husband after enduring years of domestic violence, including sexual violence. The Slater family, of which Mo is a member, has suffered terribly from such assaults. Two of the five younger women have now been raped, one has borne a child as a result of rape, and one was conceived as a result of this incest. The show elicited a mixed response from Grrls members. Some viewed is as positive that sexual abuse was shown as having a long-term and significant effect on its vicitims, others felt that the issues were superficially handled in an obvious bid for higher ratings. Members reacted angrily to the hyping of rape as a blockbuster ratings event.
Hollyoaks is another British TV show that has drawn criticism from Grrls members. Over the last few years the show has depicted three rapes. Mandy Cunningham ran away after she was raped by her father, the culmination of a lifetime of incest; Luke Morgan was raped by a gang of three bullies; and Beth Morgan, Luke’s sister, was raped by a professional footballer. In the first two instances the perpetrators were prosecuted and found guilty, in the latter the perpetrator was prosecuted and found not guilty. Taken together this presents a very misleading impression of the justice system, the time taken to pursue a rape charge, and the likelihood of a guilty verdict. It is difficult to challenge such representations because, although not an accurate depiction of the majority of survivors’ experiences, the scenarios are possible. In print media interviews given by Hollyoaks staff and production team members, the storylines are presented as carefully researched segments designed to provoke viewers in similar circumstances to seek help, as well as to entertain the majority. Grrls refutes this. In none of the Hollyoaks rapes did the victim need to seek counselling, or significantly display PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] or other known aftermath behaviours.
The sense of profound disappointment that survivors feel at such representations should not be underestimated. They report feeling confusion that they cannot recover from violence as quickly as the character on television and feel less likely to name their experiences when they see the semantic leaps TV characters make in order to avoid the words ‘rape’ and ‘abuse’. Many feel ashamed that they cannot speak out in the manner that fictional characters do, and criticise the misleading depictions of court and legal procedures. Grrl Activistas provides a way for survivors to ask for the television and cinema they want to see, and to protest against that which disempowers them.
The internet has facilitated the creation of communities focussed on single-issues. Survivors come online to gain support through chatrooms and message boards and to gather and produce information. Despite our geographical distance [Grrls has staff members from Scotland, Belgium, the USA and Australia, and members from Germany, France, England, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Holland, and Spain], internet communication technologies have made it possible for us to come together to pursue a common goal.
Grrls can be described as broadly feminist in conception and ideology, although an inability to subscribe to a feminist ideology does not preclude participation. Staff and members hold a diverse range of opinions on many related issues: we have pro and anti-pornography members, a wide range of responses to freedom of speech and censorship, and different comments made with regard to individual newspaper articles and television programs. We emphasise that members are under no obligation to forward any mails that they do not personally agree with.
I feel that Grrls offers an opportunity to survivors that have hitherto been voiceless. Women and men who find it impossible to challenge the thoughtless caricatures of sexual violence in their day-to-day lives can join with us and be heard. I believe that healing from violence involves honouring both ourselves and our fellow human beings. Grrls is an excellent way for us to look out for ourselves.