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Mel Gibson and a "Teachable Moment" About Rape in Celebrity Media Culture

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Anti-rape educators around the world have Mel Gibson to thank for providing them with a truly global teachable moment in the wake of his violent, misogynist, racist tirade against his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. In the audiotape of the angry rant that has been replayed endlessly on cable TV and the Internet, Gibson is heard threatening Grigorieva (she needs a "bat to the side of the head") and calling her the c-word, not to mention telling her that because of the way she was dressed, if she is "raped by a pack of n***ers," "it will be (your) fault."

Grigorieva clandestinely taped Gibson, she said, out of fear for her own safety. She wanted prosecutors and the public to see what she had seen -- in private. The result is not only a boon to celebrity gossip shows, web sites and tabloid magazines. The star of Braveheart, Lethal Weapon and The Patriot has now inadvertently starred in an educational program of sorts that -- like some of his movies -- will be played and discussed for years to come.

In a (presumably) drunken tirade, the cinematic superstar did a great service to the anti-rape and anti-domestic violence movements by reminding everyone of the urgent need to expand gender violence prevention education, precisely to counteract the kind of ignorant and hateful attitudes and beliefs that -- as Gibson's comments suggested -- continue to fester in the psyches of too many men in our society.

In their own twisted way, Gibson's words are valuable precisely because they embody a range of male supremacist and racist beliefs that first need to be exposed if they are ever to be overcome. In fact, in just one sentence (of the longer taped conversation) Gibson not only provided concrete evidence that two long-discredited and damaging rape myths still persist; but he also managed to demonstrate the misogynous anger that lies close to the ideological core of a rapist mentality, and to provide one example of the many intersections of sexism and racism.

(Because of what you wear) if you are raped by a pack of n***ers, it will be (your) fault.
Anti-rape educators have encountered this type of victim-blaming for decades (e.g. her sexy clothes suggest she is asking for it; "it will be her fault" if she is raped). The Gibson tapes merely add the latest celebrity case study to a bulging file of victim-blaming statements made to and about women by misogynistic and aggressive men.

Far more interesting from a pedagogical standpoint is the way Gibson sexualized his anger toward his ex-girlfriend. People often say hurtful things when they are enraged. But when searching for a way to say something hurtful, Gibson quickly invoked the threat of sexual violence ("If you are raped..."). For anti-rape educators, this is the heart of the teachable moment. Gibson's performance offers intimate evidence of the fact that rape often is -- as feminists have long maintained -- an act whereby men seek to assert power and control over, and sometimes inflict cruelty and brutality on women (and other men), not out of frustrated sexual desire, but out of a range of emotional and psychological needs and identity issues.

In addition, because this was Mel Gibson, the aggressive misogyny came wrapped in racist language and caricature. But tempting as it may be for some to attribute Gibson's periodic outbursts to his serious psychological and substance-abuse problems, his sexism/racism, like his rape-myth acceptance and promotion, reflects beliefs that are, sadly, still held by a substantial number of white men.

In that sense, while it is easy and comforting to dismiss him as a disturbed and addicted man whose pathologies become public spectacles because of his celebrity, Mel Gibson's periodic rants provide a valuable -- if unsettling -- glimpse into certain aspects of the collective id of middle-aged (and younger) white American males. His role as an iconic movie star who over the years has touched a nerve with audiences in his depictions of heroic men driven to righteous violence by threats to them, their family or the larger community imbue his real-world transgressions with even greater significance, because he wouldn't have become so popular if his on-screen persona hadn't resonated with millions of men (and women, perhaps for different reasons).

In the wake of his recent self-imposed troubles, it might be comforting for many of his fans to take refuge in the idea that they respect the actor's work but cannot identify with the small man behind the curtain. This might be true for some. But Mel Gibson's misogynous racism is hardly aberrational.

Take Gibson's racist use of the n-word in the context of an angry diatribe against his ex-girlfriend, whom he has (allegedly) physically abused. Gibson's words drew their power from an old and powerful cultural stereotype of African American men as animalistic ("pack") rapists of white women. This racist trope persists well beyond the confines of Mel Gibson's deranged psyche.

Consider the current popularity among white men of interracial gonzo pornography, which features caricatured and racist depictions of big, strong African American men roughly penetrating petite white women and treating them (in typical gonzo fashion) like sub-human sperm receptacles. The sociologist Gail Dines, author of the newly-released Pornland: How the Porn Industry is Hijacking our Sexuality, suggests that this type of porn is popular because, like much of contemporary porn, it sexualizes men's hostility and anger toward women. In the eyes of (some) white men, Dines says, "what better way to debase a white woman than to deploy the racist cultural codes of black men as sexually predatory, savage and debauched?"

In other words, Mel Gibson's racist fantasies deployed against his ex seem to share much in common with those of a lot of white men -- the major difference being that he used racist language in a verbal assault against an actual woman in an unscripted encounter, not under the guise of entertainment in the privacy of his own auto-erotic pleasures. And of course, he got caught.

This latest Gibson debacle also reminds us of how far we have to go to shift social norms around the acceptance of men's mistreatment of women. Gibson has been roundly -- and rightly -- criticized by commentators for his racist comments. But in mainstream media coverage, reaction to his virulent sexism has been notably muted. In the infamous rant, Gibson alluded to a January 2010 incident where he allegedly punched Grigorieva in the face. She says he was violent with her on several occasions; the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department is investigating. And yet in much of the media commentary about the potential repercussions of the leaked tape incident for Gibson's career, his alleged domestic violence is underplayed or absent altogether.

For example, in a July 13 Los Angeles Times piece by movie industry columnist Patrick Goldstein about Gibson's professional future, Goldstein wrote that many (white) talent agency chiefs and studio bosses want nothing to do with Gibson right now because they don't want to risk outraging their important African American clients. This suggests an encouraging trend in Hollywood (and beyond), where, presumably, professional consequences for racist behavior by whites seem to be increasing.

Left out of this account and many others was any similar discussion about repercussions for sexism, such as women clients being upset that their agency might consider working with a raging sexist and alleged woman abuser. And where are the comments from men -- inside or outside Hollywood -- that express strong disapproval of Gibson's sexist violence?

I must confess that even before this latest incident, I was annoyed that Mel Gibson -- a man with very conservative gender politics in the real world -- was given the opportunity to satirize sexism in the 2000 romantic comedy, What Women Want. It felt wrong that a sexist man got to make fun of sexism and get props for it. Now I can see that there is retroactive value in that casting decision. If Gibson ever puts the pieces of his broken life and reputation back together, perhaps the talented director can make an autobiographical documentary feature about his own abusive behavior. The title has already written itself: What Women Don't Want.