Making a Hot Mess out of “Feminist” TV

Cross-posted from Where Is Your Line?, a blog on sex and consent.

Not too long ago, I was invited to participate in a television pilot for ladies, purporting to tackle the complicated issues relevant to our lives. The tone would be snarky, Jezebel-esque, and “sexy”. I got excited when I learned who the producer was, and full disclosure, I’m pretty easy when you drop words like “pilot” and “L.A.” Sweetening the deal, Jessica Valenti and Anna Holmes were moderating. How could I say no to feminist TV? The technical details of my participation were precarious – like Max Headroom, I would be a disembodied head floating on a computer screen wedged between leather couches. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call the TV segment, Hot Mess. Hot Mess was described as a panel. Having served on a bunch of panels this year, I imagined a table, a discussion, moderators, a series of points to address, group participation and a friendly/feisty/constructive tone. Hot Mess had emailed me the list of potential discussion topics, and I would be part of the rape panel that they dubbed “consent aka ‘the line'”.  Again, flattery will get you everywhere, and using the title of my film to get at the issue, stroke- stroke – stroke. Some of their “get ready” questions were off the charts problematic, but they followed them up with sound research into the complexity of consent, rape laws, and recent current events in the college sphere. You smart wonderful people on the internet had much to say when I posted the questions for debate in advance of the taping, and speaking from experience, Heather Corinna tweeted her warnings:

@thelinecampaign These are some really uneducated questions they’ve put to you.

@thelinecampaign Don’t suppose they consulted/included a sexuality educator/sexologist, eh?

@thelinecampaign It’s just you and then a bunch of COMEDIANS talking about all of this!? Sounds like they want a hot mess by design.

Things started to unravel when I logged into the live-stream and saw folks lounging on couches.

Beaming in from Brooklyn, I went for  the “smart filmmaker” setting, and placed myself in my cluttered (creative?) looking office. Everyone was chatting on leather, I was drumming my fingers on my desktop high above from my plasma screen. I placed the call on Skype testing the sound, and realized there was a delay between sound and image. Gulp. I could hear and be heard in real time, but had to guess who was speaking in the room and when/if if the cameras were going to cut to me. Can anyone hear me? Is this thing on? Remember that Metallica video? 500_JOHNNYGOTHISGUN1 That was me. Alert, aware, but not being heard. I was told that the 30 second trailer of my film would be used to “kick off” the conversation and we’d go around one by one, with some guidance from the moderator, and discuss the multidimensional and complicated topic of rape. We’d use smart, snarky analysis of a real – not imagined, not whined about, not exaggerated, not falsely claimed- problem. Instead, egged on by the producer, participants – not the moderators – were encouraged to take what they saw in the trailer and the one sentence synopsis of my rape (she consented to vaginal sex, and then was raped anally) and debate. It didn’t occur to me that a producer would structure a conversation around my film when no one had seen it, nor was it ever articulated that my body parts and my rape would be at the center of this debate. One comedian played the hard-ass role throwing out phrases like: “play the victim,” “you didn’t say no,” “take responsibility,”, “put yourself in that situation”- and all manner of victim-blaming crap, none of which I haven’t heard before. Choosing to go public with my rape seven years ago, opened the door to all kinds of criticism of my person and of my right to come forward and call out the behavior. People questioned whether or not my experience “counts” as rape, and my personal favorite, whether or not my rape was “bad enough.” In what I call “the hater montage,” I include these presumptions in the film, to highlight and challenge rape myths. It works because its part of a larger, structured story and argument, unlike being broadsided for an imagined audience’s entertainment. Moderators Jessica and Anna did their best to shut it down by cutting in and correcting rape apologists, but the monkeys flinging shit had been let out of their cage. Here are my freakouts on twitter:

Ok, the room has officially exploded, and I’m not being given the opportunity to speak. At all. Nor has anyone in the room seen my film.

Woah – this is surreal. They are fiercely debating my story – and rape – and responsibility – w/out my fucking voice

WOW – someone just said, unless you kick the ass of the man trying to #rape you, or pull out a gun, you’re not being raped

“You are raped bc you’re unlucky enough to be in the presence of a rapist” – @jessicavalenti (thank you, darling)

Oh, and note to self: Don’t ever debate YOUR #rape on skype when everyone else is in a room, and you’re cutting in and out. TECH FAIL

OMG – we are done. Would you ever want to have #sex w/someone who called your ass “a dirt button”? Gross.

Sisterhood was not alive in that L.A. studio. The gals making Hot Mess thought smart, “sexy” debate meant humiliating their guests, taking cues from Bill O’Reilly, Howard Stern and any right wing talk show pundit with a penis. I am fine with outrage, but — it has to be constructive. Amping people up to be haters for no reason other than to hate or get attention is fucked up. Maybe the bigger question is how do we ever talk about rape in the context of pop entertainment? What are the rules? What do we want to get out of it?” If they’re going for the Jezebel and Feministing audience, those of us weaned on bitchy, smart, funny content that critiques sexism, rape myths and misogyny, being an asshole to be “provocative” isn’t going to cut it. Its just not that interesting. My experience in the hot seat of Hot Mess reminded me – like a slap in the face- a few basic media principles. As a filmmaker and producer, respect your subjects. They are not objects or props to be used or humiliated. Honor them. And as a subject and author of your life, remember – your story is your story. It is sacred, precious and individually yours. Find and maintain your boundaries about how and with whom you share your story. Call the shots and don’t forget you’re in control. So yea, if you’re trying to make “feminist” TV, and you’re going to tackle big important lady topics like rape, to quote Jon Stewart, “I’m not going to be your monkey.”

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Washington, DC

A professional feminist by day and overemotional writer by night, Carmen is currently Communications Coordinator at the Feminist Majority Foundation and the Feminism and Community Editor at Autostraddle. She has spoken at various events including the National Conference on Sexual Assault, Momentum, A-Camp, and the founding SPARK Summit. Carmen has been interviewed and profiled by The New York Times, HerCampus, the Guardian, Campus Progress, Ms., Good Morning America, the CBS Early Show and other print, web, and broadcast media outlets for her work in feminist organizing and online activism. Her successful work for over five years in digital feminism - ranging from Hollaback!'s successful launching Kickstarter campaign to the viral #EducateCoaches petition on Change - has earned her the titles of "digital native," "intimidating to some," and "vapid and uninteresting." Carmen's writing has been featured or spotlighted online by Jezebel, Feministing, Bitch, and Elixher; she is also part of a forthcoming printed anthology about young feminism. In the past, she's blogged for the SPARK Movement, served as a PolicyMic writer, and was Managing Editor of THE LINE Campaign blog.

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