‘The Newsroom’ Commentary On Rape Culture

In the latest episode of The Newsroom, creator Aaron Sorkin does what he does best: provide social commentary on issues in which he has zero expertise. But in this case, he might have a point. In the penultimate episode of the series, “Oh Shenandoah,” Sorkin manages to accidentally predict the future, featuring one of the biggest issues in the headlines today: rape on college campuses.

In the episode, the ACN newsroom has been taken over by a tyrannical billionaire (played magically by Office alum B.J. Novak) who insists that the show’s producer Don Keefer feature a segment with a rape victim and her accuser together in the studio. Keefer manages to find the woman, an undergrad at Princeton named Mary. After her assault, Mary has interestingly created a website designed as a forum for women to discuss what has happened to them and, in the process, name their attackers.

Keefer argues that by going on national television with her rapist, Mary is making a “mistake to convene your own trial in front of a television audience where there’s no due process, no lawyers, no discovery, no rules of procedure.” After she vents her frustration that the man who did this to her will never go to jail or face any substantial punishment, Keefer explains that it’s her word against his, and that he’s “morally obligated” to believe the man, because that’s how the judiciary system would see the case. “The law can acquit. The internet never will,” Don tells her, afraid of possibly ruining a man’s life despite his alleged horrifying crime.

While Sorkin’s critique of the internet and “citizen journalism” has been all but shoved down our throats this season, his take on this issue, while controversial, is undeniably thought-provoking. Perhaps the most impactful moment of the episode occurs when Mary relays to Don the advice she’s been given to avoid rape.

“Say you have a boyfriend, wear a wedding ring. I am supposed to protect myself from a man by pretending I am the property of another man.”

For Mary, the assumption a temporary solutions can fix a problem so deeply rooted in a culture as sexual assault is symptomatic of the problem. From here, the line between Sorkin’s fiction and the saddening reality of sexual assault begin to blur.

Have we not learned from the priest sex-abuse scandal that was exposed in 2002? Or the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s? Victim-blaming as a short-term fix has always failed. Here at Boston College, the sexual assault policy was recently updated this year to include definitions for “consent” and “incapacitation,” and to change the way the University deals with these cases.

Cases of sexual assault here on campus more than doubled last year, with eleven cases being reviewed in 2013. This number still seems remarkably low, considering the “one in five” statistic that comes from the Campus Sexual Assault Study, which was conducted for the Justice Department six years ago.

As a woman on a college campus, it is hard not to get angry at Don Keefer when he tries to persuade Mary out of the chance to humiliate her rapist. But in some ways he is also right. The justice system in our country fails to bring justice to rape victims on a regular basis, but turning to a public forum—like the Internet or national television—to discuss it will only lead to a scrutiny for both the victim and the accused.

All things said, there is no alternative to penal justice when it comes to giving a victim the rights and satisfaction they deserve. While the horror of rape is undoubtedly valid, so too is the capability of the public in an anonymous setting like the Internet. Keefer tells Mary that if this is what she decides to do, it will be “covered like sports,” and that she will be deemed a liar, or worse, slut-shamed. And the tragedy of it all—she will never find the justice she is looking for.

In all of this arises a multitude of questions. If we cannot be granted our own civil rights and protections by the justice system, then where do we turn? Are we simply forced to deal with these problems on our own? Why are women forced to claim to be the “property” of men to find safety?

For once, Aaron Sorkin does not claim to know the answer. Rather, he sparks some questions that desperately needed to be asked.

Featured Image Courtesy of HBO

1 Comment

  1. “If we cannot be granted our own civil rights and protections by the Justice system then where do we turn?”

    That’s the thing, we are granted those rights, they are called due process. Because of this PROTECTION we cannot just convict people of crimes without EVIDENCE THAT THE CRIME ACTUALLY OCCURED. Unfortunately, rape is a very hard crime to prove and it gets harder the longer the “victim” waits to report it. If the victim waits 2 years to report it (I.e. Emma Sulkowitz) then it will be almost impossible to gather any evidence that the rape actually occurred. If you don’t have evidence, well I’m sorry but you probably won’t be believed. That doesn’t mean society accepts rape, it just means that society doesn’t accept throwing people into prison based on anothers’ word, rather they want evidence that the others’ word is the truth.

    This is why we preach prevention and ways to avoid becoming a victim, because even if you really are raped it can be very difficult to prove. It’s not victim blaming, it’s living in reality.

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