Rape Culture and Your Mother’s Feminism

by Kate McCarthy

About a year ago my mother saw a photo of me, arms raised in a white cropped shirt, revealing a good portion of my stomach.

It was a silly picture, the triumphant pose paired with a mischievous grin. However, she emailed me to express her disapproval, asking why I felt it necessary to “bare my stomach.”

I was at once confused, embarrassed and defensive — explaining that in a fleeting moment of confidence, I actually felt comfortable enough to take that picture. I felt like I was joining the ranks of similarly confident women I admired. So why was my mother, the strong single parent and career woman who had raised me, dismayed?

“I remember being questioned about how much I had to drink, and the impatient tone of the detective who told me this ‘probably wasn’t gonna go anywhere.’” This is what the rape survivor of the Daniel Drill-Mellum case writes in a lacerating victim’s impact statement reprinted with permission by FOX 9. Two months prior, father of Stanford rapist Brock Turner penned an abhorrent letter in his response to his son’s sentence — bemoaning Brock’s ‘ruined’ life, and attributing his actions to a college culture of alcohol and excess. A pattern emerges.

My mom came of age in the 1980s in New York City, a young California transplant making her way as an international, career-journalist right out of college. She’s highly educated, ambitious and more independent than anyone I know. And yet, she has always warned me to temper my attire, watch what and how much I drink — to be on guard at all times.

When she saw that picture of me, the flippant snapshot that I’d chosen to use as the profile photo for my Twitter account, a gut reaction hurtled forward from the recesses of her generation — she’d been conditioned to be weary.

In her gruff, male-dominated workplace of the Associated Press, my mother mimicked the feminism of the times: be tough, downplay your femininity, don’t give them anything to use against you. Conversely, my generation has a new brand of feminism, which continues to push the boundaries and conventions of society’s treatment of gender.

I’m surrounded by self-actualized women who call for the desexualization of the female body — show your stomach in a picture! We all have them! They work to make it okay for us to be whatever iteration of woman we want: femme, butch, “girly girl” or “tomboy” — the full spectrum.

In these assault cases that continuously emerge, a young man does wrong, and we find countless justifications. Even in this day and age, society looks for a way to erase male blame, instead placing it on women. But the dialogue is beginning to shift, building on the work of my mother and her peers.

New generations of young men understand that the power of decency and respect lies in their hands. While safety is always paramount, we can no longer have sympathetic, defensive attitudes of rapists.