Two crucial elements are missing in the conversation around Kobe Bryant, his death and sexual assault allegation. What can feminists learn from this?
Star NBA player and beloved celebrity Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on 26th January, sending shockwaves through the US and triggering an outpouring of grief, nostalgia and affection from the black diaspora across the world. An hour or so later, a mere blip in the otherwise near continuous stream of grieving social media messages, one may have noticed short, almost brusque reminders that he had been accused of commiting a rape in 2003. This allegation ultimately did not go to criminal prosecution, since the victim refused to testify, and was settled for an unknown amount in a civil settlement. In the noise of the internet, they were almost whispers – expressions of support for an unnamed survivor who would now have to witness the whole world rhapsodizing over what a great athlete he was, and others deciding to log off since the hypocrisy seemed unbearable. It may have ended there, but a Washington Post reporter linked to a Daily Beast report about the rape accusation and subsequent events on twitter, and all hell broke loose on her timeline. While a few endorsed her tweet, she was deluged with condemnation, rage, rape threats, death threats, and a tidal wave of hate for daring to besmirch the memory of a man people sincerely grieved. The reporter was suspended the next day, which in turn revived the controversy.
Enough and more think pieces, social media statements and hot takes have been written about how this should be processed, calling for remembrance of him as a flawed man, reminding the public that great men do bad things etc. This piece is not adding to the commentary on Kobe Bryant’s memory itself. Rather, I wish to draw attention of, particularly, feminists, to the reaction itself – and what a strong case it presents for revising some of our cherished notions. By feminists here I refer to people who recognise that the threat of sexual violence is one of the strongest factors that perpetuate inequality for women and therefore actively interested in the safety of women and girls from sexual violence, not just anyone who ‘identifies’ as a feminist. The two groups are not necessarily the same.
As the controversy has roiled, there has been no shortage of reflections by writers, pundits, and even well meaning commentators on how the part of Bryant’s history relating to the rape case must be handled. Some call for forgiveness, others appeal to look at the totality of his life, others say he made amends and was a complex character, some point out he apologised. Collectively, most of us had one perspective or another on how Bryant’s actions should be judged. In this group, I’m not including those who dismissed the victim as lying or simply stopped with pointing out that he had not been convicted. (This despite a damning medical report reporting vaginal lacerations and the victim’s blood on Bryant’s shirt). Rather, I’m referring to those who did read the reportage of the medical report and the preliminary investigation and are subjectively satisfied that it was more likely than not that Bryant had raped the victim and choked her. Among this group, a large proportion have waxed lyrical about how society should now treat his memory.
Missing in all of this? The victim’s voice. Consider that the group I’m talking of did not dismiss her outright – rather they do to some extent believe the victim, and are only opining on what Bryant’s posthumous treatment should be. This is hardly surprising – in almost all civilized countries today, the criminal justice system, from which most of us take our social cues whether we recognize it or not, considers a crime as an act against society. This societal investment is reflected in the fact that the State prosecutes crimes, and prosecution is handled by a public office, while civil grievances are handled by the aggrieved parties themselves. So naturally, society is having a collective moment of judgment over Bryant.
The victim? No one is really bothering to ask her what her feelings are. Has she forgiven him? Does she feel inclined to, in light of his sudden death? Has anyone factored in how much of an impact that act (assuming it occurred) had on her life, when philosophising about whether his attempts at amends, his devoted adoration of his daughters, his charity work, can make up for it? No. In our current system, the victim is a witness, a grieving face in the courtroom, a compensatory cheque. All of us supplant our judgments of the criminal/accused over the victim. After all, why wouldn‘t we? It’s what our systems have trained us to do, to believe that it is our disapprobation that matters the most.
But you may wonder, isn’t this true of all crimes? Why is this in any way significant, or even an argument, you may ask. What is the point? This system is good, some may argue, because it focuses on societal good. Placing the victim as the primary stakeholder in these conversations, is, even to many feminists, a step too far. They believe utterly that justice, whatever that may mean, is not about the victims, but about the overall societal good. They repeat that the criminal and attendant social sanctions should not be in service of the victim, but in service of society. But let’s take another look at where this leads, particularly in the context of crimes against women where societal sympathy is superficial and insincere – ie, everyone is technically against rape and violence against women but when there is an actual accusation/case, the victim is dissected, humiliated and dismissed summarily, or, her pain and trauma minimized in favour of the ‘bright future’ or family and loved ones of the criminal. In a society, globally, that pays lip service to condemning violence against women while opposing or reducing the impact of every actual attempt to do so, the concept of the victim as merely a prop in the justice system leads to a society where their voices, pain and trauma is rendered invisible, and only society’s priorities, in terms of culture, memory, masculinity, rape culture, general violence etc are focused on.
While some feminists are angry now, staggered by the flippancy of some and the remote pontificating of others, it behoves us to ask ourselves how much we play a role in perpetuating this sidelining of victims. When a victim isn’t seen, rightfully, as the only person with the moral standing to forgive, to mitigate, or to accept compensation, you are deluged with sombre rebukes by the unaffected, and a swell of pity for the perpetrators of violence against women in a society which is always too reluctant to disapprove of its heroes. Society as a whole may never treat the perpetrators of violence against women with the condemnation and disapproval it merits, if only because that would implicate much of society. When feminists indulge, accept and approve of a justice framework that relies on society’s outrage, society’s voice won’t amplify the suffering of female victims, but instead deny them of their valid place in the discussion of how a criminal should be treated. Whether this is, at all, conducive to building a society where victims of sexual violence are treated with respect and sympathy, and perpetrators with necessary condemnation is something feminists will need to reconsider, in light of all that we’ve been taught.
Another lesson that the reaction to Kobe Bryant teaches us is about the importance of emotion, in advancing the cause of women and girls. Even among feminists there is a reluctance to acknowledge the role of and indeed the merit of emotion. We have been so conditioned by the surrounding rhetoric that emotion is bad that I see even feminist colleagues trying to downplay the role of emotion in their argument. While some advances have been made towards refuting the misogynistic trope that women’s anger or even outrage should not be caricatured as ‘hysterical’ or ‘irrational’, it is nevertheless buttressed by the idea that emotion is in opposition to rationality. Thus, we call out the inappropriate and wholly without basisbcultural tendency to use women’s capacity for emotion as an excuse to denigrate their rationality. In that refutation, we point out that women’s emotions don’t damage their capacity to be stable and rational, thereby implicitly acknowledging that emotion itself as an influence in decision making is to be eschewed. Consider the memes, fairly popular among online feminist communities, that show Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham, faces contorted in rage and fear, juxtaposed with images of a calm, almost neutral Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris – the implication being that far from women being the ones too emotional to be in political power, it was men. The underlying prejudice against emotion remains the same – there is a pushback against emotion as a factor, either denying its sway over a situation or arguing that it doesn’t detract from sound decision making.
What does this have to do with Bryant’s death and the surrounding discussion? A casual observer would have observed even notable feminists grieving his death, paying homage to him, speaking highly of his life and legacy. Surely, these women aren’t rape apologists. Then why the adulation towards Bryant? Much as we like to believe that our outrage, anger and condemnation towards grievous crimes is a rational response, and we would like to believe that we should respond rationally, the truth is our responses to crimes are very much a product of our emotions, and not at all a purely logical response. For those of us with little knowledge of, and subsequently emotional attachment to, Kobe Bryant, and a greater emotional commitment to survivors of violence, it is easy to judge Bryant and be revolted by the unremitting adulation. For those with a much more significant emotional attachment to Bryant itself, despite their lifelong work as feminists, their principles, and their undoubted principled commitment to survivors of violence, it is much harder to condemn Bryant or be comfortable with the renewed spotlight on the rape case. This is not necessarily a betrayal, it is simply their minds warring with their hearts, the love for a beloved basketball star and icon of the African American community dwarfs the sympathy and logical, decent outrage on behalf of the survivor. And that’s okay. It does however tell feminists what to expect in the response to rape – that it is not simply rape culture, or stricter laws, or even better enforcement that will build a society conducive to and supportive of survivors. At the end of the day, it is the emotional empathy for a rape survivor that enables some of us to prioritize their suffering and fight for justice, not merely values or rights. It is the deep, visceral identification with the trauma of women who’ve suffered that enables us to push for a more woman-friendly society, not merely a logical acknowledgment of pain. By trying to downplay the role of emotion in our decision making, even as feminists, by excusing it or denying it, or asserting its insignificance, we may well be doing ourselves a large disservice. Perhaps this is a good time to confront that just as society’s reaction towards violent men is primarily based on it’s emotional investment in them, so too, should we embrace the importance of emotion in building a better world for women.