Grrl Activistas – an introduction

Aoife McBride of the campaigning group 'Grrl Activistas' explains the group's aims and how the group started.

, 16 May 2002

Update May 2006: Please note since this article was published in 2002 Grrl Activistas is no longer active.

Grrl Activistas is an online, international organization, which campaigns

against the media’s mis-representation of rape, sexual abuse, and sexual

assault. We do this by researching and creating emails in response to

complaints about misrepresentation sent to us by our membership. We then ask

our members to forward these emails, creating a protest of some volume against

each individual incident.

I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. It has been a year since I first

attempted to find online resources for survivors. I found the excellent site,

and became an active member of the community there, Pandora’s Aquarium.

Participation within this group piqued my interest in the wide range of issues

that face survivors.

Grrls was the product of procrastination. I first had the idea whilst taking

a break from writing up my MSc thesis. Christine and Neil Hamilton and just

been accused of sexual assault by Nadia Milroy-Sloan and the media –

particularly but not exclusively the Red Tops – wasted little time in

attempting to us her status as a single mother and council tenant to discredit

her. This provoked a flurry of commentary in the Aquarium. Many of the

survivors there expressed anger that the media routinely questioned the

veracity of survivor testimony on the basis of spurious reasoning and apparent

prejudice. Also of concern was the portrayal of survivors and their issues in

television and film drama.

Crimes already

shrouded in secrecy and shame and further marginalized by their representation

as trivial or false occurrences.

The apparent disproportionate presence of storylines in television programs

that support so-called false memory syndrome, depict women who ‘cry rape’, and

describe the aftermath of rape as recoverable-from seemingly within weeks,

causes serious emotional distress to survivors. More dangerously, it also

serves to reinforce societal myths that surround rape and sexual assault; that

women are likely to lie about rape, that rape isn’t ‘that bad’, that rape

survivors who pursue healing are self-indulgent, and that therapists are likely

to try to inculcate their patients with ‘false memories’. Crimes already

shrouded in secrecy and shame and further marginalized by their representation

as trivial or false occurrences. The widespread promulgation of theses

inaccuracies surely impacts the treatment survivors receive from the police,

courts, colleagues and friends. All of these institutions are composed of

individuals who are exposed to the mass media.

Television shows such as EastEnders are congratulated for their

‘grittily realistic’ portrayal of issues of sexual violence. The

EastEnders publicity machine is, at the time of writing, cranking into

gear to promote the representation of the trial of Little Mo, who murdered her

husband after enduring years of domestic violence, including sexual violence.

The Slater family, of which Mo is a member, has suffered terribly from such

assaults. Two of the five younger women have now been raped, one has borne a

child as a result of rape, and one was conceived as a result of this incest.

The show elicited a mixed response from Grrls members. Some viewed is as

positive that sexual abuse was shown as having a long-term and significant

effect on its vicitims, others felt that the issues were superficially handled

in an obvious bid for higher ratings. Members reacted angrily to the hyping of

rape as a blockbuster ratings event.

Taken together this presents a

very misleading impression of the justice system, the time taken to pursue a

rape charge, and the likelihood of a guilty verdict.

Hollyoaks is another British TV show that has drawn criticism from

Grrls members. Over the last few years the show has depicted three rapes. Mandy

Cunningham ran away after she was raped by her father, the culmination of a

lifetime of incest; Luke Morgan was raped by a gang of three bullies; and Beth

Morgan, Luke’s sister, was raped by a professional footballer. In the first two

instances the perpetrators were prosecuted and found guilty, in the latter the

perpetrator was prosecuted and found not guilty. Taken together this presents a

very misleading impression of the justice system, the time taken to pursue a

rape charge, and the likelihood of a guilty verdict. It is difficult to

challenge such representations because, although not an accurate depiction of

the majority of survivors’ experiences, the scenarios are possible. In print

media interviews given by Hollyoaks staff and production team members,

the storylines are presented as carefully researched segments designed to

provoke viewers in similar circumstances to seek help, as well as to entertain

the majority. Grrls refutes this. In none of the Hollyoaks rapes did

the victim need to seek counselling, or significantly display PTSD [Post

Traumatic Stress Disorder] or other known aftermath behaviours.

The sense of profound disappointment that survivors feel at such

representations should not be underestimated. They report feeling confusion

that they cannot recover from violence as quickly as the character on

television and feel less likely to name their experiences when they see the

semantic leaps TV characters make in order to avoid the words ‘rape’ and

‘abuse’. Many feel ashamed that they cannot speak out in the manner that

fictional characters do, and criticise the misleading depictions of court and

legal procedures. Grrl Activistas provides a way for survivors to ask for the

television and cinema they want to see, and to protest against that which

disempowers them.

The internet has facilitated the creation of communities focussed on

single-issues. Survivors come online to gain support through chatrooms and

message boards and to gather and produce information. Despite our geographical

distance [Grrls has staff members from Scotland, Belgium, the USA and

Australia, and members from Germany, France, England, Wales, Ireland, Canada,

Holland, and Spain], internet communication technologies have made it possible

for us to come together to pursue a common goal.

Grrls can be described as broadly feminist in conception and ideology,

although an inability to subscribe to a feminist ideology does not preclude

participation. Staff and members hold a diverse range of opinions on many

related issues: we have pro and anti-pornography members, a wide range of

responses to freedom of speech and censorship, and different comments made with

regard to individual newspaper articles and television programs. We emphasise

that members are under no obligation to forward any mails that they do not

personally agree with.

I feel that Grrls offers an opportunity to survivors that have hitherto been

voiceless. Women and men who find it impossible to challenge the thoughtless

caricatures of sexual violence in their day-to-day lives can join with us and

be heard. I believe that healing from violence involves honouring both

ourselves and our fellow human beings. Grrls is an excellent way for us to look

out for ourselves.

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