Author Archives: Brandi Rogers

Generic Expectations and Misbehaving Narratives: The UVa Rape Story

Note: This is a co-authored post by Brandi Rogers (UW-Madison Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture) and Stephanie Larson (UW-Madison Composition and Rhetoric).

In November of 2014, Rolling Stone released the article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVa.” The article details the events of a brutal campus gang rape that took place at University of Virginia just after the start of the 2012 fall semester. Journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely recounted Jackie’s (pseudonym) horrifying account of a gripping sexual assault that was conducted by seven men over the course of three hours in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. Jackie was led upstairs by her date, a fellow classmate and co-worker, where he instructed seven other men to take turns having intercourse with Jackie, forcing oral sex, and even thrusting a beer bottle inside of her as an ostensible hazing ritual. Erdely contextualized the story within a long history of rape culture at UVa where a legacy of sexual violence remains masked by prestige, patriarchy, and a reputation reverberating the founding fathers in the midst of institutional indifference.

The original story, which has now been retracted from the magazine, faced critical commentary questioning the piece’s credibility immediately after its release. After the Washington Post among many news outlets chastised Erdely and the magazine for dubious journalistic ethics, Will Dana, managing editor of Rolling Stone, requested the help of Steve Coll from the Columbia School of Journalism to investigate the veracity of reporting, editing, and fact-checking. Coll and his team received no payment, and the report—released April 5, 2015—highlighted a number of journalistic errors centering around the following main problem: Erdely remained “too accommodating” of her sole source, Jackie, and should have been “tougher” on this rape victim. Mirroring the Washington Post’s initial critiques, Coll’s team concluded that the main problems of methodology and faulty fact checking, though intended to challenge institutional indifference, “may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”

As more information about Erdely’s process of choosing a source whose rape story would anchor her larger investigation into rape culture on college campuses has trickled out, it appears that Erdely began her search with a particular rape story in mind. In an interview conducted after Rolling Stone apologized for publishing the story, Will Dana admitted that “the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story.” Driven by the editorial staff’s conception of the problem of rape on college campuses, Erdely went in search of a story that was emblematic of women’s experiences living amid college rape culture. Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at NYU, remarks that “[t]he most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.” That Rolling Stone and Erdely began the investigation with a clear idea of the type of rape story that best reflects the experiences of rape victims on college campuses prompts us, as rhetorical scholars, to ask: Have rape narratives become a unique genre of discourse in their own right, complete with recurring tropes and predictable, required characteristics that we use both to recognize and to judge them by? If so, what tropes are necessary for a rape story to be heard and believed, and what happens to stories that do not fit the generic requirements?

Before embarking on an analysis of the UVa controversy, a bit of theoretical explanation is warranted. Simply put, we understand genre as a category of stories that display similar features or tropes. Genre allows audiences to sort, arrange, and make sense of stories, and genre serves as a resource for invention when authors craft new narratives. Audiences identify and judge the success of a story based on a familiarity with common, generic tropes and reoccurring exigencies. Put differently, if the narrative faithfully displays particular characteristics in a predictable order and number in a given cultural moment, audience expectations are met. For example, rhetorical scholar Judy Segal argues that stories of individual cancer survivorship have become a ubiquitous feature of public culture. Though breast cancer narratives work to inform the public, like other narrative genres, they also “evaluate and govern us,” writes Segal.[1] Because narratives constitute and perpetuate sets of norms and values, they influence how we think about breast cancer, including its causes, its victims, and its survivors, as well as what we do about cancer.  Similar to dominant breast cancer narratives, rape narratives like Jackie’s, can have a therapeutic and medical function, but they also support cultural and political interests, as activists use narratives to argue for or against kinds of political and institutional change.

Not unlike those journalists who first questioned Erdely’s reporting, we too were troubled–both by public attacks on Jackie and an uneasiness with the narrative itself. Something about the story felt “off,” but what exactly? Since the Columbia report, we tiptoe the line of agreeing with Coll’s assessment, yet we feel uncomfortable challenging the victim’s voice. As rhetorical scholars, this internal consternation drove us to consider the Rolling Stone controversy in greater detail. Our analysis of the controversy points to three major findings: 1) Individual rape testimonies comprise a unique narrative genre constituted by and predicated upon public expectations; 2) The rape narrative genre obfuscates institutional, communal, and even social culpability because of its myopic focus on the individual; and 3) We fear testimonies that don’t behave accordingly to generic conventions will remain silenced or when heard, be distrusted.

Falling in line with a legacy of narratives that determine how rape stories are told, Erdely centered her investigation of rape culture on a sensationalized recounting of one victim’s rape testimony. The rape story that Erdely sought out and chose as the centerpiece of her exposé included a robust menu of the generic tropes, including physical violence, intoxicants, rapist(s) born in and nurtured by misogynist institutions, and an innocent victim.  Even as Jackie’s testimony met every generic requirement–the event took place on an elite college campus, at a fraternity house, under the influence of alcohol, by an acquaintance-perpetrator, who facilitated a rape by several men as an initiation ritual, all the while both her friends and the institution failed to recognize Jackie’s assault–the bloat of generic tropes weighed down the narrative, tipping it into the realm of fiction. Although the victim’s story meets all of the generic expectations of a college rape narrative, and then some, Erdely’s retelling of it still managed to arouse suspicion. If scholars such as Segal are right to submit that narratives must abide by generic conventions that appeal to audience expectations, then the suspicion that this story aroused suggests generic misbehavior; perhaps its tropes are too numerous, too sensational, and thus, too unbelievable. Unfortunately, this, coupled with Erdely’s failure to follow up with other sources, led journalists and the public to distrust the narrative, blame the victim, and question the traumatized memory.

Furthermore, we suggest that though rape narratives generally seek to prove institutional culpability, they are incapable of doing this work in light of a series of tropes that pivot back to the individual. The narrative along with its perennial features distracts us from locating institutional responsibility. Erdely’s article and Coll’s report remain fixated on concerns over individual blame: the victim is to blame for not being truthful, and Erdely is to blame for relying too heavily on this victim. The rape genre is entangled in a web of assessing blame that relies on individual memory, traumatic recall, and personal responsibility. Within this case, we found a couple opportunities where advocates might have made the case against institutional indifference with respect to rape. While Erdely expresses the intention of exploring rape culture more broadly, as well as the institutions that insulate and perpetuate it, by foregrounding her investigation with a sensational rape narrative, she loses sight of her initial agenda. Ultimately, as the narrative collapses under scrutiny, so too does any larger argument about how culture, institutions, or communities enable and tolerate rape. Coll, on the other hand, is left to make sense of Erdely’s mishaps, but he, too, is unable to escape assessing the tropes of Jackie’s narrative. In doing so, his report implicitly stages an archetypal rape victim as inherently unbelievable.

The continued reliance on individual rape narratives as a method of getting at the problem of rape constrains our ability to talk about rape, and it elides other discursive approaches that might improve our understanding of rape. Erdely, the media controversy, and the Columbia report, while not intending to, inadvertently exacerbate our cultural tunnel vision on individual blame. More importantly, Erdely’s choice to focus on Jackie’s story, rather than another less sensational victim narrative, raises important questions about the power for narrative to give voice to those who have been silenced. Ultimately, we require a new means of apprehending rape, one that circumvents the generic demands and generic surveillance concomitant with rape narratives today, one that de-sutures the binds between rape and individual blame. Having exposed how these narratives are packaged into a genre that insists on a set of conventions grounded in personal responsibility in the face of institutional bulwark, we are left to consider how to craft new rhetorical approaches, ones mutually capable of tackling institutional culpability without also silencing victims.

[1] Judy Z. Segal, “Breast Cancer Narratives as Public Rhetoric: Genre Itself and the Maintenance of Ignorance,” Linguistics & the Human Sciences 3, no. 1 (April 2007): 3–23.


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Trapped Between Life, Death, and the Politics of Abortion: The Marlise Muñoz Case

This week Texas takes center stage, yet again, in the political battle over a woman’s right to choose. A Texas judge begins hearing arguments today in the case of Eric Muñoz v. John Peter Smith Hospital. At the heart of this latest controversy is the Muñoz family, who for the last eight weeks has been fighting to exercise the wishes of Marlise Muñoz. Their struggle began on the morning of November 26, 2013 when Muñoz collapsed onto the floor of her Fort Worth, Texas, kitchen after suffering what doctors believe was a blood clot in her lungs.  The clot rendered her motionless and left her brain without oxygen for over an hour before her husband discovered her. Paramedics transported her to nearby John Peter Smith Hospital where she was placed on life support and pronounced “brain dead” by her physician. According to the Muñoz family, before her collapse, Marlise, a former paramedic, made her wishes clear: She didn’t want to be kept alive on life support should the situation ever arise. However, her family was stunned to learn that the hospital would not comply with her wishes. At the time of her collapse, Marlise was 14 weeks pregnant. Hospital officials explained that in accordance with Texas state law, a pregnant woman cannot be removed from life support. Texas is one of more than two dozen states that restricts the removal of life support systems to a pregnant woman. That Munoz’s fetus is still weeks away from reaching potential viability outside of the womb is inconsequential in the face of a law that requires that “life-sustaining treatment” not be withdrawn from a woman in any stage of pregnancy.

While the outcome of this case will likely determine the scope of Texas women’s rights, the case also deserves attention for what it reveals about the rhetorical dimensions of medicine and science. As the family’s fate hangs in the balance, medical experts and social advocates, perched in a variety of political camps, grapple with the definitions of life and death. In 1968, following a public announcement of a committee of Harvard medical faculty in the Journal of the American Medical Association, death was officially defined as the non-functioning, or death, of the brain. Medically speaking, Muñoz is dead; because her brain is unable to maintain even the most basic of bodily processes, her vital bodily functions, including the pumping of her heart and respiration of her lungs, are sustained by a complex of medical devices. However, the Muñoz case reveals the rhetorical indeterminacies that animate even the most objective fields of inquiry: science and medicine.

Definitions do more than attempt to describe objective reality, definitions argue. As numerous rhetorical scholars have demonstrated, definitions not only shape the meaning of things, they also advance arguments and are politically inflected with personal, social, and institutional interests. Advances in medical science and technology introduce new ethical and rhetorical dilemmas and hence require reevaluation of operative terms. Indeed, the redefinition of medical death in 1968 came on the heels of the first successful heart transplant.[i] In the wake of the procedure, questions about the details of the donor’s death swirled. Had her heart stopped before doctors took her off of the respirator, asked reporters? This question points to the still widely held belief that the presence of a heartbeat indicates life. Ultimately, the case prompted public reflection on the meaning of death and exposed ambiguities in the medical definition of death. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 1968 Harvard committee that convened to examine the “problems of the hopelessly unconscious” arrived at a definition of death that was extremely favorable to organ transplantation—not an unsurprising conclusion considering their stated goal of “advancing the cause of organ transplantation.” In most cases medical death is fairly easy to identify; brain, heart, and other bodily functions expire conterminously. Muñoz and similar high profile controversies, such as the protracted, thirteen-year battle over Terri Schiavo’s life, challenge our otherwise straightforward understanding of death.

Both the Muñoz and Schiavo cases illuminate how the act of defining something, even something as taken for granted as death, harbors political, as well as personal, consequences. As rhetorical scholar Edward Schiappa suggests, definitional ruptures occur when the status of a word is challenged. When advocates champion new definitions, they seek to alter the behavior of specific audiences.[ii] By defining death as brain death, for example, the 1968 Harvard committee sought to anticipate and quiet public fears surrounding organ donation. However, the definitional clarity achieved within the technical field of medicine has not eliminated disputes over the meaning of bodily death, as the Muñoz case makes clear, and medical notions of death often collide with lay understandings of bodily death. Indeed, the medical language itself invites misunderstanding. In medicine, though brain death is death, the term suggests an incomplete, or partial death—the failure of an organ, but not death of the entire organism, and “life support” suggests the opposite, that there is still life within the body. The language gives hope for recovery. Among those not trained in medicine, the absence of other vital signs such as a heartbeat or breathing, signify death. But in cases like Muñoz’s where two heartbeats exist in a body still capable of supporting fetal life, for some, the medical pronouncement of death appears inaccurate or premature.

For pro-life advocates, the relationship between life and the presence of a heartbeat is of great importance. Legislation newly introduced in several states by pro-life advocates seeks to outlaw abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Although the meaning of life, as opposed to death, generally takes center stage in the abortion debate, Muñoz’s case situates death at the center of this increasingly high-stakes contest. Weakening or complicating the link between the presence of a heartbeat and the unequivocal existence of life could potentially disturb the essential connection that pro-life advocates hope to build in the public imaginary between these two phenomena. For the Muñoz family, definitional ruptures are made painfully real. They accept the medical definition of death and argue that because Marlise is deceased, she should no longer be considered a treatment-receiving patient of the hospital and is, therefore, not subject to the laws prohibiting hospitals from denying pregnant women life-sustaining treatments. Marlise Muñoz’s body unmasks the oft hidden reality that, even within the technical spheres of medicine and science, the practices of naming and defining phenomena frequently exceed the boundaries of objective, apolitical observation and rather are informed by a range of personal and political agendas. Trapped in a definitional gray area, neither alive nor dead, Marlise Muñoz’s story serves as testament to the ways in which anti-abortion laws both constrain an individual’s bodily autonomy and grant sovereignty over an individual’s body to the legal and medical establishments.

[i] Mita Giacomini, “A Change of Heart and a Change of Mind? Technology and the Redefinition of Death in 1968,” Social Science and Medicine 44 (1997): 1465-1482.

[ii] Edward Schiappa, Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003).

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