Rape is the most grotesque form of violence men visit upon women. But in South Africa, where rape is endemic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a man who knows a rapist, let alone find one who’ll admit to seeing himself in the thoughts, words and actions of a rapist.
I’d become green around the gills. Something I’d eaten was doing a number on me. I needed a distraction from the agonising twisting in my stomach while I waited for the vet to run tests on my dog. He, too, was ailing.
With nothing else to go by, I picked The Help from a panel of other unfamiliar movies at the Cinema Nouveau, based purely on the cheery yellow poster. The film’s strap line, “change begins with a whisper”, also convinced me that I was about to watch something genial or, at worst, inoffensive. But almost immediately, the churning in my gut was accompanied by mental revulsion.
Many of the white characters in the film, set at the height of the civil rights movement in the US, were such grotesque and ghoulish representations of racism that they were barely recognisable as human. It was inconceivable that anybody who lived in the Deep South at the time would have seen in the white characters a reflection of their own actions or attitudes.
You can wager, too, that they could say, hand-on-heart, that they’d never met, first-hand, anybody like Hilly Holbrook, the film’s ludicrously racist racist. Because if history has taught us anything, it’s that prejudice is perpetrated by a militant few in the name of a silent majority. Not every German was a Nazi, not every white settler hunted indigenous Australians, not every white South African supported the Nats.
So, too, not every South African man is a rapist.
I doubt highly that The Help was created to make those with quiescent prejudices or obliviousness to privilege aware of their own role in the system by having them identify with the characters, nor is it the first film to resort to these crude depictions of power, privilege and prejudice. As I mentioned, I was ill and the film turned out not to be the palliative I thought it to be.
Men in this country are also ill, but suffer a different sort of ailment. It’s a kind of somnambulism in how we respond to rape and other violence directed at women. Of course I generalise, but not grossly so.
When a group of boys and men record themselves gang-raping a 17-year-old girl they’d abducted and kept as a sex slave, men in this country shake their heads and wonder whose sons these are. Surely, we say, there must be something pathologically wrong with them. They were clearly raised differently from the rest of us.
But they were not. The incident, like other instances of rape, finds its origins in this society’s system of male dominance and cultural beliefs and practices that objectify, commodify and denigrate women. In this system, rape is not out of character, nor is it purely the domain of psychopaths. In this system, a cartoon of a man punching a woman goes viral and finding fault with it makes you guilty of “sensationalism”. In this system, women who complain about sexist T-shirts are obviously a bunch of lentil-eating, natural fibre-wearing man-haters.
In this system, we, men, see rapists as grotesque, ghoulish figures that are wholly unlike us or, for that matter, anyone we know and associate with. We puzzle over who these fiends could be and how they could have done such a thing. In this way, we sleepwalk our way through the march to stop rape. When we decry the act (and we do, loudly), we seldom question the system of male dominance and the cultural practices and beliefs that give men licence to rape, meaning we contribute little more than lip service to the cause.
I eventually recovered from my stomach bug. The pooch turned out to have allergies, but nothing that can’t be managed. But will we ever wake up, gents?
There’ve been a few waves of feminism that have startled the world awake to women’s rights. I hope, perhaps partially out of male guilt, that the next wave will have a representative male contingent. Men are not needed to end the system, practices and beliefs. The history of ending oppression has taught us that, too. But it sure would be nice, if only for posterity’s sake, if we were involved. DM
Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.
"I know of a cure for everything: salt water...in one way or the other. Sweat or tears or the salt sea." ~ Karen Blixen