Rape Culture and Disney Princesses: Part I

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I would like to start out by saying I am a HUGE fan of Disney/Pixar animated films. While growing up, I often wondered when I would stop enjoying cartoons. Well, that day has yet to come; however, over time as I became a psychologist and a feminist, I began to notice troubling messages in my beloved stories. Something I have noticed more and more over time is how rape culture rears its ugly head, even in entertainment designed for children. I do not blame Disney for creating or intentionally perpetuating rape culture. In fact, most of the stories involving the famous Disney Princesses are adapted from fairytales that are centuries old. I think the troubling messages that have shown up in these films over the years are a symptom of a much larger problem. Also, something as insidious as rape culture can stir up emotions in people that lead them to avoid discussing it. With that in mind, animated films can be a useful tool for making a difficult topic more accessible. Let’s discuss this problem of rape culture further and see how it shows up in some of the films that are dear to our hearts. This will be the first post in a two-part (possibly more) series on this topic.

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What is rape culture?

Before we can define rape culture, we must first define rape. While this might seem like a straightforward task, it becomes complicated when accounting for the legal implications of this definition. Rape is not merely a word. It is a legal term, which can determine the severity of a perpetrator’s punishment. When defining rape in a legal capacity, it actually depends on the state (as in the United States) in which the rape occurred. Fortunately, from a psychological perspective, our definition can focus on the victim/survivor of the rape, rather than on the consequences for the perpetrator. For that reason, we can consider a broader definition than the ones found in the judicial system. Therefore, we will define rape as sexual intercourse without consent. Sexual assault is a term often used interchangeably with rape; however, it is more of an umbrella term used to describe any unwanted sexual act ranging from rape, to unwanted touching, to verbal sexual harassment. If we think of sexual assault as a continuum, then rape would fall on the most extreme end of that continuum. All rapes are sexual assault, but not all sexual assaults are rape.

Now that we have an idea of what rape is, we can take a deeper look at rape culture. Rape culture occurs in any environment that makes it easier or more likely for rape or other types of sexual assault to occur. When exploring rape culture in America three themes often emerge: consent, victim-blaming, and gender roles. The misconceptions in these three areas are perpetuated, in part, by the images we are bombarded with on a daily basis. An extreme example is the common scene of a woman being attacked and sexually assaulted by a stranger in a dark alley or similar setting. This is the image that many people have when thinking about sexual assault, even though most sexual assaults look nothing like it. In this post we will explore the area of consent, and in Part II of this series we will explore victim-blaming and gender roles further.

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Consent

The predominant misconception regarding consent in our culture is the idea that consent is about saying “no.” Remember our woman being assaulted in the dark alley? How do we know she is being assaulted? She is yelling, trying to escape, and fighting back. When we are presented with this scenario repeatedly, we come to believe that there must be some sort of resistance, either verbal or physical, in order for something to fall under the umbrella of sexual assault. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consent is not about saying “no.” Consent is about saying “yes.” This actually really simplifies things if you think about it. Rather than having a dozen questions regarding if, how much, and how long a person resisted; there is only one question that needs to be asked: “Did the person consent?” Consent must be given. It must be un-coerced. It must be sober. Consent for one activity (e.g., holding hands) does not suffice as consent for another activity (e.g., kissing). Your relationship status with a person does not act as consent for sexual activity with that person. For example, being married to someone does not automatically mean you have consent to have sex with that person. Finally, it is the responsibility of the person initiating the activity to obtain consent for that activity. Let’s look to a few of our fairytale friends for examples.

Two obvious examples of issues with consent can be found in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. Both princesses are awakened from a spell by a kiss. In these movies the kiss is portrayed as being the very romantic climax of the story. And within the context of the story this line of thinking is pretty logical: “There is a princess under an evil spell, obviously she wants me to kiss her in order to save her from said spell.” However, this line of thinking does not translate into say, a party on a college campus: “There is a girl passed out on the couch. Obviously, she wants me to kiss her so that we can live happily ever after.”

This idea of consent also shows up in Ariel’s story: The Little Mermaid. Here we have a character who has literally lost her voice and there is an entire song of the film devoted to all of the reasons why Prince Eric should kiss her. There are even videos showing how creepy this song sounds when sung in a minor chord. This is not to say that there are no situations in which nonverbal cues can be used as consent. But once again, this complicates things. Nonverbal cues can easily be misinterpreted. Also, in Ariel’s story, I think it is important to point out that it is outside pressure from characters other than Ariel that are encouraging Prince Eric to kiss her. This is another common theme in sexual assault. Even if Ariel does want to kiss Eric, the situation makes it nearly impossible for him to be certain that she does.

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Also, the “Once Upon a Dream” scene from Sleeping Beauty provides another example of issues with consent. Prince Phillip is watching Aurora while she sings in the woods. He then comes out, surprises her, and grabs her hand repeatedly. Aurora is startled by him at first. Then she continually pulls her hand away from his as she tries to walk away. As a child, I loved this scene. They’re outside singing beautiful music surrounded by woodland creatures and they fall in love. As an adult, I want to shout at my screen “dude, let go of the woman’s hand! Oh wait, now they’re in love…” This scene taps into an important myth regarding consent: if at first you don’t succeed, pressure the person until he/she gives in. This is not obtaining consent. It is coercion. Remember, consent must be given freely without being pressured or coerced.

In part two of this series, we will dive into two other areas of misconception that perpetuate rape culture: victim-blaming and gender roles.

References and Resources

U.S. Department of Justice. 2005, 2007, 2015 National Crime Victimization Survey.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. 2011.

Buchwald, E., Fletcher, P., & Roth, M. (1995). Transforming a Rape Culture. Milkweed Editions: Minneapolis, MN.

R.A.I.N.N. (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network)  http://www.rainn.org/statistics

Easton, A., Summers, J., Tribble, J., Wallace, P., & Lock, R. (1997). College women’s perceptions regarding resistance to sexual assault. Journal of American College Health, 46, 127-131.

Murnen, S. K., & Kohlman, M. H. (2007). Athletic participation, fraternity membership, and sexual aggression among college men: A meta-analytic review. Sex Roles, 57, 145-157.

Lisak, D., & Miller, P. (2002). Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists. Violence and Victims, 17(1), 73-84.

Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., Ruggiero, K. J., Conoscenti, L. M., & McCauley, J. (2007). Drug facilitated, incapacitated and forcible rape: A national study. Charleston, SC: National Crime Victims Research & Treatment Center.

 

Photo Credits
Tiara
Rape Culture Sign
Indecision dice
Sleeping Beauty
Little Mermaid

 

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What is Forgiveness?

Forgiveness is something that comes up pretty often in therapy. Folks often view it as something they “should” do or “can’t” do. I actually know a good deal about forgiveness as it was my dissertation topic. However, as with many complex topics, the more I learn about forgiveness, the less I know. Since forgiveness is so complex, this will be the first in a series of posts on the subject. I am passionate about making research understandable for laypeople. Too often there is a huge divide between psychological research and applying it to real life. My goal with this series is to make a complex topic understandable for people so that they can move toward the life they want to have.

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In doing my readings for dissertation, I was struck by how quick authors are to identify what forgiveness is not. For example, most researchers agree that forgiveness is different from forgetting, condoning, excusing, pardoning, or reconciling. In other words, you can forgive someone even though you still remember what they did. You can forgive someone even though you do not support or agree with what they did. You can forgive someone even though you allow them to suffer the consequences of their actions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can forgive someone even though you have discontinued your relationship with them. These things are related to forgiveness and often coincide with forgiveness; however, it is important to remember that they are not the same thing as forgiveness and they are not necessary for forgiveness to occur.

Ok, so now we have an idea of what forgiveness is not. Let’s talk about the definition of forgiveness that all researchers agree upon. *Insert long pause with chirping crickets.* There’s the rub. There actually isn’t a definition of forgiveness that everyone agrees upon. That is one of the things that makes forgiveness so complicated. People are using the same word to describe different things! There are nearly as many definitions of forgiveness as there are researchers on the subject. Furthermore, remember all of those things that I listed above that researchers agree are different from forgiveness (e.g., forgetting)? Well, when you ask most laypeople what they think forgiveness is, they often will give a definition that includes forgetting, pardoning, etc. So researchers can’t agree with each other on what forgiveness is and researchers and laypeople definitely don’t agree on what forgiveness is. In the words of Peg Plus Cat, “we’ve got a really BIG PROBLEM!” But all is not lost. Even though researchers and laypeople can’t agree on specific definitions of forgiveness, there are similarities between definitions that can help us have an idea of what the heck we are talking about.

First, forgiveness is a process. It is something that unfolds over time. In most instances, forgiveness does not happen automatically or instantly after someone has been wronged. As for the steps in the process, there are a number of different theories as to how many steps and what they are. Something that Dr. McCullough (a forgiveness guru) and his colleagues have done is to divide the steps of forgiveness into two phases: 1) letting go and 2) moving on. The first phase is the letting go phase, which is considered a more passive phase. It involves a decrease in negative feelings such as anger or resentment toward the wrongdoer. It also is comprised of a decrease in thoughts or actions involving revenge. For example, let’s say I received news that someone who had hurt me in the past recently got a new job. If I were not in the process of forgiving that person, then I might feel angry and think ,”I hope they get fired.” Whereas if I were in the letting go phase of forgiveness, I would not have these thoughts and feelings. This first phase is characterized by and absence of negativity. The second phase of forgiveness is the moving on phase and it is much more active. It involves an increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the wrongdoer. If I were in the moving on phase and heard the news about my wrongdoers new job, I might think, “I am happy for her.” This phase is characterized by the presence of positivity.  

Now, something interesting that I noticed in my dissertation research was the tendency for some sort of event to occur between the letting go and moving on phase. I might run into the wrongdoer for the first time in a long time. The wrongdoer might reach out for an apology. I could hear a song that reminds me of what happened. Over and over in my research and my clinical practice I have heard people say, “well I thought I had forgiven, but then X happened.” It seems people tend to stay in the letting go phase of forgiveness until they are somehow reminded of what was done to them. When this happens, for some people it prompts them to shift into the moving on phase. For other people, it is not so simple or quick. This leads to another conundrum. If forgiveness is a process, then what is the endpoint of that process? How do you know when you’ve “arrived” at total and complete forgiveness? As I mentioned before, people oftentimes think they have forgiven someone only to find they actually have not. Again, this is another question about forgiveness without a clear answer.

I could go on and on about the different factors that can influence the forgiveness process (e.g., characteristics of the relationship, characteristics of the person who was wronged, or the wrongdoing itself); but this is where we will wrap up for today. My hope as you read this is that you will get a glimpse into how complex forgiveness is. I think in our culture people often feel pressured to forgive others quickly and easily. There are a number of reasons why forgiveness is a healthy choice. However, I think it is important to remember that when we use the word forgiveness, people often mean different things. I also think it is easy to underestimate and oversimplify what forgiveness requires of the forgiver. If you are struggling to forgive someone, remember to show yourself the same compassion and kindness that you are attempting to show the person who wronged you. We will pick up here next time in the second part of this series.

References and Resources:

Enright, R., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000) Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.; 2000), Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Guilford Press.

E. L. Worthington, Jr. (Ed.; 2005), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 557–573). New York: Routledge.

Special thanks to my dissertation committee:

Dr. Amy Peterman, Dr. Charlie Reeve, Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, Dr. Richard Tedeschi, and Dr. Edward Weirzalis

Post-election Stress

Despite the ideological divisions in our country, one thing we can all agree on is that this election cycle has been exceptionally stressful. The ITA founder, Dr. Yael Gold, was recently interviewed by WECT News regarding post-election stress. Dr. Gold provided helpful strategies for managing stress related to the election as well as signs that may suggest seeking help from a professional would be beneficial. A link to her interview is below. We hope our followers will find this information helpful in managing their own post-election stress.

Dr. Gold Discusses Tips for Post-election Stress

Introducing Dr. Amanda D’Angelo

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Hi, my name is Dr. D’Angelo, but most people call me Amanda. I am a clinical health psychologist. In a nutshell, I work with people to be the best, healthiest versions of themselves they can be, both inside and out. For the more scientific version of what my title means, click here. To read my professional profile on the ITA website, click here. You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

The Healing Insights blog is a collaborative effort between all of the practitioners here at ITA. We started it for many reasons and each of us brings our own set of knowledge, skills, and talent to the blog. That being said, I would like to share my personal vision for my contributions to the blog. First, I want to use my expertise to help as many people as possible. This includes current, past, and future clients. It also includes other healthcare providers such as physicians, psychiatrists, or other therapists. It also includes people interested in self-improvement that might not be ready (now or ever) for therapy.

Second, I would like to help reduce the stigma (i.e., negativity) of mental illness and of asking for help in general. It is common in our culture for people to think that asking for help is a sign of weakness, a sign of failure. In my work I have encountered many people who needed help. After all of my experiences, I can say without hesitation that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. If asking for help were easy, everyone would do it.

I also want to make psychology accessible and enjoyable for laypeople. In case you didn’t already pick up on this, I’m kind of a geek and really enjoy talking and thinking about all things psychology. It’s only the most fascinating subject ever! It is the perfect blend of science and art, the concrete and the abstract, research and practice. I hope there are others out there who would enjoy taking a few minutes out of their day to geek-out with me, be stretched out of their comfort zones, and possibly even learn something.

As for my contributions to the blog, I intend on them reflecting my interests as a therapist and a person. I do a lot of work with survivors of sexual trauma. As a result, I am passionate about promoting a culture where a healthy sex life is possible for everyone. This may seem like a straightforward notion, but there are so many components of our culture that undermine people’s sexuality. I look forward to uncovering some of these and discussing them in my posts. Also, you may be surprised to find the number of topics that intersect with sexuality: body image, social justice, gender roles, university culture, reproductive health, religion/spirituality, consent, substance use, feminism, sports, and the legal system just to name a few! My personal interests include the performing arts, children’s books/films, NPR (Science Friday!), and outdoor activities. I will be looking for ways to incorporate these into my posts as well.

It looks like we have lots to explore together through this blog. I am looking forward to it!

Take care & be well,

Dr. D

Coming Soon!

Hi all,

We are working hard behind the scenes to get our new blog up and running. We could not think of a better way to celebrate ITA’s 10th anniversary! We have a lot of exciting things in store for the blog. In the meantime, we will be working on sprucing things up on our page, so feel free to look around. We hope to see you back here for our first post from the ITA founder, Dr. Yael Gold.