I just read this news story about actress Kristen Bell saying that she never wants to play a “victim.” [1. I started this post before my friend died, which is why it’s a little outdated.]
The rhetoric surrounding the word “victim” is some that has constantly fascinated me. I often see it used in a disparaging sense, like above. And it raises a lot of questions.
I understand the desire by those who have been raped or abused to use the word “survivor” instead of “victim,” to take the focus away from what someone else did to them and gave them no choice about, to something positive that they themselves have accomplished. But let us be honest for a minute: is there more to it than that? Is there really something there that has to do with shame, with constant admonishments either directed specifically towards them or towards women everywhere, saying “don’t be a victim”? Is there a desire to get away from that embarrassing, horrible word? I tend to use the word “survivor” myself. And I have to wonder.
And if it’s about shame, about stepping away from “victim,” is there any way for there to not be a touch of self-blame in the reasoning?
I don’t know. I’m not saying that those who use the word “survivor” are all a bunch of self-blamers; I think those who use the word “survivor,” on average, have probably come the farthest by at least being able to acknowledge what was done to them and process it to a point of making a language transition. And I think that you can identify as “survivor” without wholly rejecting and dismissing “victim.” But the “victim” rhetoric still can’t be ignored.
“Don’t be a victim.” “I won’t be a victim.” “Women always want to play the victim.”
The insult in “victim” is that victims are weak and helpless. Victims are whiners, attention-seekers, cry-babies. They want to dwell on the negative.
Well I’ve got a question: haven’t we the right to cry, and seek attention, to seek acknowledgment? Who the hell is to tell us, all of these non-therapists, that we’re “dwelling” and that’s somehow wrong? Why is what someone else has done used as an example of our inability to fend for ourselves? And why are we considered weak? Are strong women not raped and abused? And so what if they weren’t? So what if only “weak” women were the ones to become victims?
Why identify “victim” so closely with “weak” if there’s not some sort of admonishment to take responsibility in there? After all, isn’t that exactly what’s behind the “women always want to play the victim” taunt/complaint? It’s saying that there is responsibility on behalf of women to be taken, and the problem is that the phrase is almost always used when the woman is in fact a victim. In those cases, it’s telling women to stand up and take responsibility for something over which they have none. It’s telling them to reject the idea that they were an innocent in the situation, even when they were. Telling them to reject “victim” is in fact telling them to reject the truth of their experience.
So yes, acting as though being a victim is a bad thing is in fact much of the time a way of simply blaming the victim.
Even those who sympathize with victims have a tendency to use language which treats us as something dirty and wrong. To be raped is to be “degraded,” to be “used.” Physical and sexual violence is supposed to destroy us, even cause an emotional death. And whether it does or doesn’t, we’re still reacting improperly in someone’s eyes. The fact is that my rapist attempted to degrade me, and as Melissa says, he degraded himself. But I was not degraded. I am not degraded. So is it any wonder that when we associate words like this with rape victims, that rape victims want to be victims even less than before?
Of course no one wants to become a victim in the first place. That’s just common sense. And of course we want women to be seen for more than victimhood; there is much more to us, our lives, our feelings, and our personalities than the instance(s) of violence and abuse we may or may not experience.
That doesn’t mean that victims be admonished or shamed for someone else’s actions, or expected to cover them up as an example of our own fortitude. It doesn’t mean that our stories don’t deserve to be told, among many. And it doesn’t mean that we should be seen as people lacking strength, as Kristin Bell explicitly frames us.
The only thing wrong with being a victim is the fact that someone else has inflicted suffering on us. Being a victim can happen to anyone. It happens for reasons entirely beyond our control and responsibility. And there is nothing wrong, or inadequate, or shameful, or weak about being one of the unfortunately many women who are able to claim the title.