I take a pretty hard line against celebrities — or anyone, for that matter — making light of rape, so you might be surprised to find that I’m not immediately against Charlize Theron‘s use of the word to describe what it feels like when the media intrudes on your life.
She made the statement during a conversation with Sky News in promotion of her new movie A Million Ways To Die In The West. The interviewer was reading out headlines that come up when you Google her name, and Charlize said that she avoids searching her name because of the feelings it provokes in her:
“I don’t [Google myself] — that’s my saving grace. When you start living in that world, and doing that, you start feeling raped.”
The interviewer gives her an opportunity to walk back her answer by saying, “That — that strong?”, but she doesn’t take it, instead responding:
“Well, when it comes to your son and your private life…maybe that’s just me. Some people might relish in all of that stuff. But there are certain things in my life that I think of as very sacred, and I’m very protective over them.”
If you’re feeling offended right now, you’re not wrong. Any reaction to Charlize’s statement is valid, because rape is a very strong word to use. But sometimes it can be a knee-jerk reaction to assume it’s being misused, and we have to be careful with that. Myself as much as anyone.
I stand behind the fact that Jennifer Lawrence should not have so flippantly referred to her ‘rape scream‘ when excitedly greeting Alfonso Cuaron at a party, but for me this is a more nuanced situation. In that case, I believe that Jennifer intended to shock by using the wrong word for the situation, while in Charlize’s case, I believe she intended to shock by using the right word.
First of all, it’s important to understand that although it’s primarily (and most strongly) associated with nonconsensual sexual intercourse, the word ‘rape‘ has secondary meanings as well, namely:
an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation
And when we’re talking about the word ‘raped’, the potential meanings expand even further to contain:
to seize, take, or carry off by force.
Once you have those definitions in mind, consider the fact that the articles that Charlize is talking about aren’t your standard missive critiquing her performance in a movie or recapping what she wore to an award show.
Because Charlize is a celebrity, some of her rights and expectations of privacy have been seized — or plundered, despoiled, violated, or abused — by the media. Every facet of her life is considered up for grabs, so you can look at pictures of her son and rant about his adoption (even leaking details, if you’re that kind of judge and you’re in the mood) or the color of his skin, speculate on the causes for the end of her nine-year relationship with Stuart Townsend, clamor for the end of her relationship with Sean Penn (as I have, loudly), rehash the murder of her verbally abusive, alcoholic father at the hands of her terrified mother in 1991, admire her body, discuss what you’d do if you ever had Charlize naked in a room, and, if you’re dedicated enough to your cause, probably find her phone number, home address, and potentially hack into her computer or voicemail. Information that you might not have on your closest friend, strangers have access to about Charlize, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
Only if someone steps over the line into printing something that is patently untrue or actually threatening bodily harm can Charlize take the step of pursuing legal action. Her rights have been carried away with her celebrity, and her life has been stripped bare under the gaze of the media. I’ve never experienced it myself, but just writing this piece and realizing how many pieces of information and photos are out there, I’m overcome with a pervasive feeling of a powerlessness and helplessness on Charlize’s behalf. I can’t imagine what that feels like, but I can understand, if not appreciate, her choice of words.
…or, who knows, she might have been being just as glib as Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart before her, and this whole exploration has been an exercise in futility. All I know is that it feels different to me.