The Brock Turner Effect

It’s the case that took the internet by storm, raising questions about the conviction of sexual assault offenders, rape-culture and white-privilege. The Brock Turner case garnered a significant amount of public criticism, represented by a vast selection of media outlets including an official Wikipedia page. and Sydney Morning Herald’s Clementine Ford, Buzzfeed’s Katie Baker, The Independent’s Susan Svrluga have produced varying representations of the case through their ‘views’ journalism or opinion pieces that outline different aspects of each party—the judge, the victim and the convicted. Each piece however brings forward the underlying issues of reporting and sentencing sexual assault that have been scrutinised by the public.

The issue that garnered so much attention to this case is highlighted in Ford’s article that Brock Turner’s charges were lightly punished because he didn’t look like society’s stereotypical rapist. His mugshots were reportedly impossible to find, and all there was of Turner were yearbook photos and content snapshots of his pro-athlete life (Ford, 2016). What the public noticed, was that the ‘sex offender’ under investigation was as a young, promising swimmer on a scholarship at the prestigious Stanford University, with his supportive parents to provide his privileged white background. His dream of being an Olympian which he worked so hard for was apparently tarnished after a scandal with a half-naked girl at a frat party, unleashing the public criticism that Turner’s sentence was a condescending representation of rape-culture (Sklar, 2016).

Brock Turner’s sentence would become a characterisation of the white-privilege society that dominates the justice system, represented by the vast majority of publications slamming Turner’s allegations as offensive, myopic and tone-deaf whilst the victim’s personal letter was moving, powerful and searing (Miller, 2016; Sklar, 2016). The victim herself made it clear that his background and circumstances had significant control over a case which should have been treated like any other rape case—her argument stating that a campus environment, alcohol, lack of criminal history and future prospects shouldn’t alter the grounds of his conviction (Svrluga, 2016).

Source: The Independent [Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail in controversial circumstances]
Source: The Independent [Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail in controversial circumstances]
Although just one of the hundreds and thousands of opinions written on the case, most authors were quick to present Turner as a convicted felon who received special privileges, through their language and image choices. The Independent’s article in discussion placed Turner’s mugshot before their written piece, the image that was so hard to find amongst all his athletics and yearbook photos.

 Source: The Independent [Brock Turner (Dan Honda/Associated Press)]
Source: The Independent [Brock Turner (Dan Honda/Associated Press)]
The representational meaning of Turner is evident with this powerful image— the low quality, serious facial expression, bloodshot-eyes, grey background, sweatshirt attire, dishevelled hair and image frame that is all so common with mugshots. If this isn’t clear enough, the next photo of him below also represented the circumstances of a guilty defendant—the candid mid-shot moment of him from an odd angle, out in the public in Sunday clothes avoiding eye-contact with what is presumed to be the mass number of journalists and activists trying to capture a reaction.

Evidently, Svrluga wants us to see Brock Turner as a guilty criminal from these aspects of the included images. Where the author wants us to develop a particular viewpoint of Turner and the conviction, there are a few linguistic patterns, similarly identified by Montgomery (1995, p. 245). Svrluga places respectable terms such as “fair”, “smart”, “well respected in the legal community”, “believed” “genuine remorse” in regards to Turner, to “shocked ”and “appalled” by the sentence that shows “guilt”, “shame” causing “hardship” on the victim. What was even more interesting, is that the author began referring to Turner as a “Stanford University varsity swimmer”, “freshman” and even just “Brock Turner” in the lead up to sentencing that caused the scrutiny. The victim, was first described as “a woman”.

To contrast on this, the author then placed statements which led on to refer to him as “assailant”, “perpetrator”, “defendant” or “Turner”, and referred to the “woman” mentioned in the beginning as a “victim”, a “she” and “her” who had family and friends later on. The shift in the vocabulary pattern demonstrates that the author is passively constructing the victimisation of the woman and a shift in blame on Turner (Montgomery 1995, p. 247).

Svrluga uses the appeal to ethics and morality to shift the audience’s attitude from a neutral stance of innocent-until-proven-guilty towards a sex-offender who shocked a nation because of the light conviction he got for the devastating effect he had on another life. She includes a passage from a juror’s letter to Judge Persky that proves the jury did not agree stating “justice has not been served”, and even refers to a letter written by Vice President Joe Biden expressing his anger towards Turner’s sentence, a highly credible source that represents a negative perspective.

By focusing on a sexual assault case as a “what Turner (the convicted) had to lose than what the victim had already lost”, it portrays the idea that circumstances like campus-parties, alcohol, and young elite athletes with bright futures are not rapists, but people who have made a mistake. This in hand reduces the power that women have over their own bodies if what the rapist looks like represents the severity of the situation. Svrluga emphasises this again, utilising vocabulary such as “nice guys” and “the guy next door” to be unsuspicious of committing such a heinous crime.

The article that moved the public so significantly was the 12-page statement read in court by the victim, released on Buzzfeed by Katie Baker. The most profound part for the readers who accessed the article was the page background of the article—a stark block of red space highlighting the intimate details interrogated from the victim to levels that could be considered irrelevant and insensitive. The readers are immediately drawn to the emphases that the case was a constant battle proving the validity of the assault.

Source: Buzzfeed News
Source: Buzzfeed News

Baker’s piece headlined “Here Is The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read Aloud To Her Attacker” is aimed to position the readers to feel empathy towards the affected individual in the title, in which case is the “victim”. Through transitivity analysis, we can see that the linguistic choice here is evident already that the victim is the ‘affected’ party set in a passive tone, focusing on the “attacker” as the actor in the article (Montgomery 2005, p. 247).

Before delving into the actual transcript of the victim’s letter, Baker provides a background summary and again emphasises the position of Turner versus the victim through her linguistic choices.

“The judge said he feared a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner, a champion swimmer who once aspired to compete in the Olympics – a point repeatedly brought up during the trial” (Baker, 2016).

Here, Baker proposes the idea that has garnered this case so much attention—the trial focused on this particular representation of Turner, a “champion” swimmer who “aspired”, because the judge “feared” of the outcome. This brief but positive representation of Turner through emotional and social appeal is constantly discussed by Baker and the majority of authors in the media. Although it represents Turner in a light that is an insult to rape culture and idealises white-privilege, it also highlights how much influence the positioning of a perpetrator based on their background has on the public, which captures the reader’s attention. In a way, the social constructs which cause the gray areas in rape culture and victim-blaming is the same reason why it is also scrutinised and brought to attention in a case like this.

Through the statement told directly to Turner, the victim illustrates the noticeable difference in the allegations of the assault, placing herself from an active actor and agent, to the affected in passive tone. “I liked it because I rubbed his back”, “I was awake”, “I permitted it” and “I wanted it”, she said in active tone, describing what Turner claims happened that night. When she provided her description of the story, she used terms like “my ass and vagina were completely exposed”, “fingers had been jabbed inside me”, “you took away my worth” and “you made me a victim”.

The linguistic changes identified above highlights the significant contrast between the account evident of victim-blaming, versus the account describing the victim’s story. The difference in active and passive tone told from whichever party demonstrates just how effective language tools are in shaping social constructs and our comprehension of them. Language choice itself mirrors ideological choices; the ideology that the victim who deserved it took action herself, and the ideology that the victim was assaulted is described by the processes occurring on the affected (Perccei et al 2011, p. 12).

In comparison to the two articles previously discussed, the Sydney Morning Herald piece written by Clementine Ford emphasised the positive representation of Turner in the media, to demonstrate how social image should not be relevant to criminal conviction. How so? The headline for this article is “Clementine Ford: This is what a rapist really looks like”. Ford’s juxtaposition of the negative connotation of the term “rapist” and the emphasis on “really” against the yearbook photo of Turner builds upon the preconceived idea of what society expects a rapist to look like—social image being a key factor in how justice is served.

Unlike the previous articles, Ford starts off her piece by actively positioning Turner as the agent (in this case, a rapist) rather than the champion swimmer so frequently emphasised by numerous authors. By doing this, Ford positions the readers from the beginning that the assailant is already guilty of being a rapist, playing on the familiarity that society has with seeing a rapist and their assault charges explained. The familiarity of “rapist” and “attacker” to the “survivor” is so strongly constructed that we wouldn’t find anything peculiar if we saw otherwise (Peccei et al 2011, p. 11).

But delving into the analysis of visual tools, it is evident that this photo represents positive interactional meaning and a choreographed modality—this person is a happy chap, and represents himself as so. This is when Ford alternatively draws attention to rape culture, when readers are stunned by the image of the so-called “rapist”.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Source: Sydney Morning Herald

She utilises further linguistic tools in her phrases “The person you’re picturing is almost certainly male, aged somewhere between 25 and 40”, “he might seem quietly angry, with a discernible air of violence about him”, “a ‘scary type’”, “you’re probably not imagining him as wealthy”, “reflected in the way you’ve chosen to imagine his choice of dress”.

The negative representation of her selection of words which is familiar with the representation of a rapist is emphasised as she places the reader as the active audience who are “likely to” and “not imagining him as a wealthy”. The reader is positioned to be the powerful agent, establishing the idea that the audience were more than likely to be doing those exact things (Montgomery 2005, p. 245). This is how ford emphasises the fault in rape culture and privilege from social background, making her perspective clear that what we think looks like a rapist is not always the case—hence why the way you look has nothing to do with being a rapist.

She further asserts her point saying that the people who perpetrate are not usually like Brock Turner. Additionally, the image of a rapist that we constructed is so embedded into our culture that it is difficult to see otherwise (Ford, 2016). As much as we don’t want to have these negative constructs and generalisation dominate our culture, it unfortunately does, and cannot be more clearly emphasised than through the case of Brock Turner.

These articles which portray vastly different angles of the case provide only a small fraction of evidence that society has constructed the image of a rapist to be a scary-looking violent man from a low socio-economic background. Brock Turner’s youthful face and grinning pride represents just how misjudged a rapist can be, when no one suspects people like him, like your neighbour or your brother to be capable of such behaviour. The swarm of media that have brought this to the public’s attention have helped voice the issue of rape culture, campus violence and victim-blaming where justice is often served based on the social image of the perpetrator and the intimate details of a victim’s personal life.

 By Alissa Shin z5087997 PingTian10.30

References

Baker, J 2016, ‘Here Is The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read Aloud To Her Attacker’, Buzzfeed, 4 June, accessed 30 October 2016, <https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford-victim-read-to-her-ra?utm_term=.im61DXMa9#.ueJkJpKBy>

Ford, C 2016, ‘Clementine Ford: This is what a rapist really looks like’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June, accessed 30 October 2016 <http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/news-and-views/clementine-ford-this-is-what-a-rapist-really-looks-like-20160605-gpc8p6.html>

Miller, M 2016, ‘A steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action’: Dad defends Stanford sex offender’, The Washington Post, 6 June, accessed 30 October 2016, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/06/06/a-steep-price-to-pay-for-20-minutes-of-action-dad-defends-stanford-sex-offender>

Montgomery, M 1995, An Introduction to Language and Society, 2nd ed, Routledge, London.

Peccei, J, Mooney, A, LaBelle, S, Henriksen, B, Eppler, A, Irwin, A, Pichler, P, Preece, S, Soden, S, Thomas, L, Wareing, S 2011, Language, Society and Power: An Introduction, 3rd ed, Taylor & Francis, London.

Leave a Reply