lifestyle

This word is creeping into our everyday language. And we are not okay with it.

It must be hard being Charlize Theron.

Sure, she’s exquisite-looking, talented, wealthy, and successful. But she’s almost too famous to function. She’s so famous that a moderately offensive fuck up on her part can make news around the world and cause an avalanche of online criticism.

Theron — the 38-year-old South African actress famous for extreme beauty, golden skin, and playing a chubby lesbian murderer that one time in Monster — had one of those moments this week. In an interview, she compared the intense media coverage of her life to the experience of being raped.

When asked why she doesn’t Google herself, she told Sky News: “I don’t do that, so that’s my saving grace. When you start living in that world, and doing that, you start I guess feeling raped.”

See that moment here.

Now. Twitter-users, victim’s rights advocates and generally compassionate human beings everywhere have condemned Theron for that comment. And rightfully so – implying that paparazzi attention is in any way the same as being sexually assaulted is abhorrent when you think about it. You’d think that with Theron’s level of fame, someone might have given her basic sensitivity training at some point in her decades-long reign of celebrity.

Obviously not.

Theron’s statement has made a lot of people angry. The fact that she’s so visible and powerful makes what she said much more offensive than it would have been if, say, your friend or colleague or hairdresser had said it. And that’s fair, because when Charlize Theron speaks on camera, millions of people hear her. Whereas, when one regular person says something in a private conversation, safe in their anonymity, it’s less significant.

We can be angry with Charlize Theron for this — and I have to say, I am.

But it’s worth looking at why we’re angry. Why using the word ‘rape’ casually like she did really hurts. And it’s important we acknowledge that regular people use the word ‘rape’ colloquially too, and that needs to stop. Just like we’ve taken the words ‘gay’ and ‘retarded’ out of our vernacular, we need to do the same for ‘rape’. We all know someone who has used the word ‘rape’ to describe something other than rape, whether it’s a car ‘raping’ another car in a crash, a bad bout of influenza ‘raping’ a person with symptoms, or a student being ‘raped’ by a difficult exam.

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People, including Theron, use the word as short-hand for humiliation, pain, and violation. So they recognise how traumatic sexual violence can be – that’s the whole reason they choose the word. What they perhaps don’t fully understand is that every time they whip out the word ‘rape’ for their own linguistic convenience, they invoke the pain and suffering of victims and risk trivialising the experience for millions of people whose lives have been shattered by it. That’s not OK.

As Karen Willis, Executive Officer at the NSW Rape Crisis Centre says, “rape is a special trauma all on its own. Using it to describe something else – whether that’s having your house robbed, or whatever – is insulting to people who have experienced sexual assault. It’s one of those little things we do that we should stop. Maybe instead people could just say how they feel – humiliated, distressed, hurt, and undermined. Rather than pretending to know the particular trauma of being sexually assaulted.”

It’s not always malicious. Theron, like some of our friends and Facebook acquaintances, didn’t mean to insult rape victims around the world. She just chose a phrase she thought would convey how violated and hurt she feels about the media’s invasion of her privacy. She made the wrong choice. She could have just said that she feels violated. She could have named her emotions rather than relying on the word ‘rape’ to convey them for her.

Hopefully, Charlize Theron Googles herself just this one time. Just to find out why so many people are hurt, offended, and wounded by what she said.

And strangely, by making such a public mistake, Theron might actually stop people from doing the same in their private, normal-people lives. That’s the way celebrity mistakes work.


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