Neutrality, Sexual Assault, and Good Kids
Narratives about sexual assault sometimes use the language of “he said/she said.” This language suggests ambiguity, even where there is none, as is the case when someone is too intoxicated to consent to sexual activity. In a new article published in NCA’s Text and Performance Quarterly, Leland G. Spencer examines Good Kids, a play about a 2013 rape case. Spencer argues that the play’s performative neutrality supports rape culture by perpetuating the “he said/she said” narrative about sexual violence.
According to Spencer, performative neutrality “is the production or creation of neutrality.” The play creates neutrality about a rape case by emphasizing the ambiguity of what happened, instead of holding the perpetrators accountable for their behavior. Spencer argues that this neutrality is created by repeating language and actions associated with rape culture. To define rape culture, Spencer cites a book he co-authored with Theresa Kulbaga: “the constitutive practices that normalize and excuse sexual violence,” such as asking someone what they were wearing when they were assaulted or questioning how intoxicated a victim was and, therefore, whether their testimony is credible. Spencer contends that practices such as these aim not to disprove that sexual violence occurred, but instead to “weaken the credibility of people who report sexual assault or buoy the reputations of those who perpetrate it.”
Naomi Iizuka’s Good Kids originated from a Big Ten Conference initiative supporting women playwrights and roles for women on stage. It tells the story of a 2013 rape case in Steubenville, Ohio. Teenage boys raped an unnamed teenage girl in a car and a basement; the girl was heavily intoxicated and, therefore, could not consent to sexual activity. The boys later exchanged lurid text messages that were used as evidence of their guilt. Some of the national media coverage about the case focused not on the rape itself, but on the use of social media and technology by the perpetrators.
Good Kids features few props and, instead, focuses on the actors’ dialogue. Most of the characters are teenagers. The play’s opening scene features some of the main characters expressing ambiguity about what will happen during the play, through statements such as “what they’re saying, it’s just not true” and “We’re all good kids. Every single one of us.” Spencer argues that this ambiguity is harmful because the acts depicted in Good Kids are a clear example of sexual violence: “The play strongly implies that some sexual activity occurs between Chloe [the victim in the play] and the members of the football team who take her back to one of their houses, and the play makes obvious that Chloe is quite drunk. By definition, then, Chloe has experienced sexual violence.”
Good Kids makes explicit use of the “he said/she said” trope when the narrator states, “People remember what they want to remember… getting to some objective truth—Well, that becomes pretty much impossible. All you’re left with is: he says, she says.” Following this statement, the audience witnesses a scene between Chloe and Connor, one of the perpetrators, from both Chloe’s and Connor’s perspectives. In the scene, Chloe is drunk and speaking with Connor. In one version of the scene, Connor initiates a kiss, whereas in the second version Chloe is the initiator. According to Spencer, the play’s narrative implies that if Chloe initiated the kiss, then that action and Chloe’s decision to get in the car with the boys was an indication of consent for what followed. In the view of Good Kids, accountability for Connor’s behavior rests on who was the aggressor, rather than on who was able to make decisions that night.
The play also casts ambiguity on the “aggressor” in other ways. For example, in one scene, Chloe is shown talking about enjoying sex. However, later in the play, these statements feed into the rape culture myth that women who are described as “sluts” or enjoy sex cannot be raped, and that Chloe is in some way at fault for what happened. In contrast, Connor is shown as relatively tame compared to the other boys, who enjoy watching porn and describing women in crass terms. Spencer argues that these characterizations are meant to “tip the scales of interpretation toward the narrative that Chloe aggressed.”
The sexual assault itself is described only through an audio recording that Chloe listens to after the assault. The audio recording is supplied by the play’s narrator—one of the hackers who released photos, videos, and tweets that implicated the boys in the assault. The narrator is portrayed as a villain who is out for vengeance against the perpetrators and who harms Chloe by distributing the images and videos. Spencer argues that the play’s conclusion suggests that the videos and images of the assault posted online were the real crime, while the assault is described in ambiguous terms.
Spencer writes that the performative neutrality of Good Kids was also present in a “talkback” session with the cast, wherein the cast members emphasized that each character was in some way at fault for the sexual assault. Spencer argues that this message reinforces rape culture by suggesting that the victim of sexual violence was in some way at fault. The author concludes that “while I applaud the (expressed) intentions of the playwright, the director, the cast, and the crew, Good Kids as I encountered it worked to render sexual violence ambiguous and culpability evenly distributed across perpetrators, bystanders, computer hackers, and the person who experiences violence. The politics of such a performance are incompatible with feminist antiviolence advocacy and contribute to making a world that excuses, allows, and even exacerbates sexual violence and its attendant horrors.”