Friend and Foe: Gender Stereotypes in Sexual Assault by Melvin Soh Chin Aik

Feminists have often raised concerns that while sex is biologically determined, gender and its role is socially and culturally constructed based on the history of the country. A common issue raised is the dominance of patriarchy as the prevalent social system where males hold primary power, which may lead to the gendered suppression and ill-treatment of women. To protect the rights of women to live and work safely in society, anti-sexual assault propaganda campaigns was carried out in various countries. In 2013, Men Against Rape and Discrimination (MARD) was set up by Bollywood film director Farhan Akhtar in India, which seeks to raise awareness of gender inequality and rape using social media sites such as Twitter. Around that time, a short ad-film aimed at promoting MARD was made. The ad-film took an emotive plot twist to sexual assault, showing that no matter how vulnerable a woman may be, males should not take advantage of that vulnerability as weakness. On the same topic, 5 months from that ad-film, the Jurong West Neighbourhood Police Centre (NPC), a branch of the Singapore Police Force (SPF), released an informative video describing various scenarios whereby women are susceptible to molestation and what they can do to protect themselves.

Both videos are fairly recent, and one can draw many parallels between the videos. For example, both videos depict a scenario where sexual assault may occur. This is mentioned explicitly in the NPC video, when the inspector mentions that “outrage of modesty can occur at public places such as lift landings, sheltered walkways, and even neighbourhood parks”. The MARD video does it implicitly, by depicting a woman walking home alone at night, and building suspense using sounds. In all the instances depicted in the two videos, a female was the victim and a male the suspect. Why are these notions of gender conceived and portrayed in this way, with males being portrayed as both the problem and the solution, while females are portrayed as weak and vulnerable? This is important as the video appears to mirror certain gender stereotypes in society while conveying their message that sexual assault is wrong.

It is noteworthy that while the power balance in both videos are the same, they disagree on who bears responsibility for sexual assault. The recurring theme of patriarchy can be observed in the two videos, and this is depicted by males who possess more power than females. This power imbalance resulted in either sexual assault or the generation of fear in the victim. However, despite this similar depiction of power, the SPF video assigns blame to the female victim while the male suspect is to be blamed in the MARD video. In this essay, I will explain the differences in how the two texts function in order to present my thesis that the texts show that patriarchy both produces the circumstances for the rape of women as well as their protection from it. As the videos attempt to create the conditions for rape before reining the problem, they utilise gender stereotypes commonly perceived by the patriarchy. Under the framework of the patriarchal society, it is argued that men can be both part of the problem and solution, while that women are the victims.

By looking at the “culprit” portrayed by both videos, we can understand how they demonstrate that males, from their empowerment, cause sexual assault. The SPF video uses the male stereotype to argue that since males are empowered, the onus is on the females to take precautions. This is because the empowered male brings to mind certain gender role attitudes, which include strength and agency of males. The empowered male is usually portrayed as physically stronger than females, and therefore possesses agency in decision making. As such, the SPF video takes the stand that males cannot be reasoned and therefore we need to arm females with the knowledge and tools to protect themselves. It creates a scenario whereby males are not to be blamed, and sexual assault is a result of the female’s lack of awareness. This is exemplified by the advice provided in the video to “be alert”, “avoid walking through secluded or dimly lit areas alone”, “forgo taking the lift with a stranger”, and “ensure someone escorts you home when it’s late”. All of the preventive measures are aimed at the female, with no means shown in the video to deter males from sexual assault. Even worse, the only tool advocated by the SPF is a shrill alarm, and it only seeks to call attention to the scene of the crime after the crime has taken place, and plays no role in preventing it whatsoever. The SPF video also utilises shock advertising, designed to capture the attention of the audience and bring awareness to the issue of sexual assault by deliberately offending the audience with humour and exaggerated acting. This is exemplified by the graphic depiction of molestation in the second and third scenarios of the SPF video, with the perpetrator deriving great and possibly exaggerated pleasure from the experience. This is contrasted with the shock and agony experienced by the culprits. All of this is done to convince the audience of the need to protect themselves from the empowered male, who derives pleasure from the suffering of the female. Some may argue that the SPF video does have a section deterring sexual assault by explicitly stating that it is a serious offence and listing its punishments. However, it is merely a small section of the video, and there still remains a problem that it fails to address, namely the psychological state of the offender. Instead, it passes over any attempt to solve the problem from a psychological standpoint, choosing instead to use threats such as “fine”, “caning”, and “imprisonment”. Consequently, the video argues that the female victim is the primary reason why sexual assault occurs, and it attempts to address that concern while dismissing the role of the male perpetrator.

However, males can also be perceived as part of the solution to the problem of sexual assault. The MARD video uses the empowered male to make the claim that it is the responsibility of males to be respectful to females, while the SPF video show that males can use their strength to protect or rescue women. The MARD video taps into an aspect of gender role attitudes which the SPF video does not address – the notion of honour. An empowered male is not merely one who is strong and makes decisions, but also uses his power with tact and compassion. While I acknowledge that females do have their notion of honour, in the context of patriarchy, it encodes familial responsibility rather than protecting the innocent. This creates a need to address how the empowered male treats females in society. Consequently, the MARD video argues that no matter how vulnerable a woman may be, males do not have the right to take advantage of that vulnerability. The vulnerability of the lady is demonstrated visually, as she walks alone at night on a deserted road. It is enhanced through the use of audio cues, such as the ominous background sound which plays as she is followed by the males, and speeds up as she walks faster. All these elements come together to elicit a sense of fear for the lady, and the sounds only end after she closes the door and is in the safety of her home. The empowered male is depicted in the context of the two males who follow her home. They have no intention of taking advantage of her, merely seeking to return her phone back. Despite her quickening footsteps in her rush towards safety, the males did not chase after her. In this aspect, the fear synthesized by the lady is reduced as the perceived danger is diminished. The video also appeals directly to male honour by ending with a message from the founder of MARD: “Every time I look in the mirror, I want to see a man whose mother, sister, wife & daughter are proud to call their own”. As such, there is a transition of the perception of the males – from one which is threatening to one which is responsible for generating a safe environment for women. Similarly, the SPF video utilises a male inspector who instructs women on how to protect themselves against men who have violated male honour. Additionally, in the second scenario, a male friend is referenced to as the narrator recommends to “have someone escort you while returning home alone”. In the third scenario, two male passerbys come to the woman’s rescue as she is molested. All of these elements show that males are recognised as part of the solution to sexual assault too.

Females can also be depicted as part of the problem, and blamed for sexual assault. As such, it is also possible for us to examine the sources from the perspective of the female “victim”. In both sources, the females are disempowered. However, unlike the male stereotypes, there are more similarities than differences in how the two sources depict females. Despite the difference in cultural context, the presence of such similarity makes the problem more pervasive. The female is usually portrayed as the weaker, more innocent, and more flirtatious gender as compared to males. This is evidenced from the 3 ladies chosen to portray the victims in the scenarios. In all 3 scenarios, the ladies did resist the male perpetrator, but were entirely futile, indicating their lack of strength. Crow sounds were used during scenario 1, after the culprit had target the lady. These sounds are commonly used in Japanese anime, and convey the message of stupidity or ignorance on the part of the character. The use of female stereotypes is also seen in scenario 2, where the lady flirts with the male in the car, before stomping away indignantly. The video exaggerates all these aspects slightly, showing how they are taken for granted as truth. As the video makes its suggestions for preventing sexual assault, the ladies in all the videos are masculinised. This is evidenced by the stern facial expression, increased awareness and suspicion of individuals, and strong hand gestures used in all 3 scenarios, which stand out strongly when compared with the exaggerated female stereotypes when they were being victimised. Consequently, the SPF video assumes the qualities of the stereotypical female in its recommendations, and argues that it is these feminine traits which lead individuals to be victimised. These female stereotypes are not as obviously portrayed in the MARD video, but there is still some evidence of femininity present. After all, just the mere presence of the two males following the female, without actually showing any ill-intent, is sufficient to raise her level of suspicion and nervousness. This not only shows that males are empowered, but that females are not sufficiently able to deal with that empowerment, and it becomes a source of fear. This causes her to quicken her steps and escape. The video does attempt to show that this is a stereotypical female. This is evidenced from the attire worn by the female, such as the pink shirt, the handbag carried by her, as well as her painted nails. She also appears to be wearing high heels and jewellery. All these elements subtly confers a sense of vulnerability to the female, causing her to be perceived as weak and innocent. Consequently, this makes her a likely target for sexual assault. By doing so, both videos may have created an impression that the victim is to be blamed for acting like stereotypical female.

The SPF video creates a culture of fear, with limited messaging for the perpetrator not to sexually harass others. Instead, it reminds women that they will not be safe in public places, and that they need to take precautions to protect themselves. On the other hand, the MARD video implicitly notes that the only essential ingredient for rape is a rapist. Without them, women could go wherever they please without fear. Both videos challenge some stereotypes, such as the empowered male, and leave other stereotypes unchallenged. Despite the differing depictions, there is a similar power relationship present, and this is shaped by the patriarchy, with conveys a certain gender imbalance and differing gender expectations. The two videos show two sides of the same coin, and despite their gender connotations, accurately reflects the reality of society today.

Appendix A: Jurong West NPC’s – Be Safe

Appendix B: MARD – Men Against Rape & Discrimination

Process Notes

Conference Draft

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