People Magazine released their latest issue. In the lower left cover, beside a main cover photo of Friends actor Matthew Perry, is a small black-and-white image of Rethaeh Parsons from when she was 16 years old. The caption reads “Bullied into Suicide”.
Although it seems like a bit of a wonder that a mainstream magazine like People is taking up the story of a teenage girl from a relatively small city in Canada, this might actually show how society as a whole is becoming more accountable. Sexism does not exist solely as oppressive actions and behaviours of individuals, but also as a lack of collective responsibility to make it stop. When a person is abused and it goes un-dealt-with, it can often be the absence of response and support that makes the abuse most oppressive.
On Thursday, April 4 of this year, Rethaeh attempted suicide. Three days later in hospital, she was successful. Her struggle with the oppressive behaviours of sexism she experienced in her community and lifetime lasted at least a year before this. At least. Following horrendous acts of abuse from her peers, Rethaeh (“heather” spelled backward) survived through ruthless bullying for a long time before she chose to find peace in the only way she could at the time. Perhaps if she had lived, she would have found peace in another way. Perhaps not.
Surely by now, the varied responses made in popular media outlets have been subject to much woeful analysis, sometimes peppered with some hopeful celebrations for the attention Rethaeh’s actions have brought to the painfully glaring problem of sexism. A Dalhousie University law professor, Wayne MacKay addresses that the media must take some onus for how people’s lives are affected by stories like Rethaeh’s, identifying the kinds of language used and how detail is given:
“In her case there was the horrendous alleged rape, at least initially, but then cyberbullying on top of that. There seems to be quite a bit of evidence that it’s at least a contributing factor,” he said.
He advocates better education in schools, and more guidance counsellors, and puts some onus on the media for the way it presents the story – language used and how much detail is given.
“I don’t think it means we shouldn’t talk about it because for a long time suicide wasn’t talked about,” Prof. MacKay said. “But how we talk about it is quite significant.”
(via Globe & Mail)
Lately, it’s become quite common for us to look at the way social media — like facebook, twitter, various blogs — have enormous impacts. “[S]ocial media can be toxic…” writes the author of Herald News article Who Failed Rethaeh Parsons? Social media is only as powerful as its users. People can be toxic too.
Combating this toxicity is going to take work — from each and everyone of us. Not just “the feminists” or “the activists” or “women” or “men” or “people”. Each human being must do some work to make sexism stop. We have each failed Rethaeh Parsons. And we are each failing one another when we let abuse continue: when we quietly decide to “just say something later”, or “just don’t talk to that guy”, or “just ignore it”.
What will you do today to stop abuse?