On the evening of Nov 14, “We Will Not Standby: A Bystander Intervention Theater Show”, came to Cubberley stage. The brainchild of Tanvi Jayaraman ‘16, the show was a result of an effort to implement bystander education as a means to combat the issue of sexual assault on campus.
The performance provided useful language for playing the role of a supporter and friend to a survivor, as well as powerful statistics and ideology around the act of rape; however, the show only reinforced a patriarchal framework that surrounds sexual violence and provided little nuance and to the topic.
The California State, Long Beach theater group named interACT led the two-scene show that was enhanced with audience participation and commentary. The best part of the show was the educational aspect that taught the audience what to say to survivors and how to be supportive. Jayaraman wanted the play to work in conjunction with “The Red Zone,” which are the first six weeks on campus when sexual assault is at its highest.
The first scene featured three intoxicated men in the home of a character named David, and David’s girlfriend became the topic of discussion. The hyper-masculine and aggressive character served as the antagonistic role, and questioned the location of one of the character’s “no good girlfriend” and encouraged David to “handle [his] business.” At the end of the scene, when the infamous girlfriend stumbles in with her friends, David assumed the role of an aggressor, and advised everyone to leave.
Scene two took place at the girlfriend’s workplace. She walked in distraught and tried to reveal to her friends the trauma she had just experienced. Her two friends represented two ends of the spectrum of female sexual agency. One friend said she was overreacting and also said “Boyfriends don’t like when their girlfriends go out with short dresses and everything hanging out.” The other friend said, “any attention is good attention.”
Although many were able to point out the problematic ideologies present in these scene, we can’t assume that everyone can. In fact, many people, including Stanford students, parrot the phrases her friends used.
For example, male masculinity was presented on stage, but was never addressed. One of the moderators revealed a vital fact about rape: The major motive behind rape is power. Rape is not about sex — it is about power. David’s girlfriend was viewed as property. In Stanford history professor Estelle B. Freedman’s book, “Redefining Rape,” historical definitions of rape are about property loss to a man and have little to do with the survivor. It was no surprise to find out that David had raped his girlfriend, as a form of corrective rape when infidelity was expected.
Additionally, the conversation after scene two failed to fully delve into how the comments of the friends are evident of women operating in a patriarchal society. One audience member said, a “woman can wear whatever she wants.” Under this framework, can a woman wear whatever she wants and not have to fear for her safety?
Despite its faults, Jayaraman says that this was a great initial engagement with the Stanford population. When questioned about the lack of emphasis on intersectionality, for example absence of acknowledgement of how race, gender and sexuality change the scenarios, she expressed that sometimes nuance needs to take a back burner in an effort to educate. She said that this was a human rights issues, and everyone should be concerned. She said that perhaps most students freeze up when they see situations with potential sexual violence.
I’m not convinced.
The theater troupe is supposed to be about social justice, and want to inspire social and political change. Justice means dismantling oppressive systems and fighting for appropriate equity. Nuance means everything in the matter of justice. Depending on your place in a society that was built around an oppressive framework, a heteronormative, race absent show doesn’t do you justice. Teaching how to operate and dance around male privilege without spelling it out and challenging it doesn’t do enough.
Bystander intervention in terms of sexual violence does not stop at intervening when you see a woman in a dangerous situation. It means confronting a woman when she is exhibiting sexually aggressive behavior toward a man. It means not standing by when someone is being sexually aggressive in same-sex encounters, and challenging potential dangers that are outside the binaries. And it also means knowing what to say to a friend who thinks he or she may have sexually assaulted someone.
One in four women will be a survivor in her lifetime. And as one of the moderators said,“Standing between every predator and every survivor is all of [us].” But this will not cease unless education addresses the inherent violence that occurs within the framework of a patriarchal society. Rape culture needs to be addressed. Jayaraman partnered with Greek life, and there was a strong white male presence in the audience. The show was a good start, but nuance is everything.
And I will never stop calling out nuance.
Contact Mysia Anderson at mysia ‘at’ stanford.edu.