In 2006, Facebook had yet to reach the point of mass saturation, and the just-launched Twitter was years from becoming the forum for the tiny outrages and moral skirmishes that mark it today. In cases of sexual violence, the discursive fallout from the tragic stories surrounding women like Dylan Farrow and Jill Meagher are testament to the Internet’s contemporary enslavement to the spectacle of the scaffold.
Scandals rise and fall in this world of digital self-righteousness with blistering speed. We craft 140-character ethical manifestos as if they were excerpts from the DVD commentaries to the films of our commonplace lives. We strut and pose through these fantasy screenless biopics, and we are always the star. The supporting cast is often lost in the shuffle.
In October 2006, Today Tonight screened excerpts from a DVD called Cunt: The Movie, produced by a group of teenage boys from the outer western Melbourne suburb of Werribee. A short section called ‘Pimp My Wife’ had been posted on YouTube a few months earlier, and by the time the Today Tonight story went live that clip had already been viewed over 2500 times. The film consists of short vignettes: handheld camera footage of the boys attacking a homeless man, making chlorine bombs, harassing taxi drivers, mucking around at local parties and getting into fights. The main selling point for the DVD (they were sold in their high school playground for $5 a pop) was the torture and sexual assault of a young girl who the local press called ‘Julie’.
‘Julie’ had arranged online to meet two of the boys at a Werribee shopping centre. After she arrived, a gang forced her to a nearby riverbank where she was assaulted. She knew some of these boys, and even thought of some as friends. The boys filmed themselves urinating on her, setting her on fire, and forcing her to perform fellatio. Finally, two of the boys raped her. Before she was released, they wrote the name of their film on her chest and forced her to walk home topless.
‘Julie’s’ father, parents of some of the perpetrators, and even parents of a few kids who had bought the DVD knew of the incident long before the Today Tonight story ran, but it was only when the footage went public that the police became involved. Investigating officers first busied themselves with disposing of any copies of the film still in circulation, which took time. The identification of the boys involved was easier, because in their attempt to replicate a professional film the creators included credits that listed their names: Alex, Boofa, Brendon, Choco. Their aspirations of authenticity even extended to cutting-and-pasting the Office of Film and Literature Classification’s ‘R’ rating logo on the bottom left hand of the cover. Police raided seven properties and seized computer equipment.
Public response to the Werribee attack was outraged and highly emotional. A child psychologist appeared on Channel Nine comparing the incident to Nazi prison camps; the relationship between bullying and new media technologies was debated by educationalists. Reader comments on the Age and Herald Sun websites revealed more about the biases and bigotries of its visitors than anything about the case itself. Fingers were pointed at the ubiquity of digital technology; the influence of US hip hop culture; Australia’s ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ ethos; political correctness; political conservatism; the absence of corporal punishment; and the rise of violence in the broader mediasphere. While some of these subjects may contain more threads of truth than others, the contradictions that marked these ideological scapegoats suggested they were all united in their desperation to avoid looking rape in the eye.
The cover of the DVD boasted, ‘Cunt The Movie is brought to you by the teenage kings of Werribee. No one messes with us, we only mess with them.’ This badass posturing speaks of a lengthy tradition spanning back at least to the Italian Renaissance, with paintings like Titian’s The Rape of Europa (1562), Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1574–82), Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (1637–1638), and Boticelli’s Primavera (1482). As art historian Diane Woflthal notes in her remarkable book Images of Rape: The ‘Heroic’ Tradition and Its Alternatives (1999), this so-called ‘heroic’ rape canon commonly featured Roman and Greek gods as rapists. It simultaneously sanitised violence and aestheticised assault to the point that, even today, those not looking carefully often mistake the depictions as seduction. In these works, rape is synonymous with virility courage, and strength. The aristocracy prized such paintings as symbols of prestige and status.
In Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975), Susan Brownmiller examined how the tradition manifested in the twentieth century. She honed in on outlaw mythology in particular, citing Hunter S Thompson’s writings on the Hells Angels and the Rolling Stones. Unwittingly, the media and public collusion that supported the self-appointed ‘Teenage Kings of Werribee’ continued this tradition as it consolidated their status as celebrities. The outcry that followed both expanded and validated the diegetic world that the boys sought to create in the first place. British film scholar Richard Dyer noted in a famous maxim that‘star images are always extensive, multimedia, intertextual’ (1986). The ‘Teenage Kings’ did not fulfil Dyer’s requirements for stardom until the mainstream print- and screen-media picked up the story: only with their tacit compliance could the boys’ deem their media campaign a success.
Eight years later, what remains? Was Cunt: The Movie an exploitation film? A nasty exercise of amateur filmmaking gone wrong? The teens that assaulted ‘Julie’ were charged with crimes including procuring sexual penetration by intimidation and manufacturing child pornography. Some were jailed while others were required to attend counselling. But the supposed ‘heroic’ legacy of the ‘Teenage Kings’ lives on: in 2009, one of the imprisoned men released a rap video with friends on YouTube about the case. Their lyrics include:
We proved we’re worthy …
Fame will never end …
You’re gunna love Cunt The Movie …
I’m still untouched …
When hair got flamed …
They didn’t show her nude, when you look, you look, on YouTube…
Later in the song, they refer to ‘her’ by her real name, a cruel and painful reminder of how thoroughly both the initial assault and the surrounding media circus sought to obliterate any possible agency she might have, even over her own name. Her body was at first a stage for men to perform their violent fantasies of masculinity to each other, and later became a symbolic forum available to the entire nation in the ongoing war between monsters and fools. For ‘Julie’, it was lose/lose.
I think of her often. She is everywhere and nowhere, everyone and no one. The young woman next to me on the train reading The Hunger Games. The mother wrangling a recalcitrant toddler in the food court. The girl making my coffee in a part-time job she juggles with her university studies. The disembodied voice of a Telstra call centre employee, monitoring my call for quality assurance.
These boys – now men – were never alone in their fantasy of ‘heroic’ rape. Leaping from the canvas to the screen, in these cases we are all guilty of turning too readily to a language that is urgently cinematic. Jane Metikovec’s article ‘Squalor Down By The River’ in the Herald-Sun even set the scene for this Grand Guignol display of misogyny to take place:
Empty spray paint cans lie alongside discarded bottles of cheap wine and piles of rubbish.
It is not an inner-city slum, but the banks and nearby surrounds of Werribee River.
Down by the water it is anything but charming.
A hang-out for youths, some visit the reedy riverbank to pass the time.
Others have more sinister acts on their minds.
The site is a short walk from Werribee train station and it is all too easy for teenagers to head down to the river and vanish from the sight of bustling commuters.
Which is exactly what happened one day in June, when a young girl was brutally violated.
Metikovec knew the potency of this mise en scene; we all do. We’ve learnt it from Titian, Giambologna, Poussin, and Boticelli, and screen culture has run with it straight into the hellmouth of DIY. There is no design, no conspiracy, but we have let this happen. This is the house that Jack built.