A quotation from Kim Katrin Crosby, award-winning multidisciplinary artist, activist, consultant, facilitator, and educator:
“As a young girl, I was ‘too sexy’, ‘too developed’ – constantly being compared to standards of white girlhood and never found to be deserving of that innocence. And as a survivor of rape, sexual assault in my home and outside of it…this is a matter of life and death. I developed quickly, by 13, I was told I looked ‘grown’ and this is something I also want to challenge – by whose standards [do i look grown]? I looked like many other Black girls my age, but the standard of white femininity proposes that womyn of colour Black, Latina, First Nations people – our bodies are inherently sexualized. Ask yourself why big breasts or big asses mean ‘sex’? Who crafted that definition and why are we participating in the hyper sexualization of Women of Colour?”
On October 24th 2012, New Yorker Felicia Garcia committed suicide, throwing herself onto the tracks in front of an oncoming subway. While Garcia had expressed feelings of depression and frustration with her home life for at least a few months prior to her suicide, there is ample evidence indicating that the primary distress that led her to kill herself was the merciless “torture” suffered at the hands of her peers during her last ten days. “This poor girl was called a slut. She was teased on Facebook,” a classmate, Victoria, told the New York Post.
According to earlier reports, the onslaught of intense verbal, physical and sexual harassment began when four football players bragged about having had sex with Garcia over the second weekend of October. However, over the few days following her suicide, law enforcement officials confirmed that the sex had been video-recorded and distributed online without Felicia’s consent, triggering this hostile, degrading treatment from her peers.
Felicia’s despair escalated over the next ten days, at first manifesting on her Twitter with defensive-reading tweets such as, “I hate when peopl are in my buisness, you dont even know whats going on, mind ya neck #Shot -_-” until two days before her death when she tweeted “I can’t. I’m done. I give up.” That same day she had also uploaded two disturbing pictures to her Instagram account tagged “#beatup.” In these photos, her face appears to be swollen and bleeding, including fine red lines over her lips suggesting that her mouth had either been cut or sewn shut. It’s unclear from the pictures and subsequent commentary whether the gore was real or fake, self-inflicted or the result of an attack.
On the day that Felicia Garcia killed herself, teachers had set up a mediation session involving Felicia, a 17-year-old male, and a counselor , in order to address the harassment Felicia had been facing. Outside of the office, Felicia and this 17-year-old “exchanged words” wherein he denied ever harassing the young woman. A few hours later – minutes before she fell backwards onto the train platform and amid obscene taunts from present football players – she had texted her foster parents, “I’m sorry. I love you guys. But I have to do this.” It wasn’t until after Garcia’s suicide that two students (neither of them football players) were suspended and the possibility of criminal charges was explored for the distribution of child pornography. Meanwhile, both Felicia’s Instagram and Twitter accounts are still online, drawing both sympathy and vitriol from interested onlookers.
The similarities between Amanda Todd and Felicia Garcia are striking: both were 15 years old at the time of their deaths (spaced exactly two weeks apart); both have been described in the media as remarkably beautiful; both were sexually exploited through digital means; both were blamed in their victimhood and degraded as a result of this exploitation while the perpetrators remained largely unscathed; and both turned back to the Internet to express their resulting pain before killing themselves.
Subsequent to their deaths, both young women’s sexualities became a central topic of discussion in both mass and social media. Reactions and input ranged from benevolent concern to outright bashing. Meanwhile, the sexual violence these young women suffered at the hands of their peers was largely misrepresented under the apolitical, euphemistic term “bullying.”
Both in retrospect and in those crucial few weeks in October where Felicia Garcia and Amanda Todd’s stories were given attention, I believed online mass-media had every opportunity to call attention to these similarities in ways that could spark a large-scale, nuanced conversation concerning the ways in which “slut-”shaming, both on- and off-line, affects young women and their experience of sexual violence. Unfortunately, besides being toned down to stories concerning “bullying,” the common ground held by Felicia Garcia and Amanda Todd instead became the foundation upon which mass- and social-media could showcase the role of racism, as it intersects with sexism, in their representations of sexual violence.
We can first explore how these dynamics work by first comparing the media coverage of Felicia Garcia, a young Latina, to that of Amanda Todd, who is biracial but presents as White.
The most obvious discrepancy between the coverage of these young women is in the quantity of representation granted by the media. While it’s important to realize that the attention granted to both Amanda Todd and Felicia Garcia is unusually large as far as teen suicides are concerned, the public response to Amanda Todd’s suicide was swift and colossal by any standard. Within three days, “My Story” had garnered over 1.6 million views on YouTube while the “RIP Amanda Todd” page on Facebook accumulated nearly half a million “likes.” The interest was sustained long enough that, as of December 28th, 2012, “My Story” on YouTube and “RIP Amanda Todd” on Facebook have garnered over 6.6 million views and 1.4 million “likes” respectively. Several major news outlets also flocked to her story, including CTV, ABC, Fox News, BBC, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror, each publishing at least one high-traffic article or interview relating to Amanda Todd. Most impressively, on December 13th, The Huffington Post revealed that “Amanda Todd” was the third most searched name of 2012, behind Whitney Houston and Kate Middleton.
On the other hand, the most popular page dedicated to Felicia Garcia on Facebook, “RIP Felicia Garcia—Stop Bullying,” has accumulated a mere 14,238 “likes” while only a handful of high-traffic news outlets were interested in her story. A quick Google project reveals not only that Amanda Todd’s name returns almost nine times as many results as Felicia Garcia’s name, but that when we rule out results for “Felicia Garcia” which contain the name “Amanda Todd,” results for “Felicia Garcia” are cut in half. When the same experiment is performed in reverse—excluding articles containing “Felicia Garcia” when Googling “Amanda Todd”—results drop by only 9%, despite the wealth of articles still being published after news of Felicia Garcia’s death.
Armed with this knowledge, one gets the distinct impression that while Amanda Todd’s story is tragic, interesting, and significant by itself, the few articles written about Felicia Garcia seem largely to justify themselves by pointing to and bolstering the relevance of Amanda Todd’s suicide.
Unfortunately, this is not the only issue in the quality of Felicia Garcia’s representation compared to that of Amanda Todd. As mentioned in Section I, the vast majority of articles written about Amanda Todd frame their headlines and basic premise around the consequences of “bullying.” While some of the precious few articles written about Felicia Garcia also featured this angle, including the articles featured on New York Times and Jezebel, there were also a disturbing cluster of articles that attracted readership with headlines making sensationalist references to Felicia Garcia’s sexual encounter with the football players. The New York Post was the most blunt: their byline read, “A Tottenville High School student jumped in front of a train after she was bullied for having sex with four football players at the same time during a party after a game this weekend, sources said.” No similar shock tactics could be readily found so early and prominently when combing through prominent articles on Amanda Todd. Indeed, the double standard is especially hard to ignore when considering The New York Daily News, which covered both stories, chose to entitle one, “Teen who posted video about cyberbullying commits suicide” while dubbing the other, “Tormented 15-year-old Felicia Garcia jumped to death in front of train after bullying over sex with football players”.
Why should the details of a sexual encounter be the first things a reader knows about one fifteen year old suicide victim while the other’s depiction is granted significantly more sensitivity? Did it occur to no one writing, editing or publishing these headlines and bylines that, in choosing to define Felicia Garcia by her sexual encounter, they were reproducing the very attitudes that fuelled her despair? Or that hypersexualizing a 15-year-old, even more so than simply depicting her as a victim of “bullying,” actively discourages readers from shifting attention and blame from the choices of the victim onto those who violated her?
We might gather some hints to the dynamics at work in this discrepancy from a similar story from last year which garnered significantly less sympathy than either Felicia’s or Amanda’s stories, although thankfully this one did not end in suicide: the “Amber Cole scandal.”
“The New Kim Kardashian”: The Role of Racialized Sexism in the Representation and Exploitation of Amber Cole
Certainly in comparison to Amanda Todd – but even when weighed against Felicia Garcia – relatively little is known about the identities or contexts involved in the “Amber Cole scandal.” This leaves us with the bare bones of the violence committed against her.
In mid-October 2011, a video depicting 14-year-old Amber Cole performing fellatio on an unidentified male student behind Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore was posted against her will. Despite the original tweet clearly identifying both students as minors, the clip spread like wildfire, becoming one of the most widely distributed pieces of child pornography in history. While there was some online resistance against this sexual harassment and violence in the form of hashtags such as #LeaveAmberColeAlone and Facebook groups like “I Support Amber Cole,” these were weak oppositions to an overwhelming demand for authentic links to the video once law enforcement and social media regulators began deleting the video. One poll found that 75% of respondents would watch the clip had they found it online. Meanwhile, blogs and other websites generally dedicated to propagating celebrity gossip gleefully spun this blatant sexual exploitation of a child into titillating voyeurism. “Amber Cole Video Makes 14-Year-Old Girl Famous (But Not in a Good Way!)” gushes GossipOnThis.com, adding that her “servicing” would “make Superhead jealous,” in reference to author and model Karrine Steffans.
Similar provocative associations were made between Amber Cole, Kim Kardashian, and Rihanna, further demonstrating that even as a 14-year-old victim of sexual exploitation, Amber’s status as a Woman of Colour (more specifically, as a Black teenage woman of colour), made her more comparable to hyper-sexualized pop icons than to other victims of “bullying.” Thus, since she lived (thankfully) and didn’t happen to be exploited just two weeks after the world rallied around a young, conventionally beautiful White girl who had suffered much of the same torment, Amber Cole’s story was not recognized as a relevant cause for public concern. Instead, it was read as a titillating anecdote to be published alongside news of Sammie and Ronnie’s break-up on Jersey Shore. Meanwhile, as in the cases of Felicia and Amanda, the young men who recorded and distributed the video of Amber Cole were subject to very little scrutiny.
While a person’s relationship to systematic sexism can make the difference between whether they are publicly shamed, largely ignored, or validated in situations of sexual exploitation, racism also plays a significant role in determining which victims are represented as innocent, precious and worthy of protection and grief, and which victims are reduced to deviant, sensationalized sexual objects whose violations are only worth the public’s attention insofar as they can be commodified.
This understanding further highlights the absurdity of reducing the violations of Amanda, Amber, and Felicia to a term like “bullying.” Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that this framework is being deployed by an older generation to displace their share of accountability for the systematic oppression which they’ve perpetuated —racism and sexism, to say nothing of homophobia, classism, ableism and other axes of discrimination—onto a younger generation. This is enabled by their failure to recognize that although the execution of sexual violence may be unfamiliar – especially in its brazen presence in the public sphere of cyberspace – the underlying dynamics and views that foster it are far older than the Internet and the generation that grew up with it. Worse, “slut-”shaming and victim-blaming become so engrained and naturalized through this process that even the most well-intentioned journalists and publications, hell-bent on doing their part to prevent further victimizations of young women, cannot help but contribute to the culture which produces these tragedies in the first place.