Rape will never be just another metaphor

Last Friday, Zapiro published his third cartoon in a series that invokes a rape metaphor to describe government violations of democratic institutions. Friday’s cartoon showed a visibly brutalised Lady Justice calling out to Lady Press Freedom to “Fight, sister fight!!” as she is faced with a similar fate of rape at the hands of the government.

I hate that cartoon.

I hate that cartoon because it attempts to use the disgust invoked by the brutality of the violation that constitutes the hateful act of rape to invoke a similar sentiment for government attempts at silencing the press. Zapiro takes this brutal image of rape and abstracts it to the level of metaphor to explain the violations suffered by the democratic institutions of justice and press freedom at the hands of the South African government. But rape is not, and never will be, just a metaphor.

When I first saw the rape cartoon, I was not only concerned about “press freedom” and “justice” in its abstract sense. My first concern was for Lady Justice and Lady Press Freedom in their personified characters. Lady Justice lies to the left of the frame, presumably already the victim of a brutal rape, and calls out to her sister Lady Press Freedom. “Fight, sister, fight!!” she screams across the page as Lady Press Freedom is pushed into the clutches of her would-be rapist: the shower-headed President Jacob Zuma, who is in the process of unbuttoning his trousers. Just as Lady Justice’s first silent scream provoked a visceral reaction in me in 2008, so does her cry to Lady Press Freedom now: my heart feels weighted down; my guts twisted. My sadness is mixed with absolute rage at the thought that any human being should be made to suffer such a violation of their bodily autonomy. These two women are not just two on-paper characters conjured up by Zapiro to represent our ideals for a democratic society. They also represent the real women who are brutalised like this (and worse) every day in South Africa, and I feel Zapiro’s repetitive use of the personal crime of rape as a metaphor to speak about impersonal abstractions only serves to dehumanise the very real and gutting pain suffered by survivors of rape.

Granted, my reaction may be more potent than that of many of Zapiro’s fans. I am a rape survivor, and rape is not a metaphor. It is a reality. And it is a particularly brutal reality that I would not wish on anyone, and that I wish no one had to endure. I have endured it.

On Monday, Zapiro was quoted by the Mail & Guardian as saying that the last thing he wanted to do was deliberately offend women. While I believe Zapiro’s assertion to be sincere, how did he possibly think using a rape metaphor not once, not twice, but three times, was not offensive to women, especially rape survivors? Additionally, Zapiro says the metaphor is “very appropriate” in South Africa due to the high-rate of gender-based violence against women. I would contend that it is exactly this high-rate of violence against women which makes it completely inappropriate to use rape as a metaphor to make an abstract point that does not speak to the issue of rape directly, but rather acts as a message for something else entirely.

Message lost in the metaphor
While I do believe Zapiro’s use of the rape metaphor in his work may have been apt once, and it may still be now, I fear his use of the metaphor is obscuring the very message he is trying to portray. The message must be shocking, not the metaphor. The subject of controversy in Zapiro’s recent cartoon is his use of the rape metaphor. And as a rape survivor, the use of this metaphor is more immediately shocking to me than is Zapiro’s message of the violation of press freedom. Ironically, while it is this characteristic of Zapiro’s cartoon that I find loathsome, it is also this aspect that may serve a positive function: the cartoon has opened more space for the public discussion of rape and the representation thereof. These discussions must not be limited to when our leading cartoonist feels it “appropriate” to invoke a deeply painful and offensive metaphor every two or three years, however.

But my deep-seated dislike for the recent Zapiro cartoon jars with my own strongly-held beliefs for freedom of expression, and I support Zapiro’s right to create and publish these and any other cartoons. I cannot find a conscionable situation where I would advocate censorship, or even self-censorship, despite the visceral reaction caused by my being faced with rape metaphors generally (and Zapiro’s specifically). If his voice was silenced because his speech was offensive to me, then I cannot stop my own voice from being silenced when it is offensive to someone else. Zapiro feels as strongly for his use of the rape metaphor as I do against it, and if either one of us was silenced it would be a travesty for free speech.

It is because of this conflict that I have his two cartoons from his 2008 rape series framed in my bookcase: an attempt to show solidarity with Zapiro’s freedom of expression, but also a constant reminder of the harm that may result.

My value for freedom of expression does not mitigate nor does it stave off the pain and anger I feel at being faced with a depiction of rape — of my rape — being used as merely a “metaphor”. Rape is a particularly harrowing reality in South Africa, a country where I find solidarity with too many women in our mutual “rape survivor” status.

Rape is our — my — reality, and it will never be just a metaphor, and it must never be relegated to the level of the abstract. That is an affront to me as a rape survivor.

  • Michelle Solomon is doing her Masters in journalism and media studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where she also works as a freelance researcher and journalist. When she’s not out sniffing for stories, she takes a particular interest in research about media ethics and self-regulation.

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