Reading 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Through The Lens Of Rape Culture
Since the original publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, one name has been synonymous with fairness, integrity and wisdom: Atticus Finch. The hero of Harper Lee's American classic is regularly regarded as one of the best fathers, lawyers, and all-around characters in literature. He dispenses fatherly advice with a mixture of pragmatism, firmness, and humor. He is the poster child for doing the right thing versus the easy thing. He defends a young black man against a rape charge, an unpopular and losing proposition, which, 55 years later, would land him as the subject of an article by Washington Examiner writer Ashe Schow, called "Atticus Finch: American literature's most celebrated rape apologist."
That headline sure caught my attention (as it was meant to). As I read through Schow's methodical, exaggerated breakdown of Tom Robinson's trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, part of me was channeling Liz Lemon in line for a marriage certificate at City Hall.
Schow layers the satire and snark on extra-thick in an effort to... what, exactly? Argue that the concept of giving alleged rape victims the benefit of the doubt and treating them with respect and compassion is ludicrous? Make fun of people who are empathetic to victims of sexual assault? Support the belief that there are no such thing as rape victims, just sluts who change their mind halfway through?
In the part of my brain that wasn't hemorrhaging from an overdose of anti-feminist haterade, questions were forming. In light of changing attitudes about sexual assault and violence against women, how do we read To Kill a Mockingbird's trial scene? Is it possible to untangle the thorny web of racial and gender inequality Lee has created to illustrate her point? And how does the character of Atticus Finch hold up under this kind of scrutiny?
The circumstances during which To Kill a Mockingbird was written can't be forgotten or underestimated. When Lee was writing the book in the late 1950s, the American Civil Rights movement was only just beginning in earnest. Lee grew up in the Jim Crow South, where miscarriages of justice and persecution of African-Americans, particularly black men accused of crimes against white women, were commonplace (see: Emmett Till; L.Q. Ivy; the Scottsboro Boys, etc.). Addressing such racial bias and inequality is one of the main functions of the story. In this context, Atticus is an admirable character because he is able to see past the color of his client's skin, and know that it does not automatically make him guilty, in a way that the other citizens of Maycomb can't. The fact that Mayella Ewell's testimony is so obviously false is key to the book's message — in real life, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, many innocent people were wrongly convicted based on evidence equally as shoddy (or worse) because of racial prejudice.
Of course, sadly, all of this is just as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1960. The difference now is that a new narrative has surfaced, that of miscarriages of justice and blaming of victims in sexual assault cases (see: Norman, Oklahoma; the allegations against Bill Cosby; the 2012 rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi, India, etc.). With sexual assault victims increasingly speaking out about their experiences and the challenges they face, they've revealed a different culture of discrimination and inequality, and started a conversation that is impossible to ignore. That Schow would write an article like this, even facetiously, is evidence that the paradigm has shifted. Sixty years ago, our society was forced to re-evaluate how we treat African-Americans; today, we're doing the same thing with sexual assault and rape victims.
This new perspective doesn't have to mean that To Kill a Mockingbird is not a strong book with a powerful message, or that Atticus Finch has been a horrible character the whole time. The double-edged sword of book publishing is that the words remain on the page, unchanged, while time marches on and attitudes and social mores evolve.
We will come back to To Kill a Mockingbird again and again, as we do with all books, and re-evaluate the characters and situations based on our current perspectives. Considering what we know now about rape investigations, do some of Atticus's interrogation tactics seem extreme to a modern audience? Perhaps, but maybe it's because we're discovering better ways to handle these sorts of cases than we knew 55 years ago. On re-reading the book, I was more offended by Atticus's obvious contempt for the Ewells because of their poverty and about lack of shame about it. For a man who tells his daughter she shouldn't hate anyone, even Hitler, he doesn't seem to have a problem condescending a family because they're poor and uneducated. There's also the unsettling feeling that an instance like Mayella Ewell's false testimony is reflective of real-life situations of "crying rape" which continue to undermine victims' credibility to this day.
But I can still reconcile these flaws by remembering that To Kill a Mockingbird was written about a specific place in a specific time for a specific purpose. As such, Lee manipulated the story to serve her own ends. The white girl lies, the black man is innocent, but despite the best efforts of the kind-hearted liberal lawyer, the white jury can't see past their own prejudices, and wrongly convict the defendant, forcing the audience to confront harsh realities about racial inequality. No one can fault Lee for crafting a story to illustrate her point. That's the beauty of fiction: you can control the circumstances to get a desired outcome in a way that is impossible in real life.
Surely right now someone is writing a book depicting a blatant case of rape victim-blaming, with a story designed to drive that point home, and a half-century from now, someone else will write a mocking commentary on it based on a contemporary attitude. That's life. People and cultures change, but the books are always there, capturing a moment in time, reminding us how far we still have to go.
Images: Universal Pictures, Giphy, Wikipedia Commons