When the latest rape-related story came to us via the morning papers, it came with some form of visuals attached. An attempted rape leading to the murder of Pallavi Purkayastha. Since her life is no longer under threat, pictures could be published. We know that she was an attractive, confident woman who appeared to be living on her own terms. And now she’s gone.
Since then, there have been other sexual assault crimes — what our much-celebrated Kiran Bedi might describe as ‘small rape’ cases — most of which feature as briefs. A seven-year-old; a schoolgirl-babysitter; a teenager looking for a hostel room. I have to confess I’m relieved they are no more than brief items because often, when news of sexual assault is given larger space in the papers, they come with illustrations – bent heads, hair covering the face, silent screams.
Murder or burglary cases are also illustrated (for the lack of photos) because newspapers seem to like ‘storyboarding’ events. The unstated assumption is that newspaper readers actually don’t want to read. When it comes to rape, perhaps imaginations fail. And yet, editors feel that we are unable to feel the impact of these horrific stories without accompanying sketches.
Therefore, every few days a generic sort of sketch or downloaded photo is tossed in, and it nauseates me. I am infuriated by photos of blurry silhouettes, palm prints, or broken dolls with their clothes torn off. I wish they’d stop showing us eyes wide with fear. Stop those sketches of girls huddled in corners, sitting on the floor with their knees drawn up, heads buried in their own arms. Stop those sketches of female faces screaming. Stop those trite, predictable little graphics done in shades of red or black. Also stop black-and-white grainy images of beautiful young women, a hand covering their mouths.
What is it about rape that needs to be visually represented? The actual crime? Probably editors feel — and rightly so — that rape is not the sort of crime that can be sketched, that it could only be invasive, inaccurate and hurtful to the victim, not to mention the psyches of children and young adults.
But if they must illustrate rape stories, I wish they’d find the courage to show the truth. Depict accurately. Depict a baby rape victim as a baby, and the toddler as a toddler. Show a maternal victim as herself, wearing the loose, shapeless kurta she usually wears. Why use sleeveless blouses and curvy backs and high heeled shoes? Show flab or wrinkled skin or malnourished ribs. Show school uniforms if you must. Don’t show us pictures of bare limbs and flimsy slips that have been modeled by some model (usually foreign) and taken off the internet.
In an environment where the rape victim’s age, clothing, profession, class, colour, and the time and location of the crime are constantly being referred to, how dare anyone misrepresent any of the facts in their sketches? Editors can’t remain oblivious to the importance of cracking stereotypes about rape victims when every other report of molestation or rape is ridden with insidious attempts at pigeonholing victims into a particular category of woman who had it coming anyway.
And if the argument is that the graphics intend to represent pain and humiliation, then perhaps illustrators and designers must be made to interview some victims of sexual assault. Surely anger is also an emotion they feel? At the very least, I wish media would refrain from publishing convenient graphics that suggest that the victim’s state of mind is a sort of generic shame and loneliness. I wish they’d just stop doing that.
First published here