The April Pop Culture Mashup was a challenge in which participants were each sent a list of 10 random pop culture entities. Each person then had a week to create something that incorporated at least 2 of the 10. Here is the list of 10 that Justine Collum received: Luke Cage, Lil Kim, Shaquille O’Neal, Spice Girls, Saturday Night Fever, Battlestar Galactica, Gone With The Wind, Sex And The City, Glee, and Monty Python. Her piece references rape, rape culture, the Bill Cosby trial, and racism. View the rest of the results here.

When I first read about the PCE Mashup challenge, I was really excited. I couldn’t wait to sit down with my list and do something creative – a painting, poem, short story, or something really off the wall (a friend suggested I make a board game).

On Friday when I got my list, I did some brainstorming, free association, online research, trying to find threads that lead through my topics that might spark something artistic. Then life happened. Between work, family, packing for a big move, and more, Thursday afternoon came and I hadn’t come up with a single idea on how to turn this list of pop culture entities into a Big Special Something.

That afternoon, I was supposed to meet with my boss about a grant proposal that we’re working on. However, his lunch meeting ran long, and was near his house, so he decided to head home early instead of returning to the office. My coworker left to pick up her kids from school, and I was left alone in the office unexpectedly. Maybe I can get something done on my PCE challenge project, I thought. I opened my Google Doc full of notes and stared.

I looked back over my notes:

  • Luke Cage: “Luke is bulletproof”
  • Gone With The Wind: “Marital rape, Racism”
  • Sex And The City: “Rich whiny self-absorbed white women”
  • Monty Python: “Holy Grail – Sir Galahad the Pure/Chaste”

Themes begin to take shape. They are still very foggy, intangible. They’re not really like squares or circles but sort of that beagle in the clouds that is there one minute but then the wind comes and the clouds shift and now it’s a fire-breathing dragon except when your friend looks at it then it’s a double-scoop ice cream cone.

Meanwhile, a friend texts me that Bill Cosby has been convicted of three criminal counts of aggravated indecent assault. As a feminist, as well as a survivor of sexual violence myself, I instantly rejoiced at the idea that his many victims might find some sense of justice (or vengeance) in the fact that he would be going to prison for what he did to at least one of the women he had drugged and assaulted.

Next I was hit by the realization that, “Oh, I’m a prison abolitionist.” I text a few activist friends and express my emotions about holding those two things in tension. I want to see a rapist pay for what he’s done — but is our inherently inhumane and racist private prison system the way to fix what ails our society?

When I talk about prison abolition, many people instantly ask what I propose we do with sex offenders if we don’t have prisons. Obviously, this is a very important question. However, the idea that we currently put these rapists in prison is a fallacy. Only a small percent of rapists ever spend a day in jail. But an overwhelming majority of rapists roam free in our streets. The difference between “an overwhelming majority” and “all” in some ways seems negligible. In other ways, like when I imagine setting free those few offenders who did end up in prison, it seems massive. Keeping that small percent of rapists who did ever spend a day in jail locked away seems really important.

I begin to muse that it’s an illusion, the idea that we incarcerate rapists. We do it just enough to give people something to cling to — a reason to be passionate about keeping the prison system intact. Who is going to argue for letting all these rapists free? The idea that there’s a place to put them is comforting.

Yet if we were to admit that we’re not actually putting the vast majority of rapists away, we would have to find a different way to deal with them. If we were faced with the prospect of letting that small percent of rapists who did ever spend a day in jail free, we would figure out a different plan. Maybe it would involve restorative/transformative justice.

I go back to my list of pop culture topics, which now seems even less light-hearted than before. I think about Scarlett O’Hara getting carried off to bed by her husband. The word “ravaged” comes to mind and I Google the definition, imagining something from the cover of a romance novel. I read “cause severe and extensive damage to.” Indeed, we conflate these two things — rape and romance — far too often.

I think about how what Scarlett faced in the 1860s — and we’ll call it what it was, which was marital rape — wasn’t illegal in all 50 states until 1993. I think about how if someone who looks like Luke Cage so much as whistled at someone who looks like Carrie Bradshaw, he could end up someplace much worse than Seagate. I think about how of all the high profile offenders whose stories made national news, the only one who’s faced legal consequences for his actions so far is black. I think about Sir Galahad trying to defend his chastity against the temptations of pretty young nymphomaniacs and how funny it was, in contrast to the “incel” in Toronto who killed 10 people this week in a violent misogynistic rage.

Just like that, the wind blows and the clouds shift shape again. What was almost taking form into some deep statement on gender, racism, and rape culture gets blown away into wisps of confusion and sadness, hopelessness, helplessness. Maybe next challenge, I’ll paint Misty Knight galloping along clacking together a pair of coconuts, or build a toothpick model of Mr. Big on the path in front of Tara. I could probably use to do something silly like that to take my mind off what a dangerous world it is.

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