In a previous blog I touched on the crazy awesome power that social media and the Internet has given us to bring about change. A typed message, a website, a Facebook page and the result is that companies have no choice but to listen or risk ostracising sizeable portions of their market. I know they are listening to what is good for their profit margins, but my inner optimist hopes that our voices (our signatures, our placards, our phone calls, our Facebook shares, our tweets- however we express our outrage) are being heard and that we are helping to change the attitude towards, and portrayal of, women within advertising and the media.
Recently, sportswear company Reebok, in an attempt to gain a better foothold in the urban market, took on rapper Rick Ross as spokesperson and model, to endorse their products.
During his short stint with Reebok, Ross was featured on a track called U.O.E.N.O, by artist Rocko, also featuring Future.
Part of Rick Ross’ verse as follows:
The lines are a pretty clear reference to date rape, with the term ‘molly’ apparently referring to a pure form of MDMA. When the song hit the airwaves, women’s rights group UltraViolet decided to do something about it.
With the input of over 500 rape survivors and tens of thousands of members, UltraViolet spearheaded an online petition campaign and a phone in campaign, both of which were publicised on their website and Facebook page. They then staged a rally and petition delivery outside Reebok’s flagship store in New York City.
Protestors outside Reebok’s flagship store in NYC including Wagatwe Wanjuki, right.
Meanwhile, rapper Rick Ross fired off a short tweet that was meant to pacify, however, once again, his choice of words failed him, with many labeling his tweet as further evidence of his lack of sensitivity and understanding of what constitutes rape, which, funnily enough, is still rape, even when you call it something else.
Reebok did go ahead and drop Ross, releasing the following statement to Billboard.com:
“Reebok holds our partners to a high standard, and we expect them to live up to the values of our brand. Unfortunately, Rick Ross has failed to do so. While we do not believe that Rick Ross condones sexual assault, we are very disappointed he has yet to display an understanding of the seriousness of this issue or an appropriate level of remorse. At this time, it is in everyone’s best interest for Reebok to end its partnership with Mr. Ross.”
After the rapper had lost his contract with Reebok he issued an apology that seemed much more heartfelt, however it was too little, too late, and this slightly cynical mind wonders if it was because he really learned something about rape, or if he really learn something about bad publicity and record sales. I hope it was the former.
Wagatwe Wanjuki ,above, shown addressing the rally, was the top signatory on the petition of rape survivors who campaigned to have Ross removed from Reebok and spoke at the petition delivery and rally in New York City. She is an American woman of colour, a feminist activist and a survivor and she was kind enough to speak to me about her role in this successful campaign.
Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I was born and raised in New Jersey, a first-generation American. I’ve been interested in and passionate about human rights since high school. It laid the foundation of me getting into feminism as a student at Tufts. At Tufts I got into issues of sexual violence, trying to reform the sexual assault policy. I was raped as a student and was kicked out after the school refused to help me, so living with the consequences of a school that doesn’t care about rape really makes the cause important to me.
You were involved in the campaign to have Rick Ross removed as a spokesperson for Reebok. How did you hear about the campaign and become involved?
I used to work at ColorOfChange, which a part of a nonprofit network called Citizen Engagement Lab of which UltraViolet is a member. They had heard about my activism work speaking out as a survivor of rape and they asked me if I’d be willing to get involved. The rest is sort of history.
Can you tell me why removing Rick Ross as spokesperson for Reebok was so important to you?
Removing Rick Ross as a spokesperson was important because I am a firm believer that our media shapes our culture, which in turns shapes the beliefs of our people. What made Rick Ross’ lyrics particularly dangerous is that he refused to acknowledge that they referred to an instance of rape. A huge part of rape culture is that violence against women is normalized because most cases of rape are dismissed with such a narrow definition dominating the narrative. We need more accountability in media about the perpetuation of rape culture and incorrect notions. Celebrities carry a lot of influence on people they will never meet; if Reebok had kept Ross on it would mean they don’t find normalizing rape as a serious issue and thus don’t care that more people out there are going through trauma without their experience legitimized.
What did the campaign involve, and what was your involvement?
I worked with UltraViolet as an individual. It is a woman’s online organization that mobilizes members (who sign up through email) to sign petitions and take actions on campaigns that center on women’s issues. As a feminist, I appreciate having a feminist organization with such power. There was the initial campaign & petition, a petition delivery at its flagship store in NYC, the phone-in action, and a survivor’s petition with me as the top signer. I know about UV because I used to work at an organization that was in the same nonprofit accelerator called Citizen’s Engagement Lab.
Ross has since issued an apology for his lyrics and they have been removed from the song. Do you feel his apology was genuine or just damage control after no one believed him that his lyrics had simply been “misinterpreted”?
It’s hard to truly know whether his apology was genuine. I honestly have not met him in person or ever heard his apology vocalised, so I don’t feel comfortable making a call. It’s very possible that he did not learn from the campaign, but it’s just as possible that he did finally take the time to learn what rape is and how serious it is to make light of it as a celebrity.
A recent trial discussed in the American and international media was the Steubenville Rape Trial. It seemed to illustrate that many younger people, both male and female, don’t understand what constitutes rape and don’t understand that the blame lies only with the rapist. What do you think can be done to help end this culture of rape and victim blaming at a grass roots level?
I think that we need to move schools to teach about consent in sex ed. We need to be willing to talk about not just sex, but enthusiastic consent and what healthy sexuality and interactions look like. As individuals, we have to also be more critical of media and not hesitate to call out language or scenarios (or people!) that are problematic and do not take rape seriously. We have to not accept victim-blaming by others, either. I am a big fan of media literacy and public conversations about the larger implications of what we consume may be. I also think, and this is a huge part of rape culture, that we as people need to stop viewing rapists as one-dimensional monsters. We need to stop thinking that just because we know someone that they are incapable of rape, and we should attack the person who said they were raped. It isn’t about good vs bad people. It’s about a particular action that occurred where you were not present. While it is hard to think that you are related to or friends with a rapist, we need to stop letting loved ones get away scot-free with no accountability when someone makes the decision to speak out. False rape reports are EXTREMELY low. We need to emphasize that and encourage critical thinking – we know what happens to women who speak out; they are run through the mud. Why would someone make a false report? A vast majority of the time the only person who gets negative effects is the person who reported in the first place anyway.
Special thanks to Wagatwe Wanjuki for taking time out of a busy schedule to talk to me.