Skip to main content

The Problem With Brad Pitt's Anonymous v. Steubenville Film Project

Think Progress attacked Brad Pitt's proposed movie about the Steubenville/Anonymous rape case. When the film hasn't been made yet, is it fair to criticize it?
Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 10.43.57 AM

Normally, I’m way on board with ThinkProgress, but I think an article they ran yesterday about Brad Pitt’s production company reportedly obtaining the rights to a Rolling Stone story about the Steubenville rape/Anonymous case was a little premature in its criticism.

The problem, wrote Tara Culp-Ressler, is that “The upcoming project will reportedly focus on the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous, which helped make the sexual assault in the tiny Ohio town into a national story. The protagonist will be the hacker at the center of the case, Deric Lostutter, who faces more jail time than the rapists themselves do."

“In a culture where rape survivors’ voices are often ignored, and women’s stories about their own lived experiences of sexual violence and oppression are constantly brought into question, it’s discouraging to envision a movie about one of the most famous rape cases in the country that places a ‘white knight’ at the center. Although it’s likely not the intention of Plan B Entertainment, that framing choice ends up further obscuring the real women who are victimized by sexual assault.”

I get her point -- to a point, anyway. Jessica Valenti aptly described the victim-blaming culture Culp-Ressler is referring to in a 2012 blog for The Nation:

“If you’re married, you’ve contractually agreed to be available for sex whether or not you want to. If you’re a woman of color, you must be a liar. If you don’t have as much money as your attacker, you’re just looking for a payday. If you’re in college, you shouldn’t want to ruin your poor young rapist’s life. If you’re a sex worker, it wasn’t rape it was just 'theft of services.' If you said yes at first but changed your mind, tough luck. If you’ve had sex before, you must say yes to everyone. If you were drinking you should have known better. If you were wearing a short skirt what did you expect?”

But let’s be real: A teenage girl being raped is horrendous, but from a filmic perspective, it’s nothing new.

Rabble-rousing Internet rapist hunters are.

It's easy to see why producers would see it as a fresher story, and to be fair, we don’t even yet know what Plan B Entertainment’s treatment of the story will be.

The Tracking Board reported, "The project is said to focus on the life of Lostutter, his involvement with the hacking group Anonymous, and how it was to come that his uncovering of the truth would find him facing 20-years in prison, while the rapists he revealed were only facing 1 year in prison." It does seems like much of the outrage about the case is because Losutter faces more jail time than the actual rapists. You'd expect that aspect to be central to the story, and one would assume that it will help raise awareness about rape culture, and not demean victims.

What I hope they focus on is the issue of whether the hackers ended up bringing more harm upon the victims than the lax response from law enforcement, as Bridgette Dunlap explored in an article for RH Reality Check. “Anonymous is often credited with having helped to bring rapists to justice in the Maryville, Steubenville, and Rehtaeh Parsons cases despite a track record of making investigations already in progress more difficult, falsely accusing innocent people, and making other women collateral damage,” Dunlap wrote. “Leah Parsons [the mother of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 15-year-old who killed herself after a picture of her alleged rape was shared among her peers] was ambivalent about ‘OpJustice4Rehtaeh,’ but she was clear in an interview that she wanted the justice system, not the public, going after the boys who allegedly raped her daughter.

“[In a story for The New York Times Magazine, Emily] Bazelon reports that Parsons’ rejection of Anonymous’ vigilante tactics came as an unexpected blow to Anonymous activists—I expect because it didn’t occur to them that they might not know what is best for a survivor or her family.”

The script could turn out to be the story of well-meaning but flawed vigilantes, a complex and splintered "group," for want of a better word, who interfered with police investigations but ultimately shed light on rape culture. It could show us the consequences of not taking into account the wishes of the accusers, no matter what people like Anonymous decide the public needs to know. It could give a voice to traumatized young women who had people speaking for them  without their consent.

Or it could make out Anonymous to be heroes and the young women who were raped weepy window dressing for their male avengers. But who knows? One would hope it’s the former but it’s really too early to say, so lets reserve judgment until we see what they do with it.