I had a college professor once give us a list of words we weren’t allowed to use. On the list was the word “meme,” with the reasoning that no one had ever been able to explain to him what they were. At the time, I thought, “Sure. Fair. I don’t really know what those are either.” But that was a few million clicks of memes ago, and now even my great aunt sort of knows what they are, shelling out cartoon angels that sparkle everyday like the rapture could come any minute. Now here we all are, liking, sharing, eye-rolling and secretly feeling a little better about our alcoholism as the memeification of our culture continues to grow unfettered, the internet’s bowels exponentially swelling with expired content.
A new type of meme, however, has emerged more recently, giving the millennial-steeped, clickable comedy variety a run for its money, and that is the political meme. It has the power to be both poignant and inane, immediately gifting the sharer with both self-righteousness, and zeal. Sometimes these political memes resonate with a chord of humanity, their virality chipping away at outdated perspectives. But sometimes, in a rush to react to a current news topic, the public’s collective pulse heightened with awareness and passion, political memes can be a cruel reminder of the danger of oversimplifying our world’s ills into one image.
This happened recently when a meme surfaced comparing the sentencing of Brock Turner in the Stanford rape case earlier this month to that of Cory Batey in the Vanderbilt Rape case in 2015. The meme stood out because Brock Turner is white and Cory Batey is black, Turner having been sentenced to six months, and Batey having been sentenced to 15-25 years for what the meme makes appear was the same crime. At first glance, yes that is an infuriating comparison, and would seem to speak to the heart of our country’s problem with insidious sentencing disparities based on race. But upon further inspection what becomes glaringly evident is that lured by the false sense of real change via internet visibility, what was really being spread around was the gross victimization of a dangerous sexual predator. Beyond that, activists were putting the issue of race over the issue of rape, which the Stanford case was finally bringing to the forefront of conversation thanks to the heavy media coverage, and widespread publication of Turner’s victim’s lengthy and moving closing statement to the court.
Let’s go over some facts. Cory Batey participated in the violent gang rape of a friend’s unconscious girlfriend, and fellow Vandy student, whom they dragged back to a dorm room after encouraging her to drink in excess. From there they took turns raping her, shoved bottles inside of her, and Batey urinated on her—all the while filming the whole thing, laughing, and reveling in their carnage as Brandon Vandenburg, the boyfriend, directed. Afterwards they had Tex-Mex, and sent the video of this poor girl to friends as a trophy. Batey’s expensive legal team pulled all of the same punches as Turner’s: victim blaming/shaming, dragging the young woman’s past through the mud, crafting the nauseating argument that the victim’s alcohol consumption was the cause, and the rapists’ alcohol consumption was their excuse. Yes, he was found guilty, and yes he was sentenced to 15-25 years. However, after a rigorous appeals process stemming from the revelation that a jury member had failed to disclose having been statutorily raped, Batey has been pushing off sentencing for over a year, even after being convicted again by a new jury in April. He initially did receive the sentence that the meme shows, but it is far from being set in stone now.
The NY Daily News turned the meme into a news story with the headline, “Two College Athletes Who Raped Women Show How Race and Privilege Affect Sentences.” Here we are again where the perpetrators of rape are ascribed adjectives relevant to their lives, and the victims are just raped. Yet again the media is focusing more on the outcomes for the rapists than the outcomes for the victims. BET went one step further, turning the meme into a viral info-video that further distorted the meme’s cruel falsehoods. The video references Batey’s sentence as “mandatory,” even though his sentencing has yet to be set. The video references his crime as “sexual assault.” Cory Batey was convicted of three felony counts of rape, including aggravated sexual battery and aggravated rape. Brock Turner was convicted of intent to rape an unconscious/intoxicated person, (digital) penetration of an intoxicated person and (digital) penetration of an unconscious person. BET then begs the question of us, “Two men committed the same crime, but what makes Brock Turner’s case different?” In portraying Batey as a victim of racial bias, the video also leaves out that he is on camera muttering racial slurs at his victim after raping and urinating on her.
Let me be crystal clear, I think that Brock Turner, and all rapists and sexual predators—the men who take the cues from our patriarchally mind-fucked society as suggestions to take agency over women’s bodies instead of embracing and respecting consent—should serve prison time fitting to the severity of the crime. Call me a feminazi, I don’t care. And to downplay Cory Batey’s violent rape of a woman, that he is on video taking pleasure in and bragged about, as a way to substantiate a point about race, well that’s more rape culture for you. People look at the two different societal woes—One being the fact that black men on average receive 20% longer sentences, the other the inability for women to seek and get justice in the judicial system after being raped—and by sharing, supporting and ignoring the falsehoods in that meme, they make it clear that one is more important than the other. Even though white men are at the top of the patriarchal food chain, this meme still drives home the point that all men are still above women
It is disgusting and reprehensible that Brock Turner would receive only six months in jail for the violent sexual assault of a woman. It is also disgusting and reprehensible that black people face harsher prison sentences—for parole violations, nonviolent drug offenses and now activism—than Turner received for sexual assault. But the fact of the matter is that Batey committed a heinous crime, and a meme about race almost makes that okay. People share without thinking because racism is wrong, but we’re still not 100% sure as a society how we feel about women and their power over their own bodies, so go ahead and click that Facebook sad-reaction button, and cry an emoji tear for Batey.
Yes, Batey received a steep sentence initially, but his accomplice Brandon Vandenburg was just convicted this past weekend of five counts of aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of unlawful photography, which also carries a sentence of 15-25 years. Vandenberg is white, so you don’t see any memes about the difference between what could be his sentence and Turner’s. Sentencing has not been set however, so like Batey, we will have to see what a judge thinks is fair. It’s possible that the public outcry regarding Turner’s sentencing will encourage the judge in Batey and Vandenberg’s sentencing, and future rape case sentencing, to be severe. But that is not because of race, it’s because multiple years in prison should be the expected penalty for rape. Racially-influenced sentencing practices need to end, but they are not a factor in the Vanderbilt rape case.