In Believability: Sexual Violence, Media, and the Politics of Doubt, Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kathryn Claire Higgins examine how a turn to media culture and the development of an “economy of believability” shape the processes wherein women seek justice for sexual violence committed against them. Banet-Weiser and Higgins’s timely book presents a powerful feminist analysis of the interacting forces of belief, media and sexual violence in the post-truth era, writes Olumide Adisa.
Believability: Sexual Violence, Media, and the Politics of Doubt. Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kathryn Claire Higgins. Polity. 2023.
Netflix’s 2020 fascinating true crime docuseries Trial by Media examines the most gripping trials in US history (including the “Big Dan’s case” about the rape of a woman in a bar) by considering how the media may have influenced the verdicts. With the visibility of hashtags like #MeToo, many accounts of sexual violence by women that never resulted in criminal trials have come to light and are playing out through the media. What happens when rape allegations come to light in this way, and what does this mean for sexual justice in a post-truth era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”? In their new book, Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kathryn Claire Higgins position the thought-provoking concept “economy of believability” in arguing for a “turn to media culture” as a way to achieve sexual justice in a society where the default positions disbelieves women and their accounts of sexual violence. The authors define their “economy of believability” as a term that involves “representations, ideologies, labour, products, resources, and intersecting power hierarchies” (5) within a sexual violence and media culture context.
This book showcases sexual violence as a culturally mediated phenomena, which interconnects with post-truth, power, historical constructions of doubtful subjects, and the authors’ concept of economy of believability
In the text, the authors consider the manifestations of subjectivity and performance as dependent on media culture. This book showcases sexual violence as a culturally mediated phenomena which interconnects with post-truth, power, and historical constructions of doubtful subjects, and the authors’ concept of economy of believability.
Banet-Weiser and Higgins’ text offers a complex feminist analysis of the interacting forces of post-truth, belief, media, and sexual violence. This text is arguably a transdisciplinary masterpiece that is likely to engage the informed public, students, feminists and media scholars on sexual violence. It is written in an accessible style that does not assume insider knowledge. The text’s complexified notion of believability disentangles the ways these subject areas overlap and connect (3). The authors invoke their innovative concept, of the “economy of believability” throughout the text and take the reader through the text’s discursive engagement with feminist theory and praxis to underpin the constructions of believability. Multiplicity and the “dynamism of believability” are also conceptualised as complex terms, but in a metaphorical sense. The dynamism of believability (198) is made up of two components – the capability of being believed and the quality of being convincing. Sexual violence is considered as “multiply factual”, and testimonies as “multiply believable/doubtable.” Believability is further considered to be made up of three registers in accounts of sexual violence: personal experience, harms, and structural phenomena (24).
Women’s believability is dictated by subjectivity (rooted in women’s voices) and performance, which overlap and may then be considered as informing each other
This book has four key chapters as well as an introductory and concluding chapter. The first chapter focuses on the authors’ construction of their concept of believability, using various useful examples and case studies from the media sphere. Women’s believability is dictated by subjectivity (rooted in women’s voices) and performance, which overlap and may then be considered as informing each other. The well-publicised Heard/Depp trial is referenced briefly by the authors in the introductory chapter (and also in Chapter three) to illustrate these points. Noteworthy is the role of powerful media actors, concentrated among a small group of organisations who stand with the accused to keep the accusations out of the public eye. The text describes these silencing practices (used by powerful men) as “forms of believability work“ (55). The text goes on to characterise this ‘believability work’ as the significant money and time resources marshalled by powerful actors to protect powerful men (who have harmed women), solely for the purpose of diminishing women’s believability.
Chapter two focuses on the commodification of believability, something the authors term “the buying and selling of belief”. This characterisation of belief as something transactional is further positioned within the emerging feminist marketplace of “well-intentioned” products such as wearable tech and surveillance. In the text, the buying and selling of these wearable products aimed at women places the responsibility of preventing of sexual violence on women, and normalises sexual violence as part of their everyday lives (109).
Chapter three grapples with the contested notions of believability funnelled through the intersection of the cultural notion of women as doubtful subjects, and a digitisation process described in the text as ‘the digitisation of doubt’ (121). The chapter discusses how well-publicised calls for belief in a digital age is mediated through three aspects: access/amplification, democratisation, and platformisation of truth (149). The authors draw on these concepts by heavily relying on the literature, which have been studied in other disciplines.
The authors discuss how believability is conditional on “felt” believability, which follows historical patterns of anti-Black racism, the subordination of Black women as lesser in being believed
In the fourth chapter, the authors discuss how believability is conditional on “felt” believability, which follows historical patterns of anti-Black racism, the subordination of Black women as lesser in being believed (as seen from R. Kelly and Bill Cosby’s crimes), and negative tropes about Black women in media culture, stemming from the adultification of Black girls. This is in contrast to a history of greater validity attached to white women’s stories, and as seen in the false rape accusations of Black men weaponised by white women (as evidenced by the false claims made by Carolyn Bryant against Emmet Till, which led to his brutal murder), and in the “felt” believability as seen in the case of Amy Cooper who called the police and made a false charge against a Black man in Central Park.
Banet-Weiser and Higgins highlight the role of believability in these well-known, tragic examples which gained spectacular visibility in media culture. The authors use these examples sensitively to buttress their points on the struggle of victimhood in their economy of believability. In this retelling and analysis, they perhaps (consciously or unconsciously) reveal themselves as potentially white allies in the struggle of Black women, whom society routinely places as undeserving of being visible in any continuum of believability.
Banet-Weiser and Higgins’ economy of believability contains gendered, class and racial dimensions, but the text does not explain the subjectivities which determine these. Rather they choose to focus solely on “a set of historical conditions that form the context for struggles over believability’ and by extension struggles over truth”(13). While the entangled complexified nature of belief and intersectionality is acknowledged, it could be considered a limitation that the text fails to substantively discuss these important dimensions in tandem.
Believability plays out in media domains and in silencing practices which lend themselves to the commodified silencing of women’s voices through Nondisclosure Agreements (NDAs) and confidentiality agreements.
Another criticism that could be levied against the text is the ways in which Banet-Weiser and Higgins’ delineation of “credibility” (in a context of criminal trials) differs from their concept of believability. The authors themselves may already have anticipated this criticism, as they position their text clearly as one that calls for “a shift from credibility to believability” and one that “adds to these conversations on criminal trials” (7). The authors want readers to understand that many aspects relating to seeking justice for sexual violence are decided outside of the courtrooms, decentring the state as the ultimate decider of believability. For example, believability plays out in media domains and in silencing practices which lend themselves to the commodified silencing of women’s voices through Nondisclosure Agreements (NDAs) and confidentiality agreements. Yet, because the notion of doubt features in concepts of credibility, as well as the authors’ concept of believability, the demarcation of both concepts are not clearly defined. Banet-Weiser and Higgins go on to say that, “in a mediated economy of believability, doubt often works in a similar way” to credibility (25). As a result, this may suggest to readers that credibility and believability can be used synonymously – at least in relation to doubt and doubtful subjects.
The text […] makes immense contributions to an understanding of how women’s accounts of sexual harassment and violence are framed and positioned as unbelievable by the media.
Despite these shortcomings, the text as a whole makes immense contributions to an understanding of how women’s accounts of sexual harassment and violence are framed and positioned as unbelievable by the media. The authors convincingly suggest how their concept of an economy of believability offers a more radical and comprehensive account of why women (and their accounts of sexual violence) are cast in disbelief and doubt in media culture, contributing to a timely and ongoing conversation on sexual justice beyond simplified notions of truth and testimony.
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