So, you know what’s sad and hard to deal with? The Mackenzie Phillips thing. I mean, seriously: there is so much going on there! With the incest, and the “consensual” incest, and the nobody really even understanding or knowing how to process what “consent” even means (OPINION TIME: pretty much nothing) in contexts of abuse and wherein you have already been sexually assaulted by the dude a certain number of times and… yeah. Sad. Hard to deal with. Hard to even understand.
What is NOT hard to understand, however, is that a ton of the coverage around it has been totally shitty and irresponsible! Therefore, I invite you to join Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I as we puzzle through it all.
SADY: oh, say, have you heard of any fairly famous stories of abuse and sexual assault that people are spinning in a totally alarmingly rape-culturey way lately? because I HAVE!
AMANDA: wait … you mean the consensual incest?
SADY: ha ha, YEAH. i played a little game, the day that story broke. it was called, How Many Headlines Are Not Totally Fucked Up.
AMANDA: how many!
SADY: here is your answer: i found two that were not! one was on MTV news and it read: “Mackenzie Phillips Claims Her Father Raped, Drugged Her.” one was on E! and it read, “Mackenzie Phillips: I Was Raped By My Father.” now! you could find some problems with these headlines! BUT, every other source was like “Mackenzie Phillips Confesses Sex Affair With Dad.” leaving out the part where it became “consensual” after several rapes.
AMANDA: and the part where it never becomes “consensual”! because it never can be! i was interested the differences in the media coverage of this incident and the Phillip Garrido incident. there’s a whole lot we don’t know about that situation, but whenever “sex” is mentioned between Garrido and his kidnapee, it’s usually at least referred to as rape. because you can’t kidnap a person and rape them and then raise them as your child/wife and have that slowly blossom into a consensual relationship. and this is the same thing, except—you can’t rate tragedies, but i’m gonna—worse? because he is the man with the responsibility to raise his child and he kidnapped her from her childhood and drugged her and raped her for decades.
SADY: yeah. i mean, here’s the thing. this reminded me a lot of anais nin,* who started having “consensual” sex with her father as an adult. BUT: she also struggled to figure out whether these memories of him molesting her as a child were real or distorted or what (a PRETTY common thing for kids, who have trouble making sense of memories of molestation) and there’s no doubt that he was abusive to her in other ways. and, like, these are different cases. phillips’ started out, unambiguously, as sexual assault, and she named it as such. but then – here’s a thing i think is tricky to articulate so IF I FUCK UP TELL ME – it became “consensual,” to HER, but arose out of this context of abuse and drugs where she basically didn’t have the option of NOT being victimized in this way. like, i think that the whole “compliance is not consent” thing is important to articulate, because sometimes people tell themselves that what is happening is consensual just to deal with the fact that they don’t have an option of it NOT happening.
AMANDA: definitely. because even if you leave that relationship, that means severing one of the most important relationships in your life, your relationship with your father. and that’s not a real choice. especially when your father has been emotionally and physically—so many drugs!—prepping you to consent to this shit since age 10
SADY: right. exactly. it’s a thing a lot of people struggle with, whether it’s abusive family relationships or (HEY!) rape culture: when you’re receiving constant information to the effect that how you are treated is normal and OK and excusable, you – you, yourself! – may have trouble articulating that what was done to you was not OK.
AMANDA: i didn’t watch the oprah interview, but i was dismayed to hear how it went down. Oprah, as many know, was raped as a child, and she’s interviewed a lot of victims of sexual assault on her show, and I think that’s great. but there’s still this very obvious manipulation of the interview for the general public – silently judging for Phillips continuing to GET RAPED after she turned 18, etc.
SADY: right. but her take can be sort of sensationalistic. and i have a problem with the Oprah Face – it’s something she does a lot in interviews, this thing of Making The Face You Imagine Your Audience To Be Making – so she looks “scandalized” when what is said is “scandalous” or etc.
AMANDA: yeah. and it’s so weird in a situation like this, because the news of this years-long abuse just hangs there. where do you go with it? it’s just objectively awful and terrible, but interviewers have tried to spice it up a little bit by judging which parts were most awful, and which parts were maybe her fault
SADY: actually, can i tell you my FAVORITE reactions? they were really special! and did not come from oprah!
SADY: my FAVORITE reactions have been those that are like, “this is so horrible! for my ENJOYMENT OF THE MUSIC OF JOHN PHILIPS!” which is closely tied to the Should She Have Said Anything At All? Maybe Not! debate, but that is fairly predictable and pedestrian silencing, whereas this – THIS! – demonstrates a bold and innovative approach to making the issues secondary to your own personal comfort.
AMANDA: i know. how is that even related? i’m reading a story about surviving rape, why the fuck do i care if someone does or does not like the mamas and the papas?
SADY: but that’s the thing! and this happens so often in cases of celebrity abuse. like, i believe that, when you and i discussed the chris brown and rihanna thing, you pointed out that a lot of people who covered it were just coming off a post where they drew jizz on a star’s face or whatever to express disapproval.
SADY: when something like this is treated as a “celebrity story” (which it is, to some extent) rather than a story about sexual violence (which it is, to a larger extent, I would argue) there’s going to be lazy or uneducated or insensitive coverage. which isn’t to say that everyone in the whole wide world who writes about celebrities is lazy or uneducated or insensitive, because that’s blatantly untrue, but that people who don’t know shit are going to write their piece too.
AMANDA: and on that note: with this story in particular, i find the “Think of the Children” defense extremely bizarre. I mean, what kid is going to be reading and/or caring about news about John and Mackenzie Phillips? I barely knew who she was before I heard about this. If a parent had to explain incest or rape to a child because of this news (and ooooh, talking to your kid about abuse is such a baaad thing), they’re first going to have to explain who the fuck these people are, right?
SADY: yeah. totally true! but, i mean, speaking of talking about abuse… the reactions that have been like, “why did she tell us ewww” or “but what of my record collection?” have been rare(ish) and call-out-able.
AMANDA: Except from her own family! Bonus reaction of her step-mother, who was married to John at the time: “John was a good man who had the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction,” the statement read. “He was incapable, no matter how drunk or drugged he was, of having such a relationship with his own child.”
SADY: “Mackenzie has a lot of mental illness. She’s had a needle stuck up her arm for 35 years.”
AMANDA: I mean, the statement isn’t even like, “i had no awareness of this happening,” but rather, “he couldn’t have done this, he was too good!”
SADY: right! the drug abuse and mental health issues have NOTHING to do with potential trauma! she’s just a freakshow! also, john was cool!
AMANDA: yeah. SHE did a lot of drugs, so she can’t be trusted. HE did even more drugs, so he can’t be a rapist. it all makes sense!
SADY: i mean… on some level? because my heart is full of twinkly stars and daisies and unicorn dust? i want to see how this HUGE story, which is playing out in public and is right in front of everyone’s face, can actually illuminate for people how victim-blaming and misunderstandings of consent can work. like, with the family turning on her. and the accusations that she just wants attention. and the minimizing of the word “rape” and widespread use of the word “sex.” these things are so common in MUCH SMALLER STORIES and i want to believe that seeing them, and seeing a conversation around them, is going to show people how fucked-up they are.
AMANDA: i’ll believe it when i see it
SADY: yeah. i mean, what’s typically going to happen is that voices who call shit out are going to be called fringe and unreasonable and mean and blah de blee blah bloo. but, you know. people are talking about incest now. and what with how little we all seem to get about it, given how it’s been covered? i hope to God at least some of us are going to REALIZE how little we get it, and move in the getting-it direction.
AMANDA: i agree that that much will probably happen. i hope.
*Actually, you know what? The more I think of it and/or learn about Mackenzie Philips, it doesn’t. And the differences are so complicated and weird that I think we’ll all be better off if I spare you my analysis and just leave it as-is.