Netflix’s new true crime doco shows the depths of rape culture in small-town USA

Roll Red Roll is a brutal, painfully illuminating documentary on the Steubenville High School rape case, a shocking crime that made headlines worldwide. Emily Writes reviews.

This review discusses rape and sexual violence

August 11, 2012: two teenage boys rape an unconscious teenage girl as two of their peers watch and take photos on their phone. One of their teammates texts saying he is on his way to join in. 

The victim, aged just 16, is unconscious, which amuses the boys in the room but also entertains the boys who watched her as she was carried away to be raped. It’s unclear if she can hear them laughing as she vomits on the floor. They’re filmed laughing as they talk about her attack.

She is so raped right now.

You don’t need foreplay with a dead girl.

She’s deader than OJ’s wife.

This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen

A promotional image for Roll Red Roll.

The Steubenville High School rape case, as it came to be known, was a wake-up call to many who had never heard of the term “rape culture”. Roll Red Roll documents the aftermath of this attack. For years feminists had talked about rape culture but the Steubenville case showed clearly, more than ever before, that it exists and that it’s real. In texts and on social media the evidence of a culture that minimises the humiliation of women was on display for all the world to see.

The unrelenting and confronting voices of rapists, rape apologists, victims and police throughout Roll Red Roll leave little doubt that we are living in a world where our children are growing up soaking in a culture where rape is common and normalised to the extent that it’s often not even seen as a crime.

I’ve never seen the evidence and facts of the concept so clearly laid out as it is in the documentary, and for that reason every person should see it. Especially parents, caregivers, and those who teach or work with young people.

Roll Red Roll asks the crucial question we need to address as a society – what role do we have in enabling rape? This is an uncomfortable question to face for many, and for many reasons. A rapist ultimately holds the blame for rape, of that there is no doubt. But what makes a rapist? 

When rapists are called monsters we can fool ourselves into believing they’re born as such – a convenient untruth that means nothing can be done to stop rape. A myth that contributes to victim blaming. If a rapist is evil, an anomaly, then surely they can’t help themselves. Attack is inevitable. So it is up to the potential victim to be safe. And if she (usually she) cannot do that, then the result is expected. Her fate is in her hands.

Victim-blaming, toxic masculinity, slut-shaming and sexual objectification are tied together intrinsically but they’re usually viewed entirely separately. Roll Red Roll insists the viewer see the links and face them. An elderly man who seems quite gentle says “when that kind of stuff happened when I was at school you got suspended or disciplined and now they want to put you in jail.” Before insisting that he doesn’t “condone anything”.  

Placed between footage of police interviews where staunch boys are tight lipped so they don’t “hurt” their friends by exposing them as rapists – the words of this man are staggering. This man grew up viewing rape as “stuff” that just “happened” at his school. 

Two teenage girls talk about the case and say: “Yes the boys were definitely not in the right, but she was also at a party that she probably shouldn’t have been at. She has to take responsibility for the choice she made to go to that party. When you put yourself in that situation you have to take some responsibility for your actions.” These girls have learned what happens if you go to a party: you get raped.

On the radio a DJ says: “These girls at these parties… sometimes they get a little promiscuous all of a sudden they’re being called, you know, a whore and it’s real easy to all of a sudden say you were taken advantage of. Rather than own up to the fact that, ‘hey look I did what I did’. It’s easy to tell your parents you were raped than ‘hey mom dad I got drunk and decided to let three guys have their way with me’.”

They hear the message from their elders that rape is and always has been part of the very fabric of teenage years. They hear their sisters, mothers, cousins, and friends being taught that the result of not following the rules is rape. And that ultimately, you hold responsibility if you’re a victim. They hear from those they admire, those who influence them, that girls are liars, sluts, and they exist to be used.

The end result is this. A text from a rapist: “She came thru she brought food she got fucked she knew wassup”

A still from Roll Red Roll. Photo credit: David Holm.

The context of American football in the Steubenville case does not mean it exists only in the US. Football can easily be swapped with rugby and league in New Zealand and Australia. It shines the light on male role models like coaches. The coach of the high school football rapists asks: “So can’t they use another word for, for rape?”

Many young men heavily involved in sport see their coaches as father figures. Roll Red Roll’s video footage of the coach being interviewed on video is shocking because the boys so readily called their actions rape. The young men had no trouble using the term. It was the adults who felt the need to use other words, to bury the rotten truth of it all. It was the adults who tried to think of it as something else after all, that’s what they’d taught these boys.

The boys used the word rape openly and easily because they knew that their social worth, their capital, was worth more than that of a drunk girl at a party. They knew their coach would back them, knew their mates would too. They didn’t expect her to fight back because this is what you do to girls and they take it. They knew everything would fall into place like dominoes – the culture kicks in. It’s acceptable behaviour because who has ever said it isn’t? 

Just as you start to feel as if it can’t get any worse, there’s a lawyer asking “who raped who?”. He suggests that the victim consented because she gave one of the boys access to her phone. A girl who was on the floor vomiting while a young man penetrated her anally while his friends laughed.

One public tweet by a boy said “Bitches getting trained out here lol”. At first I didn’t understand the context but then realised that the taunt “choo choo” made it horrifyingly clear what they were doing to these young women. “Fucking man up – you’re a football player,” an officer tells one of the men during their police interview.

Every person, every word they say – coach, lawyer, team-mate – it combines and links and connects and these kids are frogs in a pot being burned alive. But instead of that making us all feel hopeless, it should spring us into action as adults. It’s proof we can change this. Once acknowledged, it’s there – and we can do something about it.

“Imagine if it was your daughter” is a common refrain around rape. We need to start saying “Imagine if it was your son”. Imagine if it was your son who, when seeing an unconscious girl, decided to violate her. Hard to do right? How about imagining your son choosing to pick up a camera and take photos rather than stop it?

What would your son do if he saw three boys carrying a drunk girl by her arms and legs into a car? 

What would your son do if his friend told him he “raped a dead  girl”, as was the case in this instance.

What would you do if your son liked a tweet joking about a girl being raped?

These are all part of a spectrum of behaviours that add up to the victimisation of women. Tellingly, the boys who raped this girl – the boys who filmed it, the boys who laughed about it, the boys who shared the images and video of her degradation – they are repeatedly called “good boys”. Their behaviour is still being minimised or outright denied despite the evidence of what they did. Despite their own words.

Are they good boys? How many parents think their boys are good boys? And how many will talk to their boys about what it means to be a boy? I messaged my husband immediately after watching Roll Red Roll and asked him to watch the film. Our boys are little right now, so our way of raising them focuses on respect for others and consent, but in time we will need to ensure we are talking to them openly about the culture they’re living in.

We’ll be talking to them about what it means to be a man and we will be talking about rape. The investigating officer in the Steubenville case says “there definitely were marked moments during that night where you had hoped for some kind of a hero or someone to step in.”

It shouldn’t take a hero to stop a rape. In order to step in, our boys need us to stand up and speak out.

Roll Red Roll is streaming now on Netflix.

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