During a recent interview with Britain’s Sky News, Charlize Theron was quoted as comparing digital media’s intrusion of her private life to the act of being raped. Specifically, when asked about how it made her feel to Google her own name—to see the pictures and headlines and unsolicited opinions not only of herself, but of her family—she went on record as saying “I don’t do that, so that’s my saving grace. When you start living in that world, and doing that, you start I guess feeling raped.” The reporter pressed further, asking her if she really felt so strongly violated by the media that she’d really use the word rape. She replied by saying “Well, when it comes to your son and your private life. Maybe it’s just me.”
Though the backlash for this comment was strong and immediate, Theron is not the only celebrity to go on record as using the term in similar comparisons; both Kristen Stewart and Johnny Depp made similar comments in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
The loudest responses have come via social media, many enraged that somebody who lives such a seemingly charmed life would use such a horrific experience to describe any aspect of fame, a principle echoed by many professionals.
Linda Fairstein, the former chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes, went on record as saying “Rape has a legal definition, a physical assault on the body and a very traumatic one.” And she’s right—the legal definition of “rape” spells out the crime she described. However, if you do a quick search for the definition of “rape,” you’ll find that Dictionary.com lists the following as an archaic definition of the word: “the act of seizing or carrying off by force; despoliation; violation; abuse.”
There have been quieter responses to the incident—nearly whispers, really—that point to these definitions. There have been people who wonder why one word should matter so much, especially when you consider that, historically, the term “rape” was not exclusive to sexual violation. We knew what Theron meant when she made the comment. It was one word.
But words are not just words. Language cannot exist without a generally agreed upon interpretation of them, and that interpretation is both denotative and connotative in nature. This is the basic functionality of language. Without interpretation, words are entirely meaningless. The images that come to mind when someone speaks a word are what make language work. Offering up words for the interpretation of others is the innate mandate of using language.
So, yes, technically speaking, “rape” can refer to any act of violation, but utter the term to almost anyone, and images of the paparazzi are not what come to mind. Theron either knew this and chose to make a point, or she knew it but had a lapse of judgment. An understanding of what language is leaves no other option.