In a thoughtful piece at the New York Times Magazine, Parul Sehgal considers the word “survivor,” and particularly its relatively recent use to describe those who have experienced sexual assault. Sehgal persuasively argues that the term “survivor” was once a powerful reclamation of the narrative, and that now, it’s beholden to a narrative of “forced heroism.”
“Survivor” was first put into use in this context in the 1980s by feminists who began using the word to mobilize against the sexual abuse of children. Since then, of course, “survivor” has been given a broader definitional range; no longer used just to describe children, it covers anyone who has experienced sexual violence. Indeed, the word has become so ingrained that describing yourself as a “survivor” means acknowledging a particular crime committed without going into detail.
The shift from “victim” to “survivor,” Sehgal notes, was, in its earliest usage, a radical intervention into historical narratives of victimhood, sexual violence, and gender. To be a survivor rather than a victim of sexual assault was to claim an iteration of power post-assault—to refuse the passiveness, as well as the physical and emotional vulnerability that’s semantically bound to victimhood. Sehgal writes:
After all, for much of history, the “good” rape victim, the “credible” rape victim has always been a dead one, a serviceable symbol of defiled innocence around whom a group can rally — a suicide like Lucretia, whose rape catalyzed the founding of the Roman Republic, or any of the Catholic Church’s patron saints of rape victims (none of whom, incidentally, were raped; they martyred themselves instead). In literature, women have been ingeniously silenced: In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” they’re turned into birds and trees. One has her tongue cut out to keep her from testifying — a grisly and beloved trope that reappears everywhere from “Titus Andronicus” to “The World According to Garp.”
Beginning in the 1970s, books like “Kiss Daddy Goodnight,” “I Never Told Anyone” and “The Courage to Heal,” which collected first-person narratives of women who had experienced incest and child sexual abuse, brought the issue to the fore of public consciousness. They were among the first to pointedly use the word “survivor,” often replacing “victim” in a form of deliberate rebranding to emphasize women’s resourcefulness rather than their helplessness and the decisions they had made that allowed them to stay safe and sane.
Now, Sehgal argues that the word’s overuse—its adaptation into the mainstream—has stripped “what once felt radical” down to “a rhetoric of almost mandatory heroism.”
Looking at the landscape of pop culture, Sehgal identifies the new survivor, someone who manifests in Jessica Jones or Olivia Benson—the kind of woman commonly described as “badass.” Strong and unflappable, the survivor has undergone a complete “pendulum swing” from the damaged and broken victim. Sehgal argues that, linguistically, “survivor” now acts in a similar way to “victim”; both words are so overrun with a series of flat assumptions that neither allows for any degree of humanity:
“It centers the person and not the event — which is crucial. Those who have faced sexual violence are so commonly sentimentalized or stigmatized, cast as uniquely heroic or uniquely broken. Everything can be projected upon them, it seems — everything but the powers and vulnerabilities of ordinary personhood.”
It’s a smart, interesting piece, and given our current cultural tendency to depoliticize once radical language by adapting it into the mainstream, Sehgal’s essay is worth the read.
Image via Netflix.