Keynote abstract – Carrie Rentschler

Pedagogies of Re-Enactment: Bystanding and the Media of Re-Experiencing Violence

Media re-enactments of key crime cases situate viewers as judges and participants. But for whom are media stories of violent crime told? And what model of social justice shapes their telling? This talk examines one particular major crime story and the histories of media re-enactment that have dramatized it: the 1964 murder and sexual assault of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in Queens, New York, where 38 people supposedly looked on and did nothing. In 1964, news reporters, editors, and social scientists framed it as story of failed witnessing, coining terms like “the bystander effect” and defining the coverage of urban crime for a generation. Since then, the Genovese murder has become one of the most re-enacted violent crimes of the 20th century: the subject of musicals, plays, made-for-TV movies, television documentaries, an episode of HBO’s Girls, and contemporary films around the world, as well as a staple of textbooks and teaching in the social sciences and law. Through its re-enactments across different media, the Genovese case served as a medium for transformations in the meaning of bystanding and bystander intervention over the past 50 years. Many re-enactments of the case focus on the city as built environment as the site of investigation, leaving the personhood of the victim and the effects of violence on the community out of the story. But feminist interpretations of the case and other cases of violence against women challenge the forensic, perpetrator-centred investigatory frame of so much crime re-enactment. Through its focus on survivors and witnesses, feminist work thus returns a politics of personhood to the crime, the telling of crime’s history, and the representation of historical violence.

Bio: Carrie Rentschler is Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar of Feminist Media Studies in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and an Associate of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at McGill University. She is the author of Second Wounds: Victims’ Rights and the Media in the U.S. (Duke UP, 2011), and co-editor of Girlhood Studies and the Politics of Place (Berghahn Press, 2016). Her current research examines the history of the bystander as an agent of social change, feminist social media responses to sexual violence, campus activism against rape culture, and the role media infrastructures play in social movement activism.

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