My research examines the media history of the bystander as a social change agent, drawing from feminist cultural studies perspectives. In it, I aim to understand why and how the subject position of the bystander has become such a visible target of public outcry, and why bystanders are currently being hailed as a potential intervener in social violence—that is, as people who can be trained to stop violence around their roles as witnesses to it.
From 1960s journalistic and public outcry over “do nothing” citizens and “the sickness of public apathy” to contemporary activism against street harassment, gender violence and racialized police violence in the U.S. and Canada, the bystander represents a subject who can be mobilized to intervene. In the context of increasing calls for community-based responses to and responsibility for social violence, the bystander position offers, in its most radical orientations, the promise of community based intervention and collective movement.
The 1964 murder and sexual assault of Catherine Genovese — one of the 20th century’s most well known crime cases — and the legacies of social psychological research inspired by it, have framed public discussions about the problem of bystanding for over 50 years. A group of British social psychologists describes the Genovese case as the most widely cited real-life example in their field (Rachel Manning et. al. “The Parable of the 38 Witnesses,” 2007). The case is the subject of introductory courses and textbooks in the field of social psychology, and widely circulates in law, sociology, and urban studies. In social psychology, the New York Times’ story “37 Who Saw Murder Did Not Call Police” about Genovese’s sexual assault and murder inspired new forms of theatrical experimentation around the problem of bystander non-intervention.
Their experiments in turn have inspired students, amateur media producers and even US TV shows such as “What Would You Do” to re-enact some of their social psychological experimental models drawing on hidden-camera conventions popularized in the U.S. TV show “Candid Camera.”
While high profile violent crimes are often the subject of true crime TV re-enactments, the Genovese case is unusual in its propensity to be re-enacted across media formats over time, becoming a popular form of pedagogy about bystander intervention. Unlike true crime productions, with their focus on what Mark Seltzer referred to as wound cultures (crime scenes, weapons, wounded bodies), which make up only a small proportion of re-enactments of the Genovese murder, most re-enactments of the Genovese case focus instead on the main subjects of the Genovese story: the witnesses who were said to have watched or heard her being assaulted and did not call the police. They rarely focus on the victim or perpetrator, who were never central agents in the dominant story of the crime.
The case’s re-enactment culture reveals the role re-performance plays in constructing a historical dossier of the crime in which cultural producers and educators transform the meaning of legal and social responsibility tied to bystanders. Learning about the Genovese case – whether in a classroom or through civic TV programming — is tied to processes of experiencing its re-enactment by spectating a media re-enactment for the crime’s witnesses or, for students, doing one’s own re-enactment in which they become witnessing re-enactors of the historical case.
In the 1960s, the Genovese case helped articulate a racist street crime framework that replicated the white supremacist and racially androcentric system of terror that constituted slavery and Jim Crow laws on the myth of black male rapists and the cult of white womanhood (see Carol Stabile’s great book White Victims, Black Villains: Gender, Race and Crime News in US Culture, 2006). It dramatized a white identified middle class crime fearing public that would soon take shape in the first U.S. national crime victimization survey in 1967.
Today its re-enactment often represents conditions of individual responsibilization and the dominance of risk management frameworks in violence prevention. While framed by these earlier narratives, contemporary re-enactments focus on the individual witness as responsible, and irresponsible, agent.
My talk, “Pedagogies of Re-Enactment: Bystanding and the Media of Re-Experiencing Violence” examines the affective pedagogies performed through and in media re-enactments of the Genovese sexual assault and murder. Media re-enactments set up conditions for virtually witnessing the form of the Genovese sexual assault and murder through proxies, purporting to offer lessons about the structures of feeling that might transform bystanders into active witnesses. To do so, they invite spectators to experience the re-enactment as proxy witnesses – as witnesses to other’s bystanding – and as amateur investigators and surrogate judges.
I call this an affective pedagogy of spectatorship. Re-enactments produce a genre of media witnessing that prompts its viewers to judge those who failed to act and to project themselves into the position of possible interveners based on the (largely unfulfilled) promise of an emotional and experiential conversion: from bystander to witness. I approach media re-enactments as “technologies of orientation,” modes of re-enacted performance that are meant to orient viewers towards particular ways of judging oneself and others as potential bystanders to social violence through spectator’s experiential conversion process.
The talk draws from a digitized archive of media re-enactments of the 1964 assault and murder case that I’ve been collecting and analyzing over the past 6 years. To watch clips and read additional critical commentary on several films and TV programs that represent and re-enact the Genovese murder, access the archive in Critical Commons
*Critical Commons is an online initiative to make the texts of media culture available for study and teaching under fair use and critical transformative re-use purposes.
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.