People involved in any sort of service, community, or activism work that involves interaction with the court system are well aware of the need for ‘perfect victims,’ people who can serve as adequate test cases in the legal environment because their narratives are flawless and beyond reproach. An attorney working with victims of domestic violence, for example, knows that it will be hard to get a conviction if the client fought back or has a criminal record. Rape victims are only good on the stand if they can tell the right kind of story, the one where they were innocently minding their own business and weren’t trans, or poor, or sex workers, or people with any sort of history. Young men who are murdered by police or overzealous vigilantes are only public causes to rally around if they, too, were pure and innocent, with nothing to besmirch their reputations.
The need for victims to be perfect is an awful bind to be caught in; even people who hate the perfect victim narrative may need to play by the rules in the interest of what they think of as the greater good. An attorney won’t bring a case to court if the outcome is predetermined, or if it’s likely to be traumatic and pointless for the client, for example, because it serves no function. People laying the groundwork for a precedent want to find the best possible representative to create a rock-solid foundation, so that the precedent will be unassailable.
This narrative is advanced by the media, and reinforced by the media, in the way it reports on these issues, and conservatives are quick to take advantage of it. In any case where an unfairness and a wrongness is in the public eye, there is a rush to find something ‘wrong’ with the victim, some reason the case doesn’t matter and can’t be taken seriously. She was asking for it. He shouldn’t have behaved suspiciously. She was a drug user. He was a rent boy. She had a history, you know. He shouldn’t have been out in that neighbourhood.
An awareness of the perfect victim narrative is important, and it’s critical to acknowledge that sometimes people are forced to sacrifice or make bad choices because of the predominance of this narrative in the system. We are doing no one any good if we pretend that it doesn’t exist and isn’t a problem. At the same time, though, it is important to avoid being consumed by it, and to prevent the tendency to play into it when it’s not necessary; pushing back against the perfect victim narrative is the only way to abolish it.
In the Trayvon Martin case that burst into the public eye in March, many people reacted with outrage and horror to the initial story, of a young man shot to death while walking home with a pack of Skittles for his brother. The shooter’s defense team quickly turned to smearing him, attempting to make the case out as an act of self-defense, but also specifically casting aspersions on Mr. Martin’s character, making him seem like a suspicious kid with a bad history. This was deliberate, not just because they wanted to win their case, but because they know that by undermining Mr. Martin’s character, they could weaken the outrage.
By turning him from a perfect victim into someone more nebulous, or at least creating the illusion of doing so, or suggesting that there might be more to Mr. Martin’s life than was originally discussed, they created a ripple effect that slowly spread out. Questioning started to spread. They turned the victim into one of those boys people don’t care about, the ones who don’t provoke anger across race and class barriers because they die every day. They didn’t just build a case for themselves; they reminded people about the perfect victim narrative and the need for all victims to be spotless if they want justice.
In the United States, there is a claim that justice is blind, and people can access it without prejudice if they have been mistreated or are victims of inequality. This is not upheld with the actual enforcement of justice in the United States, and the way justice really works on the ground, rather than in the halls of theory. One reason for this is social attitudes about perfect victims, and the responsibility of victims to society to meet their expectations about what a victim should look like, how victims should behave, and how a victim should testify about the experience of violence or abuse.
Progressives play into this by taking up the cause of perfect victims, rallying around them with their petitions and outcry while ignoring the less perfect victims. There are all sorts of excuses for this; some advocates, like people working directly in institutions to change them, argue that they want to create a precedent, a stepping stone or foundation block that can be used to progress to more systemic change in the long term. Others are ignorant of other cases, because they don’t take the time to look, or they ignore these cases when they are presented, since they don’t match their impression of what a victim should look like; they claim to be advocating for communities, but don’t work with the people in those communities who are working full time for justice and a better chance at equality.
For every cause celebre, every perfect victim who captures media and political attention, scores of people go unremarked and are lost to the flow of time, remembered only by their families and a handful of community members. Because they weren’t perfect victims, and only perfect victims garner attention. All of these cases represent a horrible wrongness, and all victims deserve justice.