With Canadian rapper Tory Lanez’s sentencing quickly approaching (if no more delays occur, it will be on February 28th), I found it pertinent to go through the online reaction to his trial again. In the context of a post-Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial, the Tory Lanez case was critical to follow, considering that it concerned an explicit (and unfortunately common) example of violence against a Black woman. The victim, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion, was shot in the foot in 2020 by her then-friend Tory Lanez after a heated argument in his car. When the news hit social media, Megan’s fans were shocked: she was in the midst of the highest point in her career and was seemingly beloved by the rap community, quickly becoming a staple in Houston’s rap scene.
Sadly, gender-based violence against Black American women is not a rare occurrence. According to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research in the United States, over 40% of Black women have suffered forms of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes (IWPR, 2017, p. 19). More precisely, the National Center for Victims of Crime found that 53.8% of Black women had gone through psychological abuse, and 41.2% had been victims of physical abuse (NCVC, 2017, p. 2). Alarmingly, Black women are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by men than White women; 92% of the time, the victim knew their killer (Violence Policy Center, 2015, p. 6). In 2013, 59% of Black women killed were shot (Violence Policy Center, 2015, p. 6). These numbers are terrifying. Considering that Megan Thee Stallion was shot at a time when Black Lives Matter protests were happening all over the country during the Summer of 2020, the violence she was subjected to was particularly felt by Black dark-skin women who have repeatedly felt that their suffering is not acknowledged.
Megan’s traumatic and violent situation would have been enough to scar her permanently. However, social media did its thing and started to poke holes in a story where there weren’t even holes to begin with. The first major conspiracy theory that started to spread like wildfire was that Megan was never actually shot. Her foot injury was due to stepping on broken glass. It is a fact that Megan told police officers at the scene that she had stepped on glass, but only because she didn’t want her then-friend, Tory Lanez, a Black man, to be confronted by police officers. As a Black woman, she was hyper-aware and protective of his physical safety. Even after the release of medical reports stating that bullet fragments had been taken out of her foot, social media users continued to formulate other theories to try to discredit her story. She had to be lying. Tory Lanez was just caught in the web of lies of a jealous woman. But jealous of what, exactly? Megan Thee Stallion has always been more recognized, famous, richer (and, quite frankly, more talented) than Tory Lanez. Jealousy as a motive to accuse Lanez as her aggressor didn’t make sense.
Lanez and Megan’s relationship has been scrutinized by the media ever since the 2020 shooting. And this aspect of their lives was further magnified in Tory Lanez’s trial when Megan’s supposed ‘hypersexuality’ was pointed out as a ‘problematic’ factor. Yes, Megan admitted (against her desire to preserve her privacy) that she had had sexual relations with Tory Lanez, but they had never had a solid romantic relationship. Everything points to a casual affair that Megan never really took seriously. They had recently bonded over losing loved ones and found solace in each other. Regardless of the motives (which shouldn’t matter in the first place), the public’s reaction shifted even more: Megan had slept with someone. A man. Possibly many other men. And women (she has proudly stated that she is bisexual). And despite being a grown woman who has naturally engaged in various consensual sexual relations, having sex and enjoying it was viewed as a crime. A crime even bigger than Tory Lanez shooting her. In fact, can she really be considered a woman? After all, she has had sex. Her value is diminished. And she is tall. Very tall. Curvy. Opinionated. Dark-skinned. Bisexual. With all these characteristics, is she worthy of protection?
The de-feminization of dark-skinned Black women has been a topic of discussion for several years. Western standards of femininity are still very much based on Whiteness. A ‘real’ woman has to be weak. Submissive. Small. Quiet. White. Thin. Virginal. Heteromonogamous. Fertile. And when a woman does not check all of those boxes, their right to womanhood and femininity is automatically questioned. Hollywood celebrities currently at the center of patriarchal rage do not fit these standards in one way or another: Amber Heard is not submissive. She fought back. Angeline Jolie is not straight. She is openly bisexual and embraces her sexuality. Megan Thee Stallion is not White or thin. She is a tall, curvy, Black woman from Houston, Texas. All of these women affront white supremacist patriarchy through their very existence. Megan’s case is particularly vile, considering that her social identity intersects many socio-political facets.
During Tory Lanez’s trial, a particular set of tweets stood out. Perhaps for being so outrageously insensitive and misogynist, or maybe because they echoed sentiments I had witnessed during the Depp v. Heard trial. These tweets were asking…no. They were demanding for the trial to be televised. They wanted to see Megan Thee Stallion’s testimony. Reading her words through court transcripts and journalists wasn’t enough. They wanted to see her cry. They wanted to see her be fragile. To see, with their own eyes, Megan describes in detail what she had gone through on that night almost two years ago. That emphasis on seeing (or, in other words, visually consuming) the trial made me morbidly curious about the history and academic debates behind televised court trials. Televised trials are a foreign thing to me. Where I come from, televising court cases is not allowed. However, in some states in the United States, it seems that TV cameras in the courtroom are the norm in cases deemed ‘useful’ for the public’s interest.
As Ruth Ann Strickland (2009) stated: “Placing cameras in the courtroom has historically stirred controversy.” The role and usefulness of cameras during trials were first widely questioned during the highly publicised State v. Hauptmann trial in 1935, a case that involved the kidnapping and murder of an aviator’s infant child. The trial’s unruliness was controversial, with photographers climbing on witness tables to catch the ‘juiciest’ angles. The presence of the media in trials has been further discussed in other controversial cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial and, more recently, Depp v. Heard. Proponents and opponents of TV cameras in the courtroom disagree on various points, but one that can be highlighted is the supposed educational nature of televising court cases. Those who defend televised trials emphasise their value in educating the general public about court proceedings. Christo Lassiter (1996) explains, “In cases where physical access to the courtroom is extremely limited, the public’s right to access becomes viable only through the surrogate media. […]. Television broadcasts of trial proceedings would […] provide a unique and powerful educational opportunity in the United States and abroad for the public to learn about courts and court proceedings.” (pp. 961-962). On the other hand, Max Frankel (1994) points out that the camera is very different than a simple educational tool. It is almost an unruling “beast”, difficult to control: “I am certain now that the camera is not just another incarnation of ‘press’, entitled to the unabridged freedom thereof. It’s a different beast that should enter a court by a different door, under different rules […]. Justice may not often be compromised, but society’s sense of it can certainly be demeaned.”.
In an era where the expression ‘Fake News’ frequently appears in our vocabulary, the alleged educational advantages brought by televised court cases can be further scrutinized. More access to information does not necessarily mean more quality information and certainly does not equate to more informed perspectives. Just by looking at one of the most powerful tools humanity has access to currently – the Internet –, it is evident that false information is not filtered or attacked; it is welcomed and eagerly consumed by bad-faith actors and ignorant spectators. Although Depp and Heard’s trial was televised in its entirety, it didn’t stop people from editing down clips with dubious context and mass posting them on digital platforms such as TikTok and Twitter. Yes, technically, nothing was hidden in that trial. People always had access to the information presented. But the cameras cannot control how those televised images are interpreted, edited, and employed by the public. A camera may be a piece of technology, but its pictures are often distorted to fit a particular political and ideological agenda.
Stella Bruzzi’s 1994 article on the dramatization of televised trials was handy in helping me understand what was so intrinsically sinister about this subject. In her study “Trial by television: ‘Court TV’ and dramatising reality”, Bruzzi (1994) introduces the concepts of political rationalisation and psychological rationalisation as almost unconscious processes that occur in people’s minds when they are consuming courtroom images. In a trial, facts should (ideally) be devoid of political meaning. However, in the face of courtroom images empty of a clear guiding rationale and logic, the viewers try to find ways to fill in those gaps. In the case of Depp v. Heard, the fact that Amber Heard was a victim that was not afraid of fighting back (physically and verbally) baffled spectators that had always consumed imagery of domestic violence victims as harmless, fragile, and submissive. In the mind of the spectator, a clear link was missing. If domestic violence victims are usually portrayed as submissive, why didn’t Amber Heard, a victim, just shut up and take Depp’s punches? Politically and ideologically, Amber did not follow that imaginary representation of an ‘ideal’ domestic violence victim. So, if she is not the fragile victim, she must be the antithesis of that: the manic and manipulative abuser. In the case of Depp v. Heard, psychological rationalization followed a similar pathway but with a “more emotive danger” (Bruzzi, 1996, p. 177): the need to construct erroneous psychological explanations. The fact that Heard fought back wasn’t because she was trying to protect herself – it was because she had severe mental problems. Spectators started to find that missing link they were looking for in psychological root causes that weren’t there. Politically, she was the aggressor because she was a ‘loose’ drug addict woman hungry to destroy a man’s career. And psychologically, she was the aggressor because she had a personality disorder. Those two rationalizations filled the ideological void spectators wanted to find so badly in those ‘empty’ images. Hypothetical, perfectly ‘rational’ and linear narratives needed to be constructed by the spectator to create order in that chaos of televised courtroom images.
People ardently desired to impose those same political and psychological rationalizations onto Tory Lanez’s case. But for that imaginary process to materialize…images need to be available. There must be a picture, a moving one, accompanied by a voice. Constructing missing links through cited words from a journalist is much more challenging. Don’t get me wrong: Megan’s words and actions were still twisted online, even without televised images. But that emotive element so characteristic of TV or cinema was not there. The public didn’t get to see Megan cry. The crowds didn’t see Megan’s pain, sorrow, and disappointment. Megan’s pain was not broadcasted and scrutinized. And that lack of optics deeply unsettled Lanez’s defenders.
Our current generations (Millennial, Z, and now Alpha) are fundamentally dependent on the visual medium for their daily lives. We just need to look at our younger cousins and their endless scrolling through TikTok’s For You Page. We are all, in some way or another, mindlessly consuming media, sometimes without even giving a second thought about what we are consuming. Either we can see it…or it didn’t happen. The fact that the public didn’t witness Megan’s painful testimony troubles our digitally formatted brains. What do you mean something happened, and we didn’t get to see it? How outrageous! But I would like to pose the questions: why do we need to see it? How truly productive or educational would it be to see the tears and the pain of a Black woman, a victim of gun violence? And if productivity and education are not involved, why do we find gratification in victims’ pain? Especially when they are women? Especially when they are Black women? Do we need to consume it all? Is consumption the end all be all of existence?
These seem existential, philosophical (and some may say, even pretentious) questions to be asked about a trial involving a Canadian rapper accused of shooting another fellow rapper’s foot. But I find that asking questions and being skeptical about our consumerist desires is getting increasingly important in the times we are going through. Technological access provides us with more information and gives us more power to distort that same information. We need to create information, even if it is not based on reality. As long as we can see it and consume it, the truth of it doesn’t matter. Would the existence of images of Megan crying give us more empathy? Or would it arm us with ammunition that is getting far beyond our control? Would those images help us understand the pain of Black women in America more? Or would they be a vehicle of our racist and misogynistic biases?
The tangible and material impacts of televised court cases have yet to be fully explored and analyzed. And with this article, I certainly did not aim to cover the answers to all the questions formulated above. Nevertheless, the main conclusion I would like to draw from these thoughts is: Let’s extend our belief of women, of Black women, beyond our visual consumerist needs. Let’s believe women outside of images, sounds, and optics. Believe women. Stand with them.
Bruzzi, S. (1994). Trial by television: “Court TV” and dramatising reality. Critical Survey, 6(2), 172–179. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41555817
Frankel, M. (1994, October 16). I Am Not a Camera. New York Times Magazine.
IWPR. (2017). The Status of Black Women in the United States. In Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Institute for Women’s Policy Research. https://iwpr.org/iwpr-issues/race-ethnicity-gender-and-economy/the-status-of-black-women-in-the-united-states/
Lassiter, C. (1996). TV or Not TV. That Is the Question. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 86(3), 928–1001. https://doi.org/10.2307/1143942
NCVC. (2017). Intimate Partner Violence. In The National Center for Victims of Crime. The National Center for Victims of Crime. https://www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/ncvrw/2017/images/en_artwork/Fact_Sheets/2017NCVRW_IPV_508.pdf
Strickland, R. A. (2009). Cameras in the Courtroom. The First Amendment Encyclopedia. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/989/cameras-in-the-courtroom%202015
Violence Policy Center. (2015). When Men Murder Women. In Violence Policy Center. Violence Policy Center. https://vpc.org/revealing-the-impacts-of-gun-violence/female-homicide-victimization-by-males/