Rag doll, livin’ in a movie
Hot tramp, daddy’s little cutie
You’re so fine, they’ll never see ya leavin’ by the back door, mam
-Partial lyrics from Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll”
We, as a society, have always used nicknames as tokens of affection in our most intimate relationships. When my husband was just a toddler, his younger brother once howled with indignation, “Macky hit me!” Matt has been affectionately known as “Macky” by my father-in-law ever since. Like most married couples and parents, Matt and I have a few pet names for each other as well as our daughter.
Being the social creatures that we are, it’s natural to associate nicknames with love and affection. After all, our first nicknames are usually those that came from our parents, and even those of us who had less than ideal childhoods have at least a few fond memories of our formative years. My dad’s nickname for me was “Skookems”. I have no idea how or where that name originated or what it means, but when I think about it, I remember happy times with my dad.
It’s just as likely, unfortunately, that we’ve been called by nicknames that made us feel ashamed or embarrassed. We’re often saddled with less desirable nicknames by classmates at school, and those names often prove to be persistently enduring reminders of how other people thought of us. My grandfather often called me “Wimpy”. He meant no harm by it. He also called my brother “Popeye” and my sister “Olive Oyl”, but I never liked that name because it made me feel weak and inferior. My elementary school classmates called me “Daddy Long-legs” for years until I was no longer the tallest girl in school. Depending on who used that name and their tone, I felt an entire spectrum of emotions from pride to shame.
What, then, does a victim of sexual abuse feel when she (or he) hears a nickname given by her assailant? Does she remember happy times when she and an adult male coach sneaked off to his apartment or the backseat of his car to have sex? Does she still smile and blush like the schoolgirl she once was when her former coach or any of his friends call her by the nickname he gave her when she was too young to legally consent to having sex with grown men? And if that’s the case, how would she react to someone outside of that circle calling her by that same nickname?
Sexually explicit nicknames are frequently used by bullies to dehumanize their victims, and they’re also used by sexual predators in the process of grooming their victims. CNN recently published an article about the firing of the Ohio State band director. He was reportedly fired for failing to change the ‘sexualized’ culture of the band organization. Apparently, this culture has existed for generations, and the article went on to say:
Nicknames, many sexually explicit, were given to new members each year by upperclassmen as well as a “trick,” an act often simulating sexually explicit acts that usually corresponded with the nickname. These tricks were to be performed by members “on command or at their own volition.
We’ve all seen enough sophomoric TV shows and movies, and we’ve heard enough sexually explicit song lyrics, such as those cited at the beginning of this post, to recognize that sexually explicit nicknames are and always have been an unfortunate part of both the academic world and the entertainment industry. For that matter, we’ve all been subjected to this sort of culture in school.
I chose to single out the Aerosmith song lyrics specifically because one (alleged) sexual predator calls one of his (alleged) victims “Rag Doll” to this day, and I can’t help but wonder how that makes her feel. After conducting an exhaustive internet search on the phrase, I learned that it’s commonly used in the porn industry to describe a woman who is passed around from man to man. That is consistent with the imagery presented by Aerosmith in the official “Rag Doll” music video, which tells the story of a young woman who is sexually abused by her father and goes on to become a promiscuous adult. See it for yourself:
I grew up listening to bands like Aerosmith, but I never gave much thought to song lyrics when I was a teenager. Today, as a parent with a 10-year-old daughter, I’m stunned by the “Rag Doll” lyrics and horrified by the imagery in the video. It breaks my heart to think of an innocent teenage girl being given such a degrading nickname by a man who manipulated her into trusting him as he lured her into his web of lies and deceit. What’s even more heartbreaking is that, some twenty years later, his (alleged) “Rag Doll” still sees nothing wrong with the way she’s been treated by her (alleged) assailant. Truly tragic.
The culture in the band room at Ohio State is neither new nor extraordinary in any way except that, thankfully, current students and parents are no longer willing to tolerate sexual harassment and abuse disguised as tradition. I am one of those parents. I refuse to accept that my daughter should be forced to endure sexual harassment by her peers and teachers merely because “it’s tradition.” That this-is-the-way-it’s-always-been nonsense might have worked twenty years ago, but not any more. If I ever hear anyone direct a degrading or sexually charged nickname at my daughter, there will be hell to pay.