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When cellphones and social media become the enemy

Jada's story is a Take Back the Meme tale of bravery #IamJada

There's a moment in “Boyhood,” the new movie by Richard Linklater, when the boy in question, an eighth-grader, asks his mother for permission to attend a party that won't have adult supervision. Reluctantly, she agrees, saying it's OK as long as he takes his cellphone.

Cut to a gathering of boys karate-chopping wood and hurling saw blades into the wall, impervious to any protection a cellphone could provide them. Though the film mentions the phone primarily as a way of establishing a time frame, it also illustrates a particularly modern form of denial among parents. As long as that phone is acting as a kind of electronic umbilical cord, parents can tell themselves their children are safe.

But increasingly the smartphone itself is an instrument of harm. Such is the case with a 16-year-old Houston girl named Jada, who entered the spotlight as she publicly confronted the evidence that she had been raped at a party by at least one other teenager. She says she passed out after drinking a beverage that was spiked and only learned of the crime after her classmates began tweeting photos and videos taken of her unconscious, partly nude body. (Houston police are investigating; no one has been charged.)

What happened next is remarkable in ways that instill faith in the human spirit and at the same time provoke disgust at the depravity and lemming-like behavior that teenagers with smartphones are capable of.

The faith-instilling part is that Jada bucked the standard protocol by publicly speaking out against the attack, agreeing to be identified by her first name, even though most victims in cases of alleged rape remain anonymous. The disgusting part is that no sooner did she go public than others began to tweet images of themselves reenacting the original photos. To raise the troll factor even higher, gangsta-rap-infused tweets called Jada a “hoe” and a “fiend.”

Those have since been deleted, as have most of the reenactment tweets, though plenty of screen shots remain. And, in an encouraging side note, the pose meme has been reclaimed by supporters tweeting selfies with their fists raised in solidarity, with hashtags like #IamJada.

But for all the Take Back the Night-style rallying, there's no taking back the fact that the initial trolling gathered considerable momentum before anyone questioned it.

Maybe some of the offending tweeters held their phones under their desks at school as teachers either failed to notice or did their best to ignore what was happening. Others no doubt composed and circulated their missives on computers at home after school.

Where were the parents, you might ask? Maybe they weren't really worried about what their kid was up to with that cellphone, as long as he or she was nearby. That's because, like the mom in “Boyhood,” parents often regard phones as not just something to condone but something to take comfort in.

Surely at least some of the kids at the party where Jada was photographed were allowed to attend because their parents figured they were only a cellphone call away. It's also easy to imagine a kid or two arguing that the noisome use of phonecams is ultimately a force for good because those photos of Jada may serve as prosecutorial evidence.

What is harder to imagine, I'm sorry to say, is that the effect of Jada's bravery will live up to the expectations of her supporters. Despite her extraordinary courage and self-possession, society's objectification of women and its desensitized response to sexual violence is not going to end because one survivor dared speak her name and show her face. There is no magic bullet, no one watershed event, that's going to change “rape culture” overnight.

As that scene in “Boyhood” suggests (the film does a good job of showing how imperfect, even somewhat chaotic parents can still raise great kids), parenthood is heavily laced with denial. Jada's community seems to have its share of that commodity as well.

She may not change the world, but by forcing the public to recognize that being victimized is, as she puts it, “not what I am and who I am,” she's at least changing the conversation. And that's saying a lot.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Twitter: @meghan_daum

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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