Prof. Rani Neutill (ENG) was recently appointed the interim sexual assault services and prevention specialist, to take over the responsibilities of Shelia McMahon while McMahon is on leave. Her background in both rape counseling and in women and gender studies will inform her during her time in this position. She recently talked to the Justice regarding her new role, her research and the film class she is teaching this semester.   

JustFeatures: What brought you to Brandeis?

Rani Neutill: The professor who was going to teach a class, previously called “Sex and Culture,” couldn’t teach the class. The class already had about 70 students enrolled, so they needed to find a replacement. They contacted one of my former colleagues at Harvard University, and he referred me. I teach cinema, and I teach women and gender studies, so I was a good fit for the class. 

JF: How did you get referred as McMahon’s replacement?

RN: I’m a volunteer at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. When [McMahon] had to go on leave, Brandeis contacted one of my supervisors at BARCC, and she gave them my name. I was already here, and I’m trained by BARCC as a certified rape crisis counselor. It’s sort of odd, because an academic referred me for the teaching position, and then someone from BARCC referred me. So, the intersection of the two is actually quite random.

JF: What made you originally interested in becoming a trained rape crisis counselor?

RN: It’s a public health issue. I do research in the area of women and gender studies, I wrote part of my dissertation on rape in times of national upheaval. It’s something that’s part of my research, that I see as an important social justice issue. I did my work on the Partition of India into India and Pakistan, and over 200,000 women were raped. I also questioned the role of male rape. Although not documented, it was something that must have happened.

JF: What does your new role entail?

RN: I have some very big shoes to fill because [McMahon] is amazing. But I’m doing awareness on campus, doing workshops for graduate students, as well as trying to get some consent workshops started. And then I’m here for students to talk to— I hold office hours. I am somebody students can come to and talk to. Education, and being here for students, that’s what my role is. 

JF: Do you foresee any conflict between being a professor and holding this position?

RN: No, I don’t. Although I am a professor, I am a confidential source. I don’t have to be split between the two. That’s what I was told, and that’s what I will abide by. Even if you’re my student, if you come to me, I can maintain my status as a confidential source. In class, I’m going to represent my ideologies, no matter what.

JF: Tell us about the class you’re teaching this semester, Sex and Cinema. 

RN: Well, I’m a popular culture fanatic, and my research actually focuses more recently on television. But the syllabus for this course was given to me, and just I added to it. The first half of the course is very historically aligned. We start from the silent film and move into the present. To the second half, I added my work, which is more on the gender and racial components of sex. I actually got my Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies, with a secondary field in Film Studies. So I’m really interested in race, so I added films like Shortbus and Jungle Fever, to make it more diverse. I want to show a few more films that are not as canonical, like Shortbus. I also added films that are not considered high culture, like Twilight. This way we can talk about vampires, and how vampires are about race and racial mixing. Going along historically, we are thinking about what people are thinking about sex—and rape— at the time these movies were made. I’m working on thinking about television becoming the new film, which is interesting given everything we talk about in class, the theory, often refers to the importance of being in a dark movie theater, in a social setting, to experience film. Now the experience of watching a movie is much different. It’s at home at your computer. 

JF: How do you see your experience in interpreting images as informing your work as a counselor and vice versa?

RN: To the extent that I understand that we live in rape culture, and certain images are problematic. It’s necessary to interrogate images. Yes, I see the intersection of the two. It’s not just rape issues that I work with, it’s racism, I see all of these intersecting. I think a lot about race and gender and sexuality because I want people to understand that men do get raped, and there’s the whole question of transgendered people and sexual assault, but I’m actually writing an article about a television show that’s about a serial killer that doesn’t focus on women, which I think is interesting because most serial killer shows are all about the rape of women and children, particularly. That is an example of my work overlapping between my two roles at Brandeis. 

JF: Why do serial killer shows focus on women as the victims?

RN: We, as a society, are seemingly invested in the serial rapist/killer. It also helps perpetuate the myth that strangers are who rape women, when people are most often sexually assaulted not by strangers but by someone they know.  

JF: How will you handle the largeness of the responsibility of dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault?

RN: I don’t think you can separate yourself, I think you always take it home with you. Maybe you always feel like you didn’t do enough, because it’s such a serious and traumatic issue. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. It’s good to have a network of people you can talk to. The people I work with at BARCC are people I can talk to about that, because we are all doing the same sort of work. We can debrief, and talk about how we could have done something better, or maybe we are satisfied with how we handled one particular thing, or at least being there for someone even if they didn’t want to talk. We deal with these heavy questions all the time. 

JF: You’ve taught at a lot of different schools, including Johns Hopkins University, Vassar College, Yale University and Harvard University. Is there an underlying observation you have about student life?

RN: Students need to read the syllabus! I’m going to leave it at that.