Thursday, December 6, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Domestic Violence: Assigning Blame in the World of 21st Century Pop Culture

By all appearances, Rihanna and Chris Brown are now officially a couple again (and may be engaged). The negative press their relationship has engendered can now ostensibly go full throttle or secede to the next example of domestic violence. In that case, those of us in the blogosphere are now free to imagine a world where the two are described as a celebrity power couple rather than just typified as members of an abusive relationship where the man holds power over the woman. Pop culture has a short memory and an even shorter appreciation for stories that go beyond soundbytes and have relevant issues at their crux. (Apparently Rihanna does as well, but she'll be continually reminded of the situation by Brown's newest tattoo.)

At the same time this week, those of us in Kansas City (and anyone at all associated with the NFL) were greeted with another incident of domestic abuse of a different magnitude when Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered the mother of his child and then committed suicide last weekend. Despite calls from many to cancel last Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers, the NFL and Chiefs ownership decided the show must go on at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs happened to win that game, and despite their hapless 2-10 record this season, stories of redemption and hope were floated around the city and the league. What's lost in the shuffle as the story quietly gets swept under the rug is the message we're sending to our young people in this country.  As the story of concussions, drug/alcohol abuse and domestic violence (because the murder of a woman by her significant other is the ultimate act of domestic violence) has unfolded, we've lost sight of seeking answers in the name of assigning blame. The average teenager or college student could pull several narratives out of these events, but in large part they've been lead by the media and our culture to place value in only a few possible explanations. 

Twice in recent weeks some of my female freshman/sophomore students have told me that they not only don't blame Chris Brown for what he did to Rihanna, but that they also enjoy seeing them together and think that getting back together was a positive move. I openly reacted with disgust and asked them to explain their position. Neither could beyond some vapid exclamations of love and non-sequitors that went nowhere and so we were left at a stalemate. We often discuss feminist literature and critiques in class, so it might trouble me more than others when I hear these sorts of unjustified responses. It's not my place to assign value in a situation such as the Rihanna-Chris Brown scenario but I feel a duty to call into question unfounded logic in the same way I would in an essay for class. Supporting and justifying an abusive relationship does not make sense unless you yourself are the abused. 

In some sense I have to conclude that feminism has failed the broader populace of young women. Send out the white flag, pop culture's lust for blood and rampant nihilism has won out over what could've been a chance to teach our young people about the dangers of co-dependence, abuse and the still hegemonic patriarchy itself. My students, by all counts midwestern women from small towns or suburbs are the ones who need feminism the most and instead they've been fed a diet of sex and celebrity worship by the mass media. You could ascribe their naivete to youth, but accepting domestic violence and encouraging or applauding a victim who returns to her abuser is not acceptable at any age.

The midwestern domestic women will be the ones most likely to face domestic abuse within their lifetimes, not the empowered urbanites working at start-ups in New York or Los Angeles with no time to settle down, the ones ultimately so full of confidence in themselves that they they no longer feel they need a man in their life (at least one that does not measure up to their standards). The Kate Bolicks of the world will probably never face the situations that those in the flyover states will, and it's telling that many in this area seem much less prepared to avoid or leave an abusive partner. Postmodern theories about gender and the reclamation of sexuality by third-wavers will not reach the masses nor will it teach any of these women anything about avoiding abusive relationships. Feminism may not be "radical" as some have continued to claim, but its certainly become abstruse when, at it's core, it should be a simple way to teach our young women self-confidence and female empowerment.

Assigning blame to a victim is essentially what we do when accept abuse and violence in our culture. Belcher's girlfriend Kasandra Perkins was a student at one of the colleges I teach at (although I did not know her), so I feel a responsibility to address the situation in one of the final class periods of the semester. Where would I start though? It's so easy to assign blame in what was obviously a situation that defied common-sense logic; should we blame the NFL for not having a better policy on domestic violence or for not better protecting it's players against head injury?; how about blaming the ownership and management for not clearly recognizing a player who was suffering from addiction?; perhaps we call it a day and take the easy way out and accept that Belcher was solely responsible for his own actions and it's pointless to try to make sense of it all (as someone on Facebook told me this week in not so many words). Any or all would probably satiate the media enough and serve as an excuse to move on to the next soundbyte. (Thankfully the NRA has released a rare statement that makes sense of the entire situation, claiming simply " thing missing in that equation is that woman owning a gun so she could have saved her life from that murderer.")

It's all a moot point though. Influenced by an anti-feminist and sensationalist media, young people have already begun assigning blame. Yesterday I heard two young men (also in KC but not the same school where Kasandra Perkins was a student) discussing the case in the student union of the other college I teach at part time. I sat quietly munching on some holiday chex-mix, cookies and M&Ms while one male student detailed a revelation in the case to another. He asked his friend if he'd heard what had been discovered about Kasandra Perkins. The other said no, but listened with rapt attention. Apparently it had been divulged to him by an unknown employee of the Chiefs that Kasandra Perkins had cheated on Jovan Belcher and given him AIDS. The second student reacted in surprise, questioning whether the story had been confirmed on the internet, but then woefully accepted the hearsay as he even went to the lengths of calling someone else on his cell phone to relay the story. With that an abuser has been absolved in the minds of several young men and an explanation weighted heavily enough against the victim but sensational enough to entertain once again has gained traction.        


  1. Really good piece Sean...I'm glad you are cracking this issue open with your students. People need to be challenged on their judgments on this...anything other than a zero tolerance policy of domestic violence is a huge backslide for our culture. Many people like to claim that feminism is 'over' in America but both of these stories illuminate the fact that we still need constant vigilance. Yes, men get abused too. But spousal abuse is inflicted on women in hugely disproportionate measures compared to men, and obviously this ends up affecting children as well. To understand the impact just take a look at the rate of women in prison for murder - The majority of them are there because they were exposed to constant violence by a partner and finally snapped on their abuser. I only bring these points up to illustrate that the cycle of violence is real.

    I've always felt that men should take a stronger public stance on this because they are the only ones who can really make a difference. I've been taught my whole life by other women how to avoid getting abused, but is that enough? Shouldn't we be teaching young men how to deal with their anger and violence issues first and foremost?

    1. Completely agree. The broader problem that concerns me about feminism is that the average woman may not even consider herself a feminist. This is largely due to the fact that feminism has become an academic and detached concept that many people see as a negative stereotype or too uppity. What good is post-structuralist theory to the average middle class/poor woman in an abusive relationship? Feminism needs to go back to its basic message of empowering and helping women and win over the average woman rather than inculcating class differences into an issue that affects the average woman. Post-structuralists have ruined what feminism even represents or how it's applicable.