There’s a fascinating juxtaposition between the reaction to the IMF guy, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest for sexual assault and the outraged reaction in some (mostly conservative) circles to the new video by Rhianna in which she is shown shooting a man who had assaulted her. The reactions to both situations show women’s subordinate status and how it is enforced through violence, shaming and blaming of victims, double standards and a huge amount of male privilege.
The French mainstream reaction of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest was first to be indignant about its public nature (how gauche of the US media), then to minimize it (that’s just old Dominique being himself), then to hint that it was a nefarious set-up (they were after him, not that he was responsible for his own stupid and potentially criminal behavior), and then to say well, what about the women, and why do they put themselves in situations where they can be harassed anyway (because they need to work and support their families, you morons, unlike the wealthy Dominique who has married well indeed). As French feminist Magali de Haas was quoted as saying in the UK Guardian, “The manner in which the saga has been dealt with in France, by the media and also by political figures, really shines a light on what we already knew was there: unfettered sexism.” (Lizzie Davis, The Guardian, May 22, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/22/dominique-strauss-kahn-arrest-dormant-anger-france-women).
Strauss-Kahn will get his day in court, represented by the best of lawyers, living on a multi-million dollar bail, and he will have every advantage that the legal system provides to wealthy, white and male people. The woman who made the complaint against him, well, let’s see what happens to her life as this saga unfolds. But we can guess, right? All we have to do is look up what has happened to the young journalist in France who said Strauss-Kahn had attempted to assault her in France her few years ago. Her own mother told her not to make a big deal because it would hurt her career, people she spoke to minimized it and told her it was not important and she remained largely closeted about the incident. Like the French woman, the maid at the New York hotel will have her motives questioned as well as her history, her veracity, her integrity, and every other nuance of her story. She will be made to feel ashamed of herself for daring to make a big deal out of something so common — male harassment. His actions will be minimized by his lawyers, and hers will be inflated — she wanted it, it may be alleged.
The singer Rhianna, put out a music video called Man Down in which she shoots a man who has raped her in the video. This fantasy of revenge is likely one that many women who have lived through sexual assault, or had a close loved one be violently assaulted, have imagined. As Rihanna said this week, “We just wanted to hone in on a very serious matter that people are afraid to address, especially if you’ve been victimized in this scenario.” (http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/rihanna-defends-man-down-bet-stands-video/story?id=13749448).
The uproar against this video is fascinating for several reasons. First, like the reaction to Dominique’s behavior, the woman who dares to disturb the hetero-norm is made into the suspect party, and condemned rather than the apparent perpetrator of the violence. His behavior is so normal as to be banal. Hers is shockingly abnormal and aberrant.
Second, it is notable because of its double standard. As MTV News reports on its site, “After posting a defense of the clip, Rihanna got plenty of support from her fans on Twitter, where the comments included such sentiments as “it’s really ironic how women r always exploited n videos … we watch women be raped & murdered. Now a woman flips the coin & look!” (http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1665121/rihanna-man-down-controversy.jhtml). The reaction around Rihanna’s video is notable in contrast to the lack of any uproar or ongoing outrage against the horrible and pervasive depictions of violence against women that are committed on TV, film and media every day.
Interestingly, the Parents Television Council, a conservative group that campaigns against a lot of media depictions and is criticizing BET’s broadcast of Rihanna’s video is the source for some very interesting data on depictions of violence against women on TV. In a recent study, it found that
“Violence against women and teenage girls is increasing on television at rates that far exceed the overall increases in violence on television…..Cumulatively, across all study periods and all networks, the most frequent type of violence was beating (29%), followed by credible threats of violence (18%), shooting (11%), rape (8%), stabbing (6%), and torture (2%). Violence against women resulted in death 19% of the time…..Violence towards women or the graphic consequences of violence tends overwhelmingly to be depicted (92%) rather than implied (5%) or described (3%).” (Parents Television Council, Special report, October 2009, Women in Peril, p. 2-3).
Third, Rihanna – like any woman who fights for herself and stands up– whether legally, artistically, politically or interpersonally – has her motives interrogated — how could she do this, she should know better, she is not being a good role model, violence only breeds violence (which seems to be one of the messages of her video to me), she is victimizing a man, etc. It’s not about role models for me. Artists can show us imaginative truths that we dare not speak ourselves — and for that reason alone artistic freedom is essential to protect. Censorship is the death of freedom, and more speech and more expression to counter hostile and offensive speech and actions are essential. But of course extrajudicial killings are an offense to human rights — murder is murder and it is wrong.
Speaking truth to power matters — and one of these truths is that sexual violence against women (and men) has to be challenged every day, every where, by every person. We have to use the opportunity these two situations raise to make some progress to stopping the violent acts and misogyny that underlie them.