As an avid fan of the TV show, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, I couldn’t help but take interest in its latest episode which was receiving a lot of outrage over its portrayal of a fictional celebrity couple that mimicked real life couple, Rihanna and Chris Brown’s violent relationship. As I was browsing through different blogs and news websites, I began to notice common comments ranging from, “Rihanna is such a weak woman and bad role model for young women.” to “Rihanna is such a disgrace to all women.” Although I hadn’t watched the episode yet, the comments alone made me ask, “Are we missing the mark here?”
On one end, I understand some of the comments that I read which expressed anger, frustration and disbelief. But, having worked as a court/legal advocate for domestic violence survivors, I understand the cycle of domestic violence as a complex system situated within a patriarchal culture of violence which mediates and reinforces it. Therefore, to de-contextualize it and isolate it as an individual rather than pervasive social problem diminishes the continuous need to address it.
Living in a culture obsessed with celebrities reminds me of Guy Debord’s theory on the notion of the spectacle. When events are presented and constructed from a certain angle and agenda, the space to converse about issues in a critical manner is obscured. A few examples of this come to mind – President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial in 2005 which is more famous for his infamous assertion that he took a shower to minimize his risk of contracting HIV or the current “trendy” case of South African Olympian sprinter Oscar Pistorius who is accused of murdering his girlfriend but whose story has focused more on the legal system’s preferential treatment of his celebrity status.
When events like this happen, we need to ask ourselves, “What is the bigger conversation here?” Often times, we are stuck on details which although important tend to gloss over issues and eliminate our capacity to engage in deeper critical conversations. This is not to say that HIV prevention or differential treatment based on celebrity status is not an important issue to discuss, however, it is to say that when the discussion becomes one of other politics without any relation to the bigger issue of male violence/abuse/power, it de-politizes a very political issue. So, while such celebrity stories provide a public forum for discussion and debate of important social problems, they are also complicit with systems that perpetuate and make violence against women possible, normal and acceptable.
We also live in a neo-liberal culture which epitomizes individualism and choice. It is a paradigm that has extended itself beyond economics and into the private realm of people’s identities. People become responsible for their actions/inaction without any connection to the larger context that they live in. For example, victim-blaming in cases of domestic violence becomes rational. Interestingly enough, in the case of women, we perpetuate a process of othering by differentiating ourselves from other women with statements such as, “I would never put myself in such a situation.” Discussions that emanate from such statements negate to look at the bigger systems at play and they deepen stigma and shame. They tend to simplify domestic violence and fail to understand its complex nature and connection to the culture of male violence and sexism. For instance, they simplify domestic violence as an issue that is only experienced by poor women without access to financial resources.
So where does activism & advocacy come in? At a time when there are different movements going on around ending violence against women such as the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, this discussion becomes pertinent. How do we continue to amplify our voices in a culture that has the ability to potentially silence them? How do we strategically use the media to our advantage in cases such as Oscar Pistorius or the jabs at Rihanna & Chris Brown’s relationship? These are difficult ongoing challenges that we are facing. As JASS, we encourage critical understanding of issues that affect women. It is not just the conversation itself that matters, but rather the conversation as it is situated within a bigger context. Blogs such as these create a space for questioning and debating important issues that affect us as women. So, the next time you read a story, ask yourself, “What is the real story here?”