A new campaign encouraging men to reject domestic abuse against women is being launched in Bristol. The posters feature the message “Domestic Abuse There’s No Excuse” and show a series of passport images of men and the text: “We don’t tolerate violence against women; neither should you”. Meanwhile, Bristol City Council’s headline to their press release about the campaign reads “Real Men Don’t Hit Women”.
Alarm bells anyone? Yes, as a feminist, I fully support Bristol Domestic Abuse Forum’s recognition of the need for a campaign and the council’s subsequent promotion of it. I also agree with DCI Dave McCallum of the Bristol Public Protection Unit when he criticises the common justification of violence under the dismissive labelling of it as “just a domestic” and it’s obvious that something has to be done about this kind of trivialisation. However, I have to admit I feel uncomfortable with the way this campaign is being framed. Appealing to good-old-fashioned chivalry and the traditional posturing surrounding manhood-as-we-know-it is hardly going to get to the root of gender inequality. After all, what’s a “real man”? And what is a man if he isn’t a real one? A woman?
I would argue that, when considered within a culture where gender is sadly still largely viewed in rigidly binary terms, Bristol City Council’s headline has some very unfortunate connotations. By focusing on some lofty ideal of “real” (natural?) maleness while simultaneously highlighting women who are victims, they are, in my opinion, reinforcing the conservative idea that the authentically “masculine” is somehow the most superior state of all. The statement flippantly paints a picture of the confident male who is so assured of his physical supremacy that he doesn’t need to pick on those who are generally perceived as weaker than him. The headline is loaded with the conventional wisdom that it is a given that he could abuse if he wanted to and that, while this is precisely why he shouldn’t, the knowledge of this should also contribute to his confidence as a man. To sum up: Real men have nothing to prove and can bask in the glory of their potential menace, combined with their superior moral strength not to use it. Same old story. Only the airs and graces of the Conservatively constructed gentleman can save us ladies.
I guess whether you agree with all this depends on where you stand on the issue of strength in relation to the nature-nurture debate but is this kind of reductive thinking really going to get us the true equality we’re fighting for as feminists? Have we now given up on moving forward and decided to move backwards into the patriarchal refuge of chivalry?
Councillor Gary Hopkins, Chair of the Safer Bristol Partnership, which supports BDAF, seems to add to these sentiments when he describes domestic abuse of women as “cowardly”. I think that his saying this implies that it is not the violence or victimisation itself that is wrong, merely that women as a group are weak and therefore not a “fair” target. For me, even the slightest lingering hint that violence is an acceptable proving ground (if it isn’t accompanied by an explicit reference to something more likely to be mutually consensual such as boxing) is very worrying.
It’s not that I can’t appreciate the value of this campaign in pragmatic terms. Indeed, it may be that pandering to sexist values, that nonetheless actually condemn gender-based violence, could present us with our best possible current chance of reaching some of the most problematic perpetrators of domestic abuse. It also appeals to any preference for male approval in those who don’t respect or value the opinions of women, as a way of stopping male-on-female violence. However, I’d still say this isn’t a strategy that should be adopted as matter of course and that, if it is, we risk making a mockery of the real equality we still have yet to achieve.