D H Kelly looks beyond our traditional cultural model of male-on-female domestic violence and explores how sexism can enable women abusers
The trouble with talking about women who commit domestic abuse as feminists is that we’re all pretty tired of the subject being raised to derail the discussion of male violence against women. The theory goes that gender is a gigantic miserable seesaw, and as long as there is suffering at both ends, nobody has anything to complain about.
There’s no controversy about the gender of abusers who are most likely to hospitalise or kill their victim, but the representation of domestic abuse as a heterosexual cis couple where a man abuses a woman excludes a great number of victims. As well as people who are not women, it excludes everyone in same-gender relationships, as well as those abused in non-romantic relationships. It can even make it trickier for women who are abused by their male partners to recognise what’s going on.
Our cultural model of what domestic violence looks like hasn’t moved far beyond Bill Sykes and Nancy, although we now acknowledge that only an accident of birth prevented Bill Sykes from being a chartered accountant and Nancy from being a demure middle-class housewife. It’s still a macho thug and a submissive woman and news reports often emphasise how feminine (pretty, quiet, nurturing) a victim is or was. Even Refuge have saturated their website and literature in pink, ignoring evidence of the harm that ‘pinkification’ does in other areas by alienating women who do not see themselves as particularly girlie.
I didn’t believe I was being abused because I didn’t see myself as that kind of woman. Even when girlfriends talked about past abuse at the hands of men, I imagined that they must have been that kind of woman at the time. What helped me were stories that involved different gender dynamics. These are stories rarely told.
Just like male abusers, female abusers are motivated by the selfish desire to control and have power over other people. But sexism is a beautifully-wrapped gift to all abusers; every story of abuse I’ve ever heard features gendered aspects – most often, gendered insults, undermining victims’ gender identity or sexuality and using gender as an excuse. I see two main ways in which sexism enables women abusers in particular.
The first is that our culture informs us all that women have a natural power over relationships and domestic matters. While we’re no longer subject to advertisers showing us how we can ensure that darling husband arrives home to a delicious meal, a sparkling clean house and lemon-scented children, we’re still shown that we have to handle all this stuff because men cannot. Women’s magazines often imply that men don’t know their own minds when it comes to relationships and need steering in the right direction.
These are not empowering messages – men’s supposed inadequacies are regularly used to justify the imbalance of unpaid domestic work. But while it allows some to be waited on for life, other men can be mocked, criticised, undermined as fathers and have decisions made for them because a woman knows best. Other women can be criticised and dominated because they’re not so good at being women; they can be accused of not knowing *their* own minds, doing housework incorrectly, being bad mothers, letting themselves go.
The second issue is that women’s anger and aggression is often presented as impotent, even comical. Women aren’t supposed to be like that, so when we are, it’s a joke – like men trying to do the laundry. This not only harms the mental health of women who have been conditioned to suppress or disguise anger and frustration, but it means that when women are unfairly aggressive, we are not always taken seriously.
Last month, a woman who’d repeatedly broke an ASBO, having disturbed her neighbours by shouting and swearing at her husband was recently described in newspapers as Britain’s Worst Nag. Something that reads to me as a horrible situation of abuse is treated as a joke.
Women’s violence is also a staple for humour in movies and television shows, because it is seen as entirely insignificant: The phrase “You hit like a girl” means “You’re harmless”. Women attacking each other (a ‘catfight’, a triviality) is seen as a hilarious spectacle or, if the combatants are attractive, erotic. During a period of PTSD when I took pains to avoid depictions of intimate violence, I lost count of the number of times I saw female characters slap men in romantic comedies and light-hearted action movies. Even in feminist spaces, I’ve seen women say that their boyfriend could expect a slap if he transgressed in some minor way.
There are times when it is appropriate to talk exclusively about male violence towards women, but abuse within other dynamics is part of the same problem. The same sexist messages enable all abusers. And the broader our discussion of gender and violence, the more likely we are to reach victims and end abuse.
Image from a set by Feggy Art depicts an (assumed) white woman engaged in performance art. She is wearing a stained white dress and a headdress made of kitchen utensils. She is standing in an uncomfortable pose with some sort of metal bar passed behind her back and under her two arms. It is shared under a creative commons license. It is posted with the following commentary which is reproduced in full:
Domestic Violence on the Fourth Plinth (One and Other) performance art in Trafalgar Square, London.
Siliva performed a story based on domestic violence. The story started with her bewilderment at her character’s situation, then portrayed the violence and ultimately, death.
This is my understanding of her attire.
The wedding dress represents her character’s marriage. It is stained with dried blood to show her situation has been ongoing for some time. The dress is torn to show her marriage is damaged and her clothing underneath is black to reflect her view of the situation. The headgear is somewhat like a crown, only made of kitchen utensils to suggest the tedious drudgery of her existence. The gag in her mouth stands for her silence. During the act she tries to pull it out without success, showing she wants to speak out but will not through fear.
This was a stunning performance through mime and it was soon apparent that she was relating a story through performance art. At the end she received a well deserved ovation.
It’s best to view the whole set to appreciate the story.