Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Media and domestic violence

In today’s class, we watched the music video for “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem, featuring Rihanna. Megan Fox, an actress/model who frequently appears in men’s magazines, plays the recognizably stereotypical battered woman in this four minute melodrama. Her unkempt hair falls into her face and whips around and she spits and hits. She is dressed in short cut-off jeans, a faded grey tank-top, and old military boots. Her partner has only a pair of baggy gym shorts on and bares a shaved head and tattoos. The cluttered home with an old beige couch and dimly lit hallways, the bar fight, and making out on lawn chairs behind an avenue of billboards drinking Stoly’s vodka straight from the bottle—it all scream small-town white-trash.

She hits him after finding a phone number written on his hand. Physically unfazed but angry and provoked, he hits back and the cycle of violence begins. After the fight, sorry and shameful, he returns with a sad ragged teddy bear as a condolence. He promises to never hit her again—a promise they both know is a lie. Sure enough, the young couple “fall back into the same patter, the same routine,” until the song trails off with an image of their house burning to the ground. Megan Fox, apparently still inside, tied to the bed, sings longingly for her violent partner, “just gonna stand there and watch me burn, that’s alright because I like the way it hurts, just gonna stand there and hear me cry, that’s alright because I love the way you lie.” The class exhales, sits back, and heavy discussion ensues…

The use of art to explore issues like domestic violence is relatively new in today’s society. Indeed, art can bring awareness and call attention to difficult matters, like violence against women, in a palpable and constructive way. Art has also been used as a healing/coping tool for domestic violence victims who need to transform these atrocious experiences before confronting them. For instance, “The Heart of Women” project provides a creative outlet for domestic violence victims who share their stories, not with words, but with oils and canvases. One women expresses: “I didn’t just throw paint up there, I threw my tears my sweat, my pain,” she said. “It brings out so much. The beatings I took, the rapes I had to endure, the lies, the betrayal… the pain.”

While art can be healing for the artists, and enlightening for consumers, students in our Feminist Legal Theory class were skeptical of the educational capacity of Eminem’s video. Some students argued that teenagers and young adults, who are the target audience for MTV, are less able to discern what we perceived as the underlying message of the video—that the cycle of violence is a dangerous trap, seemingly romantic, but ultimately deadly. As one classmate pointed out, it is far too easy to get caught up in the beautiful faces, the sexy images, and the melody, and miss the more subtle messages about class, gender, sexism, and violence. Given what we have learned about the powerful influence of media on body image, gender roles, masculinity, and femininity, it is worthwhile to take a moment to examine the ways in which popular media guides identity formation in young adults.

Research has found that many teens draw heavily from media images as they navigate the road to self-discovery and identification. For instance, one 18 year-old explains, “Yeah, I feel like even though I disagree with a lot of things that are on TV, it still does affect me. It's kind of like what you see on TV, you kind of assume is normal, you know? You see this sit-com of like the normal family, and they are doing things, they are kind of saying that this type of like behavior is normal. . . It's kind of like when you are little and you see your parents, they are kind of like this model of like what you are supposed to do. So, you like copy that, whether consciously or not. So it's kind of like that.”

But teenagers are not automatons who receive input and generate output devoid of volition. Jeanne Rogge Steele, professor of Journalism at Ohio University, suggests that the influence of media on teenage sexuality involves a more complicated process of selection, evaluation, application, and incorporation/resistance. Not surprisingly, middle and high-school students are searching out images and story-lines that resonate with their lives. Ethnicity, gender, and class all affect how teens select and interact with a range of media options and alternatives. Relevantly, the participants in Steele’s study viewed a music video and participated in an open discussion. The findings from the discussion were two-fold: first, there was a tendency in groups to adjust perceptions to move towards a uniform understanding of the video, and second, it was apparent that some teens misunderstood the producer-intended meaning of the video. Thus, the take-away for us is that art may not be the most effective way to inform teenagers about domestic violence. It is too easy to miss the punch-line. Perhaps more effective would be to use explicit, clear statements from role-models who have gained credibility with young people.


KayZee said...

Great post Megan. I appreciate your description of this morning's viewing of "Love the Way You Lie." It was definitely interesting to hear (and see) how the class reacted to the images and lyrics. I don't think even I realized how powerful the "melodrama" is, especially looking at it from a feminist theory perspective, until I watched it with others today. I could definitely feel the discomfort and emotion in the room after the lights came on.

I think your discussion of teens and media is especially interesting because I feel like there are so many sides to this argument. Although teens may report that media doesn't influence how they act, I would still argue that these kinds of images may "normalize" unhealthy behaviors. It may be true that teens will not model the actions they see on tv and hear about in music, but what about when they see it amongst their peers? Will they accept that as "normal" and move on? I think there is more research needed as to the 3rd person effect. When violence against women becomes normalized in media, does it make it normal in society?

Rose Sawyer said...

This seems an appropriate place to mention the Lindsay Lohan scandal. Recently, the sad, problem-addled teen star accepted close to $750,000 to pose for Playboy. [1] In the wrong circles, the forthcoming magazine is in high demand. When I asked a few of my male friends about it, they said that the idea of a naked Lohan appealed to them because they'd had crushes on her when they themselves were young and she was a teenage actress in The Parent Trap and Mean Girls.

This makes me think two things. First, I find this appalling. Lohan clearly has serious, serious psychological and substance issues. [2] That Playboy would prey on a sick twenty-four year old girl disgusts me. I realize that the porn industry makes a business of exploiting circumstantially weak females, but this is such a glaring example of it that a part of me is shocked Hugh Hefner had the audacity.

Second -- and truth be told, I think I read this in an academic article somewhere, but can't find said article -- why does society have a fascination with "girls gone wild" but not with similarly ill-behaved young men? Why do we hear about Amber Cole, Kim Kardashian, and Lindsay Lohan, but not their male counterparts? (The answers are all too obvious. I just seek to emphasize the hypocrisy.)

Poorly done, Playboy. Poorly done.

[1] http://jezebel.com/5853034/lindsay-lohan-accepts-about-a-million-bucks-to-pose-for-playboy
[2] http://jezebel.com/5855743/lindsay-lohan-takes-her-squandered-talent-to-jail-for-30-days

hanestagless said...

Megan, I had similar thoughts after class last week. I was thinking about music as art and how it portrays domestic violence. I re-stumbled across an article by the A.V. Club on songs inspired by domestic violence. While none of the videos are as explicit as Eminem’s and Rihanna’s “Love The Way You Lie” (except for maybe Rza’s “Domestic Violence”), some of the songs contain lyrics that are just as harsh, if not worse. After re-watching some of the videos I developed a couple thoughts on the consumption of these songs and the message the consumers receive.

I believe that we should distinguish music as art from music as entertainment. Music can serve as art and entertainment simultaneously. But, there are times when a musician calls upon music to go beyond mere entertainment. I believe a lot of these songs are in that vein, despite the catchiness of some of their melodies.

If we are to treat the music as art, then perhaps we should also reconsider who the music is targeting. I realize that young adults will hear this music. Nonetheless, I believe that these musicians are targeting an older audience, one that is better able grasp the horror of domestic violence. Musicians can do the same with their music videos. Consider a parallel example related to school violence. In 1992 Pearl Jam released a music video for their song "Jeremy." The song is about a boy that committed suicide in front of his high school classmates. Even though I was a young teenager when I first watched the video, I didn’t think that Pearl Jam was especially targeting me. Instead, I was a member of the broader public to whom Pearl Jam was directing a message of sadness, confusion, and anger. Songs and music videos about domestic violence seem similar to me.

As mentioned in class, we may have to separate the song from the music video. The video is graphic, sexual, and violent. It is more visceral. It disconnects from the song. Some could see the video as romanticizing domestic violence, which is not conveyed merely in the lyrics. I agree that the video may have gone too far with its sexy portrayal of domestic violence.

Yet, as a point of contrast, watch Florence + The Machine’s video of “Kiss With A Fist.” While the artist says the song is not about domestic violence, the lyrics suggest otherwise: “Broke your jaw once before / Spilt your blood upon the floor / You broke my leg in return / So let’s sit back and watch the bed burn / Love sticks sweat drips / Break the lock if it don’t fit / A kick in the teeth is good for some / A kiss with a fist is better than none.” Is this video better in conveying a negative message about domestic violence? The video certainly does not romanticize domestic violence, but it also does nothing to show the emotion (and even passion) that can bind women in a violent relationship. Perhaps more importantly, it lacks the same visceral punch that sparks discussion of domestic violence.

Ultimately, I agree with you that art and music alone is not an effective means to educate about domestic violence. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t add to the discussion. Art and music inspired by domestic violence are an individual’s response to the issue. The wonder of art and music is that they can trigger a response in others. But once the artist elicits the recipient’s natural response, informed and educated discussion would reinforce how devastating domestic violence can be, how wrong it is, and how individuals can get help or help others.

tomindavis said...

Yes, there are many sides to this debate. It is rarely sufficient to draw a line and demand that something as complicated as this fall neatly on one side of that line. I was one of those in class who questioned the merits of the video, mainly because I felt that its more stylized factors obscured the real message, and also because I felt that when we take on an issue like this, aiming to spread the word and to educate, it is almost necessary that we address it thoughtfully. Although at times the video was effective, at others I felt it could have treated its subject matter with greater responsibility, and an eye toward feasible solutions for the confused teens it seemingly targeted.

That said, I recognize the power of popular media in enabling the exposure of issues of social importance. This is one of those examples. Likewise, Megan makes the great point that teens are not as easily swayed and guileless as we make them out to be. Some will see this, and get it. My final take is that if it helps a little bit, then it helps period. As long as it does not harm the issue (and I don't think it does in this instance), then it gets the ball rolling. It's just that at some point, it would be nice to see high-profile stars such as these take their ball-rolling powers more seriously is all.

Alejandro said...

While I understand the skepticism many people, in this class and among the general public, felt regarding the supposed educational value of this music video, I can't help but have a more positive view. For one thing, I find it hard to believe that most teenagers or even pre-teens would misinterpret the message this music video is conveying.

Both the song's lyrics and video clearly demonstrate the violent and destructive effect domestic violence has, not only on the female victims, but also on the male perpetrators who, most often, end up losing their partner (who may have provided a sort of psychological comfort for them) or end up in prison if their conduct is especially violent. Most significantly, this song brings added (and much needed) attention to the pervasiveness of domestic violence in modern-day America.

Dictionary.com (citing Encyclopedia Britannica) gives the following entry for "domestic violence:"

"...Estimated annual figures for the number of women in the United States who are subjected to psychological, verbal, emotional, or physical abuse by a male partner range from two to four million. Additional statistics indicate that domestic violence ranks as the leading cause of injury to women from age 15 to 44 and that one-third of the American women murdered in any given year are killed by current or former boyfriends or husbands."

Undoubtedly, what we see described above is one of the most pressing social ills afflicting women today. But what solution do we have for such a serious problem? It may be easy to discuss possible solutions, but it is far more difficult to envision them put into practice in a way that society would accept. Do we impose harsher penalties on abusers? Do more to educate male and female teenagers regarding this social problem? Whatever solution we choose to adopt, it is clear that this phenomenon is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated by any civilized community.