Here's a question, prompted by Saturday Night Live: Why is it okay to mock a situation that may or may not have involved domestic violence, but not okay to have a serious discussion about it?
In the almost two weeks since his Thanksgiving weekend car crash, much has been speculated about the state of Tiger Woods's marriage...and the reason for the crash itself. (In a press conference last week, the Florida Highway patrol announced that its representatives saw no evidence of anything but reckless driving and, in a statement a few days later, Woods confessed to "transgressions.")
Of course, Tiger's reported infidelity and problems with his wife are private matters, but matters that filtered through to the public consciousness long ago. Nothing better epitomizes this than this past Saturday's SNL skit with Keenan Thompson playing Tiger Woods and Blake Lively as his wife Elin.
The skit moves the assumptions about what happened to Tiger Woods three steps forward. "Elin" is shown standing behind Woods at a press conference, during which Woods makes increasingly feeble excuses as to his battered state, finally holding up a sign saying "help me." Many of the excuses the writers provide are classic lines from the domestic violence "script" ("I fell down the stairs...") and Elin hovering behind him menacingly is supposed to add to the laughs.
Obviously, many people found this funny. But in the context of how we talk about domestic violence in this country, I found it downright depressing. It's hard enough to get these sorts of conversation going without a catalyst - reports on domestic violence often go unremarked upon, and unless there is a celebrity hook, most news outlets will not spend much time going into detail about those reports. And, as we saw in the case of Chris Brown and Rihanna - the latter was the musical guest on SNL, as Hortense pointed out - even if it eventually emerges that domestic violence did occur in a high-profile couple, most of the public conversation revolves around blaming the victim and trying to silence discussion entirely. But, as Elizabeth Mendez Barry wrote over on The New Agenda, the way in which we frame such conversations has a great many unintended consequences:
The Bloods have a strict policy against domestic violence. That's what a 16-year-old male affiliate proudly told me last year before a weekly "gang awareness" meeting of about fifteen teens, most of them Crips, Bloods or Latin Kings, at a high school in Castle Hill, the Bronx. That week, the topic was domestic violence, and several members of the group, including the 16-year-old, said that hitting a woman was never acceptable. Others argued that there were situations where it just couldn't be helped.
The conversation turned to an article I had written about domestic violence in the hip hop industry for Vibe. The rapper Big Pun grew up near the high school, and his devastating abuse of his wife (which started when the couple was just 16) was described in the piece. "I heard she cheated on him," said the only young woman in the group, and others repeated some of the many rumors that swirled around Pun's wife when she told her story (up until then she had been Soundview's favorite widow). Several people enthusiastically launched into scenarios where it was OK to hit a woman. There were many. The bottom line: sometimes you've got to teach a woman a lesson if she gets out of line. It sounded like a man's responsibility.
In the midst of the rationalizing, one usually talkative young man stood up and walked out. When he returned twenty minutes later, he quietly told the group that his aunt had recently been murdered by her abusive boyfriend. It was no longer a hypothetical conversation. The jokes stopped. Young men who were significantly invested in their inner gangsters gave them time off, and started talking about how domestic violence had affected their lives–and it had affected most of them. The young woman, who minutes before had been arguing in favor of beating females who didn't know their place, talked about how despite the rules, male gang members beat up on female gang members. Behind her swagger, she seemed anxious.
Why discuss teenage gang members when the issue at hand is a couple of unaffiliated celebrities? Because frank conversations like the one I described are rare, but they're crucial to stopping relationship violence and healing the wounds it inflicts not just on its victims, but on their families, and even on abusers, many of whom grew up in abusive households themselves. Because of one young man's honesty about his own experiences, everyone else anted up. The conversation got past knee jerk reactions, and revealed some of the pain lurking behind them. It certainly didn't resolve all the issues that came up, but it was a start that gave a group of teens an opportunity to share the conflicting emotions they had about the issue.
Teenagers and children are listening to how we treat these conversations. With Chris Brown and Rihanna, many different groups, writers, and bloggers spoke out against victim blaming, about stereotyping based on race or nationality and about quickly forcing someone into the advocate role.
With Tiger Woods it's a bit more difficult. It's true that we do not know exactly what happened, in large part because Woods and his family aren't elaborating and, perhaps more importantly, because the State of Florida sees no further reason to suspect domestic violence. Thing is, with skits like the one shown on SNL, the message being sent is that it is okay to joke about punishing men with force. That it's understandable for women to react to allegations of infidelity with violence. Such demonstrations tell us that men bearing the brunt of a woman's rage should be the subject of laughter, not concern.
Some, of course, won't see what the big deal is. Admittedly, I didn't either - until recently. I was walking through New York one night with a friend when we passed a heterosexual couple who appeared to be having an argument - but with an inverted dynamic. In this case, the male (who was taller and heavier set than the woman) was trying to retreat while the female aggressively screamed, pulled and tugged at him. I sighed and kept going. After we got about a block up the street, my friend stopped me. "I'm sorry, and I'm sorry for dragging you into this, but we really have to go back." She explained that her brother was in a situation with an ex-girlfriend that was violent and full of manipulation, but that neither police, nor his apartment security took seriously the fact that his petite ex-girlfriend was out to do him bodily harm. "I have to help," she pressed. We turned around. Standing on the corner closest to the still-warring couple, she asked, "I'm sorry to be intrusive, but do you need any help?"
"Mind your business bitch!" shouted the woman, now trying to leap onto the man's back.
"Yes, I do," he said. The woman hit him.
For the next twenty minutes, the four of us engaged in horrible game of frogger: my friend and I would flag down a cab, and the woman would physically block the man from getting in and leaving the scene. Repeatedly, he lifted his hands, making sure to announce loudly "I am not touching you, I am not trying to touch you, please let me get in the cab."
Occasionally, the woman would remember we were around and would scream at us to leave - she was insistent that he come home with her and not to his house. After the third pissed off cabdriver left with no charge, we decided to call the police. The man didn't want us to leave and the woman showed no signs of giving in. When the cops showed up a few minutes later, one of the officers rolled his eyes. We left.
Even with that experience, I might have not taken violence against men seriously - except for the fact that it kept cropping up in seemingly strange places. A coworker laughed off a prominent mark on his face with a bashful, "oh, you know the wife." A friend asked me to accompany him to pick up his child in an increasingly rancorous (and increasingly violent) shared custody situation. Another coworker initiated divorce proceedings when the honeymoon went sour and his wife started taking literal bites out of his skin.
I know many people will shrug this off as well - but it's worth asking why we sweep violence against women under the rug, and play violence against men for laughs, but are still too afraid to risk confronting any of these issues directly. Saturday Night Live writers: I'm asking you first.
Update: TMZ reports that The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence is not pleased:
During the show, the audience laughs, but Smith claims, "There's nothing funny about this story, particularly if violence was part of the events that took place ... I hope that SNL refrains from using this kind of skit in the future as it diminishes people's support for victims of domestic violence."
Earlier: SNL Brings Us "Shy Ronnie," The Salahis, And Gossip Girl: Staten Island
Game Over: Woods Charged With Reckless Driving; No Evidence Of Domestic Violence
"Some Simple, Human Measure Of Privacy": A Textual Analysis Of Tiger Woods