Saturday, April 04, 2009

A fantasy of domestic violence.

Kiera is an actress. Attractive, vivacious and well-liked, she works hard for her money.

At the end of a long day, it's late, she's tired and happy to get away (although not as late as many of the all male crew who have to stay and pack away, prepare for the next day, and close up). She's in such a hurry to leave that she waits until she's driving to take off her makeup. But is she really happy to get away?

Back home in a pristine new block of apartments, all nice, clean glass and pine surfaces, she steps into her place and calls out "Sweetheart?". But then she notices the broken mirror and trail of blood. She doesn't seem surprised and there's no cry of "My God, what happened?!" so we're driven to realize that this is nothing particularly unusual.

Sweetheart comes around the corner and looks at her. He's bleeding from his right hand, she notes he's hurt and hands him a rag. He says something about her being in a leading role and asks if it feels real. "Gentle heart, please" she says "it's my job", and he throws the rag in her face.

Bizarrely, she turns and looks at you and says "Sorry, we didn't agree to that, that wasn't in the script". What? But before we're given the chance to figure out what's going on, he hits her, with his open left hand, knocking her to the floor, where her cheek is already bleeding - it could be his blood, but we're clearly meant to think it's hers, so we'll just go with that and assume he must have been holding a weapon. "Please, I didn't agree to this!" she cries and shrieks as he pulls her hair, and then starts kicking her.

The camera pulls back, and we see that the kitchen where he kicks and kicks her is actually a TV set, but the kicking goes on and on as fantasy blends with reality and the tagline "isn't it time someone called cut?" appears before a cut to black.

Well, yes, it is time someone called cut, because this little vignette has about as much to do with reality as CSI or Doctor Who. What is the point? It is an ad for the "women's aid" charity in the UK - they want you to spend 2 pounds a month on them to help them stop "two women a week" from dying from domestic violence. I'm willing to bet a lot more than 2 pounds a month that none of those 104 women a year are even remotely like Kiera Knightley.

I know for sure that the unknown number of men who die at the hands of their partner every year are nothing at all like her.

The aching irony of the tagline is clearly unintentional. It really is time someone called "cut" on this kind of thing. Domestic violence is hardly ever, perhaps never, very much like this. Yes, there are deeply disturbed, controlling men and women out there, and yes, there are purely innocent victims who keep coming back to them and martyring themselves to their problems, doing nothing to provoke them and barely making any protest at all as they're used as a punchbag time and time again.

That is the fantasy, anyway. It is the TV studio's conception of domestic violence - malignant, inhuman perpetrator and innocent helpless victim - aided and abetted by those who would sell this strawman to us so they can continue to fight their already over-financed crusade against it. Because anyone who's had any contact at all with real human interpersonal problems knows that it is a blatant, even criminal misrepresentation of reality. Grossly simplistic, it is nothing more than cynical manipulation of a gullible public.

"There is no excuse for domestic violence" is one of those phrases that sounds good, but says nothing. Like "in the best interests of the children", it is a magic incantation which allows you to do anything at all to the designated scapegoat, starting with dehumanizing stereotyping and caricaturing, moving to demonizing and then finally locking him away in a real or metaphorical jail built from an imposed idea of what actually happened and which probably has very little to do with reality.

Any woman identifying with Keira Knightley in that ad clearly has only a very tenuous grasp of reality anyway. I'm sorry girls, but the bitter truth is that not many of you look very much like her, even after you've spent hours making yourself over (moreover, I'm not sure I'd want you to). Likewise, how often does your boyfriend make an unprovoked, brutal attack against you like that? Most likely, he's never done more than yell at you, possibly pushed you away, as you yelled at him. But no worries, that's enough for you to count yourself one of the one in four British women who will supposedly suffer domestic violence. Feel free to quote the number without citation, everyone else does.

No man is going to consciously identify with the interestingly faceless aggressor in the ad. (His facelessness is a dead giveaway, he doesn't really exist.) More likely any reasonably normal man will feel his protective juices rising and, if he were there, look for ways to stop the attack on Keira. But a man's protective urges are always double-edged, based, as they inevitably are, on a deep-down realization of his own potential for violence. Thus, should anyone see something of themselves in him, it is probably with some considerable amount of internal cringing, unless he happens to be psychopathic. But a smart psychopath would probably be much more devious than that and a dumb one much more obvious to everyone.

The same, by the way, would go for women, if the roles are ever reversed.

But we're not supposed to identify with Keira or her attacker. We're the audience, on the outside, looking in, not part of this problem. We're supposed to get all generously protective of her and hand money to people who hopefully, but by and large probably don't, have a more sophisticated idea of what really goes on in a conflictive relationship.

In the meantime, the same old stereotyped, caricatured, criminally simplistic message gets peddled to the gullible public, reinforcing their prejudices of domestic violence and building up their approval of a society which pillories a man at the merest hint from a woman that he might be less than perfect, handing her the perfect weapon with which to control and abuse him.