Some post-election analysis has judged President-elect Trump’s pledge to revive hard-hit sectors of the economy as a superior strategy to so-called identity politics as a way to connect with voters. While we should pay attention to class inequality, we shouldn’t overlook the reality that centering economic issues is fundamentally about gender identity. The loss of manufacturing jobs is as much about changing gender norms as it is about class inequality, or blue-collar men would be filling the nursing shortage.
Strategies to help hurting communities must focus on advancing women’s economic standing. New research shows that increasing educational attainment hasn’t translated into increased employment for single mothers. Women have a harder time repaying student loan debt, in part because of the gender wage gap. Domestic violence costs the economy $5.8 billion each year.
Centering women is both imperative and possible. Despite the superficial interpretation that Trump’s election is a rebuke to feminist ideals, voters support specific policies that help women. In the November election, Washington and Arizona passed ballot measures that raise the minimum wage and require employers to offer workers paid sick and safe leave. Livable wages and paid leave strengthens women’s labor force participation and paid safe leave means women don’t have to choose between their safety and a paycheck for their families.
It is hardly surprising that Trump’s rhetoric to double the rate the economy grows is improbable. Promising manufacturing jobs seductively trumpets narratives of masculinity, falsely promising a return to breadwinner wages. Trump’s proposed paid leave policy granting mothers six weeks of paid leave would be the least generous policy of any OECD country and efforts to reduce campus sexual assault are likely to end under the Trump administration. Concerns the administration will target funding for the Violence Against Women Act are becoming a reality. Dismantling State Department programs that promote gender equality will undermine both women and economic growth globally.
The last two years have brought renewed attention to the social problem of domestic violence. Controversy erupted in 2014 when video of National Football League (NFL) player Ray Rice violently punched his fiancé (now wife) and dragged her unconscious body from an elevator. Most recently, Deadspin.com released graphic images of the injuries NFL player Greg Hardy inflicted on his ex-girlfriend. In both instances, NFL officials insisted that if they had seen the visual evidence of the crime, they would have implemented harsher consequences from the onset. After both of these incidents, some have asked why images of these men’s violence were a necessary prerequisite to public outrage. It’s a good question.
Why are violent images so much more compelling than other evidence of men’s violence against women? A partial answer is found by looking at whose story is privileged and whose account is discounted. The power of celebrity and masculinity reinforces a collective desire to disbelieve the very real violence women experience at the hands of men, especially of men we revere. This month we witnessed 13 Black women collectively share their story of being raped and sexually assaulted by a White police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw, in Oklahoma. Without the combined bravery of the victims, it is unlikely any one woman would have been able to get justice. A similar unfolding happened with Bill Cosby. The first victims to speak out against Cosby were dismissed and treated with suspicion. The same biases that interfere with effectively responding to rape and sexual assault hold true for domestic violence interventions.
Another part of the puzzle of understanding our varied responses to domestic violence is found in the way domestic violence is portrayed. The language we use matters to how we perceive and make sense of social issues. Anti-sexist male activist Jackson Katz points out that labeling victims of sexual crimes “accusers” reverses public support for alleged victims to alleged perpetrators. The media’s common use of a passive voice when reporting on domestic violence inaccurately emphasizes a shared responsibility of the perpetrator and victim for the abuser’s violence and generally leaves readers with an inaccurate perception that domestic violence isn’t a gendered social problem. Visual evidence of women’s injuries at the hands of men is a powerful antidote to this misrepresentation.
In my own research, forthcoming in Sociological Spectrum, I found that the race of perpetrators also matters to who is seen as accountable for their violence. I analyzed 330 news articles about 66 male celebrities in the headlines for committing domestic violence. Articles about Black celebrities included criminal imagery – mentioning the perpetrator was arrested, listing the charges, citing law enforcement and so on – 3 times more often than articles about White celebrities. White celebrities benefited further by their violence being excused and justified 2½ times more often than Black celebrities’ domestic violence. For example, White celebrities violence was more likely to be described as a mutual escalation or explained away due to mitigating circumstances, such as inebriation.
Data from an analysis of 330 articles about 66 Black and White male celebrities who made headlines for perpetrating domestic violence (2009 – 2012).
Accordingly, visual imagery of Ray and Hardy’s violence upholds common stereotypes of Black men as violent criminals. Similarly, White celebrity abusers, such as Charlie Sheen, remain unmarked as a source of a social problem. It’s telling that the public outcry to take domestic violence seriously has been centered around the NFL, a sport in which two-thirds of the players are African American. The spotlight on Black male professional athletes’ violence against women draws on racist imagery of Black men as criminals. Notably, although domestic violence arrests account for nearly half of NFL players’ arrests for violent crimes, players have lower arrest rates for domestic violence compared to national averages for men in a similar age range.
If the NFL is going to take meaningful action to reducing men’s violence against women, not just protect its own image, the league will have to do more than take action only in instances in which visual evidence of a crime is available. Moreover, race can’t be separated from gender in their efforts.
Modeled after a Danish reality television series, television program Married at First Sight (MAFS) portrays itself as a social experiment -- 6 individuals agree to marry a stranger selected for them by four experts.
"Married at First Sight” is an extreme social experiment that follows six brave singles yearning for a life-long partnership as they agree to a provocative proposal: getting legally married to a complete stranger the moment they first meet. Four specialists – sexologist, Dr. Logan Levkoff; psychologist, Dr. Joseph Cilona; sociologist, Dr. Pepper Schwartz; and spiritual advisor, Greg Epstein – create what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle and see each other face-to-face, for the first time, at the altar. Over the course of several weeks, episodes capture each couple’s journey as they go from wedding, to honeymoon, to early nesting, to the daily struggle of working on their marriage. After several weeks together, each couple must make a decision: do they remain together or decide to divorce?"
I was excited to tune into this show for many reasons, one of which being the appearance of sociologist Pepper Schwartz as one of the four experts. Schwartz is a public sociologist who focuses on intimacy and relationships -- topics that interest me both as a former couples' therapist and now as a junior sociologist. It's also not every day that a sociologist can leverage their expertise to influence the public, and Schwartz has been quite successful in this endeavor.
Merits of the show
Throughout the episodes of MAFS, the experts offered helpful advice, useful to the "couples" as well as the audience tuning in to watch the show. They informed viewers of some social science research findings, such as explaining the "paradox of choice": that people are less likely to be satisfied in their relationships when they perceive many alternative partners. The show was at its best when they explained how they matched people and why it mattered.
“One of the things you didn't see was I also asked questions about their values regarding reproductive justice, things like abortion, things like gay marriage, things like condoms and contraception,” Levkoff said. “Because as we know in real life, we all have certain deal-breakers and those certain political values can be very big deal-breakers for people in their relationships.” -- Dr. Logan Levkoff
Levkoff and spiritual advisor Greg Epstein were also active on social media, providing useful relationship advice to viewers engaging with the show. #MarriedatFirstSight was trending nationally on Twitter during the finale of Season 2, demonstrating the show has a large platform on which to provide educational messages that can strengthen relationships.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail
Although MAFS undoubtedly has some benefits, I was troubled by the indiscriminate advice offered by the experts. The most glaring omission was the complete absence of a couple and family therapist! This oversight left the other experts to act as the couples' therapist in a field in which they do not have expertise. While some of their interventions with the couples were helpful, there were times the experts' actions were misguided, harmful, and at worst, dangerous.
A day before the series finale aired, it was reported that the woman in one of the couples, Jessica, had filed for a protection order against her new husband, Ryan. I don't think it's a case of "hindsight is 20-20" when I state that most domestic violence victim advocates (a job I've previously held) would have been able to tell you that Ryan was displaying signs of abusive behavior within the first couple of episodes. While well-meaning, the strategies used by the experts to intervene were harmful and dangerous. Throughout the season, the experts cast Jessica's "lack of speaking up for herself" as her part of the problem in making their marriage work. This wrongly suggests that Jessica has some part to play in Ryan's choices to be abusive. They should have validated her instincts that it was not safe to speak up, investigated why she felt that way, and held Ryan accountable for actions that further limited Jessica's agency. I applaud efforts to increase women's self-determination, but it is harmful to present Jessica's hesitation to speak up as part of generalized "communication problems." Many of the experts' interventions were perfectly appropriate prompts that could help many couples -- but completely ineffective and harmful for couples when one partner is abusive.
Without any specialist on staff, a psychologist and sociologist were expected to step up and deal with Ryan's increasingly abusive behavior. The show featured a tense video chat with Schwartz to calm the situation. When Schwartz later visits their home to check in with the couple, she admits she is dreading the encounter. I'm not surprised -- working with a person who is abusive to their partner is intimidating and difficult for people with the training to do so. I have no reason to believe Schwartz, or anyone else on the show for that matter, had any domestic violence or family therapy training.
A (good) family therapist would have known to interview and speak separately with each individual. How can a victim possibly speak openly and honestly when her abusive partner is present and can (and will) use what she says against her later? One of the most egregious errors was when host Kevin Frazier asked Ryan and Jessica to just shake hands and hug to bring an amicable end to their relationship. Would we ask any other victim of a crime to hug their perpetrator? There were brief moments of trying to hold Ryan accountable for his actions, but they were few and far between and often in situations that made it more, not less, dangerous to Jessica.
Beyond the unexpected (but not uncommon) domestic violence depicted on the show, there were so many missed opportunities to use teachable moments to educate the audience about having healthy and respectable relationships. A couple and family therapist could have provided information about how to fight fairly, the importance of building a friendship, why the way you start an argument matters for how you end it, and so many other skills for communicating. Instead, viewers were left with vague calls for "communicating" better and really "working hard." What does that even mean?! A trained therapist wouldn't have attempted to talk two people into trying to save their marriage as a last-ditch effort -- they could have curiously and purposefully helped the individuals figure out what they wanted from each other and from themselves and assisted with devising a plan to achieve those goals.
Can this work?
The American version of this show has now completed two seasons. Two of the three couples from Season 1 are still married, while none of the three couples from Season 2 decided to stay married. The premise of the show received a lot of backlash, with some asserting it trivializes the sanctity of marriage. Many responded by pointing to research that demonstrates arranged marriages are less likely to end in divorce than love marriages. This is a false equivalence. Involving extended family in the route to marriage is not comparable to outsourcing your matchmaking process to supposedly objective strangers. To begin with, arranged marriages have the support of extended family, whereas many of these couples do not. There is also no question that the types of people who opt for an arranged marriage based on cultural tradition are quantifiably different than the types of people who agree to go on national television and marry a stranger selected for them by four other strangers.
If the show really is a social experiment, and not just dramatized reality television (I guess at best it might be both), the experts are going to need to re-examine their approach. For instance, on the Season 2 finale, viewers watched the experts lecture ex-couple Sean and Davina about taking responsibility instead of blaming others, but wedidn't get any accountability from the experts themselves. Repeatedly, the experts asserted that they could only do the matching but the individuals had to do the work. No doubt the couples have to work at building a relationship, but the failure of a lasting partnership was certainly not all on them. The experts reacted defensively to the failed relationships, expressing surprise that two total strangers matched perfectly on paper turned out to be full of contradictory and complicated beliefs and emotions, and in end, human. More concerning are the accusations that the experts were negligent in their matching (casting?) process, failing to adequately hold up their end of the bargain by conducting comprehensive background checks and personality assessments.
Could this show have merit? Sure. I'm still intrigued by the idea that science could successfully match people with compatible and loving partners.
In the end, I think MAFS could be educational as well as entertaining. The layer of domestic violence dynamics from Season 2 is certainly a useful teaching tool. More in-depth responses to the domestic violence portrayal will come in another blog post, there's just so much there.
Note: While I viewed many episodes of MAFS Season 1, most of my analysis for this piece is based on Season 2.
Last year, to kick off Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), I looked at google trends in searches of domestic violence, breast cancer, and Chris Brown. This year, I thought I'd take a look at domestic violence, breast cancer, and the NFL. I wondered if there was a jump in domestic violence (DV) searches, given all of the talk about DV this last month. Sure enough, there was a big spike in interest in September.
Was it enough to make a dent in the large gap in interest between domestic violence and breast cancer? Turns out, yes! I limited the search time to the last 90 days and there is a significant spike in googling domestic violence in September compared to the previous two months. In fact, on September 8th, the day TMZ published video of Ray Rice punching his then fiancée in an elevator, more people searched for domestic violence than breast cancer. While that particular day is an outlier, web searches for domestic violence have remained higher than before the video was released. As October approaches, renewed interest in breast cancer is also apparent.
So, how does this all compare to interest in football? Not so well. The National Football League (NFL) is substantially more interesting to internet users than either domestic violence, breast cancer, or even Chris Brown.
The NFL has a real opportunity to bring some much needed public consciousness to the social problem of domestic violence. The NFL is still planning to "go pink" for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but this year they announced they will air domestic violence public service announcements during games. The National Network to End Domestic Violence is also leading a campaign to ask the NFL to wear purple (color of DV awareness). Whatever strategy is implemented, it would be great to generate awareness of domestic violence without needing a video of a football player punching his partner unconscious to get a conversation started.
For more information on domestic violence awareness, follow #DVAM on Twitter all month.
I thought it might be helpful to post a reference list of some sociological research on domestic violence as it relates to race, gender, and popular culture.
Don't forget to check out my corresponding blog post for some further detail.
Additionally, the verdict in the trial of double-amputee track star Oscar Pistorius, who murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013, should be announced by the end of the week.