“Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?” Battered Women in the Media
[In Part I of her extended essay, guest blogger Kimberly Greyson discusses public misconceptions about battered women; Part II (to follow) will provide cinematic examples that perpetuate these myths.]
Many times we see images in the media that are based in fantasy, yet we tend to absorb them as if they were real. Unless an individual makes a conscious decision to learn more or teach others about the reality of situations presented by the media, myths and stereotypes will continue to exist.
Sometimes these Hollywood “prototypes” cause real harm to the individuals who don’t fit the role. In an age of reality TV, where half-hearted attempts are made to disclose the secret side of human lives, the distortion of battered women (hereafter “BW”) who fight back with deadly force lingers.
There are shows we can watch in the comfort of our homes that challenge a viewer to gain an understanding of individuals who cheat on their partners, have obsessive-compulsive disorders, substance abuse issues, and struggle with hoarding. Yet when it comes to the matter of domestic violence the closest we can get through the TV screen are programs that reenact the stories of deadly women who have snapped and killed their partners out of greed or resentment, hardly ever as an act of self-defense.
Viewers who watch these shows and have no insight as to the plight of a battered woman could make some grossly inaccurate assumptions about abused women who kill. And these very same people could one day be sitting on a jury holding such a woman’s fate in their hands.
The media offers scant opportunities for the average American to be well informed on the matter of what makes a battered woman kill her abuser. To the contrary, there are too many media opportunities for society to enjoy watching women being abused, tortured, and killed. Numerous music videos, video games, and all manner of pornography are carefully crafted to visually elicit male stimulation when viewing images of women fighting, submitting, or being harmed.
All the while, these women are portrayed by beautiful and ultra feminine actresses whose roles simply serve to promote societal rejection of some of the large, powerful, and less than attractive victims of abuse in the real world.
The media promotes these inaccurate images that society, judges, and juries catalog in their memories and measure the level of victimization with when deciding to find battered a woman who killed as guilty or not guilty. These media portrayals do not suggest that the public should accept these women as victims. The popular media doesn’t offer the public any insight as to how these women are provoked into self-defense with deadly force, or how the special reasonableness of BW (Blackman & Brickman, 1984) can save the life of the victim at the peril to the life of the abuser.
Indeed our culture continues to ask, “Why didn’t she just leave?” instead of asking, “Why does he keep getting away with that?” The media is not entirely to blame, for culture has shaped the role of women in many ways. However, the media gives its viewers what they want to see, and it seems as though producers have gotten the message that nobody really wants to see the ugly truth of violence against women.
This abysmal void in public understanding contributes to the disproportionate sentencing for women who fight back with deadly force, and the notion that smart women know when their duty is to run away. Men are not subject to these ideals. Society can accept a man who is too proud to run and expect a man to fight to the finish, to remain boldly defiant even if he is being beaten to a pulp. Only women are cast with a negative shadow for displaying powerful resistance to injustice.
Examining Your Preconceptions
Before we go into the specifics of why some women don’t leave while others do, take a some time to digest this painful subject and examine the images that come into your own mind of a battered woman. If you can see “her” – your prototype – try to describe her appearance, mannerisms, and environment.
In parallel, do the same with your initial image of the batterer. Is this aggressor always in a wife beater t-shirt, with a mullet, and a beer in one hand? Don’t over-think this. There are no right or wrong answers, and there is nothing wrong with being aware that a particular image pops up unconsciously that you will logically evaluate later.
The ego will struggle to refuse that these images exist, that we are rational, and do not blindly gobble up everything the media feeds us. It takes courage and meaningful self-awareness to be able to recognize that an image WILL pop up before we FIX it. The question is, what is that image?
Blackman, J, & Brickman, E. (1984). The impact of expert testimony on trials of battered women who kill their husbands. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 2(4), 413-422.
Photo by Malinki, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
Burgo PhD, J. (2011). “Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?” Battered Women in the Media. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 29, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/movies/2011/03/why-doesnt-she-just-leave/