The Madonna/Whore Dichotomy and domestic violence

The phenomenon of victim-blaming in cases of rape is pretty well known, but apparently the same thing happens in cases of domestic violence:
part 1, part2.

The difference between the two videos is fucking huge. People immediately help both the white and the black woman in the first video. It’s especially striking that the black woman is helped by two women, who aggressively go against a Big Black Dude who looks like he could knock them across the room, too (and has clearly no compunctions in doing so, judging from his girlfriend’s face). This makes the excuses from the 2nd video look pretty unconvincing. Alternatively, it can be seen as the man being judged by the appearance of the woman he’s with, i.e. a man with a “slut” at his side is judged more likely to pull a weapon than a man with a “nice woman”.
Also striking is that in the 2nd video, you can clearly see the blame shifting, when a dude at a neighboring table says that “they” are making a scene and embarrassing themselves “as a couple”: the situation is now both the man’s and the woman’s fault, something completely absent from the first video.

There’s a whole bunch of interesting things going on in the videos, like the fact that men act against the skinny white dude, but women act against the black dude (though obviously with such a tiny sample size, that might just be coincidence), and that in both these cases, the helpers are willing to physically defend the women, while physical harm is used as an excuse to do nothing in the second video. The clothes and statures they put the men in are also interesting, since the white skinny guy is wearing a suit, while the big black guy is dressed more casually, which looks to me like they’re projecting different, somewhat racially stereotypical, forms of power.

So anyway, the blond, white, conservatively dressed woman gets the most and most immediate help, by the most people (both men and women). The black “slut” gets the least, and is accused of being a prostitute and of being partially responsible for the situation. It seems then that there’s both positive and negative gender (and race) stereotypes involved 1: the former is the best fit for the “damsel in distress”, while the latter is the best fit for the “trashy slut”. Also, the black conservative woman and the white “slutty “woman are helped only by women (the former directly, the latter indirectly via a phonecall to the cops); this might be because women are less likely to attribute blame for domestic violence to the victim than men are2, i.e. the “innocent victim” signal seems to disappear sooner for men than for women.

Now, the connection between dress and morality is pretty obvious from the videos, but I’m thinking class enters into it too. The women in the black minidress are judged as lower-class (all the way down to prostitute), and like I said, this seem to transfer onto the man at least in the case of the black couple, who is also judged as lower class, and therefore possibly more likely to become violent on the spot; they also are judged as “trashy”, and therefore the situation isn’t perceived as domestic violence, but as one of those stereotypical “embarrassing” arguments that “trashy” couples have in public. The case of the white couple probably has different class dynamics since they dressed the guy in a fancy suit, but even so, the other people in the restaurant fail to identify with the “trashy” woman and therefore don’t bother acting. I’d have loved to see them attempting to dress the women in a sexually revealing but high-class outfit, to see if the change in perceived class would have made a difference. The reason I’m thinking it might have (thought not necessarily so) is because of stronger empathy by middle-class people for middle-class people, and because the Western Cultural tradition attaches morality stronger to the choices of the poor than to the choices of the rich, especially in terms of women’s clothing.3.

All in all, a pretty fucked up situation, but apparently quite typical for our society (though… I’m mildly concerned that all the studies I found were done on undergrads. I know they’re easy to get a hold of when you’re a scientist, but I have my doubts about just how representative they are of society as a whole)

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11 comments on “The Madonna/Whore Dichotomy and domestic violence

  1. David Marjanović says:

    The difference between the two videos is fucking huge.

    I read all this, watched the videos, and was still stunned.

    My first thought at seeing the first “provocative dress” was “he wants her to dress like that so he can lust at her more easily”; this was bolstered by the second actress saying “do you like it” accompanied by a smile and… a suggestive gesture. But both “boyfriends” “react” the opposite way. (With an additional quirk: the first one objects to the dress being sleeveless, quite a while after he sees how low-cut it is. Come on, dude. The shoulders are not where you’re looking.) That way, as in the first video, they come across as wanting and expecting their girlfriends to correctly guess and execute their every whim in advance. This further fits “this is my situation, this is my woman” — translation: “I own her, mind your own property and not mine”.

    Big WTF moment: “she looks like he’s beaten her before, what is she doing?” (I tried to put this in Comic Sans; isn’t going to work, I bet — but I must try.)

    We aren’t told what the weather is like. Are those short, sleeveless dresses perhaps more “provocative” in the USA than over here? I mean, I’ve of course noticed nobody else in the restaurants is dressed comparably, but… well… “finery” is a good word. I’d have figured they were going to go to, say, one of Walton’s black-tie dinners afterwards. OK, evening dresses are longer at the bottom, but you don’t see that when they sit, and they’re always low-cut.

    The NIMBY attitude discovered in the second video is so disgusting… makes me almost proud to have SIWOTI syndrome: if I don’t see them anymore, that doesn’t change anything to me, because “they’ll keep being wrong!”

    Big mistake of the organizers: they ask the two women who just gave us the big WTF moment whether they’d have done something if she had been dressed more conservatively or if she had been white, in the same sentence, without a pause. The predictable reaction happens — it’s not cool to admit to racism anymore, so it is immediately and hurriedly denied, and we just have to assume that this denial also applies to the dress.

    There’s one purely funny aspect, though: in the first video, when one of the women says “[BEEP]”, they put a brown ellipse over her mouth so you can’t read her lips! X-D X-D X-D

    ============

    I think you somewhat exaggerate the danger the Big Black Dude appears to pose; the two women who try to stop him in the first video are quite a bit shorter than he is, but they’re just like him in the other two dimensions; he can’t literally kick them across the room as he could his thin girlfriend. (And… he’s not all that black either. He’s light brown. I wonder about the unconscious effects of that fact.) Somehow, I think he doesn’t even look violent; he doesn’t make his face angry enough, in spite of the blatant evidence the girlfriend carries around in her face. He also speaks very calmly, unlike his white counterpart who seems more like he’s going to snap in a few seconds.

    However, the Big White Dude in the second video who explains he didn’t jump in because it would have been to dangerous — that guy is just making excuses. Zuska should come and puke on his shoes (I won’t do it myself, I just had a very good dinner).

    ============

    While I was closing the tab with the videos, I saw that the next video which would have loaded automatically was “breastfeeding woman harrassed in café”.

    ============

    How much time did you invest in writing this post? With three references, and a mention of more, you seem to have done quite a bit of research.

  2. Kausik Datta says:

    Even after I found out they were actors, I couldn’t shake off this sense of outrage at the abusive scenes, and an impotent anger at those in the second video, who acted as enablers while pretending to be concerned. Fuck this so called middle-class morality; it is nothing but the basest hypocrisy. And for me, this isn’t restricted to those two videos either. In my country, this is a regular occurrence in so many families – in many of those incidents, even some women in the family are willing enablers and participants in the domestic abuse of other women. And the despicable practice of blaming the victim is carried out without compunction or remorse.

    A film-maker friend of mine created a few innovative ideas for ‘halting’ actual instances of domestic abuse. The ideas expressed in short films won several awards and recognitions at international fora, the most recent being a nomination in the Short Film category at Cannes. They are available in YouTube here, here and here. You may not understand the language, but you can get the intent. And in India, where poorer people often live in close juxtaposition to each other, this can be a real force in bringing down the incidents of domestic violence.

  3. Walton says:

    We aren’t told what the weather is like. Are those short, sleeveless dresses perhaps more “provocative” in the USA than over here? I mean, I’ve of course noticed nobody else in the restaurants is dressed comparably, but… well… “finery” is a good word. I’d have figured they were going to go to, say, one of Walton’s black-tie dinners afterwards. OK, evening dresses are longer at the bottom, but you don’t see that when they sit, and they’re always low-cut.

    Yeah, that was my reaction too. I wouldn’t have considered either of the women’s outfits in the second video to be unusually “provocative”, nor associated at all with low social class; both outfits would be a fairly normal way for women to dress in the evening over here. But I guess this is a cultural difference. (Though don’t necessarily take my word on this, as I don’t tend to pay a lot of attention to the way other people dress.)

    You could do the same experiment in the UK, but you’d have to use different outfits. Over here, the popular image of “low social class” would be conveyed by wearing stereotypical “chav” clothing – tracksuits, Burberry, flashy-but-cheap jewellery, baseball caps and the like.

  4. Kausik Datta says:

    Yeah, that was my reaction too. I wouldn’t have considered either of the women’s outfits in the second video to be unusually “provocative”

    Gaah! You are missing the point, Walton! Even if the dress were “provocative” (a word whose meaning varies depending upon the context), that gave the man no right to hit/abuse her – nor did that confer a shield of hypocrisy for the onlookers to hide behind and go on with their petty little lives while someone else nearby was being abused.

  5. Jadehawk says:

    I’d have figured they were going to go to, say, one of Walton’s black-tie dinners afterwards. OK, evening dresses are longer at the bottom, but you don’t see that when they sit, and they’re always low-cut.

    It’s not the dress, it’s the lack of relevant extras. You could make those dresses into evening dresses given the right hair, makeup jewelry; but it’s not just the length and amount of cleavage that matters; the cut of the dress matters, too. Certain cuts, even when revealing, are considered “classic” rather than “slutty”(basically, everything that looks like Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn might have worn it is going to be “classy”, no matter how revealing and form-fitting). Fashion is a minefield, and because it isn’t taught it’s a very easy signifier of class. The term for this is “habitus”, and it basically means all those things you learn and absorb by being part of a particular sub-culture, which is then assumed to be known, and therefore almost impossible to “fake” if you haven’t grown up with it.

    Anyway, the women didn’t have any jewelry, had long, stringy hair, and no make-up. And IIRC, at least one of them was wearing kumfukmi boots, which are never ever “classy”; that’s why the class designation as lower-class.

    How much time did you invest in writing this post? With three references, and a mention of more, you seem to have done quite a bit of research.

    I spent a day or so browsing google scholar for relevant abstracts. That’s what I usually do when I find an interesting topic. Would probably take even longer if I had access to more of these articles, since for some the abstract is all I get to read :-p

    You could do the same experiment in the UK, but you’d have to use different outfits. Over here, the popular image of “low social class” would be conveyed by wearing stereotypical “chav” clothing – tracksuits, Burberry, flashy-but-cheap jewellery, baseball caps and the like.

    nah. dress them in something with sequins, and you’d get precisely the same result. Britain has even stronger class issues than America does.

  6. Jadehawk says:

    Gaah! You are missing the point, Walton! Even if the dress were “provocative” (a word whose meaning varies depending upon the context), that gave the man no right to hit/abuse her – nor did that confer a shield of hypocrisy for the onlookers to hide behind and go on with their petty little lives while someone else nearby was being abused.

    I very much doubt he (or David) are missing the point; they’re just suffering from culture shock over a simple black dress earning a woman the “prostitute” label.

    It’s a bit of a topic drift from the main point of the videos and this post… but there’s little to discuss there unless you’ve experience in the sort of work that leads to changing people’s attitudes. Basically, it’s: “wow, that’s abso-fucking-lutely horrible”. Which I think we all agree on.

    Which reminds me: thanks for the youtube links. Haven’t watched them yet but the work sounds interesting. I’ll comment on them later today after I watch them.

  7. Walton says:

    Gaah! You are missing the point, Walton! Even if the dress were “provocative” (a word whose meaning varies depending upon the context), that gave the man no right to hit/abuse her

    I didn’t suggest that it did. You’re misreading me, and doing so in quite an offensive way.

    I was just commenting on the parameters of the experiment from a sociological point of view, as David was. As I understand it, part of the point of the experiment was to identify unconscious class prejudices, by showing that people react differently to scenes of domestic abuse when they perceive the woman involved as “trashy” or of lower social class. I was merely observing that the outfit she was wearing wouldn’t really be considered either “provocative” or “lower-class” over here, and probably wouldn’t engender the same degree of different reaction; it was a side-observation as to cultural differences in the perception of class between the US and Europe.

    In no way was I missing the point. I understand the point perfectly well, thank you: I just didn’t feel the need to repeat what other people had already said. Please try to read for comprehension.

  8. Jadehawk says:

    also, I should add that the class thing was my own observation from watching the videos. The experiment itself was designed purely on the “conservative” vs. “slutty” axis, as far as I can tell.

  9. Walton says:

    It’s not the dress, it’s the lack of relevant extras. You could make those dresses into evening dresses given the right hair, makeup jewelry; but it’s not just the length and amount of cleavage that matters; the cut of the dress matters, too. Certain cuts, even when revealing, are considered “classic” rather than “slutty”(basically, everything that looks like Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn might have worn it is going to be “classy”, no matter how revealing and form-fitting). Fashion is a minefield, and because it isn’t taught it’s a very easy signifier of class. The term for this is “habitus”, and it basically means all those things you learn and absorb by being part of a particular sub-culture, which is then assumed to be known, and therefore almost impossible to “fake” if you haven’t grown up with it.

    Anyway, the women didn’t have any jewelry, had long, stringy hair, and no make-up. And IIRC, at least one of them was wearing kumfukmi boots, which are never ever “classy”; that’s why the class designation as lower-class.

    Hmm… I would never have noticed that. I don’t know anything much about women’s fashion and mostly don’t pay much attention to what people are wearing, so this is a distinction I would never have picked up, even subconsciously.

    I guess this is another area where men are privileged by social conventions. Men’s evening dress is relatively simple and straightforward; black tie is black tie, and though having a better-cut and more expensive dinner jacket is noticeable (if you’re paying attention), there aren’t anywhere near so many unwritten arbitrary rules as there are for women’s formal clothing.

    Britain has even stronger class issues than America does.

    I think that’s true, but remember that “class” in Britain operates on multiple levels.

    The stereotypical British “class system” – with traditional aristocracy, nouveaux riches, and so on, as well as the importance of which school one attended – is much, much less strong than it used to be. As a lower-middle-class person who went to a state school, I’ve never felt particularly disadvantaged at Oxford, even in political circles where I’m often surrounded by people from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds who went to public schools.

    But there is, I am becoming aware, a massive and growing gap in privilege in Britain between the middle classes and the poor and marginalised. This is something to which I was blind for much of my life: but that, in itself, is a product of having grown up in middle-class privilege. I went to a state school, but I went to a good state school, and grew up in a middle-class community with parents who could afford to support me through university. There is a huge gap between my experience of life and that of someone who grew up in, say, a deprived inner-city area and attended a bad school; I’m only beginning to realise the extent of the difference now, after having studied criminology. And since social mobility has declined in Britain over the last decade and is continuing to decline, this particular class gap is getting worse.

  10. Jadehawk says:

    ok, I finally had a chance to look at the videos you linked, KD, and they’re very clever! The idea is pretty simple, and on gut feeling I’d say they might work. I remember reading an account by a woman who was being beaten when the bell rung and the police stood at the door; and even though she herself send them away, she says that this ringing of the doorbell “broke the moment”. she was convinced if it hadn’t been for the doorbell she’d have died that day.

    I wonder if there’s any way to know whether this really does work?

  11. David Marjanović says:

    A film-maker friend of mine created a few innovative ideas for ‘halting’ actual instances of domestic abuse. The ideas expressed in short films won several awards and recognitions at international fora, the most recent being a nomination in the Short Film category at Cannes. They are available in YouTube here, here and here.

    Thanks, I’ll watch them as soon as possible.

    I spent a day or so browsing google scholar for relevant abstracts. That’s what I usually do when I find an interesting topic.

    That uncanny sound you’re hearing in the distance? It’s me wincing in envy. I’ve done this a couple of times, but now I have a thesis to finish… *whine, whine*

    Hmm… I would never have noticed that. I don’t know anything much about women’s fashion and mostly don’t pay much attention to what people are wearing, so this is a distinction I would never have picked up, even subconsciously.

    I guess this is another area where men are privileged by social conventions.

    Absolutely. I can feel good about simply knowing what the difference between a dress and a skirt is — my brother didn’t until recently, and probably he has forgotten again! Sometime I’ll watch the 2nd video again and look for the boots (I don’t look at people’s feet much).

    (In hindsight, the hair au naturel and the lack of necklaces should have been obvious. But they weren’t.)

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