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Column: Our culture glorifies domestic violence – from women, that is

Popular images tell us slapping a man is an appropriate response to romantic troubles, writes Lisa McInerney. So what does that say about our culture?

Lisa McInerney

WITH THE RELEASE of the Twilight Saga’s Breaking Dawn at the weekend, my thoughts naturally turned to the romanticisation of abusive relationships.

If nothing of the sort comes to mind when you think about the Twilight Saga – if you don’t suspect that Edward is an obsessive terror and Bella possesses the shattered spirit of a thrice-glued workhorse – then congratulations, you’re the target audience!

Snark aside, it does sometimes feel that there’s a strange subtext to popular culture designed to make boors and shrews of us all. In the case of the Twilight Saga, appalling, destructive behaviour is redefined as ‘passionate’, a dangerous pattern when the saga is presented as a rich love story and aimed at lovesick fantasists.

Plenty has been said on the subject up to this point; I won’t be the first or the last to rip holes in the moral fabric of Stephenie Meyer’s hormone opus. Even Robert Pattinson, the actor who plays Edward Cullen, has said that his character’s behaviour is “very wrong and very strange”; there’s nothing subtle about Twilight’s depiction of sexual power and privilege.

Pop culture’s misrepresentation of appropriate romantic behaviour isn’t always so overt. One of the tropes I’ve become more and more aware of as I’ve… well, grown up a bit, is the application of an ear-shattering slap by an indignant woman to a man out-of-line.

Pop culture, in movies to TV shows to music videos, has given offended women everywhere its blessing for moving a man’s guilty expression to the other side of his face. Rapidly. With satisfying sound effects. From the feisty Scarlett O’Hara, to the feisty Hermione Granger, to the feisty… well, you get the picture.

‘He accepts it because he knows he’s been such a terrible cad’

A woman who hits a man is using violence as a tool of empowerment. She’s not about to martyr her self-respect for some mischievous lout! Certainly he’s able to take it. And he accepts it because he knows he’s been such a terrible cad.

I’d like to say we all realise that what’s done on stage or screen in the name of drama doesn’t translate to real life, but in my experience, that’s not true. Most of my female friends are well aware that a stinging slap is not the best way to contest a boyfriend’s faux pas, in the same way that most of my male friends are well aware that no really does mean no. But could I have said the same a decade ago, when we were all still in university and stumbling from disastrous relationship to disastrous relationship?

I recall a friend devastated when his girlfriend slapped him on the street during a vodka-fuelled argument. He had said the wrong thing, and she had thought it an appropriate response to give him a theatrical wallop in full view of his friends.

In a movie, or TV show, no doubt he’d have quipped something combining an admission of guilt with his ability to take it on the chin (literally). He’d then either have joined his whooping friends, who’d clap him on the back and take him on a victory lap of the nearest strip club, or he’d have followed his fuming girlfriend, and they would realise they only argued because they loved each other so much, and they’d have reunited with a passionate kiss in the rain.

‘Hurt, confused and humiliated’

But his friends did not whoop. His girlfriend did not realise she loved him with the strength of a thousand universes and snog him, weeping with emotion, while passers-by cheered them on. All that actually happened is he was hurt, confused and humiliated. Though the couple reunited, things were not the same – he couldn’t trust her and avoided socialising with her where alcohol was involved – and they went their separate ways shortly afterwards.

It shouldn’t take deprogramming to convince assertive women that doling out physical admonishment is not the way to challenge a man’s behaviour, but you can’t be too sure, given how enduring the notion is in pop culture. I had to explain it to my daughter during an episode of Doctor Who, where River slaps the Doctor for something he hasn’t done yet (long story). I winced nearly as spectacularly as he had, and said, “You know it’s not acceptable to hit anyone, right? Even if he’s a boy and society screams that he’s big and strong enough to take it?”

Whether or not a particular man is ‘strong enough’ to take the physical and emotional effects of being struck is rather beside the point. It has nothing to do with comparable strengths; it is wrong to strike someone because they’ve offended your sensibilities. Whether the fellow is bigger, stronger, or an infuriating tosser doesn’t come into it. It doesn’t make a woman sexier or more heroic. We have to challenge a culture that light-heartedly tells us that slapping is more etiquette than assault.

I suppose that a woman’s slap may once have been presented as a valid counter-argument; serious rebellion in an age when women were denied choice and power, an action that, unlike spirited back-chat, could not possibly have been taken as an invitation to tame the shrew.

‘The sad truth is that a woman’s slap is more arresting’

But that argument doesn’t hold water in a contemporary context, and a proud slap certainly has nothing to do with feminism. Equality between the sexes doesn’t mean one is entitled to rain blows upon their partner’s head. The problem with portraying slapping as a reasonable response to any insult is that it’s then assumed to be a consequence of female empowerment, with girls believing they’re entitled to administer boxed ears, and boys believing that they’re unfairly denied a chance to fight back.

In that sense, there is a risk that the very real challenges posed by domestic violence, abuse and assault will be downplayed by the idea that some forms of violence are more photogenic than others. And this kind of gender-specific portrayal also feeds the ludicrous ‘Which-kind-of-domestic-violence-is-worse?’ argument between men and women convinced that it’s the opposite sex doing all the damage. Domestic violence is wrong; it’s not more wrong if it’s perpetrated against a woman, it’s not more acceptable if it’s against a man.

Not that there’s always room for such balance in the entertainment industry. The sad truth is that a woman’s slap, in a movie or book or TV show, is much more arresting and succinct than a long discussion about the participants’ emotional needs.

And let’s face it, it would seriously affect the aesthetics of the piece to add a ticker tape or footnote to every ‘passionate’ scene warning us that neither Edward Cullen’s sulks or Scarlett O’Hara’s fits would be quite so alluring in real life.

Read previous Lisa McInerney columns>

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Lisa McInerney

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