Monday, October 8, 2012

Disgusting Article on Christina Reber's Domestic Violence

(See also the video version: Part 1 and Part 2)

There was an article published in the American news site The Daily Caller, about a man who was the victim of domestic violence when his ex-girlfriend Christina Reber severely injured his testicular region. Despite the seriousness of the incident, the article, titled “Angry ex-girlfriend goes ballistic, rips off man’s scrotum” and written by female author Taylor Bigler, is disturbingly light in tone and attempts to use the incident as a point of humor. The following is my analysis of it from a feminist perspective, as was requested by a user.

The very first words are “Talk about a ball-buster” in a sentence that is its own paragraph as if this were the start of a description of something very silly. There is then a description of the attack with quotes from the victim and police report.  Bigler obviously found this very funny, because following this description is a sentence beginning with “As if this story isn’t already good enough”. You know, I fail to see anything good in a savage attack. What she then adds is that the hospital he was rushed to has “ball” in the title. The wrap-up then has the line “breaking his balls”, which is a repetition of the first joke, immediately preceding a note that the victim is afraid there may be permanent damage. Come to think of it, the title’s word “ballistic” is probably a “ball” pun as well.

This article is disgraceful. No one should be that disrespectful to a victim of assault, but it is especially bad that it is a person in a position of some authority to inform and to influence. Bigler should know better.

What stands out the most about this article is the gender-based double standard where a story about a man suffering an attack on his sexual organs by a woman is considered inherently amusing, whereas this would presumably be treated with respect were it describing a woman attacked by a man. I attribute this to a few things. First is that this is an extension of the idea that men are inherently strong and women are inherently weak, second that this is an example of a misunderstanding of feminism that perpetuates the idea that there is some kind of war between men and women in which each side is empowered by hurting the other side, and third is the way testicles are treated in American culture. I’ll give a brief history of feminism to explain both context and the way sexist ideas have persisted.

On average, men are physically stronger than women. This gives an association between masculinity and strength, as well as femininity and weakness as a contrast. The Chinese character for “man” is a combination of “field” and “strength”, as men would be the ones strong enough to work the fields. As most successful civilizations are patriarchal in basis, the strength of masculinity is historically associated with a duty to rule the weaker women.

This is illustrated well in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, when the tamed Katharina delivers the following misogynistic message to a group of unruly women:

    Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
    Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
    And for thy maintenance commits his body
    To painful labour both by sea and land,
    To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
    Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
    And craves no other tribute at thy hands
    But love, fair looks and true obedience;
    Too little payment for so great a debt.

It is useful to understand what happened in the past, as this provides context for modern feminism. In the 1800s, first-wave feminists started pushing for women to be given rights such as suffrage, which would not be won until the 1900s. In examining the political rhetoric used by men opposed to granting women the vote, there are two main themes: One is the idea that it is the duty of men to rule and the privilege of women to not bear this burden, echoing the message of Taming of the Shrew, and the other is that women’s inherent inferiority would doom society.

This British anti-suffragist call-to-action describes how, should women gain political power, the United Kingdom would become a laughing stock of the world for having a “petticoat government” that would destroy the country. It incorporates male social behavior in which femininity is looked down upon, where, among all of the patriarchal countries, Britain would appear weak for having femininity among its ruling class, embarrassing British men to all the other countries’ men. It’s the idea of the weakness of femininity being unwanted among men because it devalues them and makes them appear weak, an aspect of male social behavior still in effect today. Though some MRAs want to pretend this male social dynamic never had anything to do with gender, we can see how it was used in a gendered way in this historical context.

So, in the second wave of the 1960s and ‘70s, feminism finally hit its stride. Feminists were getting things done, and women realized it was cool to be feminist. Feminism, however, is a very misunderstood movement, even to women who jumped on the bandwagon. More on that in a moment. Women accomplished so much during this time period that many think that feminism accomplished its goals and is unneeded. There is, however, a lot of cultural crap that was never fixed, which is one of the focuses of modern third-wave feminism. Even though women accomplished a lot, there are still these patriarchal mindsets that cause problems.

This is seen in the same male social dynamic that views femininity as inherently weak and undesirable. Men are encouraged to be macho and are disrespected if they appear feminine with slurs like “sissy.” In this Miller Lite beer commercial, this is used to associate the desired masculinity with the attitude that would lead a man to drink Miller Lite, and viewers are led to laugh at the misguided man’s femininity. This deeply-ingrained misogynistic mindset is also present in mainstream feminist media, where women who act in a way considered traditionally masculine are seen as empowered, while the traditionally feminine women are seen as weak and in an undesirable state in the same way as among males.

Male feminist Joss Whedon is very good at making positive and empowering depictions of women, and he notably uses a predominance of traditionally feminine female characters that break gender roles. He also usually depicts men well, but he has a problem with depictions of men who are not traditionally masculine. Men who have feminine characteristics are seen as weak and used for humor. Though Joss gives everything a feminist spin, he reproduces the same problematic content as in the macho beer commercial. Though I think his Dollhouse is much more feminist than people give it credit for, I have criticized it for flaws such as making it a humorous moment when Victor acts like a girl after a body swap and it not taking Claire’s sexual assault of Topher as seriously as the sexual assaults perpetrated by men to women. The latter is particularly relevant to this discussion.

There’s this idea that because men are strong and women are weak that the roles of victimizer and victim will go respectfully to men and women whenever that dynamic shows up. Men are taught that they have the power to victimize women and should hold back, that a good man never hits a woman. This is old sexism that denies women the respect given men as credible threats, and it annoyed me to hear it referenced on Dollhouse by a male villain glad to have been imprinted in a female body so that he could fight a female protagonist. In truth, men and women are equal and should each be respected for having potential to be strong or weak, and victims or threats. The idea that women are helpless and men the figures of power harkens back to Shakespeare’s gender dynamics, and we really should be past it by now.

As I mentioned earlier, feminism became cool to some degree and women jumped on the bandwagon without understanding it. Women accepted that empowering women was good, but unfortunately bought into the idea of the battle of the sexes, the idea that men and women are actually at war with each other. These laywomen used feminism to promote the idea of female superiority and that the worthy goal of benefitting women was inherently connected to taking power away from men. I’m not talking about either MRAs or fringe feminist extremists, but the women on the sidelines who don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re the wives who tease their husbands about how they as men naturally have no sense of direction, and they’re the girls who chant that they’re made of sugar and spice and everything nice while boys are snips of snails and puppy dog tails.

In Boy Meets Word, strawman liberal girl Topanga states that in her fantasy world of the future, women have achieved world peace by enslaving men and turning them into breeding stock. The audience cheers for several seconds, which was something likely to have been directed by the show creators. They wanted that bit of misandry to be an empowering joke to the female viewers.

Both of these elements I believe to be relevant in analysis of Bigler’s article. I’d like to talk about a third one, though. This attack was weird, or at least seen as weird by Bigler. When things are weird, we tend to laugh at them, even if the weird thing was horrible in some way. Mel Brooks said that tragedy is when he cuts his finger and comedy is when he sees someone fall into an open sewer and die. We laugh at weird misfortune as a type of shadenfreud.

Now, onto why the attack is weird. In America, we treat sexuality in a very odd way. We try to deny its existence in our lives and we shout it from the rooftops as reactance to the former, and we try to shame those who talk about it brazenly. It’s based in the conflict between traditional values and progressive social revolution.

Testicles have particular value in the culture as a symbol of both masculine strength and weakness. In much the same way as the penis, testicles are seen as a symbol of masculinity. They produce the sperm that allow men to reproduce, which is the most fundamental purpose of any animal, and even humans are in bondage to the selfish gene. As the culture is still patriarchal, the testicles are honored as symbols of strength with phrases like “you’ve got some balls” to compliment a man’s strength or even that of a woman, who can be seen as rising up to a masculine level. In the Lifetime film Deadly Sibling Rivalry, a woman compliments another woman with the phrase “you’ve got some ovaries”, but this is played for humor. Only the testicles are seen as the symbol of strength, while it’s seen as weird to incorporate the inappropriate femininity into that phrase. The symbol of strength is only there through the testicles’ association to masculinity, though, as the testicles themselves are physically weak.

As any damage to the testicles could keep the animal from reproducing and thus not having any descendants to carry on its genes, animals like humans evolved to have very sensitive testicles. Testicles are recognized as a great weakness of men and are protected. Codes of honor entail never hitting below the belt, for instance. Hitting below the belt is then a common depiction in shadenfreud slapstick comedy, typically without malice.

So, then we come to Bigler’s article. The attacker Christina Reber is disrespected as she is not treated as a real person acting maliciously and is treated more like a dog, where the person getting bit would be seen as the only actor involved. This has to do with her feminine status being seen as incompatible with the role of victimizer, especially to a man. This contributes to the disrespect of the victim, who is seen as less than a real man for being attacked by a woman, who should be weak, and he is effectively seen as pushed beneath the strength level of women. That the testicles are the point of attack is seen as inherently humorous because it was associated with his strength as a man, and the woman hurting them proves how much he’s not a real man. The fact that testicles are even discussed also contributes juvenile humor to the situation because we’re talking about something sexual when we shouldn’t, tee-hee. As Bigler is a woman, I imagine she considers the incident something to laugh about openly because it fits with the same kind of humor she thinks all women find fun, like the Boy Meets World joke about men being turned into breeding stock.

Well, there’s my best speculation as to what’s going on.

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