Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. In the same week that model Gigi Hadid was accused of “unladylike” behaviour for defending herself from attack by an unknown man, Stylist.co.uk’s deputy editor, Kayleigh Dray, says it's time to challenge the language used to describe violence against women.
Feminist Kayleigh Dray says:
On 22 September, a young woman was publicly assaulted in the street by a stranger.
After being grabbed and held against her will, the 21-year-old victim elbowed her unseen attacker in the face, causing him to drop her, and allow her to go free.
It was an act of self-defence, committed in the interest of her own safety – but the world’s media decided to report things in a very different way:
“Un-model like behaviour: Gigi Hadid aggressively lashes out and ELBOWS fan in the FACE…”
"Gigi Hadid LASHES OUT at man who tries to pick her up as she leaves Milan"
"Gigi Hadid loses her cool and ELBOWS prankster on streets of Milan"
For these tabloids, the pertinent information wasn’t that model Gigi Hadid had been grabbed without her consent, that her personal space had been violated, or that her attacker had ignored several pleas to “leave her alone”.
No; instead, the press criticised Hadid for her “unladylike” reaction – and, in doing so, smoothly shifted the blame onto the victim.
According to the nausea-inducing narrative set out in this coverage, Hadid had failed to behave in a manner that is “appropriate for or typical of a well-bred, decorous woman or girl.”
She had not been ‘genteel’, ‘polished’, ‘refined’, ‘decorous’ and ‘seemly’ – all of which are synonyms for ladylike, and which sound far more at home in a Jane Austen novel than they do in the 21st century.
Hadid herself has since reminded critics that she isn’t a “lady” – she’s a real person, and added that “prankster” Vitalii Sediuk had absolutely no right to touch her without consent.
“I'm a HUMAN BEING — and had EVERY RIGHT to defend myself.
“How dare that idiot thinks he has the right to man-handle a complete stranger.”
and had EVERY RIGHT to defend myself. How dare that idiot thinks he has the right to man-handle a complete stranger. He ran quick tho 👊🏼😏🐱— Gigi Hadid (@GiGiHadid) September 22, 2016
But the media’s skewed interpretation of what happened to Hadid is indicative of a far larger problem.
Earlier this year, Brock Turner, a 20-year-old student from US-based Stanford University was given a prison sentence of just six months with probation after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus.
She had been unconscious, so, no, she didn’t try to fight him off – yet her “passive” response to his manhandling her was allegedly mistaken for consent.
“I was too drunk to speak English, too drunk to consent way before I was on the ground,” she wrote in a powerful victim statement. “I should have never been touched in the first place.”
The headlines that followed the case described her rapist as an “All-American swimmer”.
His victim, as she recalled in her letter, was described as an “unconscious intoxicated woman, ten syllables, and nothing more than that.”
At the end of August, five members of the same family, were found dead at a house in Co Cavan, Ireland in what police were treating as a case of murder-suicide.
It transpired that a school vice-principal, Alan Hawe, has stabbed his wife, Clodagh, to death along with his three sons - Liam, 13, Niall, 11, and six-year-old Ryan - before killing himself.
The reports focused on Hawe’s role as a “valuable member of the community”, and a “quiet and a real gentleman”. They reminded the public that he was “very committed” and the “most normal person you could meet”, and that he must have been in a very “vulnerable state of mind” at the time of the murders.
Clodagh was referred to as the “murderer’s wife”, her photo was not included in the news reports, and nothing was said about her role in the community (she was also a teacher, it’s worth pointing out).
It wasn’t long before the invisible woman became nothing more than a footnote in a story about her own death.
Reeva Steenkamp was a model, law graduate, television presenter, and women’s rights activist, dedicated to using her profile to campaign against domestic violence in South Africa.
But, when she was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, the press forgot all about what had come before those few moments. Instead, it was as if her life had begin and ended in that bathroom.
Referring to her as a “model girlfriend” - and just one of Pistorius’ many achievements - tabloids penned huge spreads about how the Paralympian had overcome his disabilities to become a world-famous athlete.
In fact, many used Steenkamp as a means of titillating readers, as they pored over anecdotes about her killer.
One newspaper even went so far as to illustrate the story with an outsized photograph of Steenkamp in a bikini, sexualising her even as her corpse lay in a Pretoria morgue.
The headline, reading like something from a horror movie, was emblazoned above the photograph of Steenkamp pulling the zip down on her bikini top: “3 shots. Screams. Silence.”
It came as no surprise when The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) in South Africa slammed the media’s sexist reporting, drawing attention to the fact that they had reported the incident “in a way that shifts attention away from the core issue of gender based violence, and seeks to focus attention on Mr Pistorius’s iconic and role model status.
“The consequence of this style of reporting is to present Ms Steenkamp’s death as an unfortunate aberration rather than part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence in South Africa.”
"During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me," the actress stated in court documents obtained by ET Online in May 2016.
"I endured excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse from Johnny, which has included angry, hostile, humiliating and threatening assaults to me whenever I questioned his authority or disagreed with him."
She submitted photographs of bruising around her cheek and eye and pictures of the alleged damage to their home to the court, and said in her statement that Depp had been “obsessing over something that wasn’t true” with “paranoid and irrational accusations about some delusional idea he was having”.
However, despite having video footage and eyewitness accounts to support her claims, she was labelled a “gold-digger”, “bitch”, and “fame-w**re” on social media – which many have suggested was largely due to the media narrative which focused on Depp’s hugely successful career as an actor.
It’s painfully obvious that the media’s apologetic language, gendered stereotypes, and entrenched sexism continues to normalise violence against women.
If they fight back, they’re psychotic unladylike bitches. If they don’t, they quickly become invisible victims in a patriarchal narrative framed around "fallen hero" men. If they speak out, they risk having their entire character picked apart.
And, even if they are unconscious, they are somehow still to blame for what someone does to them.
They were drinking, they were wearing a short skirt, they had a long string of ex-boyfriends, they had mental health issues, they were out late at night, they overreacted, they were jealous, they were unladylike, they should have said something…
It’s all bullshit.
The only person who is to blame in any instance of violence is the attacker, and to suggest otherwise is not only morally reprehensible - it suggests doing so is somehow OK, excusable.
And in a world where we still struggle to nail domestic violence convictions, this has very real implications for women at threat everywhere, every day.
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