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The Social Construction of Gender
The social construction of gender is central to the study of domestic violence. Ideas about gender permeate the culture in which domestic violence is staged. The identities of both victims and perpetrators are gendered. Given the hegemonic structure of gender relations, patriarchal constructions of masculinity and femininity position women and men relative to the site of such undesirable social interaction. At the risk of sounding flip, domestic violence is just that, an undesirable instance of social interaction. Therefore, just as gender organizes that social interaction one might define as normative, so does it inform that social interaction one might characterize as deviant, and in many cases criminal.
Nowhere are these constructions of gender that shape domestic violence more visible than in contemporary popular culture. Representations of domestic violence, especially the battering of women and sexual violence, abound in film, television, music, and print media. On some occasions the culture seems well aware of its own role in perpetuating domestic violence and portrays a sympathetic view of the victim; but on other occasions, and indeed, more often, the culture appears blissfully ignorant of the way in which it serves to construct gender myths and actively creates the real-life misogynist it so demonizes in many television movies. In an effort to expose some of the cultural contradictions with respect to domestic violence, particularly battering and sexual violence, this research paper will examine some aspects of the social construction of gender in contemporary popular culture.
To say that gender is socially constructed is to say that gender is distinct from the construct of sex, which is more generally construed as being rooted in biology or anatomy. However, many argue that sex may be less of a dichotomy and more of a continuum, and, as such, sex represents some socially defined criteria used to evaluate one’s anatomy. Regardless, rather than referring to an anatomical or sexual category, gender refers to the social meanings that one attaches to either sex. For example, the hermaphrodite serves notice that sex may not be a dichotomous variable. Moreover, parents of the hermaphrodite will likely teach the child what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman once a decision is made as to what the sex category of the child will be, which, of course, may be irrespective of the child’s sex.
The popular culture is a ready-made reserve of ideas that foster such definitions of gender for the parents and society at large. Just as Berger and Luckmann (1966) suggested that there were processes that constituted the social construction of reality, so is gender subject to similar mechanisms. Given the social constructionist theory as it relates to gender, one might surmise that ideas about gender, or gender myths, are given rise out of social interaction and are eventually objectified through agents such as the popular media, schools, law, and family. The individual, in turn, incorporates such myths into the self, the site at which gender moves from the realm of objective reality toward subjective reality. Of course, individual experiences are judged against this baseline of cultural ideals. In this way, gender—the illusion of difference fabricated between men and women, in some cases where no difference exists—is made real.
One does not have to ponder too long to come to the conclusion that we live in a patriarchal society wherein maleness and masculinity are valued and femaleness and femininity are devalued to some extent. Contemporary society engenders a system based on male privilege, creating a social landscape wherein men, often unaware that they enjoy such perks, are able to navigate the social world with greater ease than their female counterparts. For example, when a husband and wife inquire about a house for sale, the attention is given to the husband, despite the fact that this particular wife earns more money than her husband. The estimate he gets to get the car fixed is always a bit cheaper than the estimate she gets. The car salesman would rather focus his attention on the husband than the wife. The husband’s haircut is four times cheaper than the wife’s, despite the fact that he generally gets more hair cut off. His clothing is cheaper, and his dry cleaning is cheaper. In short, it costs her more to be a woman in this world than it costs him to be a man.
Men enjoy more deference in banks and board meetings, civic organizations and courts. Moreover, beyond the simple fact that men may enjoy these economic or status perks, there is a fundamental difference in the experience of being a man or a woman that is grounded in the social construct of gender. The social world comprises gendered spaces, the locker room versus the hair salon. Even the home comprises such gendered spaces, the powder room versus the basement. Such socially defined spaces may well bear influence on the social interaction that takes place; and for the most part it has been ‘‘a man’s world,’’ as the saying goes, that is, despite pockets of feminine spaces, male spaces predominate in general. This fact rings true in the following anecdote. One night a man went to meet his wife as she got out of a graduate class she was taking at a mid-sized public university. She was unaware that her husband was meeting her; he had been in his office grading papers and thought he would catch her as she came upon her car in the parking lot. Parked beside her car he watched her as she left the building. As she came out of the building, he noticed that she reached into her purse, pulled out a cell phone, and appeared to have a conversation with someone. As she neared her car, she saw her husband and put her cell phone away. Her husband promptly asked her how she was and to whom she had been speaking. She quickly replied that she had not been talking to anyone—if she appeared to be involved in conversation as she walked to her car late at night, it was because she felt it made her less vulnerable to being attacked. The man, surprised, replied, ‘‘I don’t know what that is like. That’s not part of my experience.’’ The woman perceived a threat not just this night but, indeed, every night, in a social space that her husband thought of in the most benign terms. In this way, the culture organizes the subjective experiences of men and women differently.
The Importance of Thinking Critically about Popular Culture
Boys and girls look to the popular culture for cues as to the scripts available to them to act out masculine and feminine identities. It is in the context of popular culture that boys learn how to see girls and girls learn how to see boys. Feminist observers of media have often written of the ‘‘male gaze,’’ the voyeuristic way in which men learn to look at women. Gender becomes a frame within which to see the individual, and so one makes judgments as to the degree of masculinity or femininity a young boy may exude, just as one makes judgments as to the degree of masculinity or femininity a young girl may exude. Given the threat of being ostracized by one’s peers, these young folks by and large amble on toward conformity to these socially defined scripts.
So, by the time a young girl reaches adolescence, she has already learned by careful observation of the popular culture that she is going to be valued for something other than what her male counterpart will be valued for, namely, her body. It is no surprise, then, that young girls become preoccupied with their bodies to a far greater extent than do young boys. Even at a young and innocent age, both young boys and young girls are cognizant of the sexualization of women that permeates the culture.
Given that media and the larger popular culture serve as agents of secondary socialization with regard to gender, it is imperative to take a critical view of said media and culture to better understand the ways in which gender is socially constructed. According to Denzin (1993), ‘‘Gender and sexuality arise out of the complex interactions that connect the texts, meanings, and experiences that circulate in everyday life, with the things the members of our culture tell one another about being men and women. Stories in the daily newspaper, in social science articles, comic books, daytime TV soap operas, nighttime family comedies, and melodramas, and in large box-office-drawing films like When Harry Met Sally, Sex, Lies and Videotape, Blue Velvet, Driving Miss Daisy, Working Girl, Biloxi Blues, and Everybody’s All-American reproduce the gender stratification order’’ (p. 202). Denzin suggests that all cultural products serve as texts, be they popular, as in the case of daytime soap operas, or more obscure, as in the case of scholarly papers. Endorsing a poststructural view, Denzin is making the case that all of these texts are read by audiences, and meaning is generated as readers interact with these and other cultural texts. For Denzin and others taking this view, no one gender text is more authoritative or true than another. All of these texts provide different ways of knowing about gender relations: the feminist theorist writing about the sexual division of labor in the family, the beer commercial that features two scantily clad actresses engaged in a sexually charged ‘‘cat fight’’ over whether or not the beer ‘‘tastes great’’ or is rather ‘‘less filling,’’ and the story of origins recounted in the book of Genesis all offer some account of the partial reality of a gendered world, while none of them holds any direct line to some objective truth about gender.
Moreover, it stands to reason that those accounts that are offered in the popular culture (such as the beer commercial noted above and other similar popular culture texts) are more accessible to the general public than the scholarly paper written by a feminist scholar (who herself is sometimes demonized in the popular culture as a ‘‘feminazi’’). Further, those accounts that are made more accessible via the vehicle of popular media have a greater probability of informing the individual’s conceptualization of gender, especially as society becomes more saturated with media and these secondary agents of socialization take on more salience as the influence of the nuclear family’s primary socialization wanes.
One of the symptoms of a patriarchal society may be the variance with respect to the representation of women and men in popular culture. Despite the trend toward egalitarian marriages and the increasing presence and visibility of female filmmakers, record producers, and television writers who have the ability to control their own images, the family and the representation of it still tend more toward the patriarchal. True, the United States may be exceptionally more liberated with respect to gender relations than, for example, Saudi Arabia, yet American culture, in large part, has been a bastion of androcentric stories and ways of knowing. Even the subtle gender hegemony institutionalized in the English language—‘‘she,’’ ‘‘woman,’’ ‘‘female,’’ all derivative of male pronouns—is reflected in the casting of male and female characters throughout the entire repertoire of popular culture devices.
When examining interpersonal violence, it is clear that victims are often subject to some form of dehumanization, which renders them an easy mark. The sexualization and continued objectification of women in popular culture may serve as an invitation to dehumanize real subjects in the realm of everyday life. If male consumers of culture are taught to see women as compilations of body parts, as in the case of pornography, then ultimately they may fail to see them as sentient human beings. If the culture continues to feature women as props for heterosexual male fantasies, then inevitably some men who are not moved to think critically about the cultural images they are fed may come to blur the distinction between such fiction and reality. In some cases such a reading of these cultural texts may end tragically, as in the following case:
On July 17, 1981, David Herberg forced a 14-year-old girl into his car, tied her hands with his belt and pushed her to the floor. With his knife, he cut her clothes off, then inserted the knife into her vagina, cutting her. After driving a short distance, he forced the girl to remove his clothing, stick a safety pin in the nipple of her own breast, and ask him to hit her. He then orally and anally raped the girl. He made her burn her own flesh with a cigarette, defecated and urinated in her face, and compelled her to eat the excrement and to drink her own urine from a cup. He strangled her to the point of unconsciousness, cut her body several times, then returned her to the place where he had abducted her. In reviewing Herberg’s criminal appeal, the Supreme Court of Minnesota noted that when Herberg committed these acts, he was ‘‘giving life to some stories he had read in various pornographic books.’’ (Pacillo 1998: 139)
Though the preceding case would not be termed ‘‘domestic violence’’ proper, it does illustrate the extent to which women, no matter their station, may be vulnerable to individual men who are so influenced by misogynistic popular culture. Moreover, it lends support to the notion that deviance, and indeed criminal behavior, is not only learned in the context of direct interaction with others, but is fed by an ample supply of cultural references. In an age of media saturation, would-be abusers, rapists, and murderers have virtual handbooks to draw upon in the popular media.
The Representation of Domestic Violence in Popular Film
When examining the relationship between popular culture and domestic violence, there are at least two distinct angles to consider. One concern, as mentioned previously, is the extent to which the consumption of popular culture informs men’s gender socialization in general, and the ways in which they see women in particular. To what extent has some level of domestic violence been normalized through the cultural content embedded in music, film, video games, comic books, commercials, and fiction? Does the hypersexualization of women so common in media make women more vulnerable to sexual assault in the home? Does the unquestioned indoctrination of conservative religious dogma result in women being viewed as men’s property within their own homes?
The other concern has to do with the representation of domestic violence as a theme in a variety of cultural texts. When considering the representation of domestic violence in film, there are, of course, those productions that seemingly attempt to raise the profile of domestic violence, as it is problematic in the family as well as in the larger society. These films serve to expose a chronic societal problem that has often remained cloaked in the clandestine cover of family privacy. Perhaps no film made as much of an impact in this regard as The Burning Bed (1984), directed by Robert Greenwald and starring Farrah Fawcett. The film dramatizes the true story of a Michigan housewife, Francine Hughes, who was repeatedly battered by an abusive husband and, with nowhere else to turn, decided ultimately to kill her husband, dousing him with gasoline and burning down the house. The film highlights the failure of ‘‘the system’’ to protect women in these situations and raises questions as to what extent women are legally able to defend themselves with the use of force of their own volition. Hughes was prosecuted for her husband’s death and subsequently acquitted.
Other films such as Eye of God (1997) show how domestic violence may be rationalized in the minds of perpetrators. In this film, a small-town Oklahoma diner waitress falls for a born-again convicted felon who, once out of prison, uses religious ideology to rationalize the subordination of his lover as well as the abuse that fells her.
The film What’s Love Got to Do with It? (1993) offers a disturbing portrayal of the real-life breakdown of the marriage of soul music’s most talented couple, Ike and Tina Turner. While the pair provided the counterculture generation with stellar grooves to dance to, with the likes of ‘‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo,’’ from the ironically titled Workin’ Together (1971), they were engaged in a tumultuous and often violent marriage. The violence wrought upon Tina Turner’s character in the movie seems to be a by-product of Ike Turner’s character’s sense of a loss of control when faced with the prospect that his wife is emerging as a budding star well beyond his own fame. The violence appears to escalate the more disengaged Tina’s character becomes from Ike’s character.
The threat of violence is often used as a means of social control. One might infer that not only does Ike’s character perceive that he is losing control of his wife’s artistic talents and that her star is beginning to outshine his own, but he may well perceive, in addition, that he is losing control of her sexual being. In a capitalist economic structure wherein one is encouraged to commodify everything within one’s grasp, it is no surprise that sex is subject to this process of commodification and that therefore there are those who may well come to view their partners’ sexuality as their own property. Note the shift in the conceptualization of the socially constructed sentiment of jealousy, once a sign of flattery, a genuine show of one’s love and admiration, now a fatal flaw in the relationship, a symptom that one claims ownership of another.
Many writers assert that violence is ‘‘often the outcome of an inability to control other people’s sexual behavior, that is, other people’s management of themselves as engendered individuals. This explains not only violence between men and women, but also mother-daughter, sister-in-laws [sic], and men themselves. In all such situations what is crucial is the way in which the behavior of others threatens the self-representations and social evaluations of oneself’’ (Moore 1994: 15). The irony, of course, in the case of Ike and Tina Turner is that it was Ike who was repeatedly unfaithful and not Tina. Fantasies of identity are often intertwined with those of power, which in turn inform the notion that violence is often the result of imagined rather than real threats (Moore 1994).
It is clear that the evolution of the representation of domestic violence in popular film has moved from the once-classic Hollywood position wherein it was dealt with so casually that it seemed not particularly problematic, or worse yet, that such violence was actually warranted, to a more self-aware and gender-sensitive position that such violence is depicted to raise consciousness about its ill effects for individuals and society at large. ‘‘A case in point is the representation of abuse in popular culture, specifically popular visual media. No longer relegated to daytime talk television and self-proclaimed women’s channels like Lifetime and Oxygen, or social documentaries shown primarily on public broadcasting channels, or in art cinemas, the topic of abuse has been embraced by primetime television and the Hollywood movie industry. In 2002, for instance, domestic violence was featured on multiple episodes of the perennially popular television dramas ER and NYPD Blue and the much-lauded HBO series Six Feet Under and The Sopranos’’ (Shoos 2003: 60).
However, despite this new cinematic awareness of domestic violence as a theme in film, the social architecture of Hollywood is not often well suited for the treatment of such a complex issue. As Shoos (2003) goes on to state:
The list [of shows and films] suggests that representations of domestic violence, like women directors and producers, seem to have finally broken through the celluloid ceiling. Yet, as I propose . . . despite their increased number and accessibility, there are nonetheless modes of invisibility at work in many of these representations. These modes include the tacit denial of the many complexities and contradictions of abuse, to which there are no easy Hollywood solutions; in the continued if continually disavowed construction of abused women and abusive men as the Other; and, most significantly, in the linking of this Otherness to particular categories of race and class. (Shoos 2003: 60)
Without doubt, the most problematic genre of popular entertainment with respect to the representation of domestic violence is pornography. More so than any other genre, pornography serves to objectify and hypersexualize women to the extent that the subjects are so divested of any emotional or human content that they exist solely in the realm of some heterosexual male fantasy. The subject woman is reduced to a mere prop in the consummation of heterosexual male pleasure. A fair amount of so-called hard-core pornography does indeed commingle sex and violence such that they become part of the same hyperreal simulation.
Oddly enough there has been a debate within the often fractious world of feminist scholarship with respect to the effect that pornography may have on gender, as well as sexual relations. ‘‘Some liberal feminist scholars argue, for instance, that pornography advances women’s rights by sexually liberating women. On the other hand, anti-pornography feminist legal scholars argue, for instance, that pornography frequently acts as an instruction manual for perpetuating real-life sexual violence against women’’ (Pacillo 1998: 139–140).
While liberal feminists of the school that Pacillo refers to may reason that female porn stars, much like their fellow sex trade workers, are able to turn the tables on their oppressors and are empowering themselves at the expense of male sexual weakness, the truth of the matter is that such pornographic content makes horrifically problematic the gender socialization of adolescent boys and young adult men who have even greater access to such images in the Internet age. Even much of the so-called softcore pornography features images that allude to the notion of rape as something erotic. The great harm in such visual content is not the sexual explicitness of the imagery, but rather the attitudes it encourages young boys and men to adopt with respect to women, relationships, sexual abuse, and assault.
Pornography has frequently been cited as at least an indirect factor in a number of high profile rapes, sexual assaults, and murders, the most infamous being the case of serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy. It is alarming to think of the number of young boys and even adult men that are first exposed to sexual content through pornography. As mentioned previously, there is great cause for alarm in the volume of young boys whose gender socialization process is informed by such disturbing content. Most problematic is that they may well come to see women through the distorted and misogynistic lenses of these hyperreal and hypersexual scenarios. Pornography, of course, offers the male viewer the illusion that he controls the sexual situation and outcomes, as these images are solely for his consumption and thus he may do with them whatever he pleases. These issues of control and power may figure into his real experiences once he moves beyond the virtual realm of sex. Will he have as much control as he exercised with the image in the magazine or the remote control? Will his lack of control of the sexual situation breed a sense of frustration and turn to violence? Surely this will not happen in every case, but, evidently, it happens often enough to cause concern.
Representation in Other Forms of Popular Culture
Other forms of popular culture such as popular music and video games are replete with allusions to domestic violence. Some of the same critiques of film in general, and pornography in particular, may be offered with respect to the treatment and representation of women in popular video games such as Grand Theft Auto. Even in the hugely successful Madden football video game, women appear only as grossly well-endowed cheerleaders who are there solely to shake and shimmy in the event of a touchdown—once again, serving as mere props for heterosexual male fantasy, only this time in the context of simulated professional sports.
The world of popular music is a bit more dynamic and diverse in its representation of women in general, as well as domestic violence as a theme. The synthesis of music and film in the production of music videos, which came to prominence with the creation of MTV in the early 1980s, fundamentally changed the way in which music was to be marketed and consumed. In the largely androcentric music industry, the representation of women in music videos as sexual objects to be used, dominated, and ultimately disposed of was originally a common feature of heavy metal videos and has become increasingly more and more a theme in rap videos. Once again, women most often appear in such music videos as sexual props that color the simulated world of the pop star.
As rap music moved from the margins of society to become one of the most dominant genres of music, the lyrical content changed as the demographic buying the music changed. Hip-hop, the cultural framework from which rap music emerges, grew out of a 1970s urban black sensibility. The music of early rappers like Chuck D, of Public Enemy fame, and KRS One was decidedly Afrocentric and socially conscious. However, as rap evolved and was commercialized and ultimately co-opted by the dominant culture, the content changed. Songs that promoted raising the consciousness of blacks, along with other Afrocentric themes, gave way to songs that celebrated the ‘‘thug life,’’ raps that were fueled by misogyny and violence. In general, rap began to conform to the dominant culture’s popular imagination of what urban black life must be like, and gangsta rap became the dominant subgenre in hip-hop. Black rappers like Ice Cube and Easy E, from the seminal Compton, California–based rap group N.W.A., along with sexually explicit rappers 2Live Crew and Too Short, set the standard for gangsta rappers to come, by degrading and dehumanizing women at every turn. One of the most successful rappers at the start of the twenty-first century is Eminem, a white hip-hop artist who makes claim to authenticity by virtue of his urban Detroit upbringing. Eminem has made a career out of incredibly popular songs that project fantasies of killing and raping the mother of his child as well as his own mother. In his song ‘‘Kim’’ (2000), the rapper warns the mother of his child, ‘‘Don’t make me wake the baby / She don’t need to see what I’m about to do.’’
However, it should also be noted that all of rap does not endorse such a view. Rappers affiliated with what some writers have called bohemian rap (e.g., The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Star) have put forth more supportive and sympathetic messages with respect to women. Perhaps the contradictions regarding domestic violence and hiphop culture are best reflected in the well-known late gangsta rapper Tupac’s anthem of support for ‘‘his sisters,’’ ‘‘Keep Ya Head Up’’ (1993). The late rapper offers, ‘‘I know they like to beat ya down a lot / When you come around the block brothas clown a lot / But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never give up / Forgive but don’t forget, girl keep ya head up.’’
Of course the theme of domestic violence is not specific to rap or heavy metal. Country music and bluegrass are filled with murder ballads like the standard ‘‘Knoxville Girl’’ and the Stanley Brothers’ rendition of ‘‘Little Glass of Wine.’’ On the Louvin Brothers’ 1956 version of ‘‘Knoxville Girl,’’ Ira Louvin laments, ‘‘I’m here to waste my life away / Down in this dirty old jail / Because I murdered that Knoxville girl / The girl I loved so well.’’ Lou Reed, of the seminal late 1960s rock band The Velvet Underground, tells the listener, ‘‘You better hit her’’ in the group’s classic ‘‘There She Goes Again.’’ Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman draws a sympathetic portrait of a victim and echoes the sentiment from The Burning Bed in her ballad ‘‘Behind The Wall’’ (1988): ‘‘Last night I heard the screaming / Loud voices behind the wall / Another sleepless night for me / It wouldn’t do no good to call / The police always come late, if they come at all.’’ Clearly, examples abound in multifarious genres. Finally, one is starkly reminded that in the mind of the batterer or rapist, it is as Belle and Sebastian sing in their 1999 tune ‘‘We Rule the School,’’ wherein the singer advises the young female listener, ‘‘You know the world was made for men.’’
Clearly there are many contradictions that characterize American popular culture when it comes to domestic violence. The Lifetime TV movie that dramatizes the true story of the poor woman who eventually succumbs to the regular beatings by her husband is only a channel click away from the music video that features a whole harem of ‘‘hootchie mamas’’ who want nothing more than to be debased by ‘‘the mack on the mike.’’ The ad in the newspaper for the Take Back the Night Rally at the local university is cut and pasted right next to the article recounting the case wherein the former community college president received two years in prison for murdering his wife with a two-by-four because she suffered from depression and was too troublesome to deal with. The radio spot announcing the wet T-shirt contest at the local strip club is cut and pasted right next to the public service announcement encouraging listeners to ‘‘end domestic violence now.’’ In the end, these conduits of popular culture are just vehicles for all of these voices, some socially responsible, some hopelessly dangerous. Few films or songs are able to deal with the complexities and contradictions that shape the lived experience of domestic violence, and so the best popular culture can offer is some partial truth and some partial reality, always removed from any true and objective representation.
- Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966.
- Denzin, Norm. ‘‘Sexuality and Gender: An Interactionist/ Poststructural Reading.’’ In Theory on Gender/Feminism on Theory, edited by Paula England. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993, pp. 199–221.
- Marshment, Margaret. ‘‘The Picture Is Political: Representation of Women in Contemporary Popular Culture.’’ In Introducing Women’s Studies, edited by Victoria Robinson and Diane Richardson. New York: NYU Press, 1997, pp. 125–151.
- Moore, Henrietta. ‘‘The Problem of Explaining Violence in the Social Sciences.’’ In Sex and Violence: Issues in Representation and Experience, edited by Penelope Harvey and Peter Gow. New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. 138–155.
- Pacillo, Edith L. ‘‘Media Liability for Personal Injury Caused by Pornography.’’ In Violence Against Women: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Stanley G. French, Wanda Teays, and Laura M. Purdy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998, pp. 139–151.
- Shoos, Diane. ‘‘Representing Domestic Violence: Ambivalence and Difference in ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It,’ ’’ NWSA Journal 15, no. 2 (2003): 57–75.
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