Poster Women

I find it interesting that when there is either a domestic violence case or a cheating husband involving a public figure, we require them to become poster women. If you think back to the ill-timed release of the very private and embarrassing events between Sandra Bullock and Jesse James it's as if we are in an 18th century novel in which the heroin is punished for achieving a personal goal. The media, immediately on the heels of her receipt of the Oscar, trounced this woman's life and accomplishment by sensationalizing a cheating husband. Then, demanded she come out to the "press" about what this did to her. Everyone expected her to become a poster woman willing to stand up for all the cheated upon. Bullock privatized this period in her life and thankfully just picked up and kept going. I think it's time to understand that when someone cheats, privately or publicly we should not demand that the victim take up the torch and become a voice for a cause. Doesn't this create a scenario in which the victimization defines the woman?

I am also amazed at the flurry that surrounds Rhianna every time she releases a new video in the wake of the brutal beating by Chris Brown. The fact that we expect her to become someone other than who she has always been because somebody beat her up one night is amazing to me. Her latest video "Man Down" premiered on BET and received an immediate outcry from the PTC (Parental Television Council). The scenario is a woman who kills a man after he sexually assaults her. Evidently this wasn't acceptable material for children, as if Rhianna's videos, lyrics or costumes were ever intended for children. Despite the fact that BET refused to pull the video, the link was disabled when I clicked on it.

I finally found a link that hadn't been disabled on and except for the opening image of the man being shot in a public place, I found it to be a more subdued video than I expected after all the hype and indignant chirping of female talk show chatter.  Even the assault is a lot tamer than some of her other videos. But I suggest you see it and decide for yourself because I think we need to be open to other people's interpretations of violent acts. I think we have to understand that there are artists, writers, painters, photographers, sculptors who have a different way of expressing their point of view. And there are times when a violent act and it's repercussions are portrayed violently because that is how the artist chooses to have their say.

This is not a new story plot: I think of 1984's "The Burning Bed" (based on a true story of a woman driven to killing her husband after years of abuse); 1986's "Extremities" (where a woman holds a rapist captive) and 2002's "Enough" (where a woman fakes her death and learns self defense in the wake of an abusive husband who eventually tracks her down). Now I'm not, by any means, condoning violence in any form, especially retaliation.  I am more fascinated with what the public expects from women who have been victimized. It seems that people are more offended and enraged when a woman responds violently instead of forming a hotline and writing a NYT best seller self-help book.

But the women in these stories do not become heroes compared to their male counterparts. Clint Eastwood is cheered when he seeks revenge for the murder of his family in "The Outlaw Josie Wales" with the tag line: "He lives by the gun. He lives by his word. And he lives for revenge. He's an army of one." Or when Charles Bronson seeks revenge for his wife's murder in "Death Wish" with the tag line: "A New York City architect becomes a one-man vigilante squad after his wife is murdered by street punks." The men in these movies were cheered when they got the bad guy.

But the women were not responded to in the same way. Could this be because the retaliation was by the women the violence was perpetrated upon? Is a woman seeking revenge unsavory and unpalatable? Did these women need to wait for Clint or Charles or some other male figure to defend and avenge them? Is it really as simple as society still not able to handle a strong woman who can get up, get out and get on with it?

And what seems to happen, at least in my point of view, is that we create a scenario where these women cannot move beyond the incident because we have already decided how they should react, respond and publicize their own victimization. They become, for us, a manifestation of that incident and we suddenly expect everything they do to revolve around what happened to them.

In other words, we now see these strong, accomplished women defined by the victimization.

I also wonder if the surge in so-called reality programming has blurred our idea of privacy and dignity.  As if the publicly displayed photos and leaked intimately private details aren't enough.  We can't just sympathize or empathize with these women, we want to see the manifestation of their pain. We want to watch them crumble and become defined and ruined by the victimization. We want them to splay open all their emotional hurt and bleed out right in front of us for no other reason than our own fascination. We have become a society of spectators that can't easily separate the real news from The Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of New Jersey, New York, Atlanta and wherever else this franchise pops up and our emotional connection to violence and assault becomes clipped, shut off, suspended.

I think about strong, capable, accomplished women like Maria Schriver and worry about the message it sends when she becomes defined in the public eye by the things their husband did.

What does it tell our daughters and granddaughters about what we expect of them when we seem to define, or even worse, redefine women by the deeds of men.