In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness month we have a guest post from Rachel Griffin who you can learn more about from her Feministing Five interview. Rachel Alicia Griffin, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
I confess. I am an academic scholar who reads “trashy” magazines and by “trashy” I mean the tasty non-academic and deliciously saturated ones with the latest fashion trends, celebrity gossip, and the occasional real-life read. Sometimes my trashy treats are Cosmo or In Style but I am seduced the most by People. With the arrival of Domestic Violence Awareness month, I felt beckoned to return to a hard moment that involved me, a treadmill, and the May 24th 2010 edition of People with domestic violence victim Yeardley Love on the cover.
I had the kind of moment at the gym getting ready for my trashy treat that sparks severe frustration which eventually turns into hurt followed more often than not by a sense of hope. The type of moment when the hope tends to arrive an unpleasant amount of time after my eyes well up with tears and my heart plunges to the floor. This moment took place—on the treadmill—at my local Gold’s Gym getting my daily dose of cardio when Yeardley Love’s blue eyes seemed to reach out to me from the cover. I was startled by her smiling face since I hadn’t known that she was the cover story. Below her image in bold yellow letters I saw “COULD SHE HAVE BEEN SAVED?” followed by the subtitle that reads:
College senior Yeardley Love, 22, tried to break up with her wealthy boyfriend, George Huguely. Now he’s been charged with her murder. Was enough done to protect her?
I didn’t even make it past the cover before I felt outrage and nausea which is how I knew that I would eventually need to make my pained reaction a matter of public record. Now that enough time has passed to prevent only profanity from pouring out of my mouth, let me explain.
To begin, I want to acknowledge that my critiquing this case relies on the tragic death of Ms. Love and the pain that her family and friends will endure for the rest of their lives. Yet I feel deeply that we must talk about representations of gender violence in the media—and the fact that Ms. Love made the cover of People magazine, which prints approximately 3 million copies a week, tells me that the media coverage of this case was and continues to be pedagogical – it teaches the public and as such we must engage in critical conversation about the messages in circulation. Likewise I want us, I need us to do some thinking about what it seems that most have already forgotten: a woman died because a man chose to steal her life. How many college women are being hurt right now? How many more college women, like Yeardley Love, have to die before we remember them always rather than fleetingly for the quick moment they make the cover? (If they make any cover…)
Returning to the People, needless to say as an anti-gender violence activist, I was furious nothing short of stark raving mad—on the treadmill—at the gym. In response to the question “Could she have been saved” my mind raced, screamed really, with: “Yes, of course, she could have been saved! Women and people who care about women have had knowledge of the problem for hundreds of years. The problem is that we live in a society—in a world—that disregards the strength, beauty, and humanity of women over and over and over again on a daily basis! And the reality is that not enough people in positions of power care about the ways that our world dismisses the life and death realities of gender violence.
YES, I angrily thought to myself, she could have been saved and NO obviously not enough was done to protect her, hence George Huguely felt that he had the right to beat her and take her life so no, not enough was done! And then came the hurt and indigence…why do I educate, speak all over the country, and sit on a Board committee of our local Women’s Center to work against gender violence if People magazine asks, after a woman lost her life, if enough was done to protect her? (Don’t worry, since my stark raving mad moment at the gym, I have answered my own question. I work against gender violence as a means to engage in a labor of love in the midst of a world that isn’t so loving.)
Back to the gym – still blistering mad and against my better judgment, I opened the magazine to the story. I read the story disturbed and yet able to focus until I got to the final page which had a photograph of Ms. Love’s casket being carried into her funeral. The caption read “Farewell—at the May 8th funeral in Baltimore, lacrosse players carry Love’s casket into the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.” Her casket was carried by members of the men’s Lacrosse team – the same team that her attacker had played on.
This is when I had had enough…ENOUGH. Everything we know about gender violence, masculinity, sports teams, and the bystander mentality tells us that THEY KNEW. They knew that he was hurting her and helped keep the secret and they carried her casket. I think my biggest fear is that I imagine that they likely felt relieved to do anything that they could after she died and were not ashamed that they waited until after she died. Still on the treadmill burning off as much anger as calories I wondered to myself…were at least some of the 3 million readers of People as upset as I was with the cover and the picture???
When I got home from the gym, I sat at my dining room table unsettled and sweaty but unable to move toward the shower. With my mind moving faster than my pen, I wrote the following down on a scrap piece of paper under the heading “What do we learn?”
- Looking at the title of the article “A Deadly Romance” We learn the obvious—that a romantic relationship can in fact become deadly but we don’t learn that relationships that become deadly are not romantic. Deadly relationships are brutal, cruel, and shameful. In the article, we also learn that their relationship was “troubled” which places blame on Love for the “troubles” that eventually led to her death – rather than Huguely’s violent behavior and choice to beat her to death.
- We learn that people can die from gender violence but that no one is really accountable, administrators and coaches were described in the article as “unaware” of Huguely’s previous violent behavior and friends and faculty at the University of Virginia were described as “soul-searching” for answers. It seems that everyone in her life and his were clueless. Likewise, there is no mention of the oodles of research that positions men who hurt women as individuals socialized within a patriarchal and sexist culture rather the frightening picture of gender violence is painted as a rare and unpredictable surprise.
- We learn that female victims of gender violence are compassionately talked about and remembered more so in death than in life. For example, the picture of a vigil rightly held in Ms. Love’s honor shows more people in attendance then any Take Back the Night that I have ever been to and over 1,500 people came to her funeral—as they should have—and yet where were they before there was a need for a funeral?
- We know violence against women isn’t considered newsworthy or sensational hence reporters are not inclined to cover everyday stories. Therefore, we learn that there must be something shocking about this particular story…from a critical standpoint, we learn that violence against an educated, athletic, beautiful, White woman with access to class privilege is worthy of media coverage which upholds the stereotypical notions of which crimes should be covered in the press, whose bodies should be or should have been protected, and who should be remembered.
Over the course of this month, I will have knots in my stomach and they will continually get tighter. I will feel sad, sick, and devastated by the need for Domestic Violence Awareness Month and I will feel warmed, grateful, and hopeful amidst those who labor to draw the world’s eyes to the issue for 31 days straight. This year, I want us to do as we always do – I want us to listen, learn, and remember, but I also want us to remind ourselves as activists and new folks too of the need to constantly critique the ways that the media works against our efforts – even when victims like Yeardley Love make the cover. Thus from my perspective, the media plays an incredibly significant role in the apathy and indifference encountered by activists against gender violence. In essence, if our media depicted more accurate representations of the systemic and everyday nature of gender violence at the intersections than perhaps more people would care and most importantly more people, largely women, would have access to the information they need to survive.