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Joker through the Lens of Violence against Women

Joker through the lens of Violence against women

Joker through the Lens of Violence against Women

H. Bradford

10/26/19


October is Domestic Violence Awareness month.  This month also saw the release of Joker, a film which had a controversial release due to fears that it would incite violence.  The film is the story of how Arthur Fleck, a solitary, impoverished man with mental illness, becomes the infamous Batman villain.  Joker centers on the experiences of the titular character, whose perceptions and narrative are unreliable.  The movie focuses on the perspective of a violent male and one that the sidelines experiences of the women around him.  The violence against several female characters in the film as well as Arthur’s own experience of domestic violence warrants attention because the film, like the character, is politically neutral on this violence.  Even the concerns that the film would inspire violence were gender neutral, as the type of violence feared was mass shootings rather than the everyday violence that occurs in households and in relationships.  There was no mass panic that a film would inspire this sort of violence, as it is beyond the cognitive horizon of most people to care.  Of course, mass shootings are themselves often carried out by men with a history of domestic violence and misogynistic attitudes.  In this way, the film offers some lessons about the ways in which violence against women continues to be normal, invisible, and misunderstood, as well as its place in capitalist patriarchy.


Domestic violence includes such things as physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and financial abuse, along with stalking and coercion.  The word generally applies to violence which occurs between intimate partners, but can also include violence in familial relationships, such as against children, parents, siblings, and elderly family members.  While the factors that cause this violence are complicated, a popular feminist theory is Power-Control theory, which originated with the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program in Duluth, Minnesota during the 1980s.  Through discussions with survivors of domestic violence, the Power and Control Wheel was developed based on patterns and themes in their experiences.  This is a widely used tool for identifying the ways that power and control are exerted by abusers.  Power-Control Theory posits that abuse is the outcome of the abuser’s desire to maintain power and control in their relationship(s).  While this began by examining the dynamics between individuals, it has been expanded to examine the ways that male power and control are maintained within patriarchy as a whole (Evolution of Theories of Violence, 2015).  Within patriarchy, men have had the lion’s share of power and control in society.  Control over women is expected and violence enforces their subservience.  Women and children are particularly vulnerable to violence because of their inequality in economic, political, and social status.  From a socialist perspective, violence against women can be understood as a means to enforce patriarchy, which historically hinged on the transmission of property from father to son and the fact that women themselves have been treated as property.  Violence enforces gender roles and a gendered division of labor.  Within capitalism, the lesser status of women and their economic dependence upon men, helps to extract their unpaid labor.  As such, prior to the efforts of the feminist movement, domestic violence was viewed as private problem within individual families rather than a social problem symptomatic of women’s place within patriarchy.  Today, one in three women have experienced some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime and 95% of the victims of domestic violence are women.


The film is set in Gotham, a fictional city torn apart by class tensions, an infestation of rats, cuts to social programs, and crime.  It is against this backdrop that Arthur Fleck, a white male in his 30s, tries to eke out a living for himself and his mother, who exist on the edge of the working class.  Along the way, Arthur becomes increasingly violent and through violence, becomes self-actualized as the vengeful, confident, smiling, and dancing Joker.  Arthur Fleck is immediately depicted as having little power and control in his life.  Early in the film, he is attacked by youth while working as a clown.  His employment itself lacks control as is based on the tenuous availability of clowning gigs and as his coworkers and employer are unaccepting of him.  He lives with his mother, Penny, who is the dominant figure in his socially isolated life, and dependent upon him for income and care.  To make matters worse, the medications that Arthur uses to try to control the symptoms of his mental illness become unavailable to him after social services are cut in the city.  Rats and the amassing garbage left uncollected due to a sanitation worker strike, create an atmosphere wherein the entire city seems out of control of patriarchal capitalist power.  As a malnourished, eccentric, mentally unstable, outsider living with his mother and barely getting by, Arthur isn’t privy to much of the power and control that other white males enjoy.  After sustaining a beating, Arthur’s coworker lends him a gun, which he is at first reluctant to take, but quickly becomes the key to accessing the power he has been exiled from.


A turning point in the film is when Arthur uses his gun against a group of young, wealthy white men who attack him on the subway.  Prior to the murder, the young investors are shown talking about a woman, then go on to harass a woman who is riding alone on the subway.  When she ignores them, food is thrown at her and she is verbally accosted.  She is called a bitch when she gets up and leaves.  This is a relatable scene, as 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime (Chatterjee, 2018).  The trio of men themselves are a patriarchal trope.  They are Brock Turner, Jacob Walter Anderson, or young Brett Kavanagh.  They are the kind of guys that wear black face at Halloween parties, bullied kids in high school, rape women in college, excel at sports, and probably get called Chads by Incels.  They are smug masters of the universe.  The woman’s escape is made possible by Arthur, who has a condition which causes uncontrolled laughing.  This draws attention away from the woman, but in turn, causes him to be beaten for laughing at them and then defending himself.  He kills two of the men as they beat him, but pursues the third after he flees.


The trio of murdered men work for Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne.  Thomas Wayne represents the pinnacle of patriarchal capitalist power in the film.  He is a wealthy, robust, white, heterosexual, father who is running for mayor because only he can take control of the city.  When Wayne decries the murders of such bright, talented young men and calls the poor of the city “clowns,” his insult launches a movement of clown masked demonstrators who protest the wealth gap in the city.  Arthur becomes emboldened by the murders and the movement it sparked, but remains on his individualistic, anti-social path of violence rather than joining the movement.  This path culminates in the Joker’s live TV murder of Murray Franklin, a popular talk show host and icon of patriarchal power in the form of celebrity, self-assurance, wealth, and bullying.  Both Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin are fallen father figures to Arthur Fleck, who lose their esteem in his mind as he loses his mind and violently take control of his life.  Along the way, several female characters are casualties in his brutal metamorphosis.


The first casualty is his mother, Penny.  Arthur’s relationship with his mother has unhealthy elements.  Although she is mobile, he baths her, and although she is capable of dancing, he cuts her food for her.  They also share the same bed.  The nature of her health needs are not specified, but the depiction of their relationship is strongly suggested to be codependent.  Penny is portrayed as incapable of meeting her own needs and those of her son’s.  She is verbally and emotionally abusive, as she shoots down Arthur’s idea of becoming a comedian by telling him that he isn’t funny and shows complete indifference to him when he says he went on a date.  His experiences and needs are secondary to her obsession with Thomas Wayne, who she believes will lift them out of poverty.  When Arthur discovers that Thomas Wayne may be his father, she fears he will kill her because she kept this secret.  He eventually kills her after discovering that he is not Thomas Wayne’s son and that she spent time at Arkham Asylum because of her role in the abuse he experienced as a child.  In searching for the truth of his parentage, Arthur learns from an asylum employee that his mother’s boyfriend chained him to radiator, beat him, and starved him when he was a child.  Upon learning this, he smothers her in her hospital bed.


Throughout the film, Arthur suffers from uncontrollable laughter, which is attributed to a brain injury.  This history of abuse is used to explain where this condition originated, as well as give insight to some of his other behaviors.  In 60-75 percent of families where a woman is battered, children are also battered.  Children are 15 times more likely than the national average to be neglected and physically abused in families experiencing domestic violence.  Exposure to domestic violence can impact children in a number of ways, including increased aggression, depression, lowered independence, social withdrawal, reduced social competence (Rakovec-Felser, 2014).  All of these are characteristics that Arthur displays throughout the movie.


When confronted with her son’s abuse, Penny says she didn’t know he was hurt.  She is charged with criminal neglect and sent to Arkham Asylum.  It is not known what happened to her abuser.  Although the film is not clearly focused on this matter, Penny is a victim of domestic violence.  The narrative focuses more on her failure as a mother to protect her son from abuse, but both characters are victims.  The blaming narrative of the film implies that Penny is at fault for failure to protect her son, which begs the question, “why did she stay?”  Why did she stay if her boyfriend was abusing her son? Why did she allow it to happen?   This blaming narrative is very real.  For instance, Ingrid Archie is a real life example of a California woman who fled domestic violence, but had her children taken away and was charged with failure to protect, even though she obtained a restraining order and went to a shelter (Albaladejo, 2019).  Arlena Lindley, was sentenced to 45 years in prison after her boyfriend killed her three year old son.  A witness testified that her boyfriend had threatened to kill her if she intervened and that when she tried to escape with her son, she was dragged back inside the home.  In another case, Robert Braxton Jr. was sentenced to two years for breaking the ribs and femur of a three month old infant.  Tondalo Hall, the infant’s mother, for whom there was no evidence that she had abused the child, was sentenced to thirty years in prison for failure to protect her baby (Banner, 2015).


There are many reasons why women remain in abusive relationships, even when their children are abused.  Fictional Gotham, like the real world, has substandard housing and a lack of social services, making it likely that if she left, she would have been homeless with her son.  The setting of the film is the late 1970s or early 1980s, which was before domestic violence shelters and community responses to domestic violence were well established.  The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the victim leaves, so leaving might have further endangered them both.  Statistically, women have a 75% higher chance of being killed if they leave than if they stay (Banner, 2015).  Some women fear that their abuser will report them to social services and they will lose their children, which also causes them to stay.  Since failure to protect laws have punished women who have fled domestic violence, this is not an unfounded fear.  Abusive relationships are based on power and control, she may have felt powerless to leave or incapable of living independent of her abuser.  It is possible that she was prevented from leaving.  Whatever the case, Arthur clearly blames her for the abuse, which is not an uncommon response for children to have.  The blame took on its own fatally abusive character when he murdered her.  In the arc of the story, this was done for revenge over the abuse but also as part of his letting go of his life as someone controlled by his mother’s needs.  Rather than remain the care giving, weak, traumatized, and abused son, the murder ushers him deeper into a toxic masculinity wherein he has the power to inflict abuse.


As a final observation about Penny, the character may also have been abused by Thomas Wayne while she was employed by him.  Although there is no direct evidence of abuse, he could have certainly abused his power to silence her and as her employer, would have had immense power over her very livelihood.  Her mental health struggles and dependence upon him for her livelihood renders the relationship far from equal and consensual.  Wayne denies that they had an affair, though Penny tells her son that he made her sign paperwork to cover up the truth.  Arthur discovers his adoption certificate, which seems to support Wayne’s claim that she is delusional.  But in a flashback, Penny again claims that it was drawn up by Wayne.  Both Wayne and Alfred, the butler, insist that she is mentally ill.   While all evidence seems to indicate that this is true, Arthur later discovers a photograph with a message from Wayne on it.  Although he may not have physically abused her, he is able to exert patriarchal power over her without having to resort to violence.  Penny does not need to be beaten or killed to keep quiet, she only needs to be delegitimize.  By calling her crazy, her claims to reality are called into question.  It is an attempt to gaslight her memories and beliefs about the relationship, even though she retains the claim that they were together.  It is clear in the film that she experiences mental illness, but this could be either an outcome of abuse she experienced, a factor that made her more vulnerable to abuse, or both.  Women who experience domestic violence are three times more likely to develop serious mental illness.  Survivors of domestic violence are also three times as likely to have a history of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (Dyson, 2019).


The second victim of domestic violence is Sophie Dumond, Arthur’s neighbor and imagined love interest.  Even before he murders anyone, Arthur begins stalking Sophie and imagines that they are in a relationship.  In this imagined relationship, he has perfect control over her, as she laughs at his jokes, is never threatened by his eccentricities, supports the murders of the men on the subway, and offers comfort when his mother is hospitalized.  After the murders on the subway, he kisses her, as his sexual confidence was bolstered by violence.  The kiss never happened, along with the many other scenes.  This is revealed when he enters her apartment, begins touching her belongings, and sits on her sofa.  She is terrified that he has entered the apartment.  The outcome of this encounter is never depicted on screen, but her character is never seen or mentioned again.  It is easy to read this omission as she was murdered or sexually assaulted.  Certainly, by stalking her, entering her apartment, handling her belongings, and creating a fictional romance with her, Arthur behaves in a way that shows entitlement to her personal space, privacy, safety, and body.  Glimpses at his journal reveal disembodied and altered images of naked women and sexual scenes.  Again, this points to an unhealthy, sexual, and violent imagining of women.


Another woman in the film who is murdered by Arthur is an unnamed therapist.  At the end of the film, he is seen walking out of her office with blood on his shoes.  The fate of both Black characters is left up to the imagination, but statistically, Black women experience a higher risk of sexual assault and domestic violence.  In the United States, 20% of Black women have been raped and 40% have experienced domestic violence.  Black women are also two and a half times more likely than white women to be murdered by a man and 9 out 10 victims knew their murderer (Green, 2017).  It is also important to point out the racial dynamics of a white male perpetrator murdering at least one Black woman and perhaps murdering or sexually assaulting another.  Arthur attempts to exert control over Black women several times in the film, such as when he tries to verbally defend himself against a Black mother when he talks to her child, when he chides his Black social worker for not listening to him, through his imagined romance with Sophie, and through the murder of his therapist.  Angela Davis argued that violence by white men, especially sexual violence, was used to control Black women during slavery.  Their bodies and sexuality were the property of white men.  Sexual assault was used by the KKK as a weapon of terror against Black women. During the Civil Rights movement, white police officers raped Black activists they had arrested (Davis, 1990).  Black women are killed at higher rates than any other group of women.  Yet, Black women are seldom viewed as victims. Violence against Black women continues to be ignored and Black women blamed because they are viewed as violent, sexual, less innocent, their lives less valuable, or somehow deserving of their victimization.   When they defend themselves against violence, they find themselves punished by the criminal justice system, such as CeCe McDonald, Cyntonia Brown, and Alexis Martin (Finoh and Sankofa, 2019).


The violence inflicted upon women in the film goes without police or community response, though police response is often met with blaming, disbelief, or threats of violence and incarceration from the state itself.   Police themselves are often abusers, as 40% of police families report domestic violence, which is four times more than the general population (Police Family Violence Fact Sheet, n.d.).  Two incidents of violence against women occur off screen, whereas violence against men in the film is used to shock the viewer and drive the narrative.  As a whole, women are ancillary to the film.  They are not prominently depicted among the protestors, the violence against them goes unnoticed, several of their roles are unnamed characters, one role primarily exists in Arthur’s mind, and none of them are shown making it out of the movie alive.  Violence against women is canon, as in other iterations of the Joker, the character has raped Barbara Gordon and has an abusive relationship with Harley Quinn (Dockterman, 2019).  Gotham is a world of men and Joker is story of a beaten down male, beating down powerful men.  But, it is also a story of violence against Black women, domestic violence, narratives that blame mothers for their abuser’s actions, the intersections of mental health and victimization, and the continued normalcy of violent masculinity.


The universe of Batman is always a story about capitalism.  The hero, Bruce Wayne, is a capitalist who fights bad guys in the form of villains with mental illness.  He does this with the help of the militarized Gotham police force.  To side with the hero is to side with the ruling class and its enforcers against the dangerous elements of the lumpenproletariat.  Joker takes place before the advent of the central hero or the militarization of the police. If there is a central message of the film, it is that capitalism creates villains. If there is an argument, it is that austerity and trauma begets violence. Through the narrative of the film, Arthur Fleck’s violence can be attributed to childhood trauma, unmet mental health needs, social instability, isolation, and unchallenged misogyny.  But, the film says little about how this impacts women.  This part of the narrative is truncated. Capitalism may indeed create some villains, but it also creates its own grave diggers.  The power of workers and social movements against capitalism is depicted in the form of a sanitation strike and masked protest movement.  These mobilizations must ultimately fail for Batman to rise as the capitalist vigilante who keeps the order of capitalism and patriarchy.  As for the women in the movie, they too fade into Gotham’s eternal night. The dark city swallows their stories. In this way, art mirrors the life of many women.  If there is a feminist message to be drawn from the film, it is the need to Take Back the Night.  Rising above the erasure of capitalists, vigilantes, police, and misogynist villains means doing things that these female characters were unable to do: uniting together, being heard and seen, demanding social provisioning, fighting oppressive narratives of abuse, holding abusers accountable, and creating safety that doesn’t rely on punishing the mentally ill.


Sources:


Albaladejo, A. (2019, October 18). Child Law Penalizes Moms for Abusive Partners. Retrieved from https://capitalandmain.com/child-law-penalizes-moms-for-abusive-partners-10-16?fbclid=IwAR2MyXXcyUclO4IW_NFztLOtUSx8uK2MdjueEbd8jvhx0hIcYmPKfK4RzFk.

Banner, A. (2015, February 3). ‘Failure to Protect’ Laws Punish Victims of Domestic Violence. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/do-failure-to-protect-law_b_6237346.

Chatterjee, R. (2018, February 22). A New Survey Finds 81 Percent Of Women Have Experienced Sexual Harassment. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/21/587671849/a-new-survey-finds-eighty-percent-of-women-have-experienced-sexual-harassment.

Davis, A. Y. (1990). Women, culture & politics. Vintage.

Dockterman, E. (2019, October 8). The History of Joker Movies and Character’s Origin Story. Retrieved from https://time.com/5694280/joker-movies-history-origin-story/.

Dyson, T. (2019, June 7). Women suffering domestic abuse have triple the risk of mental illness, study says. Retrieved from https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2019/06/07/Women-suffering-domestic-abuse-have-triple-the-risk-of-mental-illness-study-says/8981559918365/.

Evolution of Theories of Violence. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.stopvaw.org/evolution_of_theories_of_violence.

Finoh, M., & Sankofa, J. (2019, August 22). The Legal System Has Failed Black Girls, Women, and Non-Binary Survivors of Violence. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/blog/racial-justice/race-and-criminal-justice/legal-system-has-failed-black-girls-women-and-non.

Green, S. (2018, August 7). Violence Against Black Women – Many Types, Far-reaching Effects. Retrieved from https://iwpr.org/violence-black-women-many-types-far-reaching-effects/.

Police Family Violence Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://womenandpolicing.com/violencefs.asp.

 

Rakovec-Felser Z. (2014). Domestic Violence and Abuse in Intimate Relationship from Public Health Perspective. Health psychology research, 2(3), 1821. doi:10.4081/hpr.2014.1821

 

Lessons and Myths About Domestic Violence From the Case of Graham Garfield

Lessons and Myths About Domestic Violence from the Case of Graham Garfield

H. Bradford

5/7/17

For the past few weeks, local activists in Superior, Wisconsin have worked together to challenge domestic violence in their community following the arrest of city councilor, Graham Garfield.  On April 4th, Graham Garfield was re-elected to represent the 6th district.  It was a very tight race wherein he won the election by a single vote.  Aside from serving as a city councilor, has served in other positions including Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin Labor Caucus, President of the Superior Federation of Labor, Vice President of the National Association of Letter Carriers-337,  and Chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission.  He was endorsed by the Superior Federation of Labor and viewed by local progressives as a labor candidate who stood up against Islamophobic statements from the previous mayor.  Only a few days after being sworn into office, he was arrested on charges related to domestic violence.


In the evening of April 20th, Superior police responded to a report of a domestic dispute involving Garfield and his fiance.  To summarize the official police report, Graham’s fiance informed the police that they had been arguing that evening.  Graham had been drinking and had become verbally abusive.  When she tried to remove him from their residence, he bit her and when she slapped him, he pretended to call 911.  She retreated to another room.  Graham followed her and grabbed a gun, which he pointed at her chest from a few feet away.   Graham was located several hours later 10 miles out of Superior at Pattison Park and arrested.  He posted bail the following day and faces three misdemeanor and one felony charge.  The felony is for recklessly endangering safety and the misdemeanors are for possession of a firearm while intoxicated, pointing a firearm at someone, and disorderly conduct.  He will appear in court for an arraignment hearing on May 26th.


Following his arrest, various activists and politicians requested his resignation.  On April 24th, Jim Payne, Superior’s newly elected mayor, called for Garfield’s resignation, arguing that because of the felony charges against him, he could spend months in court.  That would impede his ability to serve the city council.  Meanwhile, Garfield did not release any public statements regarding the incident nor regarding his resignation.  When it seemed that he would be attending the bi-monthly city council meeting on May 2nd, members of the Feminist Action Collective and Feminist Justice League simultaneously called for activists to show up at the meeting dressed in purple, as purple is symbolic of domestic violence.  Both groups mobilized their members to attend the meeting as a way of drawing attention to domestic violence, supporting the victim, and pressuring for his resignation.  In addition to this action, the Feminist Action Collective also developed an open letter asking for Garfield’s resignation.  Garfield remained silent until shortly before the city council meeting, when he released his first public statement.  In the statement, he said that he would not be resigning.

 

“In response to ongoing legal matters and the mayor’s request that I resign my position, I have decided it will be best for my district and the council that I continue to serve in my existing capacity. Just as the election process is sacred, so too is the American justice system; a system that maintains that I am entitled to a fair legal process before judgment is passed against me. It was unfortunate that the mayor sought to inappropriately pass that judgment. Regardless, I continue to support his agenda and believe in the principles on which I was elected. I would also like it noted that I am now living a sober life and have begun to attend AA meetings. I appreciate the public’s support and understanding as I continue on the path of recovery. I will have no further comment for the press at meeting time.”  -Graham Garfield, May 2nd

Image result for graham garfield

Around twenty activists attended the city council meeting wearing purple.  Because his statement was released shortly before the meeting, many activists had not yet read his statement.  He arrived late and was treated cordially by some of his peers.  The meeting itself was rather short, with time allotted for public commentary.  Several local activists spoke out during the public commentary section of the meeting.  Fellow city councilor, Brent Fennessy, who appeared wearing purple, also voiced his concern regarding the allegations and asked Garfield to resign.


After the meeting and reading over Garfield’s statement, several activists from the Feminist Justice League discussed the next steps in pressuring for Garfield’s resignation.  To this end, a petition was developed and the Feminist Justice League called upon activists to not only attend the next city council meeting but to have a picket before the meeting.  It was felt that in order to pressure him into resigning, the activism against him would have to intensify.  This justified the more public action of a picket, as well as the development of a strongly worded petition meant for the city council.  Furthermore, Garfield’s decision to remain on the council and his abhorrent statement earlier that day, inflamed activists as it did not reference domestic violence, seemingly shirked responsibility for his actions, and pinned his behaviors on alcohol.


Two local news stations drew attention to the petition and picket the the following day.  Within forty eight hours, the petition attracted over 150 signatures.  The picket event on Facebook had attracted the interest of over seventy individuals.  The media coverage of the petition coincided with coverage of Graham Garfield’s first court hearing.  The same day, a motion was made at the monthly meeting of the Superior Federation of Labor that he should be asked to resign from that body.  This motion was not seconded, but expanded the discussion of domestic violence to representatives of the labor movement.  On the evening of May 4 th, just as the movement against Garfield seemed to be gaining momentum, Garfield unexpectedly released a statement that he had changed his mind and that he was going to resign.  Various media outlets attributed his change of mind to the public pressure put upon him.  His own statement cited concern for his colleagues and the community.


“Out of concern for the well-being of the community and wishing no harm upon my colleagues, I announce that I will be stepping down. It has been one of my life’s greatest pleasures to serve the people of this city, and I hope that I can be an asset to the community again someday. I continue to support, as a citizen, a progressive agenda that will benefit all members of the community and make our city a better place to live.” -Graham Garfield, May 4th

Image result for graham garfield petition

His resignation and the activism related to it offers many valuable lessons.  For one, it shows that social movements can be effective in making change.  At the same time, it revealed some flaws with how domestic violence is discussed and understood in society.  His resignation is a small victory, but the fight is not over.  It is important that his is held accountable by the criminal justice system.  It is also important that the Superior Federation of Labor and other organizations he is involved with also hold him accountable for his actions.  Thus, moving forward, future actions will be focused on making certain that the criminal justice system does not fail the victim and that the community holds him accountable.  Activists are also tasked with drawing lessons from their successes and failures, as well as further challenging and shaping the discourse around domestic violence.  To this end, there are several components of the public discourse regarding the Garfield case that should be challenged.


The Myth of Alcohol and Domestic Violence:

In Garfield’s May 2nd statement, he said that he was now living a sober life and attending AA treatment.  While it is encouraging that he wanted treatment for an addiction, the statement was problematic for a number of reasons.  One persistent myth about domestic violence is that it is caused by alcohol or that alcohol plays a role in violence because users are less inhibited.  There are a few things wrong with framing domestic violence this way.  On one hand, if alcohol means a loss of inhibitions, that implies that ordinary people want to be violent towards others but do not act upon this until alcohol has lowered their inhibitions.   I would hope that most people are not forcing down their dark urges to physically abuse someone, especially since most abuse is directed at women (97% of abusers are men with female partners).  Another problem with this narrative is that it ignores abuse that happens when an abuser is not drunk.  Financial control, emotional abuse, limiting where a victim goes or who they see, stalking a victim, etc. are kinds of abuses that may be ongoing in a relationship, irrespective of if the abuser is drunk or not.  Thus, the alcohol argument reduces abuse to a one time occurrence rather than a pattern of behaviors that exert power and control.  This argument is also problematic since if alcohol is blamed, it is easier to dismiss abusive behaviors as the result of being impaired.  This makes it easier to dismiss the abuse and in doing so, fails to hold abusers accountable.  Finally, alcohol exists in a social context.  If an abusive person is indeed more impaired by alcohol, they are still acting in a way in which they have been socialized.  Alcohol exists in society.  How alcohol use is expressed in society is shaped by gender roles, social expectations, and gender inequalities.  Some of the countries with the strictest prohibitions against alcohol have the highest rates of violence against women.  For instance,  according to the WHO, in North Africa and the Middle East, 40% of women have experienced intimate partner violence.  These regions have the lowest rates of alcoholism in the world. One would assume that if alcohol is used less frequently, there would be less violence.  As a whole, blaming alcohol ignores the broader context of abusive behaviors and the patriarchal social context which shapes alcohol use and behaviors while under the influence.

Image result for domestic violence global map


The Myth of Loss of Control:

Another myth about domestic violence is that it is about a loss of control, such as losing one’s temper.   This myth is problematic, since it again, does not make the abuser accountable for their actions.  In this narrative, the abuser might be an otherwise good person who has a problem with anger or who lost control of themselves.  This ignores how the abuser can control themselves in other situations and how the violence was directed at their partner.  If a person suffers from loss of control, one could assume that they would attack their boss, the checkout person at Walgreens, their mother, the police, or a stranger.  Instead, abusive behaviors are targeted at a partner.  Only 5-10% of abusers have records of assaults with victims other than their partner, which implies that most abusers are very capable of controlling their behaviors.  It is also problematic since it frames the abuse as a one time incident, rather than an ongoing exertion of power and control over another person.  The abuser maintains control inasmuch as they choose who, when, how, and where to exert their power and control.  For instance, it is more likely to occur in the home where it is private, than in front of a group of coworkers or family members that the abuser wants to impress or who may not condone the behaviors.  Rather than framing abuse as loss of control, it should be viewed as a means of maintaining control over the victim.  For instance, in the police report, Garfield faked calling 911 after his partner slapped him.  This was a way of controlling her by making her feel that he was the victim and that she would get in trouble with the police.

The Myth of the Single Incident:

 

Closely related to loss of control is the myth that a domestic violence incident is simply that, a singular incident.  Instead, it should be viewed as a pattern of behaviors.  Almost every single woman who comes to the shelter that I work at experiences various kinds of controlling or abusive behaviors before they are actually physically or sexually abused.  Abusers may defend their actions by stating that they have anger issues or lost control, but usually their anger is not directed at everyone and they maintain control in other situations.  Viewing abuse as a single incident ignores the power and control that was exerted through jealousy or controlling behaviors, stalking, monitoring, put downs, threats, using isolation, destroying property, blaming, denying, gaslighting, etc.

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The Myth of the Criminal Justice System:

Many individuals in the community expressed that there should not have been actions to ask for Garfield’s removal.  In their perspective, it is an issue that should be left to the criminal justice system.  These individuals also argued that he is innocent until proven guilty.  Even Garfield himself called the criminal justice system sacred and said that he would remain in office as he deserved a fair trial.  This enormous faith in the criminal justice system ignores the ways in which the criminal justice system has failed poor people, women, racial minorities, and other oppressed groups.  It is true that individuals are innocent until proven guilty in our court system, but the outcomes in the criminal justice system are shaped by power, privilege, and money.   For instance, a study noted that there were 64 cases of reported domestic violence perpetrated by professional athletes in the NFL, NBA, and MLB between 2010 and 2014.  Only one of these allegations resulted in a conviction.  Athletes, politicians, celebrities, or others with wealth, resources, and prestige are treated very differently in the criminal justice system.


Furthermore, the criminal justice system has not and often does not, take domestic violence and sexual assault as seriously as it should.  The feminist movement and the movement against domestic violence and sexual assault has worked for decades to be taken seriously by the criminal justice system.  It is important to note that for most of U.S. history, wife beating was viewed as the legitimate right of a husband.  While wife beating has been illegal since the 1920s, it was not until the 1970s that law enforcement began viewing domestic violence as something more than just a private, family matter thanks to the effort of feminists to educate and organize around the issue.  It was not until 1994 that the Violence Against Women Act was passed, which included the first federal laws against battering as well as provisions to fund shelters, legal aid, and other victim services.  Although there have been many gains in how the criminal justice system handles domestic violence, there is still much to be done.  One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime and each day, three women are murdered by their partners.  Only one in four incidences of domestic violence are actually reported to the police and in a study that appeared in Psychology Today, only three out of five domestic violence calls to the police resulted in an arrest.  The same study reported that only 2% of domestic violence offenders received any jail time.  In South Carolina, a study found that 40% of the domestic violence cases handled by the General Sessions Court since 2012 were dismissed.  There are many reasons for these numbers.  Domestic violence cases may be hard to prosecute because they occur within the home, often without witnesses.  Since few offenders actually see jail time (over 90% did not in the Psychology Today study) it may seem pointless to call in the first place.  African Americans, Native Americans, and other oppressed groups may fear calling the police due to negative experiences with the police.  Skepticism regarding the criminal justice system is understandable based upon these statistics.


Aside from the fact that the criminal justice system fails victims, the argument that the community should take a hands off approach is disempowering.  Any thinking person should be able to make conclusions about a public figure based upon police reports and reports in the media.  While ordinary citizens do not have all of the facts, the facts that are available are pretty damning.  It is a serious matter that an elected official reportedly pointed a gun at his fiance, bit her, and left the scene while intoxicated.  Just as you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, you don’t need a judge or jury to form an opinion on what appears to be a very serious and terrible incident of domestic violence.  Having an opinion is not anathema to believing in a fair trial.  Holding a public official, or any abuser, accountable, is not opposed to belief in working with the court system.  The “hands off, innocent until proven guilty” argument deflates the potential for social organizing.  Social organizing is important since if these recent events have taught us anything, it is that there is a need to continue to educate our community about domestic violence and work to end it.

Moving Forward:

 

On Monday, the Feminist Justice League will be meeting to discuss future actions related to this case.  We will likely be calling for activists to attend the court hearings wearing purple.  Other actions will also be discussed at that time.  On Monday, I will also be appearing on Henry Bank’s radio program at 4 pm.  In fact, this article was developed so that I could better organize my thoughts before appearing on the radio.  Moving forward, I hope that we are able to support the victim in this situation, but also draw lessons from what has happened so that a positive change can be made in the community.  Changing how domestic violence is talked about, holding public officials and abusers accountable, while identifying the ways in which our criminal justice system is imperfect are important components of future organizing.


Information in this article was drawn from:

 

http://www.superiortelegram.com/news/4239961-6th-district-city-council-graham-garfield

 

https://www.wpr.org/superior-mayor-calls-councilors-resignation

 

http://www.wdio.com/news/superior-city-councilor-graham-garfield-arrested/4460583/

 

http://www.fox21online.com/2017/04/27/garfield-attend-superior-council-meeting-amid-charges/

 

http://www.wpr.org/superior-city-councilor-resigns

 

http://www.opdv.ny.gov/professionals/abusers/genderandipv.html

 

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/domestic-violence/art-20048397

 

http://www.pulitzer.org/files/2015/public-service/postcourier/06postcourier2015.pdf

 

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-web-violence/201410/guess-how-many-domestic-violence-offenders-go-jail

 

Bringing Bisexuality and Domestic Violence Into Focus

Bringing Bisexuality and Domestic Violence Into Focus

H. Bradford

11/22/16

Last month, Pandemonium met for the first time.  Pandemonium is a modest bisexual/pansexual/ omnisexual/generally bi+ group that I am working to organize.  Our first meeting was chaotic, but lively.  A disturbing theme that came out of our first discussion was that many of the members had experienced violence of some kind.  Since October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month and LGBT history month, I thought that this theme deserved more attention.  As such, I wanted to investigate this topic further and bring my findings back to the group for our November meeting.  Indeed, being bisexual increases the likelihood that a person may be the victim of intimate partner violence.

The Statistics:


According to a 2010 report from the CDC, 61.1% of bisexual women have experienced either rape, stalking, or physical violence from an intimate partner (North, 2016).  If molestation is added to this list, the rare is 75% (Davidson, 2013).  In contrast to bisexuals, 35% of straight women and 43.8% of lesbian women have experienced stalking, rape, or physical violence (North, 2016).  If only rape is account for, 46.1% of bisexual women report having been raped, compared to 13.1% of lesbian and 14.7% of straight women.  Further, of the bisexual women who have reported domestic violence, 57.4% reported that they had experienced adverse effects such as PTSD or missed work, compared to 35.5% of lesbians and 28.2% of straight women.  This means that not only are bisexual women experiencing domestic violence at higher rates, they are suffering more adverse effects from this violence.  Finally, most bisexual victims of domestic violence had been abused by male partners, as men accounted for 89.5% of offenders (North, 2016).  As a whole, bisexual women are the number one target of domestic violence, followed by bisexual men who experience it at a rate of 47.4%.  This is followed by lesbian women, heterosexual women, gay men, and straight men (Davidson, 2013).  This is very startling, as bisexual men and women are both the targets of domestic violence.


In Canada, 28% of bisexuals reported being victims of spousal abuse versus 7% of heterosexuals.  According to the BC Adolescent Health Survey, Bisexual girls between ages 12 and 18 were twice as likely to report dating violence than heterosexual girls (Bielski, 2016).  In the UK, one in four bisexual women and lesbian women have experienced domestic violence.  Among these victims, ⅔ reported that their abuser was a woman, versus ⅓ reported a man.  Four in ten  bisexual and lesbian women with a disability reported domestic violence.  While the UK statistics lump bisexual and lesbian women into the same grouping, the findings shows the intersectionality of abuse (Stonewall Health Briefing, 2012).  In this case, disability and sexuality put the women at greater risk of abuse.  The statistics from the UK, U.S., and Canada each suggest that bisexuality can be connected to increased incidences of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and stalking.  This begs the question, why is this the case?

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The Media:


It is easy to blame the media for social problems, but it is a useful starting point.  Certainly, the media plays a role in shaping public perception by popularizing ideas, framing questions and ideas, focusing on some information over other information, and setting parameters of what is discussed and how it is discussed.  Davidson (2013) observed that the media, especially pornography, sends a message that bisexual women are depraved, immoral, promiscuous, and have commitment issues.  These portrayals of bisexual women actually victim blames them or justifies their abuse through negative portrayals.  This portrayal of bisexuals represents or contributes to biphobia, which often goes unnoticed or unaddressed in larger discussions of homophobia.  As a matter of example, consider the case of Amber Heard.  Before her divorce trial, many people may not have known that she was bisexual.  According to Bielski (2016), Amber Heard was painted as a gold digger in the media, even as evidence of the violence against her from her then husband Johnny Depp began to emerge.  Despite these accusations, Heard actually donated her divorce settlement money to charity.  She donated half of the settlement to the ACLU for the purpose of ending violence against women.  Aside from gold digging, her bisexuality was also used to discredit her, as tabloids portrayed her as promiscuous and that it was Depp’s jealousy that drove him to beat her.  Even in the face of grotesque evidence, such as a video of Depp kicking kitchen cupboards while shouting at her, photos of her bruised face and swollen lip, and a sexual slur scrawled on their mirror, she was blamed for making him jealous (Bielski, 2016).

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Dynamics of Domestic Violence:


While the media plays a role in shaping public perception about bisexuality, it does not explain why bisexuals are victimized to begin with.  Bisexuality may be used as an excuse by gay or straight abusers to exert control over their victim.  To the abuser, it may represent identity, power, and the possibility of sexual attraction to others.  Controlling behaviors include such things as surveillance, such as checking email or text messages and using isolation, such as not allowing bisexual victims to spend time with anyone of any gender.  To abusers, bisexuality itself may be viewed as something that needs to be controlled.  Farnsworth (2016) argued that bisexual people, along with people of color, disabled people, neurodivergent people are often treated as “others.”  “Othering” a group of people diminishes their humanity and legitimacy.  “Othered” people often have their consent ignored.  Bisexuals and other oppressed groups may be told that they deserve their abuse and that no one else would want them.  Many people in the LGBTQ community also face poverty, which is a barrier to leaving abusive relationships as these individuals may be financially dependent upon their partner. (Farnsworth, 2016).  In fact, bisexual women are twice as likely to live in poverty than lesbian women (Kristal, 2016).  Finally, in the larger society, bisexuals are demeaned, sexualized, and ignored.  Until this is changes, they will be at greater risk of violence (Farnsworth, 2016).


Beyond some of the dynamics of domestic violence, shelters may also bear some of the blame.  For instance, in testimonies gathered for a White House meeting on bisexuality, one woman reported that she was denied shelter at a Chicago domestic violence shelter because the shelter was for women with male abusers.  When she sought a resource for the gay community, she was told that because she was bi she did not qualify for their services.  Unfortunately, gender variant individuals and gay and bisexual men have few resources available to them (Hutchins, 2013).  While bisexual men are the group that is second most likely to experience domestic violence, there is only one shelter in the United States that is explicitly for male victims of domestic violence.  This shelter is located in Arkansas, has nine beds, and opened in 2015 (Markus, 2016).  Females are by far the majority of domestic violence victims, but it is important that men also have services, as well as transgender individuals.  Everyone of any sexuality and gender identity deserves to be safe from violence.


Another facet of domestic violence is mental health.  Bisexual women are at greater risk of depression and anxiety compared to gay or straight women.  This mental health risk could be because of the stigma of being bisexual (Buzzfeed).  However, if 75% of bisexual women have been stalked, raped, molested, or victims of domestic violence, this increased incidence of depression and anxiety may be related to trauma.  A study published by the University of Montreal found that among 1052 mothers who were studied over ten years, those who had experienced domestic violence were twice as likely to suffer from depression and had three times the risk of developing schizophrenia-like psychotic symptoms.  Among the women who had been abused by their partner, they were more likely to have substance abuse, early pregnancy, childhood abuse, and poverty (University of Montreal, 2015).  Factors such as mental health and substance abuse create a vicious feedback effect.  Abuse creates mental health problems, financial problems, pregnancy, and substance abuse.  In turn, all of these things makes a person more vulnerable to abuse.  As abusers target often vulnerable people, the previous abuse and mental health issues experienced by bisexuals may may play into the abuse (Bielski, 2016).  This is not meant to blame them, but to show that their previous victimization may make them more vulnerable to future abuse.

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Biphobia and Bi-Erasure:


All bisexuals experience biphobia and bi-erasure to some degree.  Biphobia is hatred and prejudice against bisexuals.  A 2015 study in the Journal of Bisexuality found that heterosexuals and gays and lesbians had almost identical prejudices against bisexuals.  According to the reported experiences of the surveyed bisexuals, both heterosexuals and homosexuals treated bisexuals as if they were more likely cheat and were sexually confused.  Both group also excluded bisexuals from their social networks (Allen, 2016).  While bisexuals may be viewed negatively as promiscuous, wild, immoral, and disloyal, their voices, histories, identities, and experiences are ignored.  This is called bi-erasure.  Biphobia and bi-erasure can make coming out harder for bisexuals.  Their partners may not understand or think that a bi person is not satisfied (Farnsworth, 2016).  For individuals who are not “out”, they may face challenges when leaving their abuser.  For instance, in the book, Violence against Queer People: Race, Class, Gender, and the Persistence of Anti-LBGT Descrimination, a woman named Dorothy reported facing an additional barrier when she left her husband since she left him to enter her first same-sex relationship (it should be noted that in this example she identified as a lesbian).  Thus, leaving the relationship made harder by the fact that this would “out” her to others.  A woman named Leslie reported that her bisexuality was used to legitimize the abuse and control her.  The abuse worsened after she was married.  She was accused of flirting with both men and women.  After she was pregnant, he accused her of wanting to sleep with their waitress when they went out to dinner together (Meyer, 2015).  Once again, her bisexuality was something threatening to her partner.  In a 2012 Human Rights Campaign survey, bisexual teen girls reported that they were called “whores” or forced to make out with other girls for their partner (Kristal, 2016).  Again, negative stereotypes about bisexuals resulted in slut shaming and coercive sexual acts.  Because bisexual women are believed to be promiscuous and sexually adventurous, consent is assumed (Bielski, 2016).  Thus, it is no wonder why bisexuals are victims of sexual assault at a greater rate per their population than individuals with other sexual identities.

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Relationship/Sexual Norms:


At some level, bisexuality challenges sexual norms.  While this is not true of all bisexuals, a study that appeared in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity found that bisexuals reported that monogamy was a sacrifice at greater rates than straights and gays.  An equal amount of bisexuals found monogamy to be a sacrifice as there were bisexuals who found it rewarding.  Nevertheless, gays and straights both reported monogamy as more rewarding than bisexuals.  Thus, while viewing monogamy as a sacrifice does not indicate that the respondents were polyamorous and promiscuous, it does indicate that they were less likely than their straight and gay counterparts to find monogamy rewarding (Vrangalova, 2014).  Many bisexuals that I have spoken with are perfectly capable of monogamy, myself included.  However, to those whom I spoken with, there is often a sense of sacrifice or duty involved with this monogamy.  It is often framed as a sacrifice made for the sake of companionship or a stable relationship with a particular individual.  At some level, bisexuality does threaten monosexual partners.  It does play into their insecurities and jealousies.  This is no excuse for abuse, but this represents a flaw with our relationships.  Society normalizes jealousy and insecurity.  Countless films and television shows feature couples who show their love through jealous behaviors.  An individual who is not jealous, is not viewed as emotional.  Taken to the extreme, jealousy can be abusive.  But, all monogamous relationships involve some level of control over the sexuality of another human being.  So, while bisexuals are capable of monogamous relationship, they are at the same time more apt to question monogamy.  This is very threatening to patriarchy and capitalism, which has treated women as the sexual property of men.


It is only recently, and with that advent of the feminist movement, that women have begun to be seen as having rights to their sexuality.  Today, some states continue to treat marital rape as something different than rape outside of marriage.  It was only in the 1990s that laws began to change so that rape within marriage was considered the same kind of crime, with the same punishments, as rape.  Prior to this, men were viewed as having a right to sex from their wives and implicit consent as part of their marriage.  Since the majority of women have traditionally married, rape is built into the tradition of marriage.  Marriage itself is institutionalized monogamy.  By extension, marriage was institutionalized rape.  Now, certainly there are people who have loving relationships and consensual sex within the context of marriage.  And, bisexuals certainly fought for and benefited from the legalization of same sex marriage.  But, I cannot shake my disgust at the notion that marriage granted men the right to sex without consequence, consent, or criminality.  While consent is considered a part of healthy relationships today, control will always be a part of relationships so long as people attach their self-esteem and happiness to the sexual loyalty of their partner.  In the popular imagination, there is sympathy for “crimes of passion.”  A man who kills his wife after she cheats on him has a legitimate defense.  These circumstances can result in lesser charges or a lower sentence.  A woman who cheats on her husband may be denied alimony.  To some degree, even non-abusive people accept the legitimacy of violence and control for the sake of monogamy.  Control and abuse are enshrined in the law. 47ade34b8769d8976fe72916ab19f89a


What is to be done?


There are many reasons why bisexuals are abused at higher rates than other groups.  Bisexuals are more likely to experience mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and poverty, which both puts them at risk of abuse, but also results from abuse.  Bisexuals experience bi-phobia and bi-erasure.  Their abuse is justified because it is considered a means to control them, out them, that they were sexually confused to begin with, and their consent is ignored.  Bisexuality itself is seen as something that must be controlled.  It is misunderstood.  At some level, it challenges some aspects of monogamy.


Hopefully, this piece offers some insight to why bisexuals may experience greater rates of abuse.  Certainly, more research on this topic should be done.  For instance, I could not find research pertaining to how many bisexuals actually identify as poly-amorous or monogamous.  Besides continued research, more work should be done to end bi-phobia and bi-erasure.  To this end, I hope that Pandemonium can work to create a community of bi+ activists, while fostering discussion, awareness of issues, a sense of identity and history, and action.  As for advocates within the field of domestic violence, I hope that more can be done to become aware of LGBT issues and become more responsive to their needs.  I am a domestic violence advocate myself, and I believe that this very rudimentary research has given me some food for thought in how I approach my work and frame problems.  Finally, if nothing else, this demonstrates the connections between fighting for LGBT rights and the fight for feminism, but also other fights, such as the fight to end poverty and the fight for more mental health services.

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Reflections on Working at a Domestic Violence Shelter

This is my two year anniversary of working at a domestic violence shelter.  It is also the tail end of Domestic Violence Awareness month (October).  As such, I thought I would write about some observations that I have made about domestic violence since I began working at a shelter.

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Race: Perhaps one of the most striking features of the shelter is the racial composition of the clients that we serve.  While I do not have official statistics from the shelter, as a general observation, at any given time, 60-80% of our shelter residents are women of color.  This rate is based upon my own calculation of a sample of data, so it should not be taken as official data.  Around 2.5% of Duluth residents are Native American and 2.3% of our residents are African American.  Consider that for a moment.  These groups make up under 5% of our general population (not including other minorities and mixed race individuals).  At the same time, they make up over 60% of the women in shelter (and often over 75% of the shelter).  To me, this highlights the extreme vulnerability of women of color in our community.  Nationally, rates of physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner are 30-50% higher among women who are African American, Native American, and multiracial than white and Hispanic women.  So, it comes as little surprise that the shelter would have a higher percent of women of color than white women, as this is consistent with the national statistics.  However, not all women who are victims of domestic violence go to shelters.  In my observation, women who come to the shelter tend to have fewer social networkers, greater poverty, and more community stresses around them.  Whereas a white, middle class woman might have family and friends to stay with, or perhaps some money to stay at a hotel, this is not the case for low-income minority women whose networks are so entrenched in poverty, homelessness, historical trauma, substance abuse, and violence that there really is nowhere else to go.  I believe this accounts for our high number of minority women in shelter.


Gender:

Intimate partner violence can happen to people of any gender.   Certainly, male teens and children are victimized by domestic violence and find themselves at the shelter with their mothers.  Yet, most victims are women.  Nationally, 85% of intimate partner violence victims are women.  So, it is a women’s issue.  Nevertheless, perhaps every other month, there is a call from a male victim.  This is challenging because there are no male specific domestic violence shelters in our state.  Really, there are only a handful of non-gendered domestic violence shelters in the country.   I have taken a few calls from gay men in abusive relationships, but also a few heterosexual men.  I absolutely believe there should be resources for everyone.  I am also supportive of our hiring of a male advocate.  Men can be victims, but also should be part of the solution.  When men call, we do our best to connect them to homeless shelters, our resource center, or do a safety plan.  I fully acknowledge and want to help male victims.  HOWEVER, domestic violence is by and large a gender based problem faced by primarily by women.  I think this is important to point out, since when something impacts one group disproportionately to another, it represents an important piece of information about the functioning of society.  Everyone can be a victim, but why are women more often victims?  This is a long question with many answers.  Women have been viewed as property, without rights, and inferior to men.  For much of history, the physical discipline of women was acceptable and legal.  Women continue to be politically, economically, and socially subordinate to men.  Therefore, it is hardly incidental that women are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence.


Sexuality:   Thus far this year, I have done about 32 intakes.  An intake is a packet of paperwork that we complete with victims when they arrive at the shelter.  In these intakes, we collect a lot of information, including demographic data.  During the intake, we ask women which sexuality they identify as.  Over half the time, women reply “female” or do not know what I mean.  This is interesting, since it demonstrates a confusion in society about the difference between gender and sexuality.  It also shows that many people do not know how to label their sexuality.


That aside, working at the shelter has given me the opportunity to observe black female sexual identity.  I probably would not have this opportunity in my segregated white world.  In my limited observation, I have observed some fluidity in black sexuality.  I don’t want to “other” this group, but simply point out that they may not fit within the labels and stereotypes of white sexuality.  For instance, the majority of lesbian identifying black women in the shelter have a children from one or more male partners.  They also often have black male abusers.  Despite their sexual history with black men, they identify as lesbian, at least in the intake.  Also, within this population, there have been fewer individuals who would be stereotyped as “butch.”  I find this interesting, since to me, it means that they construct gender and sexuality differently.  In my own observation of white homosexuals or bisexuals, a narrative of continuity is important for establishing legitimacy.  For instance, someone who switches sexual identities or did not “discover” their homosexuality or bisexuality until later in life, might be viewed with more skepticism.  I have not sensed this same anxiety over continuity and labels among the residents at the shelter.  Of course, this is a small sample size and I did not specifically ask the residents about these issues.


Finally, the majority of women who use the shelter identify as straight or heterosexual (when presented the list of sexualities to choose from).   The majority of residents have abusers who are their opposite gender.  Nevertheless, it is important to note that 44% of lesbians and 61% of bisexual women have experienced physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner, compared to 35% of heterosexual women.   The 61% of bisexual women is particularly startling, as this would indicate that bisexual women particularly vulnerable.  In my own experiences, I have only done one or two intakes this year wherein a woman identified as bisexual.  However, I think that sexuality is rather personal.  I am a complete stranger when I meet the women.  As such, they might not want to divulge their sexuality.


Ability and Health:

One of the biggest challenges of working in the shelter is that the women who come here usually have one or more health issues.  Statistically,  women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence.  The challenge is not that they have a disability or major health issue, but that when we are full, we are serving over 39 residents.  In the summer of 2015, there were some nights when we had as many as 58 residents.  Most shifts have three staff.  The night shift used to have one staff, but has gone to two.  Thus, staff are spread thinly and can not always meet the needs of the residents.  Aside from arriving with injuries from the abuse, women arrive with substance abuse problems, mental health issues, and physical health issues.  This means that the residents need a lot of support and resources.  It is hard to even describe the level of need and the lack of ability to always meet it.  This is probably the number one stressor at the job.  On my own shift, I probably call 911 at least once a month or once every other month due to medical emergencies.  These emergencies have ranged from going into labor, allergic reactions, difficulty breathing, heart problems, and head trauma.  More frequently, residents need to be brought to the ER for non-emergencies such as colds, flu, toothaches, vomiting, infections, UTI, gallbladder issues, etc.  On the mental health spectrum, women often have anxiety attacks, nightmares, manic episodes, depression, or just need someone to talk to.  On the extreme mental health spectrum, there have been delusions and hallucinations.  Of course, there is a difference between disability and health issues, but speaking broadly, each day that I work here, there is one or more medical issues to attend to.


Because the population has been exposed to trauma, is stressed out, is low income, and minority, they have a full plate of health challenges.  And, if a person arrives in relatively good health, the environment itself lends itself to disease and stress.  The shelter is communal living.  Imagine living in a room full of strangers who have all gone through (sometimes a lifetime of) traumatic events.  There is stress and conflict.  There are babies crying in the middle of night.  There are women getting up early for work or going to bed late.   There are people who snore and fart through the night.  Communal living isn’t fun.  Stress and lack of sleep compromise the immune system.  And, communal living is messy!  Any space containing 39 to 50 people is a breeding ground for germs, especially when half of them are children.  Norovirus rampaged through the shelter four times last year.  In fact, I don’t think that it ever left the shelter.  Colds, flus, stomach bugs, and infections find fertile ground to multiple, moving room to room all year long.  It is a germaphobes nightmare.  I have a real fear of norovirus.  Like some junior, unofficial CDC fan-club member, I actually wrote down each time norovirus afflicted the shelter last year.  I found that it hit the shelter at about three month intervals, starting in September 2015, with the most recent outbreak in July 2016.  This is consistent with studies that immunity to norovirus lasts a few months.  Most of the staff had numerous bouts of vomiting last year.  Each night, I clean for a few hours.  I try to wipe down the surfaces with bleach.  It is a losing battle.


Young Victims:

Another interesting characteristic of the shelter is that the victims who come here tend to be young.  While we serve women of all ages, most of our residents tend to be under the age of 25.   These young residents also tend to have a number of small children.  Many of the women first became parents when they were in their teens and some are teen parents when they arrive.  Usually, this makes me feel old!  I am old!  And I am unusual, since I am a woman in my mid-30s without children.  Women who are a decade or more younger than me must shoulder the responsibility of having two or more children!  This is a daunting task, since rents are high, jobs are low paying, transportation is cumbersome, and day care almost impossible to find.  I feel that we are worlds apart.  I have such freedom.  I am enormously privileged.  Motherhood looks like carting crying, coughing, snotty nosed children to the freezing bus stop to get to a housing appointment or find clothes for a job interview.  In their frustration, it is easy to see all of the disgusting ways that society fails mothers.


Aside from young mothers, we usually have one or more women in shelter who are pregnant.  Based upon reports from the intake, these pregnant women were often subjected to greater abuses when they became pregnant than prior to it.  I actually had a woman go into labor on my shift (after earlier in the day she fled her abuser, who attacked her).  It was pretty intense.  She was screaming at me to help her.  Her water broke outside our office.  She actually gave birth on the stretcher as she was pushed into the hospital.  I like to regale my coworkers with the story of how I almost delivered a baby.  For vast majority of the women, the pregnancies were unplanned.  Some had hopes of a good relationship with their abuser.  Others were sexually coerced.  The presence of young mothers is consistent with national statistics.  The group with the highest incidence of domestic violence is 18-24.  This is also the age group with the highest rates of abortion.  Since 4 out of 10 unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, it makes sense that the group that is most vulnerable to relationships that deny them sexual autonomy also has the highest rate of abortion.


The Complicated Victim:

When I tell people that I work at a domestic violence shelter, usually they become quiet or tell me how nice it is that I do that work.  I read recently that 79% of Americans have never actually had anyone talk to them about domestic violence.  When Americans think about victims, we often think of mousey white women who live under the shadow of their abuser.  They are shrinking violets who endure abuse in silence.  This stereotype of a victim is useful, since because of the racism in society, it seems very hard for white people to sympathize with Native American and African American women.  It is hard for ordinary white people to sympathize with victims who have criminal backgrounds, who abuse children, who are themselves violent, or who are addicted to drugs.  In the popular mindset, a victim must be virtuous, long suffering, and “good.”  Victims who are not these things are blamed for the violence against them.


The truth of the matter is that the victims I work with are not the virtuous, saintly, white women who crumble like crushed lilies under the fist of their massive, angry, alcoholic abuser.  Many of the women struggle with severe substance abuse.  Many of the women do not treat their children kindly.  They can be neglectful or even outright abusive.  Many of them have criminal backgrounds.  Some visit the shelter between visits to jail.  Many of the women can be aggressive, insulting, rude, and selfish in their interactions with staff and other residents.  I am not listing these characteristics to put down the women.  Rather, I am being honest and want to create a portrait of the complicated people that stay at the shelter.


The complicated victim is a challenge, since as an advocate, we must challenge ourselves to show compassion and empathy to people who can be mean, rude, or disappointing.  A victim is a victim, even if they fight back or even if they were using drugs.  A victim deserves kindness, support, and unbiased service no matter what they have done or how they treat others.  The ideal of the saintly victim makes compassion easy.  The saintly victim is grateful and positive.  The complicated victim might swear and make a scene.  But, it challenges a person.  It challenges a person to be less biased.  It challenges a person to see substance abuse, homelessness, self-defense, and survival differently.  In the challenging victims, I see a lot of my own privilege.  I have the emotional resources to be calm and collected in the face of conflict.  I have the emotional resources to be patient when I don’t get my way, because I have faith in the long-game of life.  I have a lot of material, emotional, and psychological resources that help me cope with the challenges of life.  My behaviors are the outcome of my conditions and experiences.  So are theirs.

 

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It is hard to see black and blue, but it is also hard for society to see victims who are not white, thin, and able bodied.


Myth of Welfare Queens: As I have mentioned before, upon arrival at the shelter, I complete paperwork with the victims.  During this paperwork, I collect income information.  This is one of the most startling observations about victims: the majority are not getting any kind of public benefit, child support, or income.


Many people believe that low income mothers with many children are gaming the system by collecting child support from multiple fathers or getting large checks from the government.   This simply is not true of the women who come to the shelter.  While many of them apply for benefits once they are here, most do not arrive with health insurance or even MFIP.  Many of the women have severe health problems and disabilities, but are not collecting disability benefits.  I would say that there has not been a single intake that I have completed wherein the victim was receiving all of the benefits they would qualify for.  And, if the women do qualify for benefits, it extremely rare that it is over $1000 a month.  Most receive a few hundred dollars.


There are several reasons why the women do not have the benefits they  could qualify for.  One: Some were financially dependent upon their abuser as a form of abuse called  financial abuse.  Two: Many of the women have been chronically homeless, have moved across states, cities, or counties.  Applying for benefits requires residency in an area or living there long enough to collect the benefits.  This is not the case for women who have been moving a lot.  Three:  Applying for benefits can be difficult, especially because many of the women did not complete high school or may not be the best readers.  They may not know where to apply, the programs available, or the process of application.  Four: Because of mistakes in filling out paperwork, they may have been denied a benefit. In short, in my two years at the shelter, I have not met a single woman who was somehow cheating the system to gain benefits or child support.  It is more common that women have so little income that they cannot afford $1 co-pays on their medications. financial-abuse


Still Going On?  

When I was younger, I imagined that domestic violence was one of those things of the past.  If I heard about it, it seemed rare and shocking.  Doesn’t everyone think that women shouldn’t be beaten?!   Yet, over 4.7 million women experience domestic violence each year.  A few weeks ago, I protested the 15th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.  Between 2001-2012, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took the lives of 6,488 U.S. soldiers.  During that same time period, 11,766 women were murdered by their male intimate partner or ex-partner.  That is astonishing and terrible!

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Yes, it is still a problem.  Each night, I update our available beds on a website that lists all of the shelters in Minnesota.  Each night, across the state, all of the beds are full.  Women come from across the state to our shelter because they cannot find space elsewhere.  We are regularly full.  There could be another shelter in Duluth and that would be also full.  The problem never goes away.  The shelters are always full.  Sometimes we have people sleeping on mattresses on the floor rather than turn them away.


Once a woman comes to shelter, she is safe, but moving forward is difficult.  Housing is expensive.  Low-income housing is competitive and in low supply.  Jobs pay poorly.  Our public transportation system is extremely inconvenient.  Our community, especially our schools, are hostile to minority women and children.  With consistent effort and enough time, some women succeed and move on to housing.  Even if a victim breaks the cycle of abuse, they are left to fend for themselves in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist society.

A Socialist Feminist Suicide Squad Review

Suicide_Squad_Women (image from DCcomicsmovies.com)

A Socialist Feminist Suicide Squad Review:


I love comic book movies.  When I was young, I collected comic books.  I created my own comic books.  While I am not a full-fledged citizen of comic book geekdom, I am at least a traveller in the realm.  So, of course, I went to see Suicide Squad.  I knew it was poorly reviewed, so I expected the worst.  I was surprised to find that it was better than I anticipated.  It was better than Batman v. Superman, Antman, and Deadpool.  However, it contained more overt sexism than other superhero films I’ve seen.  More than other comic book films, it gave me some feminist food for thought.  Thus, it is my duty as a feminist to pop any sexist pop-cultural bubble.  It is my passion to rain on any patriarchal parade.  I must be the ants in the misogynist picnic.  There will be no fun and games where feminists lurk about.  So, here it is, a review of Suicide Squad, or at least a review of some of the female characters.


Amanda Waller:

I enjoyed Amanda Waller because she is a powerful female character, who, unlike the other female characters in the film is not sexualized.  In fact, she is presented as fairly asexual character clad in professional clothing and a self-possessed, cold, and reserved personality.  In contrast to Nick Fury, there is no point in the film where she comes across as a savior or hero.  While both characters are powerful and duplicitous, Nick Fury, at least in the films, can be counted upon to do the “right” thing.  He is generally on the side of the Avengers, or at the very least is not going to kill them or any of his underlings.   Waller is on her own side.  Unlike other minorities in the film, she does not adhere to common racial or gender stereotypes.  In this way, she is a refreshing contrast to the other characters.  She is a sturdy African American woman who ruthlessly pursues her agenda to control metahumans and promote U.S. security interests.   To this end, she kills a group of employees who do not have an appropriate security clearance, puts herself in danger to better study Enchantress’ powers, and orchestrates her own rescue by the Suicide Squad.  Waller is the villain of the movie inasmuch as she coerces a group of criminals to protect U.S. security interests.  In this sense, the villain wins in the movie.  After Enchantress is defeated, the Suicide Squad returns to prison with a few miniscule benefits such as an Espresso machine, letter privileges, and shortened prison times.  These are token payments considering that they saved the world from destruction.  Although Waller is responsible for the mass destruction wrought by Enchantress, her only consequence is having to provide Batman her files.  I enjoyed that she was “evil” without being campy or maniacal.  She represented the ordinary “evil” of militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, and bureaucracy.


With that said, her character raises some important issues.  She is a strong Black woman in a non-traditional role.  However, this doesn’t mean that her character promotes feminism.  The inclusion of strong women in films is nice, but I wouldn’t consider it feminist unless it somehow challenges patriarchy.  Amanda Waller is strong, but her strength comes at the expense of other women.  She literally controls the heart of the Enchantress, which she uses to bend the witch to her will.  In order to gain the approval of the old, white, military men, she demonstrates her control over Enchantress, treating her like a trained dog.  She has her trained pet pick up a secret file from Iran.  Her career depends upon navigating a white man’s world.  To accomplish this, she must dress like a professional.  She must talk like a white person.  She must control women.  She must use and abuse prisoners.  She must threaten people of color with the death penalty (by remote control).  She must live a solitary life.  There is no room for kids, husbands, or people to care for.  A woman can have a career or she can have kids, but it is hard to balance both.  She is reminiscent of leaders like Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or Margaret Thatcher, who like Waller, do not represent gains for women in the sense that they are war mongers who step on the working class, minorities, women, and the poor in their promotion of imperialist interests.


Waller is an essential part of the film.  She brings everyone together and is responsible for the plot (as disjointed as it is).  The characters respect and fear her, which may send the message to women that in order to be respected you must be asexual and act/dress/think like a white man.  While her character is not well developed, there is a sense that she has history and a vision.  What is going on inside her head?  What does she think of the Suicide Squad?  In my opinion, I think she worked hard to get where she was.  Perhaps she feels bitter about the hard road.  Her intelligence, strategic mind, and composure helped her to succeed, but in doing so, she can’t identify with the plight of criminals, women, or racial minorities.  She thinks she is better and different from them.  Because she is better and different, she doesn’t have qualms with exploiting the exploited.   Afterall, there’s room at the top of the hill if you can learn how to smile as you kill.  She doesn’t smile, but she does restrain a smirk.


 

Enchantress:

Enchantress has been reviewed pretty harshly by critics because of her revealing outfit, convoluted motive, and lack of character development.  Really, I didn’t mind the Enchantress.  I was happy to see a female villain in addition to Amanda Waller.  I was not particularly bothered by her revealing outfit, but perhaps this is because of my own interpretation of the character.  Little is revealed about her in the film, but it is mentioned that she is a witch from another dimension.  An artifact containing her soul is discovered in an unidentified jungle temple.  Now, based upon the fact that she was worshiped by a temple building jungle dwelling society, it could be extrapolated that this culture had private property and social stratification.  After all, if everyone was equal, there would be no excess labor to build temples.  It is also unlikely that there would be a sufficient population to build a temple if this society was hunter/gatherer.  With that said, I imagine the culture having private property and therefore some degree of patriarchy.  However, there may have been some elements of female power through respect or worship of female fertility.  Perhaps Enchantress represented a female fertility deity to them.  Or, perhaps she crafted herself as such to appeal to pre-existing notions of goddesses.  The fact that she was worshipped alongside her brother is consistent with my interpretation.  The society that worshiped her was patriarchal with one foot still in the matriarchal or matrilineal past.  In any event, her skimpy outfit might have showcased her body, highlighting her sexuality and fertility, sources of female power.  The fact that she kissed people or gyrated to perform spells would also support a theory that she was worshipped as a representation of female sexuality.  Also, if she resided in a jungle, she might choose to wear less clothes because of the heat.  Thus, I feel that it is possible that her apparel and behavior might have a historical/geographical context.  Certainly the modern context is that it makes her visually appealing for the audience.  However, the camera does not pan over her body in the same way it does for Harley Quinn.  The camera does not zoom in on her butt or chest.  Her body is often contorted or crouched, which obscures her figure.  In other scenes, she is shown with debris, smoke, or magical aura around her, which again takes the focus off of objectifying her body.  This may give too much credit to the film, but to me, she did not suffer the same longing and lingering gaze as Harley Quinn.


In any event, the Enchantress is revived in the modern world.  However, her power is limited by the fact that Amanda Waller controls her heart.  She is clearly a chaotic and independent character, as she is always eyeing the heart and obviously plotting her escape from Waller.  To aid her escape, she revives her brother, who lends her his power.  Her brother plays more of a sidekick role to her, as he is always off to the side or the periphery of her activities.  Once free, she concludes that humans worship technology, so she must build a machine that punishes them for abandoning their old beliefs.  Really, she could come to many conclusions.  Maybe she could have decided that people worship money or possessions.  She might have concluded that people worship men, after all, three major religions of the world worship a singular male god.  Instead, she focused on technology.  Perhaps she awoke to see young people wandering around parks, staring at their phones as they played Pokemon Go! And didn’t understand that it is helping them get outdoors and exercise!  Ah, like so many she was so quick to judge what she does not understand.


Enchantress is rather powerful in that she can teleport, has telepathy and telekinesis, can materialize a giant machine, and can become incorporeal.  She seems far too strong to be a match for the Suicide Squad.  And, there isn’t a compelling reason for them to fight her.  Like the rest of them, she was a prisoner of Amanda Waller.  Only, she escaped.  Unlike them, she is not a criminal and doesn’t have mundane goals.  But, she also hasn’t harmed them.  Her first major act of destruction is destroying various military facilities and an aircraft carrier.  This isn’t a bad thing.  She might even find some support among eco-feminists or primitivists.  After all, she is basically a goddess who wants to destroy technology.  She even shows mercy by offering to spare the Suicide Squad if they join her.  Even she recognizes that the world has failed them and tells them as much.  This is after they killed her brother.  Now, I do think she has to be defeated.  I don’t believe the solution to climate change or any of the world’s problems is reverting to a superstitious pre-feudal society.  However, it doesn’t seem that the Suicide Squad should be the ones to do it.  Really, I can’t think of any heroes who are up to the task.  Batman represents capitalist interests.  Superman represents American interests.  It begs the question of how she was defeated in the first place?  Did people organize or plot against her?


Another consideration regarding her character is the issue of national sovereignty and indigenous rights.  Remember, her artifact was found in a jungle by an archaeologist!  Well, what right does the U.S. have to use her as a weapon?  What if Brazil or Guatemala, or whatever country that contained the mysterious temple, claimed that it was a stolen artifact?  What if the temple actually exists in territory inhabited by indigenous people who are decedents of the people who originally used the temple?  They too could demand that the artifact is returned.  So, Amanda Waller is basically trampling on the rights of indigenous people and sovereign nations in the interest of U.S. security.


Finally, it is interesting to consider her weakness.  Basically, she is a goddess-like sorceress whose only weakness is her heart.  This sends an interesting, but not terrible message to women.  In society, we tell many stories about love and romance.  These stories aren’t always healthy or realistic.  We idealize romantic love.  For some women, this idealization results in bad situations, such as unhealthy or abusive relationship.  While it doesn’t have to be, narratives of love reinforce feminine gender roles as selfless givers.  A woman’s weakness can be her heart.  Enchantress does not want to be limited in this way.  She reclaims her heart at the first opportunity.  She also tries to kill her host’s boyfriend by sending her minions after him.  Like Amanda Waller, she really isn’t interesting in men, love, or relationships.  She has a close relationship to her brother, but she is otherwise autonomous of men.  In a way, perhaps she represents what men fear the most about feminism.  Enchantress is a dirty (covered in soot), wild (tangled hair, glowing eyes, twisting body), powerful woman who wants to destroy modern capitalist society entirely.  (The movie did not deviate from female beauty standards in that she is young, thin, pretty, and groomed.)  She even teases Rick Flag that he doesn’t have the balls to attack her.  This eye-roll inducing attack panders to masculine insecurity, and predictably, he does attack her.  But, at the very least it uncovers the fragility of masculinity through his willingness to defend his masculinity with violence-even if it risks the death of his girlfriend.  In sum, I think she is a likeable villain, even if she doesn’t have a story or personality.

 

June Moon:

June is the archaeologist who serves as the host to Enchantress.  She has a terrible name.  I also think she is a bland character.  There is the potential she could be awesome!  After all, she must be an adventurous, capable, independent, and intelligent woman to adventure into a jungle, alone, to search an unknown temple.  To do this, she must survive disease, insects, heat, isolation, patchy public transportation, and… graduate school.  Archaeology has traditionally been a male dominated specialization within anthropology, so she must be willing to challenge gender norms to some degree.  Perhaps she is even a feminist archaeologist and this is what attracted to her the particular temple wherein Enchantress was entombed!  Her ethics seemed a bit lacking, since upon finding an artifact she decided to break off the head!  Who would do that?!  Unless of course she knew that there was something inside…


Whatever the case, she does not come across as a cool, independent, adventurer in the rest of the film.  Instead, she is the quivering girlfriend of Rick Flag.  True, it is probably traumatic to be possessed by a powerful witch.  Her fear, sweat, and tremors show her anxiety over being taken over by this dark entity.  Yet, she could act as more of an agent on her own behalf.  Instead, she depends upon Rick Flag to protect her.  They seem like an odd couple.  Assuming that she is both intellectual and adventurous, she might seek out someone similar, rather than a super soldier with an equally stupid name.


 

Zoe Lawton:

Zoe is Deadshot’s well adjusted daughter.  Despite the fact that her father is imprisoned and works as an assassin and her mother suffers from addiction, mental health issues, and is perhaps a prostitute, she is mature, caring, and polite.  She takes care of her mother and forgives her father.  She is wise to the world, knowing full well that her father kills people.  The fact that she is a good kid makes her a sympathetic character.  This also makes Deadshot more sympathetic, since he wants to be a good dad to his likeable child.  If she was rebellious, disrespectful, or angry, the audience might not care as much about their relationship and hope that she ends up in prison herself!  Thus, she mostly serves the purpose of making Deadshot seem like a family guy with something to fight for.   I will praise her for not being a racial or gender stereotype (she is seen doing math and is not presented as an at risk youth).  But really, she seems like she could be one of Barack Obama’s kids…not the kid of an assassin.


Katana:

Katana is a katana wielding Japanese woman who joins the Suicide Squad to assist Rick Flag.   The character is faintly developed and generally just clutters the movie with another character.  I suppose she might be interesting in that she represents a stereotype reserved mostly for Asian men: stoic and honorable warrior.  But, a stereotype is a stereotype.  There are things she could add to the plot.  For instance, there could be more tension because she doesn’t like criminals.  She is pretty dedicated to her dead husband, but probably sharp enough to cut through some of the sexist bullshit in the movie.  Perhaps she could be a foil to some of the sexist statements such as the suggestion that Rick Flag spank his girlfriend or Deadshot is not above hitting Harley.  Maybe she could have befriended Harley.  This might help her find a life outside of the lonely existence of talking to her dead husband’s soul and might help Harley find a voice of reason who isn’t looking to exploit her.  Harley did say that she thought she seemed nice and complimented her perfume.  If she is going to be a killjoy, maybe she should be a feminist killjoy.  Instead, Katana is invisible in the movie.  She wears a mask and speaks in Japanese.  While I am not sure why she was working with Flag in the first place, she eventually decides to leave the mission.  As she becomes more comfortable with the Suicide Squad, she speaks more English and even follows them to the bar.  In the end, she rejoins the team for the final battle, but her character is so peripheral this is hardly noticed.

Grace Santana:


Grace is El Diablo’s dead wife.  He killed her when she confronted him about his criminal activities/arson and threatened to leave with the kids.  In this way, she is a strong female character in that she was going to stand up against her husband, even though she knew he had horrible powers.  Those horrible powers are used against her and the kids.  El Diablo wants to atone for this.  He turns himself in to the police and refuses to use his powers from then on (except when jumped in prison and egged on by Deadshot.)  For the most part, he does own this past.  He recognizes that the past can’t be changed and rejects Enchantress’ vision of a do-over.  He sacrifices his life to kill Incubus.  As for Grace, she mostly serves as a tragic character in his story of redemption.


Harley Quinn:


Harley is the most polarizing character in the film.  In the entire film, she was the most interesting character, both visually and in terms of development.  There are certainly aspects of the character which were deeply troublesome.  For one, the depiction of her mental health was portrayed as a joke.  When she spoke about the voices in her head, this was supposed to solicit a laugh from the audience.  Again, this occurred when she said she was off her meds and uncertain if Enchantress’ machine/magic was real.  Each character made a point of remarking on how crazy she was.  The terrible thing is that she was a psychologist, but because of the abuse that she was subjected to, she became mentally ill.  This seems far fetched, but in my own experience at the shelter, there are certainly cases of professional women who lose their careers, health, children, houses, and otherwise comfortable lives in their abusive situations.  Of course, unlike Harley they do remember what they once had and who they once were.  Mental health isn’t a laughing matter.  It isn’t sexy, adventurous, or fun.


Beyond the insensitive treatment of her mental health, is the portrayal of her sexuality.  Because of her mental health, the audience should view her as pretty vulnerable.  If she has mental health issues that are so severe that she hears voices, hallucinates, has flash backs, and doesn’t remember much of her past, she is not really able to provide consent in most situations.  This isn’t to argue that she is incapable of consenting to sex or having a relationship, however, this would require a lot of communication about boundaries, safety, health, emotional needs, etc.  It would require equality and security.  Yet, all of the men, who all know that she has these problems, ogle and flirt with her.  The camera pans up her body and focuses on her butt.  The audience is therefore invited to gaze upon her and enjoy the show.  She has some awareness that her sexuality is power, so she is not mindless.  She uses her sexuality to tease the prison guard, for instance.  But, the power between them is deeply uneven.  He has the power to restrain her, electrocute her, and force feed her.  Taunting and enticing offers her a tiny bit of leverage in an otherwise powerless situation.  Granted, she might be seen as empowered insofar as she announces that she sleeps with who she wants, when she wants.  And, she shamelessly flirts and taunts.  However, in her fantasies, she is a monogamous housewife in curlers.  Her sexuality is a survival tool.  Despite this, she is treated like a broken sex doll to shamelessness fetishize.  She’s so hot and crazy!  Nevermind the fact that she is mentally ill and abused.  Look at that ass!  The audience’s lack of respect of the character was best demonstrated when Batman punched her.  Both times I saw the movie, the audience laughed at this scene.  Like the leering men in the movie, her humanity was lost of them.


The worst part of the film is the treatment of her relationship with the Joker.  I was surprised to find the Joker treated as if he is Edward Cullen.  He just loves her so much.  Usually I think of the Joker as more indifferent to her.  Instead, he rescues her twice and jumps into a vat of acid for her.  He comes across as engulfed in her as she is in him.  The depiction obscures the abuse.  He is instead treated like a partner who truly loves her, can be depended upon, will make sacrifices for her, and will save her.  Certainly abusers do charming things and loving acts.  And this serves to keep her more committed to the relationship.  However, since the Joker’s main role in the movie is to rescue her, it gives the impression that he isn’t that bad, there is a strong bond between them, and the relationship might even be admirable in its passion.  I mean, they were pretty passionate as they kissed in the acid vat.  Again, abusive relationships can be passionate and exciting, but giving too much emphasis on those traits and not on the negative elements sends a dangerous message about what relationships should look like.


There are some positive aspects of the character.  For one, she is actually relatable.  I can relate to wanting to be in a relationship with someone more charismatic, interesting, and magnetic than myself.  I sometimes feel boring, shy, reserved, and timid.  I would love to be vibrant and visible.  In the past, I have felt attracted to people who have these things I lack…as if by some magic they could elevate me.  In this sense, it isn’t implausible that a person could fall in love with the Joker.  He is a fascinating, magnetic, visible, bizarre character.  And, women give up their careers and goals all of the time for love.  Love is a cruel mythology of self-sacrifice, patience, endurance, hope, triumph, and redemption.  Harley believed what every woman believes: love is both real and magical.  Few people approach it logically as a ploy to get people to reproduce and raise babies.  This cynical world view doesn’t really lead to happiness or good movie plots.  It leads to an exhausted nihilistic sigh.  Thus, I think that women can probably relate to Harley, or at least more to her than Amanda Waller.  Besides her relatability, she defeated the Enchantress by stealing her heart.  This was a great moment for her character, as she feigned interest in Enchantress’ offer in order to get close enough to attack her.  She also showed independence after the Joker presumably died.  This should have made her into a sobbing, incapable mess.  Instead, she wiped her tears, rejoined the Suicide Squad, and went on to defeat the villain.  She also showed independence when she tried to escape the Suicide Squad.  Of course, this was to join the Joker, but more than this it was a way to escape prison, Angela Waller, and the bomb in her neck.  The Joker may be abusive, but he is no worse than prison or Angela Waller.  It is trading one abuse for another, though the former offers the veneer of love and the pleasure of passion.  There is no savior.  Even Batman, the good guy, punched her.  So, I would like to see the storyline continue wherein perhaps she has enough lucidity to question the relationship.


 

Sexism:

Sexism plays a cameo role in the film.  While Sexism is not an official member of the Suicide Squad, it sneaks around many scenes.  Sexism has some really awful scenes.  For instance, when Slipknot punched a female prison guard in the face because she had a “mouth on her.”  Sexism also appears each time a male character drools over Harley or when Batman punches Harley, then proceeds to give her sensual CPR.  He checked her pulse, but not her breathing.  He also didn’t say, “Harley, Harley, are you okay?!” and didn’t tilt her head back before he started breathing.  I am not a CPR expert, but Batman was really being weird about it.  When Deadshot asks what sleeping with a witch is like or tells Rick Flag to spank his girlfriend, Sexism appears again.  Each time a man reacts to being called “pussy” it is Sexism.  Why?  Because they felt that they must violently defend their masculinity.  This reaction is only possible if they believe that being female is inferior.  Sexism.  Racism also appears in the form of stereotypes.  Classism also cameos in the depiction of criminals (lumpenproletariat) as inherently sexist. Of course, sexism slithers around in most films.  It is the costumes, roles, lack of roles, relationships, etc. that establish or cement what a woman is.  Usually it is an object or something to give meaning to the more interesting lives of men. So, I can’t say that I am surprised to see Sexism’s role in the film, but there were some truly shocking scenes.


This is my take on Suicide Squad.  It is a little lengthy and certainly more could be said.  So crows the feminist harpy.  The end.

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