Fifty Shades Is The Worst Of Us

*TRIGGER WARNING: This post address the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse within and around the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.

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In the summer of 2012 the rich and sophisticated Christian Grey became a sexual enigma to millions of women. In February 2015 he was brought to life in movie theaters, serving as a permission slip for women to feel erotic all over again. Mr. Grey is no white knight yet his enormous appeal seemed to fill a lot of women who longed for burning sexual pleasure and the fantasy of being so intensely desired by a lover they accepted or confused domestic violence and abuse for a steamy romance. Fifty is a story about the abuse of a manipulated, inexperienced girl at the hands of a psychopathic man whom she tries to heal with her purity. Another version of Fifty is a story about a sexually curious young woman entering an erotic relationship with a rich and exquisitely attractive lover, neither able to deny their fierce attraction to the other. What is most clear about the Fifty phenomenon is that we need more stories told of women being free to enjoy and explore their erotic sides without shame. The massive popularity of Fifty isn’t so much what the story is about, rather it is an indicator of what many women feel they are lacking and fantasize over.

In order for a fantasy to work it has to offer the reward of something outside of the every day, the attainable. It has to exceed our dreams and become something we long for. It has to be something more grand than who we are or ever could be. All of this is to say, the misbegotten Fifty Shades of Grey is not fantasy. It is the worst of us.

Fifty is a litmus test of everything wrong with how women approach and understand their sexuality, specifically the significance of “having a man” woven into our definitions of self-worth. It is a manipulation of female insecurities around being found “beautiful”. It is everything wrong with how our culture approaches female sexuality. It is pop culture reinforcement that rich white men can do as they please, stalking/domestic violence/sexual assault can be rationalized away, men make decisions about women’s bodies, women long to be dominated and sexually abused, abuse can be loved away and broken men healed by our devotion, men show their true love through violent possession, and that a good looking and/or rich lover needs to be kept by any means necessary. That’s no fantasy, Sister. At a very great cost to women, that is real life. It represents the worst of us.

And we knowingly, willingly, and enthusiastically consumed it. By. the. millions.

When something like Christian Grey becomes a media zeitgeist it impacts culture, shifting our norms and trickling down to young people who are always in tune with the latest and greatest. In this case, the problem is Christian Grey and the “fantasy” sex life he offers isn’t so great and that is cause for concern for a younger generation ill-equipped to unpack all of this. (Resources at the end of the post.)

The Fifty trilogy is not a love story, it is a grooming course for abuse. The books are FULL of power imbalance, stalking, emotional manipulation, sexual coercion and several types of abuse. There is a meme going around that if Christian Grey weren’t rich and hot, Fifty would be an episode of Criminal Minds.

Fifty

By now we are familiar with the back story – E.L. James was inspired by the Twilight saga and sought to write a more adult version of the melodramatic, twisted teenage love-triangle. James’ erotic fan-fiction became Fifty Shades of Grey, a trilogy of books turned blockbuster film. Fifty has sold over 100 million copies and has earned $130 million in two weeks since the movie’s release. The studio is already working on film sequels to follow books 2 and 3. Twilight became a billion dollar empire and while James’ story, especially her writing, has been heavily criticized I’m of the mind everything was done quite intentionally as James was clever enough to see an open lane for massive profit. The formula: forbidden love story starring a naive, bland non-wealthy virgin girl who is found to be irresistible by a just-this-side-of-criminal, dangerous, intoxicatingly handsome and powerful older male love interest offering her tantalizing sex and a better life happily ever after. It allows women to be with the “bad boy” while taking no actual risks and still getting the Cinderella storybook ending.

Much has already been written about the book version of Fifty being a massive success largely due to the advent of e-readers, thus allowing female fans to discreetly enjoy their potentially-embarrassing “lady smut” anytime and anywhere. This plays to the imaginations of millions women and teen girls seeking permission to experience and enjoy their sexual desires with impunity, free of slut-shaming and the continual charade of performing sexuality as opposed to authentically feeling it and discovering just how deep it can go. The more popular the books became, the more women felt it was accepted for them to explore this genre. The books were written at a junior high reading level to draw in the teen audience post-Twilight who needed something new and sexy to fall into, as well as the non-reader who was assured by her friends the books “read quickly” and bought them just to see what the fuss was about. Fifty mainstreamed kink, albeit an inaccurate and abusive version of BDSM, which brought a sense of naughtiness and excitement. Soon family-friendly retailers were selling thousands of copies of “mommy porn”, which removed the barrier of access most women feel towards going into sex shops (that would also be off limits to youth under 18) where this type of erotic material would normally be found. Well played, E.L. James.

Fifty.2The character of Anastasia Steele (Ana) was written in a way that was so obnoxious you become numb to Christian treating her so poorly because you keep willing her to be hit by a taxi. Ana is a blank canvas of sorts, which allows the female reader to insert herself into the role and become lost as Christian’s sex slave. Christian is a psychologically stunted cad, making sure his needs are met while Ana serves as nothing more than a well-kept puppet. Their “romance” has ups and downs, twists and turns and ends dysfunctional ever after. Now, that is the BOOK version of Fifty……

Because the movie version of Fifty and the movie’s characters are completely different and change the way we interpret the story.

I saw the movie with a good friend who liked the books and reads a lot of what I teasingly call “panty burners”. We spent the morning texting each other jokes about shaving our legs for our date, both wearing grey sweaters with red shirts underneath, and that our husbands were put out they had not been invited. She and I have had many a discussion about this series, not always seeing eye to eye, but always being respectful of each other’s views. I went into the movie fully expecting to hate it. She bought me popcorn and made me promise not to complain through the whole two hours. The problem is, I didn’t despise the movie and it took me a full week to gather my thoughts. In fact, an hour in my friend turned to me and said, “Melissa, what in the world are you going to blog about??” She is very correct — I can see why people will defend it as a fantasy and a love story. I can see why it was released on Valentine’s Day – the movie version of Fifty was so transformed you could almost call it a romantic comedy. Almost.

With regard to the movie, forgetting about the books for a moment, I can see why people will refer to Christian as a prince. I can see why women are caught up in the physical sex appeal of the actors and the lavish lifestyle Christian’s wealth and affections bring. Hollywood does fantasy very well. I can see where it gets confusing because the movie becomes all the defenses people offer towards the problems in the books. In the movie the problems don’t exactly melt away, but they do become extremely blurred.

The sweeping camera angles, good lighting, and sexy actors don’t help to make anything more clear for the viewer, especially with Beyonce signing seductively in the background. The nice things I’m going to say about the movie don’t remove the myriad problems Fifty presents, they simply represent what most people, especially teens, are going to walk away with. Please understand one very clear, very concerning thing: the book versions of Fifty are nothing like the first movie for Fifty and this will confuse if not blow away all of the red flags and important discussion points on healthy sexuality, relationship violence, consent, and communication that people need to understand. Most specifically young people who don’t have the frame of reference most adults will in figuring all of this out.

My great concern is, young people will get little to no guidance making heads or tails of any of this.

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Dakota Johnson does a phenomenal job giving life to Ana – a very likable one – and we see a smart, strong, funny, and quick-witted young woman awaken to her sexual self. She toys with Christian and his strong emotions for her as she plays at grown up sex and relationships for the first time. The movie seems to switch the roles, with Ana in charge and leading Christian on as he begs her with his pleading, billionaire eyes to agree to take him as her lover and sign the contract. The contract will allow for their Dominant/submissive relationship, which is framed in the movie as Ana having complete, informed consent on just exactly what is about to go down. In the twenty minutes of sex scenes in the movie we see Christian rocking Ana’s world with amazing orgasms that leave her literally weak in his arms. In the movie, Christian is attentive to Ana and she cannot get enough of him, shown breathless and wanting through much of the latter half of the film.

The rest of the sex scenes are racy but not raunchy, yet still explicit enough to earn nervous giggles from the rest of our theater audience made up of groups teen girls or twenty-somethings and their boyfriends. You know who was not in our theater at all? Older adult couples who are more likely seasoned in their sexual experiences and preferences, and have trusted partners they give of themselves to in the bedroom (and wherever else they choose to get it on). You know who I wouldn’t want to see this movie with? My idiot teen boyfriend educated about sex by online gonzo porn, who has no real clue what to do with my body to keep it safe and pleasured during different types of sex, let alone connect with me on an intimate emotional level that proper BDSM requires.

My friend pointed out Ana stays true to herself, firmly establishing and maintaining her boundaries, and capturing the heart of a seemingly desirable partner who ignores the elegant women surrounding him for her. She wears very little makeup and a wardrobe that is not overtly sexy nor sophisticated. I pointed out Ana, or rather Dakota Johnson, fits the body ideal of white woman beauty: gorgeous face, milky hairless skin, breasts and buttocks that are just big enough to be sexy but still small enough to look like a perky teenager, a tiny waist, slender limbs with no muscle definition and hip bones that jut out. She is delicate where Christian is athletic and muscular, Ana seeming almost child-like when she is being carried in his arms.

The movie makes clear Christian is the self-aware and sexually experienced one, but Ana is definitely the one in control of how things play out sexually. We see Ana display sexual agency, almost using Christian as a sex tour guide as she eagerly and willingly explores. Despite being a novice, Ana does not shy away from Christian’s sexual preferences and at times even seems to mock them as no big deal or even not out of the ordinary. Christian always asks for consent before each and every sex scene. In fact, there is consent up, down, right and left in the movie and it felt like it was put in by director Sam Taylor- Johnson to make a point. Perhaps it was one of the spots of vitriolic contention reported between Taylor-Johnson and James, with T-J turning this story into a female-driven sexy rom-com and E.L. in the background screaming in a rage, “NO! He is just supposed to TAKE her from behind and destroy her ****y so she is so sore she understands she belongs to him only! ARGH! WHERE are my whips and nipple clamps?!” Where James wanted Fifty to be an explicit S&M movie, Taylor-Johnson turned it into a tasteful love affair between a more empowered female protagonist and incredibly less despicable male protagonist who are figuring each other out and growing as individuals as they communicate their needs and wants. (I cannot believe I just wrote that sentence.)

This isn't going to look or feel like domestic and sexual abuse to most movie goers.

This isn’t going to look or feel like domestic and sexual abuse to most movie goers.

We see none of the viciousness we get from Christian in the book. Christian was completely unlikable psychopath in the book. In the movie he is alluring-bordering-on-charismatic, especially if you have no background on Book Christian. Jamie Dornan is sensual and smoldering, his body fitting every cultural requirement for male sex appeal. In the beginning of the film we see Movie Christian save Movie Ana from almost being hit by oncoming traffic (something I would have welcomed for Book Ana). A short time later he rescues a very drunk Movie Ana in distress after she is separated from her roommate during a night of partying. Movie Ana is trying to decline a kiss from her male friend while he insists, physically restraining her from getting away until Movie Christian appears, punches him out, and yells “I believe the lady said NO!” Thereby in some weird parallel universe appearing to send a strong message about consent and onlookers intervening when incapacitated women are being assaulted (a crime he commits frequently in the books). Through the whole film Movie Christian takes great care to gain consent at each sexual encounter, please his lover, and provide tender after care following consensual exploits in the red room (his “BDSM” playroom). Even the stalking in the book – showing up at the hardware store, the bar scene when Ana gets sick, taking drunk Ana to the hotel room, the surprise visit at her mom’s all appear to have reasonable explanations that come from a place of concern and his blooming love for her – not because he is an obsessed and maniacal creep trying to control a young woman’s life, like Book Christian. The movie moves quickly through  the elaborate gifts Christian bestows Ana, making him appear to be a doting boyfriend with expensive tastes. The movie also shifts the way we interpret the back-and-forth Book Christian does with “I can’t have you and you can’t have me. Here, have some expensive gifts. I need you to be mine forever, you should steer clear of me. Let’s go for a ride in my helicopter” game. In the book, his “inability to leave her alone” felt like a training manual at women’s crisis hotline. That isn’t meant to be flip – The relationship between Christian and Ana in the book is downright disturbing. In the movie that disturbance becomes fuzzy, especially if you have no premise from the book version, Ana and Christian are shown as sexy star-crossed lovers whose relationship is steamy, patient, equally balanced, and built on respect of where each is coming from. Taylor-Johnson seems to understand James’ story needing tweaking to appear hot and desirable on screen. The movie version feels much more like the kind of romance and sex women do really want, and let’s be honest T-J’s job is to create a film that gets ticket buyers in the door. Whether she intentionally corrected so many of the books wrongs remains a mystery.

It isn’t until the final ten minutes of the film we start to see this might be very problematic and dangerous for Ana. And when that scene happens my friend and I were not only emotionally disturbed by it, there was a noticeable shift in mood across the entire theater. We immediately commented on it to each other. Our audience had been chatty and laughing through the film but the final scenes had everyone leaving the theater in silence. Maybe that was the best thing to come out of the night — how clearly uncomfortable the audience was by Movie Christian’s abuse and violence once it was clearly exposed. Suddenly, he no longer looked like a sexy prince. You wanted Movie Ana out of there fast, and you sighed with relief when the elevator door closed. You cheer Ana’s strength for leaving Movie Christian and you wish he could be the man Movie Ana deserves.

And here’s how all of this becomes one giant, big mess — where the hundreds of millions of copies of creepy, abusive Book Christian and doormat, victimized Book Ana collide with the charming, sexy Movie Christian and interesting, eager Movie Ana to create a churning ball of mixed messages for a generation of young people who are absolutely going to be exposed to this and who absolutely are going to receive zero comprehensive sex education from school nor are likely to have meaningful and ongoing conversations with their parents about sexuality, consent, sex (and all the different types of), and emotional maturity in sexual relationships. As this excellent post establishes, the movie contorts what is really going on: an abuser who uses “BDSM” to disguise his intentions while his victim is taught to view the abuse as normal, and normalcy as special.

Fifty is a massive pop culture influence and it will normalize a number of unhealthy and unsafe ideas:

1. Consent is the absence of “no”, as opposed to what it should be: an informed and enthusiastic “yes!” Read more about that here and here.

2. If he loves you he might get angry or violent when you frustrate him because he loves you so much. If he loves you it isn’t rape. If it was sex you didn’t understand or regret it isn’t rape.  Read more about that here and here.

3. BDSM is a catch-all term for using toys as well as being rough and violent during sex. Abused children grow up to be into BDSM. Read more about that here and here.

My friend and women’s rights activist Regina Yau summarized everything perfectly when she said, “You know what’s really sad?
That the film adaptation of Fifty is based on a book written by a female author, and is directed by a female director working off a script written by a female scriptwriter. This should’ve been a moment we can celebrate – an anomalous bright spot in the male-dominated movie industry landscape. We should’ve had a top quality story about female empowerment and sexuality that we could all root for and that would show once and for all that women are a viable and profitable audience demographic that can drive more female-centric pop culture stories – that women’s stories and experiences matter on all levels. What do we get? A badly-written book and film that glorifies domestic/relationship violence and male abusers.”

The story we need to be telling is that as women have every right to enjoy erotic experiences, but we must love ourselves and each other more than to come anywhere close to accepting degradation and violence as our ultimate fantasy. Fifty Shades of Grey is not fantasy. It is the worst of us.

Need help understanding all of this for yourself and wondering how to talk to your teen or young adult about all of this? I suggest these resources:

1. Here is a list of fifty critical thinking questions and discussion points around the Fifty franchise from the sex-talk help org Educate Empower Kids. The list is useful to parents to help sort out your thoughts, and offers an excellent road map for what you should be talking to your teens about. Read it here. Another great post about why we need to talk to our kids and how this ties in with other children’s narratives is here.

2. If you need a better understanding of what BDSM is and how it is responsibly practiced, visit here.

3. A media literacy overview of Fifty and the problems it blurs for teens by Shaping Youth can be found here.

4. Understand what teen dating violence is, what it looks and feels like, and how prevalent it is. Read more here.

 

Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.

Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can read her blog at: www.pigtailpalsblog.com or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).

 

Why “Slap Her” Video by Fanpage.it and Ciaopeople Media Group is Important

If something begins, reignites, or furthers a conversation does it have merit?

Still shot from  Italian video journalist Luca Lavarone's "From a slap" PSA video.

Still shot from Italian video journalist Luca Lavarone’s “From a slap” PSA video.

The million of views of “Dalle uno schiaffo” or “From a Slap” in the days following its release ought to count for something. If nothing else, perhaps it is a demonstration of the yearning people around the world share for truly meaningful messages about domestic violence and the value women and girls ought to hold in society.

"Martina" of the "From a slap" video by Fanpage.it.

“Martina” of the “From a slap” video by Fanpage.it.

In the short video we see six young boys introduce themselves, state their age, say what they want to be when they grow up and why they want to do these careers. A few moments later a girl named “Martina” enters the frame, but we aren’t given any facts about “Martina” that humanize her to the boys or to the viewer. She never speaks, except once to say “Grazie” when one of the boys tells her she is a ‘very pretty girl.’ Her sole purpose is to be a pretty object placed before the boys in this “social experiment” from Ciaopeople Media Group that runs Fanpage.it, an online newspaper that had Italian video journalist Luca Lavarone produce the video to raise awareness toward the epidemic violence Italian women face in intimate relationships.

 

 

With startling article titles like “Watch a Grown Man Ask a Little Boy to Hit a Girl” (TIME) the video continues to circle the Internet. It is being called a “heartwarming tearjerker” and a “remarkable PSA” . Not only does AdWeek think the video is remarkable, writer Roo Ciambriello says the video “contains a powerful, effective message addressing a serious problem.”

Except that it doesn’t, as the main messages it contains oversimplify the complex issue of domestic violence. But maybe that is expecting too much from a video whose sole purpose was to highlight an issue, not solve it. “From a slap” is the perfect kind of viral video ad agencies create and stage to earn those coveted clicks and press mentions ahead of the creative award season, all the while knowing the vast majority of the public isn’t going to and doesn’t want to think too deeply about any one issue (outside of bacon and kittens). Much of the messaging in “From a slap” is completely contrary to what most violence prevention programs teach. It ignores consent, white washes Italian domestic violence and trivializes a desperately serious issue not only for the girls and women of Italy, but for female around the globe.

We need to be critical of and think critically on several facts here:

1. For the purposes of this video “Martina” is an object, not a person. That is a problem. The first step in violence towards a person is to remove their humanity (Jean Kilbourne).

2. The boys never ask for “Martina’s” consent to touch her.

3. “Martina” fits the Beauty Myth, and while non-beautiful girls are no less likely to be a victim of domestic violence than beautiful girls, the boys instantly give the attractive “Martina” a higher social rank than they would a girl who is less physically beautiful. To the boys, her beauty gives her value. The message should be that “Martina” being a human is what gives her value.

4. The boys have just met this girl on the street, yet domestic violence takes place between intimate partners and usually in the privacy of the home. It is different to ask a boy to slap a girl he just met who has not “wronged” him than it is to ask a boy to slap a girl he is already frustrated with, intimidated by, or angry at.

5. There is no information at the end of the video for Italian domestic violence shelters, help lines, anti-violence programs or educational resources. (There are resources at the end of this blog post.)

6. Research tells us that domestic violence is cyclical and the more violence a boy grows up with, the more likely it is he grows up to be violent in his own relationships. But we never see the parents’ reactions to the boys or “Martina” and we never hear them explain why their boys have been taught to not hit girls. It would have been particularly moving to hear the fathers explain why their sons have been taught this message.

7. The voice behind the camera sexualizes both the boy(s) and girl in the final frame when we read his command “Kiss her!” Our gallant little knight who had just refused to hit the girl does not turn to the girl to ask her consent to a kiss…..instead the boy keeps his impish gaze on the owner of the male voice and without him even thinking if he should ask the girl, the boy ask the man, “Can I kiss her on the mouth or the cheek?” Fade to black. And thud. The final frame of this video undoes the previous three and a half minutes as we go from the warm fuzzies we were feeling over these six adorable boys who tell the cameramen “No, I will not hit a girl, not even with a flower” to what should be a gut-churning “boys will be boys” response to a “remarkable PSA” ending with the very problematic consent issue of touching a girl in a sexual manner without her consent. Because she wants it. She was asking for it. I want it, I don’t need her permission. Riesci a crederci! Incredibile!

But Luca Lavarone wasn’t making a documentary on Italian domestic violence or how to teach consent to kids. He conducted and made public a social experiment meant to get people talking. He succeeded, and for that reason alone his efforts should be praised even with the video’s imperfections taken into consideration.

Remember – domestic violence festers in silence, shame, and obscurity. Lavarone has the world talking – THIS is important. Domestic violence takes place (almost always) behind closed doors and comes with social stigma and blame attached for the victim. For families and women with domestic violence in their past and present, you know exactly what this looks and feels like. While many American journalists and bloggers have been hypercritical of the video, I’d like to hear the voices of Italian women, specifically those who help the abused and those who have been abused. I’m willing to bet they and the families who survive the women murdered by their partners appreciate the conversation taking place around these dangerous situations.

So let’s keep talking.

And let’s consider……

Maybe “Martina” not having a back story could have been intentional because “Martina” isn’t any specific girl, she is there to represent “all girls“. “Martina” is “every girl” and serves as the potential victim despite being found beautiful and lovely by the boys, a position far too many women will find hauntingly familiar. Domestic violence victims are adored and loved, at first. Likewise these boys aren’t really specific boys, they are meant to represent a cross section of “all men” who could be prone to perpetrate – and perpetuate – domestic violence. A fire fighter, a police man, a pizza maker, a baker.

Let’s also note, none of the boys said “When I grow up, I want to be an abuser of women”. That’s ridiculous, right? No, it isn’t. Most boys don’t want to grow up to hurt the people they love but somewhere along the way they see might see violence set as the example set at home, they see it in the media coupled with the persistent objectification of women, they grow to understand violence and brute physical strength are tied to the cultural definition of masculinity, they see peers be abusive to girlfriends and are not taught to stand up to it, and so on. But no little boy says, “When I am a man I want to beat my wife until she is bloody, broken, and dead.”

While domestic violence doesn’t usually take place on the street and by definition wouldn’t take place between strangers, the request for the boys to caress “Martina’s” cheek then quickly followed by the order “Slap her!”/”Slap her hard!” has people upset, and rightly so. Again, important to note that while this video is likely staged, not a single boy asked for the girl’s permission to touch her face for the caress nor did the girl assert her personal boundaries. Consent is such an important concept to teach our boys and girls, and the video did not show this – but maybe that is part of Lavarone’s point. Perhaps Luca Lavarone wanted that to be part of the conversation he ignited. After all, we need to remember that we don’t know Lavarone’s personal history with domestic violence in a country where 30% of women experience it and thousands lose their lives to it.

And it is the caress/slap request that has me believing we are really losing something in translation as different cultures have different practices when it comes to physical contact. Part of me thinks for us non-Italians, we are missing or misunderstanding an Italian cultural reference to the caress/slap moment. I believe the intended message with the caress/slap was: A person uses their open hand for a caress just like you do an open palm or back-handed slap across the face or upside the head. What you do with that hand can be loving or hurtful. These actions are very different and yet similar. A boy who gives a caress could just as likely deliver a slap. Unless he is taught not to.

Another impression I had was that I felt a sense of trust between “Martina” and the cameraman/voice behind the camera. She made eye contact with that person when she was amused or surprised, like they were sharing a joke at the boys’ expense. There was an air of familiarity between the girl and whoever is behind the camera and it seemed she knew what to expect, what the boys would be asked. She stood in place calmly and confidently. And when the voice commanded “Slap her!”/”Slap her hard!” the expressions “Martina” made were very telling, but she never broke her gaze from the boys as they made their decisions whether or not to slap her. In fact, when you watch the video again pay very close attention to her face in those moments. You see her connect with the emotional struggle she witnesses within each boy – do I listen to the grown up or do I refuse and do what I know to be right? In those moments, we see our humanity. It is actually quite beautiful and reveals that as children we are very adept at loving ourselves and each other.

And the boys (possibly scripted to) refuse! Each boy has a different reaction and reason as one by one they all refuse. Important to note, we never hear “Martina’s” reaction to the commands “Slap her!” and “Slap her hard!” I’m hoping she would have said something like, “Oh HELL no. NO ONE uses violence to control me!” because her parents taught her that message just as they teach their little Italian boys to “not hit girls”. I’m also hoping the parents of Italy teach their girls not to hit the boys they love, as domestic violence is a lopsided but two-way street.

When told to slap the girl the reactions of the two littlest boys (ages seven and eight) reveal why this video is important. Even if these were a child actors and even if the video is by and large staged, the emotion behind their soulful eyes is real and anyone familiar with children can read what each is thinking: The littlest one smiles and shifts his weight in an uncomfortable moment of disbelief because he knows what the grown up is ordering him to do is wrong. He tucks his chin and turns his head slightly to the side as he thinks, “Nooooo, what you are telling me to do is wrong. I am not going to listen, even if you think I’m naughty for not listening.” After all, we teach our kids to listen to and trust adults, right? The other boy’s lips part as his mouth opens in shock and his eyes glisten with emotion. THAT is important because until we teach our boys via culture and/or personal experience to control and intimidate females via domestic violence, they know it to be wrong. We see they are surprised and shocked by it.

Perhaps we are left to question ourselves how it is we desensitize them to it?

While their initial “No’s” were softly spoken, with clarity each boy states why he will not hit the girl standing before him. The implied message is these young boys have been raised right, to know that men do not hit women and that somewhere there is an adult teaching him that. I think THAT is an important message here — children need to be taught domestic violence (all violence, yes?) is wrong and that violence is least acceptable in our intimate relationships. For my American friends, I’m assuming most of us have no idea how Italian society and families approach this and perhaps teaching boys not to be violent to girls (or anyone) is a new concept to Italians to address while raising families. We need to remember, Italians were the intended target audience for this video.

The emotional scenes finish with a stark black and white screen that reads ‘In the kids’ world, women don’t get hit.’ And anyone familiar with domestic violence knows it is anything but black and white. It is not a simple mess people find themselves in and it is not a simple mess to clean up. The UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, said after a visit to Italy in 2012 that there was an “urgent need” to tackle the issue of domestic violence in Italian society. Manjoo reported, “Most manifestations of violence are under-reported in the context of a family-oriented and patriarchal society where domestic violence is not always perceived as a crime, there is economic dependency, and there are perceptions that the state response to such complaints will not be appropriate or helpful.”

Couple that with the excellent point made by Mic’s Elizabeth Plank about the white washing of domestic violence in the video, “But it’s immigrant and undocumented women who are especially vulnerable in Italy, and they won’t be safe until they are part of the national conversation about the issue. No one is protected from domestic violence, but to erase the experiences of those who are most at risk can be damaging for the cause.”

So, what’s the verdict on the video everyone is talking about this week? Problematic? Yes. Most definitely yes. But should this video be condemned with the vitriol it is getting from some? I don’t disagree with the critical conversation around this video, but we need to take a deep breath and a step back see it for what it is: a marketing gimmick that is misinformed and only touches the tip of the iceberg that is the very important epidemic of gendered violence in Italy. And what do we know about icebergs? The most dangerous portions are under the water, where people aren’t looking.

This week, the world is looking under the waters. THAT MATTERS.

We should not turn to advertising agencies and video journalists to solve deeply troubling societal ills. We should count on them to contribute to and disseminate the conversation. Perhaps the whole point of this video, and why it IS SO IMPORTANT and should not be ignored, it that is has all of us now pulled into the conversation. Well done, Luca Lavarone.

Now it is our turn to do the meaningful work. Be not silent.

 

For information on domestic violence and how to get help for a domestic violence situation in Italy:

Italy’s National Women’s Helpline ‘Antiviolenza Donna’: Call (1522)   Help is free of charge and available 24/7

Italy’s National Association DiRe “Women in Network Against Violence”

Italy’s D.i.Re Cerca Il Antiviolenza Piu Vincino A Te (map of centers throughout Italy)

Information on violence against women in Italy from WAVE – Women Against Violence in Europe

The Pixel Project: Abusive Relationships and the Escape Checklist

Domestic Violence / Incest / Rape Help and Intervention for Women in Countries Around the Globe from Pixel Project

Helplines for the 28 EU Countries from WAVE

United States National Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) Help is free of charge and available 24/7

 

 

Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com. Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can read her blog at: http://pigtailpalsblog.com or connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals).

Pitch Perfect 2’s Rape Culture Scene Hits a Wrong Note

Even when we get women behind the camera and a cast full of female protagonists, usually touted as a cure to Hollywood’s ills and missteps, we can still have media go terribly wrong. In the just-released trailer for Pitch Perfect 2 there is a scene that is very troubling because it strikes a chord to a much bigger issue. Perhaps there is more to this scene than first meets the eye. Hopefully it ends with a affirmative PSA promoting consent and taking a stand against college men raping college women, delivered in the hysterical way that only Rebel Wilson can. That would be grand. If not it only serves to mislead the film’s fans, many of whom are teens and young adults, about what consent means and looks like, as well as what girls really mean when they say ‘no’.

Because you know, she didn’t mean it. She wanted it. And she liked it.

In this scene (at 2:11) we see a guy hitting on “Fat Amy”, Rebel Wilson’s very funny character. At a party scene full of alcohol and underage drinking – known contributors to campus and high school rape – we watch a rival singer hit on Amy and ask if she wants to have sex later. She acts appalled and voices a loud “NO!” immediately followed by a confusing wink at the boy. Not understanding, he tries to clarify and we watch the same schtick again. There’s a lot that could have been done with these few minutes in the film, but these minutes don’t pass by in a vacuum. They have meaning to the culture at large.

For a film written by, directed by and starring women this is irresponsible and insensitive. That most of these women have been previously heralded in the media as great feminist role models, this scene is really all the more troubling. If you’re going to be sex-positive, show your character going all in. Go Fat Amy, get some! With enthusiastic consent that better represents most college women’s sexual agency. Comedic sexual come on’s are something Rebel Wilson is phenomenal at. No need to be coy about her desire. She can still make a clandestine lover out of her rival, which actually could have led to some truly funny scenes. No need to make an ass out of a guy trying to understand if consent was there or not.

Media perpetuates Rape Culture and mocks the idea - and neccessity - of consent.

Media perpetuates Rape Culture and mocks the idea – and neccessity – of consent.

This trailer is filling my newsfeed and twitter stream and no doubt yours, as well as any tween/teen social media users you have at home. In fact, this party scene is the final frame of the trailer as it was meant to have lasting impact and influence by the people who want to earn money from this movie. So talk about it with your kids: the responsibilities media content creators have, unpack Rape Culture and how it is perpetuated, the roles young men and women play in Rape Culture, how kids learn to navigate sexual relationships, and how maybe women have a responsibility to each other not to make a joke out of rape.

It isn’t dark or salty humor. It isn’t satire. Much like the rape whistle joke Kay Cannon included in the original Pitch Perfect screenplay, it isn’t doing any of us any favors.

It is SO disappointing to see women in Hollywood be so insensitive to the campus rape crisis by including this scene that only further reinforces the “No means YES!” belief far too many college men (and apparently administrators) hold. Like when they chant outside their fraternities and parties “No means yes and yes means anal!” HILARIOUS!!!

Incredibly irresponsible for a film directed by Elizabeth Banks and a scene starring Rebel Wilson, who have been cheered for their feminism, and who are capable of better comedy. Because if there is anything that is not chuckle-fest inducing, it is the fact that one in five women will be raped while trying to get a higher education, usually by men they considered friends or lovers.

That’s not a statistic I’m in love with. Hopefully by the time the film is released, this scene will be cut or reworked.

 

Tonight I Will Be Attacked: 1 in 5

**TRIGGER WARNING**

“The price of a college education should not include a 1 in 5 chance of being sexually assaulted.” – Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

One in five collegiate women will be raped during their time at school. One in five.

One in five collegiate women will be raped during their time at school. One in five.

Tonight I am going to be attacked. The lights will be off so I won’t be able to see but I’ll probably be able to feel it coming, if only a second before contact. A man who is bigger than me and stronger than me is going to grab my wrists or grab my throat or come from behind and bear hug me with so much force my lungs empty with a blasting cough. His hands are huge and his arms are strong, stronger than mine, so I really have to scrap for any inch of freedom I might gain as we struggle. Stomp, kick, hit, bite…I’ll do whatever it takes. I’m going to try to fight him off while I’m still on my feet and hope he doesn’t take it to the ground. If we do end up on the ground with him on top of me I am going to try break his choke hold before he starts bashing my head on the floor or block his punch to my face, wrap up his arm with one of mine and grab his head and neck while I flip us over so that I can deliver a hit and kick before I try to run. At that point I’ll be hoping there isn’t a second attacker.

I know the man who is going to attack me, kind of. I’ve spent several hours with him over the past six weeks, so we’re acquaintances I guess you could say. That is usually how it goes, right? You know the guy who attacks you. So many times it is a friend or a date or a boyfriend, and that is what makes it so much worse. I remember thinking that when it happened to me a month before I went to college. In my case tonight my attacker will be one of my self defense instructors. We’ve worked for the past five weeks on fight and survival skills and tonight is the last class, when the attacks come in the dark. I’m scared out of my mind. I’m still showing up for class.

The same could be said for countless collegiate women all over this country. They are scared yet they still show up for class.

1 in 5.

Despite the bruises I have on my wrists and arms from previous classes, this is all just practice. It is pretend. We laugh and joke around during class. If we didn’t do the break away correctly they choke hold or head lock us again, making sure we understand how to correctly break free and get to safety. During class we’ve said how important it is for high school girls to take this course and I keep thinking what epic bullshit that is. We have courses that teach women how to not get raped, but nowhere in my town is there a course teaching boys and men not to rape. The male instructors at class are beyond respectful and nice to all of the women. They take extra time to really make sure we understand the moves, they are invested in our safety. The head female instructor is great. Still, every minute of every class I think about what happened to me at 18 years old.

I think about my daughter, when she will be 18 years old. 

I essentially have no fear of my young daughter being kidnapped, therefore I let her run free to explore her world. Of the 74.5 million children in the United States only 115 are abducted by strangers per year.

Yet even though her journey to college is ten years away I am already worried about her safety there. She has a 1 in 5 chance of being raped. 

1 in 5. 

When we look at the mathematical probability of our children being abducted by a stranger they have a greater chance of being struck by lightning on a trip to Florida than being abducted by a stranger in your neighborhood. And I’ve never worried about my kids being struck by lightning. I think stranger abduction is a deep, dark fear for ALL parents because it is our worst nightmare. But it is EXTREMELY rare. Yet our entire generation has changed the way we parent because of fear mongering and misinformation.

What we should be concerned about is our daughters being raped and our sons being rapists. Yet I never hear parents talking about that. Ever.

1 in 5.

I read about these issues online, but in my day to day life I have never heard a parent correct another after “Boys will be boys” or “that just means he likes you!” is uttered, explaining that is what builds Rape Culture. I almost never hear a parent teach their sons about consent. Maybe the occasional, “We don’t hit girls.” Perhaps it is because my kids are still young, but I don’t hear parents talking about what seems like the systematic covering up of rape by high schools and universities. I have never, ever heard a parent of a boy wonder aloud if they could be raising a rapist. And this is odd, because many of these mothers would have gone to college, so they either were the 1 in 5, or they were the other 4 but knew someone who was the 1.

Why aren’t we talking about this?

1 in 5.

Which numbers do you think American parents should be obsessing over and completely changing their parenting in response to? Which number should inspire a rash of safety products and apps to be developed and marketed? Which number should be discussed by parents at playgrounds and playdates? Which number should be covered relentlessly by media?

1 in 5.

Tonight I will be attacked, I know it is coming. I know who is going to do it. And I know when it is over that I’m going to be okay. This should never be what goes through the minds of our daughters when the embark on their journey to college. Rape should not be a foregone conclusion, part of the checklist we review when packing our children off to university.

Rape should not be the price of college admission.

 

This is how I teach my children:

1. Your body belongs to you, no one may touch it in a way that upsets you or hurts you. You own the right to demand people respect your body.

2. You must respect other people’s bodies. It is never appropriate to hurt or violate someone’s body. I will teach my son never to rape.

3. You must ask if it is okay to give a hug, kiss, hold hands, etc. Wanting to show affection is sweet. Making sure it wants to be received is critical. No means no.

4. My husband and I demonstrate respect towards each other so that this is the foundation my children grow with: Men and women respect each other. We are equals.

5. My children are young and establishing their framework of the world. I do not allow media that normalizes violence against women nor that which sexualizes and objectifies them. (As my children grow our conversations about this will dig deeper into cultural attitudes about women’s bodies and Rape Culture. We will also talk about boys/men as victims.)

6. If you see someone hurting someone else you must speak up, stop it, or seek help. You may not be silent.

More on this:

One Student – become a change agent on campus

NPR: Rape On Campus: Painful Stories Cast Blame On Colleges

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month 

If You Don’t Like “Rape Culture” Then Focus For A Minute On Sex and Status

Huffington Post series for Sexual Assault Awareness Month

The Integrity Of My Son’s Body: Consent, Respect, Touching and Teaching

As the mother of a young, affectionate son who has been taught about consent and respect of personal boundaries, it is upsetting to me to hear the number of people (mostly women) who feel an appropriate response by a girl to an unwanted kiss/touch is to physically assault a boy in his genitals.

One of these things is not like the other.

If we are demanding respect for the integrity of our daughter’s bodies, then so too must we do the same for our sons. My son’s body is just as precious to me as my daughter’s. Both deserve respect, as do your children.

I have taught my children the only reason that you would ever assault someone in their genitals is if the situation presents imminent bodily harm and that is their only means to get away. Assaulting a male in his genitals is not the correct response to a troublesome or annoying behavior that does not leave you in physical danger. In teaching our children to do so, we teach them that the easiest way to solve a situation and degrade someone is to violate a person’s body in their most private part.

I don’t want my children raised in a generation where cunt punts and racking nuts are the way we handle unwanted affections, even if it is repeated and even if it is bothersome or out of line. In fact, this horrifies me.

This morning I posted the story of the Colorado boy , six year old first grader Hunter Yelton, suspended for kissing a girl’s hand. Knowing the story was not as simple as this, I waited 24 hours after first hearing of the story to post anything because what has struck me in the past is that the offended parent of the perpetrator goes quickly to the media to cry foul and what we don’t accurately hear is the story from the victim (cc: the Town of Steubenville). I read no less than twelves links on the story from various sources and watched several videos, all featuring or quoting the boy’s mother. Because I searched by the boy’s name and the school’s name (the victim’s name obviously has been withheld), I did not come across this article which as of this morning was the only media piece featuring the voice of the family of the girl (the victim). But because the article talking about the girl didn’t use the boy’s name, it didn’t hit my radar.

And here is the problem: This story is about how consent and respect weave together, not about she said/he said with stories so opposite that the other party’s information is not included in the same piece. Maybe we need to change the way we report and talk about sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault in our culture.

The story has now descended into threads about who was right or wrong, what is the real history, what the appropriate punishment should be, etc. Yes, it is important for the boy to learn his repeated behavior is unacceptable and that he needs to respect the personal space of his peers and that “no means no”. The boy may or may not have some underlying behavioral issues that prevent him from learning this on the same curve as other children. The girl’s family seems to have done a good job teaching her how to establish boundaries and seek help.

What concerned me was that there was no representation in the media of the girl, and that we were only hearing the boy’s side which was being chalked up to a cute school yard crush and an innocent kiss. The boy’s name and the institution were all over the media, yet there was nothing of the girl. And isn’t that usually the case? Granted the girl’s mother came forward with a statement much later than when the story broke, and I would imagine she wanted privacy for her family. The problem is, none of these media outlets questioned what her side was or that her point of view should be taken into consideration. MOST IMPORTANTLY: I didn’t hear any media question whether or not the touching was consensual.

The media downplayed it, and in so doing they played a card from Rape Culture each time they talked about how cute the boy was, calling him a Don Juan or charmer or Casanova, saying the girl’s mom overreacted, and excusing his behavior as “boys will be boys”. The boy’s mom excused it because she said the children were “boyfriend and girlfriend”, it was an innocent crush, and the girl was okay with the kiss. The important question is: Was she?

The other concern I had was that in being suspended the boy and his mom didn’t seem to be taught the lesson they needed about consent and respect. They were taught punishment and isolation. The school followed policy, and whether or not a six year old is capable of sexual harassment isn’t really the issue. The issue we should be discussing is how do we teach our children the concepts of body integrity, consent, and respect.

As the conversation unfolded in the PPBB community I was contacted by my friend and colleague Dr. Rebecca Hains who had written a piece this morning on the subject. In her piece Hains questions why we are getting lost in the trees and not seeing the forest:

But it really bothers me that no one is talking about the bigger picture: the fact that we need to teach our children—even very young children—about bodily autonomy and consent. Shouldn’t that be the takeaway from this case? We should be having a cultural conversation about how to raise boys who know that girls’ bodies are not theirs for the taking—who respect both themselves and others.

Girls bodies are not there for the taking and boys bodies are not punching bags when they get annoying. Girls and boys have the natural born right to have their small bodies respected. So how do we teach consent, respect, and body integrity (Hains calls this bodily autonomy) to our kids?

We start by teaching them that this concept begins with them self. Teach them the appropriate words for body parts. Teach them who are the trusted circle who can touch their private parts for toileting, bathing, or medical reasons. Teach them they have the right to say “No” at any time. With both of my children we had instilled these lessons by age two.

Next – we teach our children that affection is a wonderful part of a friendship, but we need to ask before we give it. I love this example from Hains’ piece linked above:

My five-year-old son loves to hug and kiss his friends. He is sweet and affectionate, and when he first sees a friend or when it’s time to say goodbye, he wants nothing more but to wrap his arms around that friend and give him or her a big kiss. Sometimes, his friends reciprocate, but sometimes, they clearly don’t want the physical contact. So, since about the time when he turned four years old, and he seemed old enough to understand, we’ve told him that he needs to ask his friends for permission first. We taught him to ask, “Can I give you a hug and a kiss?” We’ve also told him he needs to respect their answers, even if it’s disappointing, and I’m glad to see that this is now his usual approach. He gets their consent.

The other side of this coin is that we should not expect our children to want to return affection just because someone wants to give it. Whether it is a peer at school or a rarely-seen uncle or the neighbor lady you bump into at the store, your child is not required to hug or kiss or cuddle anyone. If the child declines, no means no. The child is a person, not a teddy bear. Included in this is tickling or play wrestling — when the child says enough, that means enough, not continue playing and teasing.

Then we need to teach our children how to establish boundaries and that at any time they are made to feel uncomfortable they can turn to a trusted adult to share their concerns and that they will be taken seriously. Phrases like “My body belongs to me” or “That is my private part” or “This is inappropriate” are concepts preschoolers on up understand. As the child is older, you can teach them “Your words/touch are making me uncomfortable and I am telling you to stop” or “This is inappropriate and you need to hear me telling you NO”.

Sometimes, I feel like teaching advocacy is the easy part. Teaching our children to hear it – to respect another – is sometimes not as easy. Our children need to be taught that it isn’t funny or cute to pressure someone into physical contact, even if that contact is (in their mind) affectionate. Our children need to be taught that when someone says no, that means hands off or walk away. Our children need to be taught that when someone uses their voice, it is our responsibility to hear it and honor it. Our children need to be taught that when they see harassment, they seek help for the victim and not remain silent and blind for the perpetrator.

Body integrity (bodily autonomy) means that every human body is sacred and comes with a voice and that voice deserves respect. It means that we do not cause harm to the body of another person. It means that every human has the right to their body as their own and the right to their personal space. Full stop.

I hope the conversation around this story shifts and that we get out of the he said/she said mentality and instead focus on what the take away should be: Consent, Respect, Touching and Teaching.

 

July 16 Shoot 044 Special thanks to Rebecca Hains for discussing this topic with me in a way that creates meaningful change.