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).