Sunday’s Grammy Awards featured a PSA of President Obama calling attention to the shocking number of women in America who are raped or suffer domestic violence. “It’s on us,” he said, urging the artistic community to raise awareness to bring a stop to it. Activist Brooke Axtell then shared her own experiences with abuse and human trafficking, capped by a powerful performance from Katy Perry who sang “By the Grace of God.” But were their commendable actions diminished by convicted abuser Chris Brown and accused rapist R. Kelly being honored with Grammy nominations? What about Eminem, long infamous for misogynistic lyrics, who just won a Grammy for Best Rap Album?
How can we impress upon a younger demographic to whom the Grammy telecast appeals the devastation of rape and domestic violence when those who glorify violence against women are in the audience—themselves being celebrated? As Ms. Axtell stated: “Authentic love does not silence, shame or abuse.”
The conflict here is telegraphed by a culture that demeans women in music lyrics, in magazine pictorials (the new, near pornographic Sports Illustrated cover comes to mind), on television and in film while it still tends to turn a blind eye toward artists, athletes and actors who abuse. We say women are equal in our society and deserve equal respect. But we don’t mean it.
Famed director Roman Polanski may be banned from return to the U.S., but still practices his craft elsewhere unfettered and won an Oscar not too long ago. Ray Rice knocked out and then dragged his unconscious fiancée from an elevator like a sack of potatoes but was recently reinstated to the Baltimore Ravens. No less than 35 women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault and other misconduct. Charlie Sheen, with a long list of violent behavior toward women, is still working and raking in the dough. The list goes on.
Nowhere were the conflicting attitudes in our culture better illuminated than by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s excellent and harrowing TIME article, Colleges Need to Stop Protecting Sexual Predators. His own celebrated status gives him deep insights into the way athletes, like pop stars, are elevated in our society, and urges us to re-examine that culture – especially among student athletes. Abdul-Jabbar is also spot on in pointing how derogatory language toward women and girls and TV’s glamorizing of a certain kind of a “me Tarzan you Jane” attitude goes a long way toward objectifying, dehumanizing and devaluing women. I encourage you in the strongest terms to read his words: An excerpt follows:
“…[T]hese colleges aren’t just ignoring the problem, but by doing so they are encouraging the problem to grow. As institutions of learning, our colleges and universities aren’t charged with just teaching the nuances of mathematical equations and the uses of metaphor in poetry, they are supposed to be teaching social values, if not directly then by their own behavior. Any tolerance of sexual assault teaches those students that women are somehow less deserving of protection than men in society, that sexual aggression by men is perfectly okay, and that even if we huff and puff about how it isn’t okay (wink, wink), nothing much will be done about it. It’s not enough to provide panic buttons around campus or train female students how to be alert to predators, we must attack the bros-before-hos mentality as not cool or high-five worthy.
As a former college athlete, I’m especially aware of the culture of entitlement that some athletes feel as they strut around campus with the belief that they can do no wrong. This ridiculous notion certainly has contributed to the alarming statistics concerning athletes and rape. A 1995 review of reported sexual assault cases at schools with Division I sports programs found that although male student-athletes made up only 3.3% of the campus population at these schools, they accounted for 19% of sexual assault perpetrators and 35% of domestic violence perpetrators. Related research has also found that athletes are far less likely to be convicted of sexual assault than members of the general public. These statistics should be shocking, but sadly they probably aren’t to most people.
A major contributing factor to athletes becoming sexual predators is our culture’s need to elevate them to heroic status.”
The same can be said of icons in the music and film business. Those in politics are not exempt either.
A Senior Democratic staffer Donny Ray Williams Jr., 37, was just convicted raping two women he drugged with Ambien. His punishment? Probation. Another report shared that “the head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania’s third largest county was forced to resign earlier this month after allegations surfaced that he had drugged and raped a female coworker.”
Add to that recent unfathomable comments by several Republican politicians who speculate that rape may not be a crime if the victim is sleeping (Utah Rep. Brian Greene) or “wearing a nightie” (VA candidate Dick Black) and it is no leap to realize how far we have yet to travel in treating women as partners and equal citizens, not pleasure objects no more respected than blow-up dolls.
The Grammys’ offering a public forum to courageous survivor and activist Brooke Axtell is a good first step, as are President Obama’s statements against domestic violence, but as Salon’s Katie McDonough was quick to point out, their words, along with Katy Perry’s song, felt isolated from the rest of the program and had an artificial, “Thus concludes our domestic anti-violence portion of the evening, now back to our regularly scheduled coddling of abusers.” McDonough further stated:
“This is so often how we are asked to think about domestic violence. As something separate and foreign and distinct from the rest of our lives. To be addressed solemnly and then ignored completely.”
When President Obama said “It’s on us,” that does not mean it’s on us to listen patiently for five minutes and pretend it has nothing to do with us the rest of the time, just because we may not be guilty of abuse. What is required then is a higher level of engagement. If you see something, say something. Peer pressure is a powerful thing in any circle and can be a force for good. Letting others know that demeaning language or abusive behavior will get one “expelled from the ranks,” for starters, would be a more powerful step than merely sympathizing with powerful words – and then changing the station.
Until there is a zero tolerance policy on violators across the board and a clearing of the baffles on politicians who think of women as mere appendages to be controlled, these are mere words that will do little more than paper over the problem.
Anita Finlay is the bestselling author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin — exposing media bias in a society not as evolved as advertised. #1 on Amazon’s Women in Politics books for 16 weeks.
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