Misogyny in the West
When I was working for UN Women in Cairo I regularly encountered, both from opponents and advocates of gender equality, the view that women’s rights are a fundamentally western project, an aspiration to impose Western standards and values onto Egypt. However, the view that the West is a utopia or dystopia (depending on your point of view) with regards to women’s rights can be misleading.
Whilst it is undeniable that, in many ways, Western countries have vastly better records of respecting women’s rights than Egypt – the conclusion that in the West women themselves are ‘respected’ is far more problematic.
Sadly, misogyny is still very much present in the West. Not only this but, unlike other forms of prejudice and hatred, it’s often viewed as acceptable, trivial, and at times even glamorous.
Can rape be funny?
The extent of misogyny in our society can be seen from the way violence against women is regularly treated as a humorous topic. This issue was brought up this week in an article by Naomi McAuliffe ridiculing the website unilad.com. The site was devoted to ‘banter’ which largely constituted jokes about rape some of which were printed on T-shirts and sold online. One article on the website, entitled ‘Sexual Mathematics’, concludes by saying that if you take a girl for a drink and she “won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported”, going on to say that “we like those odds”. Personally, I think that if a punch line involves urging men to commit rape the joke should not be told.
Unfortunately, the case of unilad.com is not an isolated incident but part of a wider notion that violence against women is a legitimate source of humour. Indeed, the site has nearly 80,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook – an indication of its popularity. Furthermore, there have been a plethora of other cases in which comedians have been sexual violence as legitimate material for a comedy routine. To name just one example, Russell Brand hilariously called a rape crisis hotline live on stage as part of his act during a live gig in Northampton.
Aside from the obvious offence that would be caused to a survivor of rape in Brand’s audience, there is a real danger of trivialising rape and violence against women that has potentially dreadful results.
Further evidence of the trivialisation and even glamourisation of violence against women can be found in the music industry. You don’t have to look very far among the most popular artists to find shocking and explicit references to domestic and sexual violence.
Perhaps the most high-profile example is that of Rihanna, famously a victim of domestic violence, in her duet with Eminem. The rapper concludes the his final verse with the lines:
“If she ever tries to fuckin’ leave again,
I’ma tie her to the bed and set this house on fire”
This line is immediately followed by Rihanna singing about how much she ‘loves the way it burns’. Unfortunately, this song is far from a one-off and by no means the worst offender.
For that we can turn to Kanye West’s single Monster. The most dramatic instance of misogyny can be found when West boasts that ‘now she claiming that I bruised her oesophagus’ whilst lauding himself as ‘a motherfuckin’ monster’.
The video to accompany Monster is even more shocking. In fact, the video is so full of scenes of sexual violence that it is difficult to know where to start. There are scenes of dead naked women hanging by their necks from chains:
Several in which the rapper asexually assaults the unconscious bodies of two women:
Another in which West casually holds the severed head of a woman:
And even one point when a man holding a chain saw closes the door to a room in which a women lies unconscious – presumably about to be mutilated.
West tries to pre-empt criticism of his patently offensive depictions of violence against women by opening the video with the following disclaimer:
His best efforts aside, just as prefixing a sentence with ‘I’m not racist but…’ doesn’t excuse the speaker of racism a three-line disclaimer doesn’t absolve West of responsibility.
The glamorisation of sexual and domestic violence against women is not confined to rappers and hip-hop. This can be seen from America’s latest darling of pop Lana Del Ray. The video to her track Born to Die features shocking scenes of violence: at one point Del Ray is lying in bed whilst her boyfriend casually chokes her and in another he aggressively pulls her face towards him. All of this takes place whilst Del Ray sings about trying “to have fun in the meantime” and taking “a walk on the wild side”.
The video climaxes with Del Ray’s boyfriend carrying her unconscious mutilated and blood -soaked body whilst he bears a single defence wound above his left eye. It is not hard to infer what has happened.
The explicit violence in Monster could be put down to one very disturbed and misogynistic young man. However, the fact that such music can be bought by millions of people and receive critical acclaim shows that it is part of wider phenomenon of violence against women constituting acceptable entertainment.
This can be seen from the critical reaction to obviously misogynistic entertainment in the media. A handful of feminist blogs aside, its misogynistic elements were largely ignored. For example, in his review in the Daily Telegraph Neil McCormick lauds West’s album, My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy (that counts Monster as one of its singles) as a masterpiece and goes so far as to call it “the Sgt. Pepper of hip hop”. Indeed, in his gender-blind review, McCormick fails to even mention the disgusting misogyny prevalent in the record. Though he does say that “when you really are this great, you can be forgiven almost anything.” I beg to differ.
Another example is the media reaction to 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Media attention focused on Kanye West’s abuse of Taylor Swift that rightly received harsh criticism with even Barak Obama weighing in to chastise West. However, as this article by Ximena Ramirez points out, a joke about date-raping Megan Fox made by host Russell Brand went almost entirely without criticism.
The Dangers of Acceptable Misogyny
The portrayal in such music videos of domestic violence as a normal part of a relationship, and even a signifier of an intense romanticised love, is particularly troubling. As is West’s portrayal of sexual violence as a legitimate part of a ‘dark fantasy’. This is particularly the case as children in their early teens make up a significant part of the fan base of such artists.
With popular culture so infused with references and portrayals of violence against women it is perhaps unsurprising that such ideas seep into wider societal discourse. Just this week I’ve heard the word ‘raped’ used to refer to both getting drunk and losing a football match.
This trivialisation means that violence against women is consistently treated in a way that is very different from say, paedophilia. As Naomi McAuliffe points out, it’s hard to imagine a web site selling t-shirts making jokes out of child abuse doing well. Similarly, the defence of ‘it’s only a joke’ wouldn’t be enough to justify a racist remark. The difference is that rape, misogyny in general, is deemed to be acceptable and even fashionable.
I challenge everyone to pledge to always question trivial references to violence against women and boycott entertainment that glamorises it.