Desperate Lovers and Wanton Women: Press Representations of Domestic Violence
Evans, Iisa, Hecate
It is as if the stark 'reality' of men's violence against women is simply too awful to contemplate. It must be hedged in with discursive strategies that have the effect of deflecting attention away from the harshness of the verdict that men are responsible for their own violence... (1)
On a winter morning in 1987, a young woman on the way to work was attacked in her car by her former de facto. He attempted to strangle her before clapping his hand over her mouth and stabbing her repeatedly with a hunting-knife. Twelve people witnessed the attack and heard her screams, but no one intervened. When questioned, they stated that they thought it was 'just a domestic.' (2) The victim died in hospital two hours later. Her murderer used provocation (she had left him five months previously) as mitigation, was convicted of manslaughter, and spent just four years incarcerated.
The press covered this story from the time of the murder through to the subsequent trial. Australian readers spread their newspapers before them and saw catchy, entertaining headlines such as: It Was a Blur, She Betrayed Me, and the poignant I Loved Her. The murderer, even after indictment, was portrayed as lovesick, desperate and devastated. Meanwhile the tragic death of a young woman slowly but surely becomes a secondary issue to the hell her murderer had been and was, even now, going through. (3)
To a great extent the press sets the frame for both the quality and the quantity of public discourse on specific issues in Australian public life, including crime and social welfare. For a particular crime to become 'a major public issue, it is often sufficient for the media simply to declare it to be one.' (4) However, it must also be noted that media participation is a two-way event as 'people are active consumers of the products of the media, bringing to bear attitudes and values formed also by other institutions, as well as their own intelligence and judgement.' (5) Press representations of the issues surrounding domestic violence must hence be acknowledged as an influential part of an ongoing cycle, and individual journalists and editors be seen as both products of, and participants in the very society they seek to inform.
The failure of any witnesses to comprehend the severity of the above attack underlines the importance of effective community awareness of domestic violence. In 1995, the Office of the Status of Women published a report entitled Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women, which was designed to gauge changes in community attitudes since the last major study, carried out in 1987. Whilst the research concluded that domestic violence was a significantly greater social concern than it had been in 1987, it also contained some paradoxes that suggested that underlying community assumptions conflicted with the actuality of domestic violence.
The most obvious paradox underlined the difficulties involved in translating increased societal awareness into effective attitudinal change. Whilst 80% of respondents readily agreed that domestic violence was not a private matter, 83% simultaneously acknowledged little inclination to 'get involved.' (6) At times the survey's findings were contradictory. With regard to mitigating factors, the report concluded that there was a good community understanding that domestic violence was not caused by alcohol and not restricted to those of lower socio-economic status, whilst simultaneously reporting findings that pointed to a societal perception that a variety of factors, such as alcohol and financial pressure, were causes of domestic violence. (7)
Effective community awareness appears to be hampered by the perpetuation of damaging myths and outright falsehoods regarding domestic violence. These myths range from downplaying the violence and emphasising its 'private' nature, to transferring the blame and, therefore, the responsibility for change, from the perpetrator to the victim. …