The night of the murder of the Pennsylvania school girls, I turned off the television.
I’m generally a huge TV advocate who would rather discuss media representations than ignore them. But that night it seemed like death was everywhere, and I didn’t want to watch. Three shows that I had landed on while absent-mindedly clicking the remote depicted violence against women. That was enough.
I tried that week to articulate the frustration that these killings managed to avoid scrutiny as hate crimes based on gender — as pre-meditated mysoginistic acts. Two weeks later, New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert tackles the issue head-on, challenging the cultural norms that contribute to the media’s silence.
After noting that little of the coverage following the murders made much of the fact that only girls were targeted, Herbert writes, “Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews.”
“There would have been thunderous outrage,” Herbert continues. “The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime.”
Unfortunately you need a NYT registration to read the column in full. Here’s more of an excerpt from “Why Aren’t We Shocked?“:
None of that occurred because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts. The startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls.
The disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock. Guys at sporting events and other public venues have shown no qualms about raising an insistent chant to nearby women to show their breasts. An ad for a major long-distance telephone carrier shows three apparently naked women holding a billing statement from a competitor. The text asks, “When was the last time you got screwed?”
An ad for Clinique moisturizing lotion shows a woman’s face with the lotion spattered across it to simulate the climactic shot of a porn video.
We have a problem. Staggering amounts of violence are unleashed on women every day, and there is no escaping the fact that in the most sensational stories, large segments of the population are titillated by that violence. We’ve been watching the sexualized image of the murdered 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey for 10 years. JonBenet is dead. Her mother is dead. And we’re still watching the video of this poor child prancing in lipstick and high heels.
What have we learned since then? That there’s big money to be made from thongs, spandex tops and sexy makeovers for little girls. In a misogynistic culture, it’s never too early to drill into the minds of girls that what really matters is their appearance and their ability to please men sexually.
What Herbert is getting at is respect — for childhood and for girls and women. We’re so far along on what Herbert terms the “continuum of misogyny” that acts of violence against women merely need to be packaged pretty to be suitable for cultural consumption.
“Once you dehumanize somebody, everything is possible,” Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of Equality Now, tells Herbert. Indeed.