Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On wheelchair use and victim-blaming [Foul-Up Fridays]


A link from some Fox News commentator's blog brought me a TON of traffic 'n' trolls. I've only dealt with less than a half-dozen trolls before, so this was an... experience. Many denied the existence of ableism, many told me to get a sense of humor, and the worst were bordering on threatening. It seems to have slowed to a drip now, and I'm thankful for the useful lesson in moderation, I suppose.

In any case, a couple of new visitors had useful critique. From J, on last week's post about 30 Rock:

My wife has MS and is in a wheelchair full time...You seem to think that my wife should be offended that Jenna danced for the Prince in the wheelchair, that is how I dance with my wife! If there is a better, more non-offensive way please tell me.

I don't think J's wife should be necessarily offended by anything I am. This is my point of view - no one is obligated to share my same exact reactions.

For the most part, I stand by my analysis. I think that particularly the scene that follows constitutes ableism (in which the wheelchair user literally kills himself after a woman with able privilege says untruthfully that she loves him). But let's look at the comment J refers to:
Since wheelchair users clearly cannot enjoy their own body, he live vicariously through Jenna. Jenna’s dancing, while physically funny, is at the cost of the prince’s bodily agency.
J makes a good point: people in partnerships with wheelchair users have a number of different ways of being physical with their partners. My analysis of that scene constituted policing said relationships, and I apologize.


Renee and Daisy both emphasized Joan's status as the rape victim of the man she assaults in my Television Tuesday post. Fair point- she does deserve revenge, and the incident at hand in that post is disproportionate to what she went through. My central point is not to shame Joan for being a domestic abuser - Renee called it a pre-emptive strike, and I think that's fair and hope it's followed by Joan getting out of the situation and Greg meeting justice.

I stand by my argument, for the most part: the central point I meant to communicate (and the onus is on me to effectively get this across, ) is that Mad Men has erased the experiences of victims of domestic abuse during the silent epidemic of the 1960s in which many women were brutalized. Mad Men, a show that positions itself as concerned with portraying issues of importance to women, has only deigned to address the issue of violence in the home once directly. And in that case, a man who way deserved it was the recipient of violence in the home, and it was a scene that was intended to give viewers a sense of retribution, trivializing the suffering of the silenced women abused by their husbands in the era. And it's not for lack of opportunity - I don't believe that none of the men at Sterling Cooper were violent with their wives. I think that domestic violence towards women in the 1960s in particular needs serious consideration on the show's part, and this scene served to highlight that lack.

Having said that! I was too hard and focused too much on a rape victim's reaction to a terrible situation in which she looks to have little power, and not enough on the context. I also scolded other writers who had a valid reaction to the scene. This constitutes victim-blaming, and I apologize.


  1. Does anyone deserve violence, though? Even a rapist? I haven't seen the scene in context so I don't know if Joan was defending herself against a threat (in which case violence may be the only option available) or if she was just fed up and frustrated, in which case, yeah, I think that violence is actually not ok. No matter who you are.

    I think that you can talk about the context of the violence and the fact that it's complicated, but I still think your criticism of the scene is reasonable. Mad Men is not doing a great job of discussing violence at home, which was a major issue during this period, and it's really unfortunate if this is the only depiction viewers see. As you yourself say, this scene trivializes a very real historical (and current) issue.

    I would be interested to see more of an exploration of Joan's powerlessness and the pressures which led her to commit (undeserved) violence, though.

  2. Good point - I guess I meant "deserved it" in the context of a dramatic narrative. (Joan was not defending herself physically - but as Renee points out in the comment, she's in a situation where she is always in danger.) The viewers need to see this character paying in some way for his deeds, and this is not the way to do it.

    It's a muddy situation, clearly.

  3. I agree with the earlier comment as well. Joan hitting Greg may be cathartic for her, but it will neither get her in a better situation nor prevent him from harming her again.

    I often feel the urge to be violent against those people who have hurt my friends on a frequent basis, but it's not something I'm proud of and I don't really like when people encourage it as a "feminist" thing to do. Shouldn't we be working on identifying and stopping violence against others (in all capacities) rather than always having to respond to something?

    It's a muddy situation, as you've pointed out. No one is claiming that she doesn't have the RIGHT to do what she did, given the situation she's in. But is it right, or better? Well...hmm...

    One thing that did bother me: I want to add that you use "men" as the aggressors in this post and "women" as the victim-survivors, re:domestic violence (although previously you pointed Greg out as the recipient of the violence). Men can and are abused in relationships all the time, and this is not something we should forget.

    It's something that bothers me a lot: many things, like rape, domestic abuse, self-injury, eating disorders, just to name a few...tend to get attributed to women when they affect everybody.

  4. Faye, I didn't want to mention it in this post because I wanted to focus on Joan/women as a victim and take responsibility for how I blamed them. In the last post, I did mention that this construction on the part of the show "trivialized male victims." Thanks for pointing that out, though - I think it needs to be noted, just not by me in this situation.

  5. Very well-said, Faye. People and nations commit violence against others because they feel insecure about their place in their homes, or the world. If a man or woman has to show his or her mate who's "boss" by smacking, hitting, punching, raping or killing, he or she has some serious gap in his or her life, if not psyche. That is exactly the reason why we shouldn't encourage victims to retaliate or anyone to "launch a pre-emptive strike." Instead, we should work to make ourselves and each other more whole and on valuing each other.

  6. I cannot believe people are still questioning Joan hitting her husband over the head with a vase. Hitting him won't mean that she has suddenly escaped life with a rapist but perhaps it will mean in the future he will think twice before laying a hand on her. Her husband is a BULLY, with a capitol B. Bullies are less likely to abuse when they feel either threatened themselves, or experience a loss of power. Perhaps, if he know,s that Joan is capable of fighting he will not attack. Bullies look for certain victory and not complication.

    TO illustrate this point I will bring up a close friend of mine. She is a second degree blackbelt and a victim of domestic violence. When her boyfriend beat her, though capable she never fought back because she had been conditioned to submit. He began to believe that he could beat her at will and the violence escalated. One day he pushed her too far and she snapped. She beat the living shit out of him. After this incident he left her and told anyone that would listen it was because she was too violent. Point I am trying to make here, is that once he saw that his actions would be met in kind he ran because that is what bullies do.

    Oh and one final thought, How dare the rest of you question how a woman negotiates living with her rapist. You might as well victim blame because clearly her experiences are not your first concern.

  7. Renee, I followed your analogy up until the last line.

    Comparing someone's belief that someone should leave their rapist/abuser rather than stay in a dangerous situation -- one, perhaps, of increasingly escalating violence, and certainly one that is unpleasant and unhealthy -- or one's theoretical belief that no one should commit violence against any other person to VICTIM-BLAMING is unnecessary and uncalled for.

    The ideology that violence is never a solution is not victim blaming.

    The idea that it's a bad idea for Joan to stay in a situation where she will learn violence as a coping mechanism is not victim blaming.

    In fact I'm pretty sure nothing about "hitting people is bad" = "you deserved to be raped".

    I think you're overreacting. I understand why, but it's not necessary and it's a little bit callous.

    Does violence sometimes provide a quick, cathartic answer? Sure. Is it the right thing to do or even a good longterm solution? Probably not.

    Or at least, holding that opinion is not victim blaming.

  8. My last comment on this thread: Because she lives in 1963, Joan's options with regard to getting out of the situation are quite limited. Getting out of an abusive situation today is very difficult; it was even worse then.

  9. Hello my love! I am behind on reading, so sorry for the late comment, but I wanted to say something about both "get a sense of humor" comments and 30 Rock. I think it's very important to take an objective, academic look at the way our popular culture portrays otherness, and I think you do it here with aplomb. It's not your goal to be funny, after all; it's your goal to analyze, dissect, expose. That being said, I do think there's also a place in the discourse for comedy to make us uncomfortable with our own assumptions and language. It's not funny and uncomfortable, but rather funny BECAUSE it is uncomfortable. I think 30 Rock does a great job of creating recognition humor from Liz Lemon's incessant liberal grandstanding, which ultimately hides deep-seated prejudice. By making this into a joke, the show makes it easier for soi-disant liberals (such as myself, I will readily admit) to acknowledge how much our own behavior resembles hers. Also, just wanted to add that read another way, the episode with the disabled prince in a wheelchair could be seen as a critique of power and privilege in that he is the victim of the kind of inbreeding once engaged in by dynastic power structures seeking to retain familial control of European nations without regard to the personal and political consequences. I'm mostly kidding, but I think it is worth noting the context in which this character was portrayed -- he was no ordinary disabled individual being mocked for the sake of it.

    Or maybe I just don't want to feel bad about watching 30 Rock. :)

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