Originally posted on “Marx in Drag”
There is something that is bothering me about the phrases, “A real man doesn’t hit a woman,” or “No one should ever hit a woman.” This seems to be the go-to phrase in response to the video of Ray Rice punching and knocking out his wife. A friend with tickets to an NFL game wanted to wear a t-shirt that represented her commitment to girls’ and women’s rights. One person suggested, “Don’t Hit Girls.” On the surface, who could argue with that?
But I have found myself cringing every time I hear this. Why would I bristle at this no-brainer?
When we say, “Don’t hit girls,” it punctuates gender difference and re-articulates the idea that girls and women are a different kind of human than boys and men (e.g. don’t use that language around women and children, the victims of the airstrike include women and children, and you never hit a woman).
While these phrases strike a chord of protection, they are examples of benevolent sexism—cultural practices or beliefs that appear to raise women’s status and honor them, but in reality set them apart as different, weak, and/or in need of protection. Benevolent sexism, while seemingly benign in the form of holding doors, is the same logic that was used historically to bar women from education, politics, and employment (it’s for their own good, poor dears).
I think the phrase “don’t hit women” might be an updated version of benevolent sexism and is the same old discursive move to punctuate gender difference as a hierarchy where men are powerful and women are weak. When we say that men should not hit women and leave it there, we’re saying that it is okay for men to hit each other. That is, men are more powerful than women, they are capable of and expected to use violence to settle disputes with “equals”, and women are not equals so should be left out of the messy business of masculine affairs.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not think we should do away with this injunction, and I am well aware that men have used violence to exert power and control over women, and that, as researchers like Lisa Brush show, they do more damage when they assault their wives than wives who assault their husbands (see article here). Domestic violence is an enormous problem, is inextricable from gender power dynamics, and those who are victimized are in need of resources and protection and those who perpetrate should suffer consequences.
However, at the same time, I simply do not believe that saying, “don’t hit girls,” in response to media portrayals of men beating up women, will stop an individual abuser from hitting his partner. In a world where men are told they should and deserve to have power and control, especially in relationship to women, and that violence is a natural, legitimate, and admirable way to settle disputes, a simple catch-phrase repeated only when boys hit girls or men beat on women won’t stop men like Ray Rice from punching women.
In fact, I think it might do the opposite. This phrase reproduces the idea that violence is inherently masculine and naturally wielded by men. It’s a “man” thing; it’s not cool to use it against women and children.
While I agree that women and children should never be the victims of violence, I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that masculine violence is natural or that it should, in any context, be wielded by men to settle disputes or exert or gain power. When power and control are contested via physical violence, the entity with the greatest physical strength will have the most power and control, whether it is a state, a group, or an individual. In reality, however, why should this be the case? What function does brute physical strength serve in most contemporary societies except to unjustly exert or gain power to control others?
This is precisely what bothers me. The problem is not hitting girls. The problem is hitting. If Ray Rice’s partner were significantly smaller than him and a man, what would we say? What if Ray Rice was partnered with another football player his size or bigger? Would it be okay for him to punch and knock out “his fiancé, now husband”? Men small in stature, are not skilled at violence, or who are not willing to use violence against others also suffer greatly at the hands of boys and men who do. How does that phrase, “don’t hit girls,” help them? What grievance do they have in the eyes of public opinion?
Finally, I’m also bothered by the media spectacle of Ray Rice’s violence because I am a football fan. Football is embedded in and reflective of a masculine culture of violence. There is absolutely no getting around this.
In fact, as Michael Messner and others suggest, because brute physical strength is no longer an advantage to men in most areas of life, we raise football to a religion and worship football players because they provide a cultural demonstration of brute strength as valuable and a legitimate criteria with which to settle who is Number One. Football, more than any sport embodies and celebrates that aspect of masculine culture and masculine superiority.
As a football fan, I appreciate the athletic skills of quarterbacks, receivers, and pass defenders along with the tactics and strategy required to excel as a team. I also enjoy men in tight, spandex pants falling all over each other in slow motion. It’s the beauty, not the brutality of the game that I love.
However, I can’t delude myself. I’m not pulling the “I like the articles in Playboy” card. I do sometimes enjoy the violence of the game. I like it when my team sacks the other team’s quarterback. No matter what I like about the game, however, my participation and endorsement of it is ultimately an endorsement of the physical and economic exploitation of the players and the celebration of masculine power and violence. I am struggling with all of this and have to decide whether or not I will continue to participate as a fan.
But again, I think that blaming football for Ray Rice’s violence is also unacceptable. There has been important discussion about how the players bring the violence of the game back to their interpersonal relationships. I have no doubt that is the case. However, to say the problem is football is to ignore the broader gendered culture of violence of which football is a part. We need to take a long hard look at the gender of violence that makes us love football and say “A real man never hits a woman.” What if, instead of saying “A Real Man doesn’t hit women,” we said, “A good person doesn’t hit others?”
But of course, that wouldn’t work for a t-shirt slogan my friend could wear to an NFL game, for, if you oppose hitting of any kind, what are you doing at a football game? And that is precisely the problem with the centrality of violence in football and the role it plays in keeping the gendered order of violence unquestioned. The t-shirt would have to be about girls.
Mimi Schippers received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She is author of Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock (Rutgers University Press) and is currently working on her next book entitled Polyqueer: Masculinity, Femininity, and the Queer Potential of Plural Relationships (New York University Press, forthcoming).