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hey mate, women can swear too!


Two weeks ago we recognised International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which has come to be popularly known as White Ribbon Day. Now, as we recognise International Human Rights Day, it is appropriate to reflect on the status of women and men as equal human subjects.

Australia’s White Ribbon Day campaign asks men to swear ‘never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women’. It is an attractive idea that men, as the main perpetrators of violence against women, hold the power to put an end to it. However, in doing so, are we in danger of reproducing the very same values that inform the behaviour we are trying to stop?

If we look across the landscape of popular media and culture, we see men everywhere. The Global Media Monitoring Project’s report Who Makes the News? found that 76% of news subjects are men, 63% of reporters are men and 80% of experts asked to speak on issues of national and international interest are men. The Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media, in a survey of film and TV, found that 70.8% of speaking roles were male and 83% of narrators were male. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that in 2011, 89% of lead roles in films were male. Tara Moss derived from VIDA data that male writers are up to 413% more likely to be reviewed than female writers. And Irish writer Jennifer O’Connell, on her daughter’s behalf, reported that 19 of the 24 characters in the iconic children’s game Guess Who? are, you got it, men!

The media is saturated with male figures that are positioned for us to identify with and trust as authoritative. In news and popular media we see two or three (or more) times as many men as women. Clementine Ford asks, ‘[H]ow can you possibly not internalise the idea that men’s voices carry more weight and authority simply because they are the ones you hear the most?’

When men use violence to control women, it is informed in part by a belief that their position and power carry more weight. Their feelings, their safety, their point-of-view. Their voice. And why wouldn’t they think that? Everything they see tells them so.

White Ribbon was conceived in Canada in 1991 by a number of men who wanted to engage other men in ending violence against women. Their idea spread internationally and in 1999 the UN declared an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women with the white ribbon as its symbol. Why is it that a campaign that is explicity about, by and for men the one that has received international validation by the UN and become synonymous with the struggle to free women from the fear and risks of male-perpetrated violence?

White Ribbon aims to engage men by providing male ambassadors who denounce violence. Their strategy plays heavily on the idea of “mateship”. They do not use female ambassadors though women may “support” the organistion. They employ female staff but state the organistion is ‘male led’. Though they do not represent women as victims, they fail to represent women in any meaningful way.

White Ribbon has a heavy media presence and its many images and voices of men contribute to the already greater mass of men in the media. While the campaign aims to bring about behaviour change, it feeds into the cultural attitudes that inform that behaviour. Men are told it is ‘up to them’ which affirms them as the powerful protectors of women and hands them the decision to be (not) violent. Women are invisible except symbolically in the white ribbon which has a history associated with “purity”.

Women are, by way of exclusion, represented as needing their experiences to be validated, voiced and protected by men and as having to aspire to an ideal of feminine virtue and innocence. Against this backdrop, women’s own efforts to be heard and to protect themselves (even acting out violently) are silenced. Yet is this not what White Ribbon swears it will not do?

The manufacturers of Guess Who? explained to Jennifer O’Connell’s daughter that the reason there are only five females out of 24 characters in the game is because ‘there are five of any given characteristic.’ As long as we believe that being female is a “characteristic” of being human, while being male is not, we will not value men and women as having an equal claim on human value.

The thing about violence is that perpetrators dehumanise their victim in order to treat them in a way they would not want to be treated themselves. So thinking that men will only identify with other men provides perpetrators of violence a “head start” in dehumanising female victims. Allowing the well-intentioned idea of “engaging men” to become synonymous with “men only” will only reinforce dangerous messages that will fail to stop men’s violence. White Ribbon’s approach may undermine its own efforts to build gender equality.

There is a place for men in stopping violence against women but it is alongside women, not in place of them. When women are equally represented and represented as equals, men will be given the opportunity to identify with and relate to women as fully human subjects.

By Bobby Quinn

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3 thoughts on “hey mate, women can swear too!

  1. This past White Ribbon day I was speaking to a woman in work and noticed she was wearing a White Ribbon pin. The strange thing was that she was wearing it at the bottom of her shirt. I asked why and she replied that she felt a bit silly wearing it because “it’s for men”. I didn’t think much more about it other than to say that there is nothing silly in wearing the pin to show support. And then I read this article which highlights exactly the issue and why my work colleague felt the way she did. Women shouldn’t think that they are only able to simply “show support”. They should feel involved, be involved, and that they too are a part of the good that White Ribbon aims to do.

  2. I agree that White Ribbon would be highly problematic if it implied that only men can prevent men’s violence against women and that men should look only to other men for reasons to engage in this work. Yes, the campaign takes place in the wider context of male dominance and patriarchal privilege. Yes, it’s a problem that Nov. 25th, the International Day for…, has come to be seen as White Ribbon Day. Instead, the White Ribbon Campaign should be seen as *one* contribution to the broader effort to prevent and reduce men’s violence against women, and as complementary and accountable to feminist efforts.
    However, White Ribbon doesn’t embody those beliefs I began with above. Instead, it rests on the belief that men should *join with women* in working to end men’s violence against women. And that men have a particular responsibility – precisely because of their privilege and the associations between masculinity, male dominance, and men’s violence – to undo the gender inequalities which sustain this violence.
    In Australia at least, one problem with White Ribbon is not that men are taking over, but that men don’t turn up. Too few men do the hard work behind the scenes of building and sustaining the campaign, and too few are public advocates for ending men’s violence against women.
    I’ve discussed men’s roles in ending men’s violence against women, and the delicate politics this involves, in various places, including these:
    Men Speak Up: A toolkit for action in men’s daily lives (Report, November 2011): http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/resources/research.
    Where Men Stand: Men’s roles in ending violence against women (Report, November 2010). URL: http://www.xyonline.net/content/where-men-stand-men%E2%80%99s-roles-ending-violence-against-women
    Men’s positive roles in ending violence against women (a short piece). URL: http://www.xyonline.net/content/men%E2%80%99s-positive-roles-ending-violence-against-women
    Involving Men in Efforts to End Violence Against Women (journal article, 2011). URL: http://www.xyonline.net/content/involving-men-efforts-end-violence-against-women-journal-article
    Men’s Collective Struggles for Gender Justice: The case of anti-violence activism. URL: http://www.xyonline.net/content/men%E2%80%99s-collective-struggles-gender-justice-case-anti-violence-activism-0
    Best wishes,
    Michael Flood.

  3. ‘Men don’t turn up’. I find in my line of work that people vote with their feet. If they don’t turn up to something it may not be that they’re lazy or irresponsible but that they really don’t like the approach being taken. It could be that White Ribbon’s emphasis on men as spokespeople actually doesn’t sit right with some men too, not because they’re abusive but because they find the approach patriarchal in itself.

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