The media and victim blaming

Female victims are 'covertly blamed' for their fate, argues Francisca Knarston.

In 2008, Sophie Elliott was murdered in her Dunedin bedroom by her ex-boyfriend and tutor, Clayton Weatherston. In reporting on the case, she was labelled as “very forward” and “self-destructive”, while her killer was called “pretty vulnerable” and “very calm”. Does this suggest that boldness in women invites and excuses the violence committed against them?

A decade later, Grace Millane was strangled to death in Auckland by her Tinder date, Jesse Shane Kempson. In the media frenzy that followed, Grace Millane was ridiculed for her interest in BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) and use of dating apps, and called naive for trusting in them. Is she therefore to be held responsible for her own murder?

Recently, I read about another young woman in Aotearoa New Zealand who was sexually assaulted, yet told by her alleged rapist’s defence lawyer that she was lying and had “no morals”. Here, the word “morals” functions as a dog-whistle for members of the jury, conjuring notions of “respectability” that apparently still hold sway in murder and rape trials. This woman’s alleged rapist was found not guilty.

While we may think we live in a progressive world that no longer condemns women for their sexuality or behaviour, the language used in courtrooms covering cases of male-perpetrated violence against women and the news articles that report on them tell an entirely different story—a story in which female victims are viewed as responsible for their treatment at the hands of male attackers.

Often we take language at face value. However, beneath this surface layer are stubborn histories that continue to reflect and construct the world around us, subtly conditioning our perceptions.

Language is a lens through which we interpret our realities. To understand something, we read about it, we define it, we talk about it. Looking more closely and critically at language provides an opportunity to uncover the impacts of the histories and ideologies hidden within them.

By focusing on linguistic features, such as framing or the connotations of words, we may gain some explanation for what a text is aiming to do and why, however subtle.

News media in particular are not exempt from prejudice or curation to produce a “good” story. Additionally, certain hegemonic ideologies concerning gender and sexuality (cis-heteronormativity), ethnicity (Pākehā), and class (middle-class privilege) traditionally dominate public discourses, further skewing our senses of which social groups are considered worthy of attention.

These agendas prime audiences to understand social issues in particular ways and can govern public and personal opinion. This is not to say that having viewpoints influenced by media is always a problem, but when this priming damages mindsets it becomes increasingly problematic.

In recent research, I looked specifically at reporting of two high-profile male-perpetrated homicides and how the victims, Sophie Elliott and Grace Millane, were covertly blamed by the media for their fates.

To understand the significance of language in this perpetuation of blame, it is necessary to acknowledge the deeply rooted gender ideologies entrenched in modern belief systems.

Gender is not something we are born with, but rather something we do and perform. Lay understandings traditionally consider gender as innate, rather than learned, the effects of which we still see today in the form of insidious ideologies that dictate binary expectations of how to perform “masculinity” and “femininity”.

Literature on gender roles finds that people are aware of what is considered acceptable and that the policing of these roles by peers, family and the media result in greater difficulty accepting or embodying identities that differ from expectations.

These hard-set gender roles subtly seep into the four articles I analysed, in which Sophie Elliott and Grace Millane were repeatedly framed as promiscuous. This plays heavily on the so-called Madonna-whore dichotomy, rooted in traditional ideas of an “acceptable” female sexuality.

Stemming from the historic “need” to reinforce patriarchy, the dichotomy polarises women into two groups: either the “good” and virginal Madonna, or the “bad” and promiscuous whore.

This reinforces the taboo surrounding female sexuality and agency, which forbids a middle-ground in which women can be both moral and sexual. It suggests there is a distinction between deserving and undeserving victims, where violence is only problematic when it is directed at an undeserving victim—the “good” Madonna.

In the articles I examined, Sophie Elliott and Grace Millane were painted as women who broke traditional codes of femininity by not conforming to the requirements of innocence that are necessary of the “ideal victim”.

To the uncritical reader, highlighting the women’s sexual pasts or outspoken behaviour ensures a readiness to question their innocence, shifting the attention away from the perpetrator’s guilt and towards the victim’s apparent role in their own demise.

While such rigid gender ideologies disadvantage people of all gender identities, they are particularly potent in their development of skewed power dynamics, which enable women and other marginalised groups to be blamed for the actions of others.

The ways in which sexual assault victims and their perpetrators are presented in the media follow a pattern of continued repackaging of outdated ideologies, mirroring the tacit values of mainstream society.

I hope that we may work towards a future where destructive discourses are unmasked and no longer promoted (intentionally or otherwise) by the media.

Read the original article at Newsroom.

Francisca Knarston is a postgraduate alumni of the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.