A few months ago, the internet was “treated” to a video of Solange Knowles attacking Jay Z in an elevator. She kicked and scratched and swung hands and arms.The public court of opinion wasn’t outraged by her physicality. She wasn’t boycotted or forced to apologize by worried handlers. Nobody labeled Jay Z a victim of domestic violence. Rather, many commentators wondered what Jay Z had done to deserve Solange’s reaction. The rest used it as late night fodder and a springboard for supermarket aisle allegations of discord in the Jay Z/Beyonce union. Beyonce even memorialized the incident by adding a much lauded new line to an old song in concert, “Of course sometimes shit goes down/when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator.”
By now, we all know how different both the public and private courts reacted to Ray Rice’s elevator assault of Janay Rice. In the months since the violence, Janay has been incredibly supportive of Rice. She refused to testify against him. She attended press conferences with him. She married the man. And in the hours after the video came out, she instagrammed a message defending her life, her choices and the man she loves. It was not as catchy as Bey one liner, but its intent wasn’t so different. And yet. Ray Rice has been fired from his job and banned from his industry. Hours of TV time have been devoted to the Rice marital situation, replays of that video, advocates for the abused and generalized hand wringing about the state of male/female and sports culture. I’ve watched, read and listened to much of the commentary. I am still waiting for most people to start asking the questions that are keeping me up at night.
In both cases, there was no previous record of abuse. In both cases, flagrant violence was displayed. In both cases, the moments captured after the attackers left the elevator display them as cool, collected and indifferent. And yet, we are celebrating the latest Solange/Beyonce instaphoto while also calling for Ray Rice’s head on a football shaped platter. Is our revulsion at seeing the Rice assault simply a case of reacting against the physically stronger hurt the physically weaker? I contend that it is not. While there would have been a degree of public outcry if Rice had knocked out a much smaller man in an elevator, it would not have been so widespread. He wouldn’t have lost his job, certainly. There would have been a sentence of community service, a settlement of cash for the victim and a 20 second story in the middle of SportsCenter.
What do our different reactions to similar incidents really mean? Is instinctive reaction a gauge of anything other than conditioning? Are men and women truly the same? Is gender a social construct? If it is, is our primal response to a man hitting a woman just a matter of social programming? Should we be equally as incensed when a woman hits a man or equally calm when a man hits a woman? Does society have the right or responsibility to react at all? Is that reaction an outlet of paternalistic know better? What does feminism truly mean? If it is solely providing place and validation for women’s authentic voices and experiences and desires then doesn’t that apply to abused women that want to stay abused? Are their voices less genuine, worth hearing, womanly because they are spoken through busted lips?
I asked these questions while I drove the kids around California highways. I queried my heart while we sat at the beach. I pricked the inside of my soul searching for substantive answers while I ate, showered and in the hours I should have slept. The truths I found are mine, I can’t make them yours and wouldn’t if I could. But I’ll let them breathe in this space for awhile.
Men and women are different. Gender is not, should not, be defined by patriarchal traditions or simply by what has come before we bothered to ask about its nature. That does not mean it does not exist. The question of what gender means is a complex one and I am alright admitting that I am still navigating the concept. So much more discussion and subsequent revelation would ensue if more of us were willing to say, “I am still learning. I don’t know yet. I am still seeking.” There is so much I don’t know. I think that’s a good thing.
I do not think instinct is king. Of course, some of our visceral reactions are born of culture and condition. However, I believe some gut reactions are worth listening to with a refined ear. Our collective gasp and horror at the thought of a man hitting a woman is one of those moments of audible instinctual truth.
A man hitting a woman is a gross violation. That violation is centered in our gender differences, current cultural mores regarding sameness be damned. The act of male on female abuse does not violate a weaker or fairer sex. I reject both those terms as simplistic and paternal. Rather it is the brute force imposition of will that horrifies. Women are hit because they are seen as less, because they aren’t seen at all, because their abusers believe they can be pounded into a more acceptable shape.
Feminism does offer a platform for women’s authentic voices, experiences and desires. Every voice has a place. But acknowledgement of authenticity does not have to mean agreement, support or complicity. I can hear you and disagree with you.
Is action from private and public entities alike in response to circumstances like this just another bleak outcropping of paternal attitudes? It doesn’t have to be. We can have widespread cultural values that don’t originate in a misbegotten idea of feminine inability. The fact that those values can be held by men doesn’t mean they are paternal. It means they are universal.
Do we as a society have the right or responsibility to react? I so desperately want the answer to this last, important question to be a resounding, unquestioning, “Yes”. But on what foundation does society place its actions? There is a fault line through our public discourse on men and women. While its fractures spread, the body politic seems content to speak in 30 second sound bites.
We aren’t willing to ask the hard questions, let alone do the work to answer them. We act as if life moves in black and white rather than varying shades of color. We tell our girls they are empowered and powerful and then send them off to colleges that have to give seminars on how to not get date raped. We pretend deep thinking and freedom means throwing off constraint, when really true depth questions what constraints offer liberty. We are content to work in theory and pontificating poses rather than the muddy, fertile soil of reality. We yell when we should listen. We judge when we should pray. We seek rightness when we should seek knowledge.
Do we as a society have the right or responsibility to react? My answer is still “Yes”, but it comes softly and with trepidation. It is also said with hope. Because maybe, just maybe in our need to act we will regain the desire to know why the action must be taken. And perhaps in seeking to know the reason, we will also find ourselves. And maybe, maybe if we finally understand who we are, we will begin to understand what we are worth.
Wouldn’t a world where we held both value and values be an interesting place to live? I bet in that place elevators would be just another way to get to the top floor.
A girl can dream, I guess.