Halloween 2014 is officially over even for those folks appropriating the Mexican and Latin American celebration of Día de los Muertos to extend the party well into the weekend. But that’s not stopping the masses from continuing to #latergram the genius of their costume selections this year. Among the most controversial and off-putting choices this season was the seemingly inevitable take on family violence as perpetrated by professional athlete Ray Rice. Over the past few weeks Angelique Imani Rodriguez, a new contributor to StS, found herself in plenty of conversations about both the Ray Rice costume and the outrageous claim that if feminists want equality, then they should be prepared to handle violence. Rodriguez took to her blog for an honest and brave exploration of the pervasive normalization of violence not only in the world at large but in her own experience. Read below for an excerpt of Yo, Don’t Step On My Feminism.
September 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a U.S. federal law that was created to strengthen the ability of the criminal justice system to respond and support victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence. In the same month, surveillance footage from the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, NJ, of Baltimore Ravens’ football player Ray Rice and his then-fiancée Janay surfaced, sparking a national discussion of domestic violence.
Let’s first go over the video in question.
There is no audio. Ray and Janay walk towards the hotel elevator. She swats at him before walking away and into the elevator. He follows. The footage then shows them inside the elevator. You see Janay pressing the elevator buttons with Ray standing close to her and she swats at him again. He hits her directly in the face. Janay reacts, rushing towards him, and this is when he coldcocks her with a closed fist. She hits her head on the elevator banister and is knocked unconscious. He doesn’t lean over to see if she is okay, doesn’t check to see if she is still breathing. He barely looks concerned that she is unconscious, going so far as to pick her up by her arms while the elevator doors open and then dropping her back on the floor when they close again. When they reach their floor, Ray Rice drags her to the door of the elevator and drops her on the ground face first like a side of beef. He doesn’t cover her exposed behind, doesn’t sit her up, or look into her face. He kicks her legs closed as someone approaches.
The violence in itself is appalling, but what is more shocking is his treatment of her after he punched her unconscious. He drags her, a woman he claims to love, across the floor, and drops her without any concern as to whether she is breathing, or if she is suffering or in pain. He shows no regard for her dignity, or her safety, or her well-being.
I could comment on the actions of the NFL, a multi-million dollar organization that was content with a two-game suspension until the video of the attack surfaced, then proceeded to tout its code of conduct by penalizing Ray Rice with an indefinite ban, an act that shows the NFL only cares about the bottom line much like any other capitalist business. Had the video not been released, Ray Rice would still be the burgeoning football star he had set out to become. I could also talk about Janay Rice, who after the incident, married him, then later critiqued media coverage of the incident. This may be a sign of a history of abuse, that she is a battered woman. I could comment on all of the things we, as the morally and emotionally better people we feel ourselves to be, think she “should” have done in response then and now. But to do that places judgment on her and I am in no position to do so.
What followed after the video surfaced was a series of frustrating debates. I’ll refrain from rehashing all of the she-hit-him-first-so-she-provoked-him arguments, the it’s-not-about-gender-it’s-about-respect arguments, the ludicrous what-about-justice-for-Ray-Rice arguments, because to be quite frank, it is exhausting. I do not condone violence on either side; no healthy relationship should ever involve that kind of utter disrespect. But, I am aware of how normalized violence is, from “forgiving” Chris Brown’s transgressions, to this recent incident, to the everyday it’s-not-my-business practice when we come face-to-face with someone being victimized.
In no way do I perceive her swatting or nudging him away as her “provoking” him to punch her in the face. I do not see what she did as provocation enough to be treated so carelessly and so violently. “Enough.” That word alone is a sign that there is an issue. It implies that if she had done something else, kicked him, thrown a shoe at him, literally slapped him; that those actions would have been enough to warrant a punch in the face. The very language we use in discussing this situation reveals how normalized violence is, how acceptable we find it. There is no “enough” for me. I don’t believe anything justifies what Ray Rice did. This man is physically stronger than she is, is trained daily to be so, and could have easily held her at bay if she did in fact become violent first. Instead, he chose to coldcock the woman he loved and to leave her unconscious on the elevator floor with no regard for her well-being at all. My question to those who argue the she-provoked-it angle: if her head injury had not allowed her to stand, if she had died from a blood clot in her brain caused by the blow to her head….would we justify it by saying she had provoked him to his “breaking point”?
This idea of a “breaking point” is problematic because it is another term used to normalize violence when we discuss domestic abuse. “Everybody has a breaking point,” means that if someone provokes you, it is okay and justifiable to attack them. I mean, we’ve all been taught, if someone hits you, hit them back, right? But here’s some food for thought for you to consider: What’s your breaking point? Is it a nudge or a swat like Ray Rice? Is it a punch in the face, a kick in the shin? Would Janay have been justified if she took a bat out on him later that evening for getting KO’d in the elevator? I mean, after all, he punched her. He provoked her to her breaking point. It goes both ways. That’s what’s claimed, right?
Furthermore, this concept of male “breaking points” merely relegates male behavior to sheer violence at the slightest provocation. Men are not animals that cannot control themselves. I refuse to believe that. If you feel like you can’t control yourself, learn how. Take a lesson from my father, for instance, who I’m told would smash plates on the floor if he felt himself losing his cool with my mother, who in her Aries ram glory can butt heads like a pro. A congero with hands hardened by years of drum playing, who would have rather slapped himself in the face than slap her. Or my brother, who instead of yoking up his girlfriend at the time for becoming aggressive with him, chose instead to leave a gaping hole in the wall with his fist and left her standing alone and fuming. I am aware these actions are classified as warning signs of domestic and sexual abuse, none of which occurred in these specific situations, but I bring them up to explain that these two men were at their breaking points. They were at the point where they too felt overwhelmed, and yet they chose not to inflict any of it on the women they were dealing with, despite the women’s aggression. More importantly, they didn’t use the women’s behavior as permission to harm them. Knowing that as a man you can be violent, that you can overpower her, and choosing not to: that is manhood. Violence is not a definition of maleness. Ever.
Again, this is not to justify or condone women raising their hands to men in a relationship, though admittedly, a part of me cringed when men debating with me about this situation referred to what Janay did as “abusing” Ray. In fact, a female using violence reveals how women’s internalization of this violence has also become normalized. This, of course, deserves ample analysis and discussion, but not in the often-said and unsettling now-she-should-suffer-the-consequences-of-his-breaking-point angle. That only reinforces what we already have ingrained in us. The tit-for-tat argument is baseless in that it justifies the cyclical nature of violent behavior on both sides. We need to come up with a better argument, or better yet, stop trying to justify violence in relationships.
But I haven’t always thought in this way.
Let me paint you a picture.
I am sixteen years old. I am dating a twenty-one year-old male who I am too ashamed to tell my friends about because he is, essentially, the meanest person I have ever been around. A spastic, where-did-that-come-from mean. I am no better. I am in the midst of a grief I am too young to understand, dealing with the death of someone close to me, the separation of my parents and my oldest brother moving out, all of which have shifted my heart in ways I have yet to navigate. I fight with this male every time I see him and nine times out of ten, I end up getting louder and more aggressive, he grabs me by the arms or the shoulders, I throw a punch or push him, and then he shakes me or throws me to the ground. I always justify his reactions with, “I started it.” I always know he’ll lose his shit. I only know that I won’t be “played” by him, won’t be made a fool. If he puts his hands on me, I’m going crazy. I never realize we both are.
The reason I share this snapshot is to acknowledge how I too had normalized the violence in my actions and in my justifications of his. How the violence became a cyclical thing. How I had no resources to navigate my own anger, much less his. How it never ended. How little he valued me. How little I valued myself. How little we valued each other. I speak from experience when I speak on these things. Knowing what I know now does not whitewash my own past actions. I reveal this part of myself, because it is something I had to unlearn, that we all have to unlearn.
One of the most alarming things about the debates I have had about the Ray Rice situation is the way that some throw feminism and its concepts into the mix when trying to prove their point. Let’s face it; it happens all the time. It’s exhausting and ludicrous, and in this case, is done to avert our gaze from the dangerous reality of the normalization of violence in relationships. Saying that equal treatment means we are deserving of violence is so beyond stupid and so far from what feminism is that I resent the comments to the fullest.
Feminism—or at least the brand of feminism I align my thinking with, does not condone violent behavior. On the contrary, feminism implores us to think critically about the way that gendered binaries exist in all areas of our lives, to really look at how pervasive these binaries are for both women and men. The brand of feminism I follow does indeed critique the dominance of heterosexual male ideologies in our society, but it doesn’t excuse or justify how some women have internalized that very same dominance. Therefore, to use feminism as a way to justify the normalized behaviors and language that it is designed to analyze and dismantle is itself a patriarchal response which demeans and devalues the true purpose of feminism.
Stop that. Don’t step on my feminism, yo.
There are way too many stories of domestic violence that never see the light of day, way too many individuals who are absolutely oblivious to the need for VAWA, let alone its recent 20th anniversary. The publicity of the Ray Rice fiasco has brought these issues to the forefront of national coverage in many ways, but the problem is bigger than the Rice couple and that video. Look at how many took to social media to show themselves dressed as Ray Rice dragging a blow-up doll supposed to be Janay, crudely and tastelessly poking fun at the incident. This, to me, is proof of how cavalier people are about domestic violence, how truly normalized violence is in relationships. Every time we turn away from these realities, every time we stand back and critique what was done to “deserve” the violence instead of admonishing the violence itself continues its normalization. Every time someone uses warped ideas of feminism to prove how some women “deserve” violence instead of reproaching violence in relationships at all is continues normalization.
One of the goals of the feminism I align myself with is to discuss and dismantle the ingrained behaviors and language that create this culture of normalized violence. The debates I have had over the Rice couple and the popularity of the Ray Rice Halloween costume have only shown me how much further we have yet to go.
Angelique Imani Rodriguez is a second generation Puerto Rican writer born and bred in the Bronx, NY. She double majored in Multi-Ethnic Literature and Multi-Ethnic Women and Gender Studies at CUNY BA. Angelique attended the 2014 VONA workshops in Berkeley, California. An alumni of both the Acentos Poetry workshops and the first round of Vanessa Martir’s Writing Our Lives workshop, Angelique is currently working on a collection of short stories with the nine-month Writing From The Womb workshop with Alicia Anabel Santos, as well as updating her blog Pen Hitting Paper.