My introduction to domestic violence was through the movie “The Burning Bed.” Farrah Fawcett portrayed a battered wife who couldn’t get help anywhere and after her husband raped her one night, she set the bed on fire — with him in it — took the kids and ran.
That movie left an impression on my preteen mind. I’d never heard the terms domestic violence or battered woman syndrome. I didn’t realize husbands abused their wives. “The Burning Bed” was actually based on real life events.
Some years later I watched “Sleeping with the Enemy.” In that movie, Julia Roberts’ character faked her own death to escape her abusive husband. Eventually, he tracks her down and she kills him in self-defense.
“Enough” starring Jennifer Lopez is another movie about domestic violence that stands out in my mind. After abuse from her husband and nowhere to turn for help, Lopez’s character learns Krav Maga, goes back to her husband’s home, hides guns, plants evidence and fights him. He also dies.
In these movies about domestic violence, the women escaped. The husband may have tracked the wife down, but she finds a way to get free, and that’s usually by killing her tormentor.
Life didn’t work like that for Miss Celie in “The Color Purple.” Her escape from Mister wasn’t dramatic. She didn’t kill him — although she thought about it. Mister’s abuse of Celie was just a part of the overall abuse Celie endured for years and years.
When I think about the way domestic violence is portrayed in movies, it seems like it’s something that white women (true Lopez isn’t white but her ethnicity could be interpreted as ambiguous in this particular movie) can escape dramatically and something Black women, e.g., Miss Celie, must endure. For Black women, your loved ones know the abuse is occurring, but they don’t “meddle in your business,” and you’re taught to endure it because you have a man who provides for you.
I know these are movies, but movies can make you think. Movies are often art imitating life. And when it comes to abuse of Black women, the message we receive in art and real life is we’re invisible. The stories of white women often are central to the conversation about domestic violence. The visual that comes to mind is often a cowering white woman afraid of her towering husband who is barking orders and bellowing at her. If white women weren’t centered, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have the understanding, resources, support and organizations dedicated to ending domestic violence that we have today.
What I’ve learned is that while white women are often centered, Black women are overrepresented in domestic violence incidents.
According to a study by the Bureau of Justice, 44% of Black women experienced domestic violence compared to 32% of all women. Often, though, we don’t realize it’s domestic violence because it doesn’t fit the image we’ve been fed through media. It may not be a husband and wife, but a boyfriend and girlfriend — or an ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend. It could be a couple who fight and make up later. It may be a man who takes the money his significant other earned. It could be a same-sex couple. It could be teenagers. Yes, teenagers. Abuse often starts early.
What we know today is domestic violence doesn’t look one way. That’s why the definition has expanded to include terms such as interpersonal abuse and intimate partner violence to give a broader picture of domestic violence. As with anything else, representation matters. When Black women don’t see themselves included in the conversation, many won’t understand what is happening to them isn’t normal relationship behavior; it’s abuse.
This month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In addition to the articles in this edition, the Recorder, in partnership with WFYI Side Effects Public Media, will moderate a panel discussion about domestic violence at 7 p.m. Oct. 19. The discussion will be livestreamed on Facebook.