Everything is Pretty on TV.

The other night, every single channel had a dead woman on it. The local TV stations were showing their 10 o’clock news, and they were all covering a story about a woman who had been kidnapped, or raped, or murdered. The other stations were showing the CSI sort of shows, or Law and Order, or one of those other ones where the death is pretty and solved. Even PBS was showing a special about Judy Garland and how she was mistreated by the industry.

Many if not most of the women I know are survivors of some sort of sexual abuse – a date rape, an abusive relationship, even raped by strangers, which is by far the most unusual of those horrible circumstances. And while I wouldn’t presume to speak for all of us, I, for one, am so sick of looking at broken, beaten, raped and bleeding dead women on TV. As a recent episode of Studio 60 said, “half the shows in prime time start with two strippers getting strangled after a lap dance.”

I’m starting to think its some sort of conditioning program. I was reading an article in Rolling Stone recently, called The Killing Factory, about how the Army has worked very hard to train soldiers to kill. This training has also been covered in the Christian Science Monitor in 2004 (in a linkable but less snarky article). Both explore a problem faced by the military: people are naturally resistant to killing other human beings, which has come in handy evolutionarily. So the army has worked very, very hard to condition that natural resistance out of people. The main way they do that is to make the people they’re killing less real, less human – shooting at person-shaped blobs rather than pictures of people. And the campaign worked well. In WW2, just 15-20% of soldiers fired their weapons. That “firing rate” went up to “55 percent in the Korean conflict and 95 percent in Vietnam.”

I think that’s what TV is doing. It’s making it seem okay for women to be dying. It’s making it seem okay for women to be raped or beaten. Normal. And when aberrant behavior seems normal, that bad behavior can increase. That’s what a study by Arizona State University Professor Robert Cialdini found. He did his research in Arizona’s Petrified National Forest, where people were taking the petrified wood and crystals from along the paths. The forest service put up a sign saying “Because so many people are stealing petrified wood and crystals from the forest floor, the integrity of the forest is being threatened.” Which made the stealing sound popular, even common and normal.

Cialdini did a test – he left that sign on one path, put no sign on another, and put a sign that talked about the cost to the environment on the third. Then he seeded the sides of the paths with marked bits of wood. Here’s what he found: on the path with the sign that made the stealing seem normal, people took three times as much wood as they did on the path with no sign at all. As Cialdini writes in science-speak, the problem is that “within the statement “Many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message “Many people are doing this.” In other words, all the shows that have tons of people killing and raping women give the idea that that is normal behavior, even though they do communicate that its bad behavior. Within the statement “Many people are killing and raping women, and its bad” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message, “Many people are killing and raping women.”

The absurd omnipresence of violence against women on TV also serves the useful purpose of reminding women to be afraid. From watching TV, you’d think that women being raped and killed by strangers lurking in shadows is happening every single day, all the time. And it does. But what’s by far more common in real life is sexual violence perpetrated by women’s dates, boyfriends, or husbands. A study recently published in the British journal The Lancet studied partner violence. The authors spoke with almost 25,000 women at 15 sites in 10 countries, and found that (as the NYT reports) “rates of partner violence ranged from a low of 15 percent in Yokohama, Japan, to a high of 71 percent in rural Ethiopia.” So the *lowest* number of women who have experienced violence from a partner was 15%.

You do see shows where women are killed by their dates or partners. You even sometimes see shows where women are raped by a date, or beaten by their partner, and those men are hunted down by the police. That’s the big fiction of these cop shows – that police departments invest all their forensic and human resources to prosecute violence against women.

In actuality, police response to violence against women can be, and often is, grossly inadequate. A recent study by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department concluded that there was a “clear and pervasive pattern” of departures from departmental policy when dealing with domestic violence cases. In only one-third of the domestic violence calls to the DCPD did an officer take photographs or ask about prior abuse. Only 17% of the victims were asked about a restraining order, and 83% were provided no printed information with contact information or resources.

And police themselves are often abusers – according to the National Center for Women and Policing, an estimated 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence. That doesn’t bode well for women trying to get the police to take assaults seriously.

Many women who suffer domestic or sexual violence don’t involve the police. National estimates of the proportion of rapes that are reported range from 16 to about 30 percent. So in a city like New York, where there were 3,636 reported rapes in 2005, that could mean that more than 22,000 women were actually raped. In terms of domestic violence, 600,000 reports of assault by intimates are officially reported to federal officials each year. But the most conservative estimates suggest two to four million women are battered annually in the US. That’s a lot of women who aren’t getting the CSI treatment.

In a moment when YouTube can get slammed for posting lockpicking videos because they contribute to delinquency, why can’t we control what gets broadcast on TV? I’m not advocating censorship, but as I’ve talked about before, local communities should have way more say in what they get via the public airwaves. I’d rather hear the word fuck than see a dismembered body of a woman every time I turn the TV on. Wouldn’t you?

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1 Comment

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One response to “Everything is Pretty on TV.

  1. Thank you for this well written and compelling commentary.

    How do you respond to the argument that the market has spoken and broadcasters are only responding to what the people want, which apparently is dead and beaten women? I.e. in an age of 500 channels, people are tuning in to violent and sexual content not stories about peace and justice.

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