I find it sickening.
The video’s description asks, “What happens when you put a boy in front of a girl and ask him to slap her? Here is how children react to the subject of violence against women.”
As the video begins, it seems promising. An off-camera male voice asks five charming young boys questions, one at a time:
- “What’s your name?”
- “How old are you”
- “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Thanks to this line of questioning, each boy is brought to life for the viewer. With a range of personal demeanors and interests, it’s easy for viewers to see each boy as a unique and lovely individual.
Then, each boy is visibly surprised when a tall, blonde, conventionally beautiful young girl joins them in front of the camera. She introduced by the off-camera voice with a single sentence: “And this is Martina.”
The interviewer does not ask Martina any questions.
He does not share any details about Martina.
We do not learn how old she is, what she wants to be when she grows up, or why.
Instead, the interviewer asks the boys a question about Martina: “What do you like about her?”
Knowing nothing about her personality or interests, the boys focus on what’s visible—her appearance:
- “I like her eyes.”
- “Her shoes, her hands.”
- “Her eyes, her hair.”
- “Just her hair, I swear.”
- “You’re a pretty girl.”
- “I’d like to be your boyfriend.”
The interviewer doesn’t follow up on the boys’ top-of-mind impressions by sharing information about Martina or inviting her to speak. There’s no discussion of shared interests or mutual passions that might form the basis for a relationship of any kind. It’s all about whether the boys like the way she looks—nothing more.
This makes me uncomfortable. While the producers present the boys as interesting people, they present Martina not as a person in her own rights, but as a girl who is expected to be an object of boys’ desire. The producers are doing boys and girls everywhere a disservice by perpetuating the idea that girls’ appearance is of paramount importance.
She is a prop—there to be seen, not heard.
Throughout this video, Martina’s representation meets three major criteria of objectification, as articulated by Rae Langton (2009):
- reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
- reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
- silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.
Although some have defended the video by alleging that Martina is silent only to allow her to represent all girls in the mind of the viewer, rather than one specific girl, Martha Nussbaum (in the scholarly journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24(4), 249-291) also compellingly argued that a this type of interchangeability is another sign of objectification. She called this fungibility: the treatment of one person as interchangeable with others.
(Nussbaum’s other criteria for objectification:
- instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
- denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
- inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
- violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
- ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold); and
- denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
Check, check, check, check, check.)
I find it outrageous that through this line of questioning, a grown man is basically coaching these boys to objectify girls—to look girls over and discuss their physical attributes as though they’re shopping for an item that pleases them at the mall. That’s really gross.
What happens next, however, is even more unsettling: The man off camera actually directs the boys to touch Martina physically.
He says, “Now, caress her!”
For the next twenty seconds of the video, the boys touch Martina’s arm, her shoulder, and her face. Some do so with awkwardness, and some do so with palpable excitement, as though they’ve just won a major award.
This sequence is unsettling. Even though the boys’ caresses are not sexual in nature (the word used for “caress” in the original Italian does not have sexual connotations), their touches are still intrusive. Martina looks visibly uncomfortable at times, flinching as they reach for her.
Boys should be taught that girls’ bodily autonomy is of paramount importance, whether they’re touching them in a sexual or platonic way. Women’s bodies are not the property of men. Given the problems with sexual assault and other forms of violence against women that pervade our world, one of our top priorities should be teaching boys to only touch girls who wish to be touched by them—girls they have a friendly relationship with, who don’t freeze up or flinch at their touch.
It’s not such a hard lesson to learn: If a girl ever appears uncomfortable in the least with a boy’s touch, the boy needs to stop what he’s doing immediately. (The reverse is true, as well: Everyone’s bodily autonomy should be respected.)
In short, our boys need to understand that relationships about respect and mutuality. Girls are not prizes to be won; they’re real people.
But that’s not what’s happening in this video. It completely contradicts these important lessons. The off-camera voice directs the boys to touch the body of a girl they desire (as indicated by comments like “I’d like to be your boyfriend”), without her consent.
It’s crucial to remember that Martina doesn’t invite them to touch her. she doesn’t gesture in a way that invites them to touch her, confirming that she agrees with the male authority who is present. She doesn’t say, “May I have a hug?” or “Come on, it’s okay!”
She just stands there, silent, while they place their hands upon her body. Her silence and stiffness remind me of how many victims of molestation react to an abuser’s touch: by freezing up.
I find this sickening, and it makes the video hugely problematic. This isn’t a warm, fuzzy moment, though it’s presented as such: Viewed from a critical perspective, it’s absolutely disgusting.
(Now, just to be clear: I have no problem with the boys themselves. This isn’t a criticism of the children who appeared in the video: It’s a criticism of their representation within this specific media text, as directed, edited, and created by a team of expert, audience-savvy adult producers.)
Furthermore, the conclusion of the video—the moment that the video description got everybody’s attention with, about what happens when boys are asked to slap a girl—betrays a complete lack of understanding of how domestic violence against women actually functions. Here’s what happens:
The off-camera voice tells the boys, “And now…Slap her. Slap her, hard! Slap her! Come on.”
And quietly, they refuse.
The interviewer asks them why, and they respond by noting that she’s pretty, that they’re against violence, and then, finally—with what seems to be the producers’ main point—one little boy declares, “‘Cause I’m a man.”
The producers’ implicit point seems to be that real men don’t hit women. As viewers, we’re supposed to be charmed that this little boy is “more of a man” than the so-called men who perpetuate violence against women—that all the little boys in this video are, in fact.
This argument doesn’t hold water, however. In fact, it actually does more harm than good. The men who hit women are not monsters conjured from our worst nightmares. They’re not beasts or animals. They are real, actual men, living in the world around us. Unbeknownst to us, they are our friends, our relatives, our co-workers, our classmates—our peers.
As Feministing explains in an article titled “Real men do hit women”:
Domestic violence lies at the more extreme end of a scale that encompasses men catcalling women in the street, uploading naked pictures of women to the internet without consent, and supporting a porn industry which routinely demeans and exploits women. These are far from isolated concepts and the connection between them is clear: we live in a society in which unhealthy gender stereotypes, portraying women as the weaker sex, prevail. This culture, which glorifies an ideal of male dominance, is responsible for a society which sees women routinely experience the unimaginably harmful – and, sadly, often fatal – consequences of this ideal.
That is why suggesting that ‘real men’ don’t hit women is so damaging: it is fighting a problem with the very problem itself. It’s flawed, cyclical logic which is never going to fix the problem. If we really want to see off domestic violence, we need to dispense with the gender stereotypes, and open up a frank – and likely uncomfortable – debate about the role that gender has to play in its continued existence.
Yet, this is clearly the point the producers sought to make by subjecting the boys and Martina to the interviewer’s unhealthy directives. The whole point was to try to shame men who engage in domestic violence by suggesting that these little boys are more manly than they are—even though this discourse is completely useless in actually reducing violence against women.
It’s an empty platitude, nothing more.
There are several other problems with the “real men don’t hit” discourse […], in addition to the psychological confusion and harm it may cause victims of domestic violence. For one, the reason not to hit is still about the man and not about considering the woman (or any other victim of domestic violence) as an autonomous individual with value.
Another problem is this kind of dichotomous, or at least categorical, idea of what is means to “be a man.” Can you still be a man if you only hit a few times? Or if you hit once, are you automatically not a man and therefore, since you’ve already blown it, you may as well continue hitting? Or if you fit the masculine ideal in other respects, can you reach some sort of manly equilibrium, even if you hit your partner? Or what if you don’t identify as “man?”
And then, of course, there is the problem of an exaggeration of the agency of the individual and refusal to acknowledge domestic violence as a social norm: domestic violence does not occur because a male does not fulfill his socially-mandated role of “being a man.” Rather, it occurs in a social context in which systematic devaluation of women allows it to occur. These are not freak occurrences of individuals deviating significantly from the norm, though many people find comfort in this false belief.
And this might be the part that irks me the most: “real men don’t hit” discourse is an attempt to shame men into refraining from domestic violence by comparing men that hit TO WOMEN. In general western perspectives, masculinity is contrasted to femininity. If you are not a man, you are, by default, a woman. It perpetuates this idea that being a “real man” means fulfilling your role as a protector of women, and if you’re not fulfilling your role as the protector, you must be part of the feminized, non-protector group. Threat of association with this inferior group, then, is what’s being used to dissuade men from committing violence against this very group. It’s twisted. (Some may argue that the contrast is boys vs men, but I really don’t think this is the case. Think “you fight like a girl,” “don’t be a sissy,” and other gendered insults used against men and boys. This kind of shaming starts early.)
(I wonder whether the boys or their parents were really able to give their informed consent regarding to the boys’ participation in this video. Also, were the boys and Martina debriefed afterwards?)
Unless the boys are sociopaths, of course they’re going to balk at the instruction to slap Martina. This is not how batterers operate: They don’t slap at first sight. Domestic abusers work their way towards physical abuse gradually, beginning with other forms of abuse first.
As such, the boys’ predictable refusal to slap Martina, set against an emotionally manipulative soundtrack, doesn’t prove anything about domestic violence. In fact, it trivializes the matter.
As far as I can tell, the entire Fanpage.it video is a gimmick. After all, it’s calculated to solicit engagement and “likes” for a page called Fanpage.it—not for a foundation seeking to reduce violence against women. This isn’t about making a difference in the world; it’s clickbait, plain and simple. It was crafted with an international target audience of facebook users in mind, carefully designed to make the average viewer feel good and, therefore, want to share it.
Unfortunately, the video doesn’t even end with a critique of the way producers urged the boys to treat Martina as nothing more than a prop. As LB Klein astutely notes:
One small edit could have taken this video from harmful to thought-provoking. The video ends, seemingly for comic relief, with one of the boys asking the off-camera man “Can I kiss her on the cheek or on the lips?” One line of additional dialogue could have completely changed the message to one of liberation. “Slap Her” could have simply added: “Why don’t you ask Martina?” That one line could have taken the boys’, and the audience’s, commitment to ending violence one step further by acknowledging Martina’s bodily autonomy and humanity. Without this addition, “Slap Her” is a missed opportunity at best and a harmful perpetuation of status quo at worst.
Nor did they end the video with resources for learning more about the signs that a person is a victim of domestic violence, which would have made sense if the video’s goal was to raise awareness.
Most preposterously, the video doesn’t even end with resources for victims of domestic violence, nor are any offered on the Fanpage.it link to the video on facebook. Instead, Fanpage.it’s description of the video offers a link in which they share information about their organization, which confirms my belief that it’s just a gimmick: “Their Goal: Acquire and engage,” says the Fanpage.it description. “’Our strategy is fan acquisition and Page post engagement,’ explains Barbato. ‘We had a vision and Facebook was a big opportunity.’”
A big opportunity, indeed. What a shame that they exploited children to create a video on a subject they have so little knowledge on, just to acquire fans and boost people’s engagement with their page posts.
Click here to review the warning signs that you are in an abusive relationship.
Click here to review the warning signs that someone you know may be in an abusive relationship.
To help support organizations working to prevent domestic violence, leave an online message with Voices of Hope, and they will donate $3 on your behalf to dating and domestic violence prevention efforts.
To learn more about the concept of objectification, visit The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Hotlines for women who are being abused by a partner:
- In the US: call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).
- UK: call Women’s Aid at 0808 2000 247.
- Australia: call 1800RESPECT at 1800 737 732.
- Worldwide: visit International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies for a global list of helplines and crisis centers.
Hotlines for men who are being abused by a partner:
- U.S. and Canada: The Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men & Women
- UK: ManKind Initiative
- Australia: One in Three Campaign
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters.
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