This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
In early September, TMZ released a
surveillance video showing Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée Janay
Palmer in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Although the incident took
place in February of this year, the video sparked debate: Why did she
stay? Why did she marry him in March, a day after he was indicted for
aggravated assault against her? I don’t know Ray Rice. I don't Janay
Rice. None of us do. I can't tell you if that was unusual behavior for
either Ray or Janay. The TMZ video inspired Beverly Gooden to start a
hashtag conversation #WhyIStayed. While hashtags serve a social purpose,
every domestic violence case is different, and not all of them are
exciting enough to inspire Internet outrage or feature films. My
experiences with domestic violence wouldn’t fit the narrative of
cinematic representations nor would they have ignited the same
international controversy of the Rice surveillance video.
Cinema has a long attempted to capture the very personal crisis of domestic violence. Movies like the 1984 TV movie "The Burning Bed" re-tell dramatic tales of women who have been beaten down for years, lost their confidence and even their sanity. The movie which starred Farrah Fawcett, is based on the story of Francine Hughes, who, in March of 1977, set fire to the bed where her husband James "Mickey" Hughes was sleeping. Accused of murder, Francine was acquitted by a jury: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity—a defense first used in the U.S. to explain why a rich man killed his wife's lover. Hughes had suffered 13 years of abuse.
The 1992 TV movie, “When No One Would Listen,” is also based on a true story about Pamela Guenther and her husband, and eventual murderer David (renamed Jessica and Gary and played by Michelle Lee and James Farentino). Pamela left, found work and fell in love, but her husband found her safe house and stalked her to her work, shooting her in front of their children in 1987. David had previously been acquitted of killing a neighbor under Colorado's so-called "make-my-day" law which says people can use deadly force against intruders in their homes. Pamela knew what David was capable of and although she was scared she left. But breaking up is hard to do and a Frontline episode documented just how hard Pamela tried and how the legal system failed her.
The 1991 Julia Roberts vehicle “Sleeping with the Enemy” did no favors for people with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Roberts’ portrayed a woman who has escaped her abusive OCPD husband in Cape Cod and rebuilds her life in another beautiful setting, Cedar Falls, Iowa. Based on a Nancy Price novel by the same name, the movie was a box office success, although Roger Ebert gave it only 1.5 stars, writing that it was "a slasher movie in disguise, an up-market version of the old exploitation formula where the victim can run, but she can't hide." The movie also doesn't deal with the financial constraints that most women find themselves in when they leave.
In the South Korean 1985 period drama, "Adada," a deaf-mute woman enters a marriage that turns sour and is sent back to her family who refuses her. Left without a home or family, she turns to a poor family friend who also becomes abusive. Her final exit is death; she drowns.
In the 2002 Academy Award-nominated movie, "Twilight Samurai," (Tasogare Seibei), the protagonist's love interest returns home from an abusive marriage. When her husband attempts to force her return, the protagonist, Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) defeats him in a duel.
More compelling and complex is the 1994 New Zealand movie, "Once Were Warriors." Against her parents' wishes Beth married Jake. They are both Maori and end up living with their five children in a dirty house. The eldest daughter keeps a journal and the eldest son keeps away. Jake is fired and is satisfied living on the dole, getting drunk at a local pub with friends and getting into fights. The couple has drunken parties and Beth gets hit when they argue.
Beth stays because she, too, is flawed. She is passive and yet passionately loves Jake. They live in poverty clinging to each other in a culture where they have have been made outsiders in their homeland. The Maori subculture is losing against the imported British culture. Yet should the Maori adapt and acculturate? Should the Maori be beaten into submission and passively accept this cultural imperialism? One wouldn't ask why they stay for where else do they have to go?
In a minority culture, criticism of male dominance and even dirty secrets like domestic violence isn't always welcome. Traditions often reinforce traditional roles. The Asian and Pacific Islander Institute’s 2009 study on domestic violence didn’t give statistics for Maori, particularly in New Zealand since it is a U.S. study of a U.S.-based population, but its statistical information indicated that 41 to 61 percent of the Asian or Pacific American respondents had experienced domestic violence.
The 2000 report on domestic violence by the Department of Justice gathered different statistics: "12.8% of Asian and Pacific Islander women reported experiencing physical assault by an intimate partner at least once during their lifetime; 3.8% reported having been raped. The rate of physical assault was lower than those reported by Whites (21.3%); African-Americans (26.3%); Hispanic, of any race, (21.2%); mixed race (27.0%); and American Indians and Alaskan Natives (30.7%). The low rate for Asian and Pacific Islander women may be attributed to underreporting."
I watched "Once Were Warriors" with a man I once loved, but against whom I eventually filed a restraining order. Why do people stay? Because they are afraid of the anger that leaving would provoke, because they will not get the support of their family and friends, because some part of their culture tells them this is part of being a woman, and because love hurts, because the abuse isn't so bad (yet) and because people laugh at jokes about men putting women in their place. People stay because, in this culture, we learn to respond to adversity with violence, and return violence with violence, and, thus, provoke more violence.
The need for violence sparks a need to see vengeance enacted. Take the soul musical version of Cinderella, “Sisterella” which premiered in 1996 at the Pasadena Playhouse. In this adaptation, the protagonist didn’t just end living well and marrying her prince, first she had to punch her stepmother in the stomach. And the audience cheered. In movies like "The Burning Bed" and "Sleeping with the Enemy," the woman gets revenge through violence. That's a very mixed message: a make-my-day or stand-your-ground domestic solution that doesn't work in the real world. Sometimes both partners need counseling in anger management and non-violence.
Why I left was because, in my past, my family also once were warriors. A warrior knows when to fight and when words matter. Why I left was because my father never hit my mother. Why I left was because I knew that had my father been alive, he would have found what was happening unacceptable. And I began a long, lonely journey during which I was stalked, and my car vandalized, and people, mostly men, told me how a proper Japanese woman should behave. Why I left was because I was willing to take that chance, to have faith in God and myself, to shed many friends and find a better, though a less economically stable, life. Why I left is because I don't accept the message of violence and vengeance that the media feeds us today.
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