What does the domestic violence establishment have in common with John Wayne? What could a movement that claims to abhor violence – and particularly violence done by men – possibly have in common with The Duke, icon of exactly that? Well, if this article is any indication, maybe more than you’d think (Huffington Post, 9/19/11).
The piece is by one Mary Pauline Lowry and, as articles about DV go, it’s a stinker, and that of course is saying something. Articles about domestic violence routinely ignore violence by women against men. (Has any article yet called Catherine Kieu Becker’s sexual mutilation of her husband “domestic violence?) They’re content to misstate known facts and rely on anecdote over science. As such they’re all of a piece with the anti-intellectual tradition in American life and public discourse historian Richard Hofstadter so aptly described in 1962.
But Lowry’s piece takes a different tack, one that celebrates female violence against men and myth over science, but with a twist. She called her article “Hit Her Once, She’ll Shoot You Dead. Did Janice Soprano Have it Right?”
During the second season of The Sopranos (still generally considered to be one of the best television shows of all time), Janice Soprano was totally in love with and happily engaged to Richie Aprile. But when Richie hit her in the face for the first time, Janice picked Richie’s own gun off of the table and shot him dead.
Did Janice Soprano have it right? And would the epidemic of violence against women in this country be halted if, for a short time, every woman who was physically or sexually abused killed her abuser immediately? Certainly the word would get out that women are no longer to be beaten, raped and terrorized by their intimate partners. And I am guessing that in a few months, levels of violence against women would drop dramatically.
Now, having titled her article as she did, having led off the piece with two paragraphs wondering oh-so-pointedly if maybe women murdering their husbands/boyfriends might be a good idea, Lowry ducks for cover. She calls herself a pacifist; she wants us to know that shooting a man is the furthest thing from her mind.
And by the end of the piece she tells readers that she would “never advocate for women who have been abused to take such action in real life.”
Except of course she already has. Oh, I believe Lowry when she says she’s a pacifist. After all, I have nothing with which to contradict the claim. But her readers may not be so discerning. Face it, when you construct a piece the way Lowry did, boilerplate denials take a backseat to the compelling scene of Janice Soprano murdering Richie Aprile.
Count on it, non-pacifist women will notice and may take action. (Did you know that Sharon Osbourne of the afternoon women’s talk show “The Talk”, on reading of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infidelity, said his wife should slice off his penis and throw it in the garbage disposal? Two months later, Catherine Kieu Becker did exactly that.)
But irrespective of whether Lowry’s piece sets off a wave of vigilante slayings, her recommendation of a fictional female character’s murder of her fictional boyfriend as causing her to feel a “thrill of justice” has deep roots in America’s mythologizing of the West.
That mythic narrative originated in dime novels and in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Western novels of the Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour type took up the theme, followed shortly by movies and later by television. The astonishing popularity of mythologized western fiction played out in the 1960s, but the genre has been continued in the guise of the urban crime drama. Compare Kiefer Sutherland’s role in the TV series 24 to any of a number of tough-guy western heroes and you’ll see what I mean.
The set-up in our western mythology runs to type. The West is presented as a place in which the law is unable to control the evil impulses of the powerful or the desperate. The cavalry is too distant to help or, more often, the local sheriff is too weak to do his job. This void in the police power allows evil to flourish and evil in this context means unchecked power. Often as not, there’s a local cattle baron who, because he’s got money and muscle, does what he wants, up to and including murder. Think Shane.
Into this situation of “might makes right” strides the western hero. He’s a lone man, skilled with a six-gun and impelled by a strong sense of right and wrong. His courage and moral conviction allow him to stand up to evil and prevail, which he usually does. High Noon is the classic of the genre, but there are countless others. One of Wayne’s best was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.
That of course is what happened in The Sopranos episode lauded by Lowry, and the realization that it could be a scene from a western movie (picture Janice and Richie standing in the middle of a dusty street, hands poised over pistols on their hips) helps understand the mindset of the DV establishment as expressed by her.
According to that mindset, like the wild West, a woman’s home is a lawless place. Inside the home, men are freed from all restrictions on their behavior which is naturally violent toward the women there. Because in the home, might makes right and the man has the might, he can get away with anything he pleases. He’s the Miller Gang in High Noon; he’s Lee Marvin in Liberty Valence. He’s every man in the radical feminist imagination.
And, like them, he’ll continue his evil ways until superior force stops him. That force can’t come from the police or courts; remember, the home is a lawless place, a place beyond the reach of civilization. So the only person who can provide the moral wherewithal to stand up to the evil-doer is the woman. But does she have the western hero’s skill with firearms?
Janice Soprano did and Lowry was thrilled to see it. Justice! The justice she did was of the quick and dirty variety so beloved of the mythology of the American West. Let some pointy-headed judge quibble with her methods, she did what had to be done. Or, as Catherine Kieu Becker said, “he deserved it.”
My purpose is not to point out the glaring hypocrisy of a DV advocate’s encouragement of spousal murder; I only want to show the cultural source of that encouragement. In so doing, some of the many astonishing fallacies of the DV establishment come to light.
For example, like the mythologizing of the West, The Sopranos is fiction. Fiction of course is different from fact in several important details, one of which is the position of the narrator. In fiction, we’re often told what happened and, unless the fiction is of the postmodern variety, there is no competing reality. So when Richie Aprile hit Janice Soprano, we know that happened because we saw it.
But in domestic violence situations, that’s often not the case. There’s often a he said/she said that someone must sort out and no objective camera to help in the task. So Lowry’s affinity for the television scene is also an affinity for a story to which there’s only one side. As DV incidents usually work out, that side is the woman’s because police are trained to arrest men when DV is alleged. One undeniable effect of a woman’s murdering her husband/boyfriend is that his side of the story won’t be told.
Not coincidentally, that’s the scene being played out in a Queens courtroom right now in the case of Barbara Sheehan who’s on trial for shooting her husband 11 times, killing him. She says it was self-defense. What would Raymond Sheehan say if he could?
Another aspect of the Western myth is that due process of law is a superfluous nicety. Gary Cooper and John Wayne didn’t need due process of law because they were in the right and no one else could stand up to evil. Indeed, they couldn’t afford due process of law because resort to it would allow evil to prevail.
Similarly, much of the history of domestic violence law is the relentless erosion of due process. Does a woman allege that she’s “in fear” of her husband/boyfriend? Then he’s committed a crime. Never mind that it’s beyond his or anyone else’s power to disprove her subjective state of mind. Never mind that there is no evidence of wrongdoing against him. Those are the quibbles of due process that must be sacrificed to the higher good of preventing domestic violence.
Finally, there’s the concept of the home, like the wild West, as a lawless place in which its residents are beyond the protection of the state. That’s a trope that’s literally as old as the DV movement itself. Radical feminists in and out of the DV movement have long claimed that the home was uniquely dangerous to women because the legal concept of privacy shielded men’s violence against them. So once again, and sagging under the weight of irony, the touchstone for the DV movement is our mythologized American West.
The confusion of myth and reality can have tragic consequences. When a DV advocate urges us to think that vigilantism by women against men is not merely acceptable, but an affirmative good (remember, according to Lowry, incidents of DV against women would “drop dramatically” if more women emulated Janice Soprano), they court tragedy. DV advocates likely wouldn’t see it as tragic, but many others would.
But more to the point, Lowry wants us to only hear the woman’s account of what happened; she prefers her men voiceless, and she views due process of law as an unnecessary encumbrance. In that, she accurately reflects the values of the domestic violence industry since its inception.
The last important line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is delivered by a newspaper editor. He says, “This is the West, sir. When the facts meet the legend, print the legend.” That could be the motto of the DV establishment.