Opinionista Lisa Vetten 3 September 2015

What’s wrong with this picture? Media campaigns against domestic violence

Media campaigns against domestic violence often miss the mark in trying to arouse our compassion. Depicting a range of women experiencing abuse (including those who withdraw charges), showing how to safely help – this is the territory that future campaigns should chart. For while Women’s Month has ended, domestic violence has not.

Being in someone’s shoes, feeling the weight and texture of their life, their sorrows and joys, is one of life’s great pleasures. And where a life has been undone by domestic violence this capacity to imagine and bear their pain is crucial to the remaking and continuation of that life. How then can we be encouraged to care – to demonstrate empathy, generosity and kindness? One way to answer this question is by exploring how various media campaigns around domestic violence have sought to inspire compassion.

Marie Claire’s #InHerShoes, the campaign that caused all the trouble, is a good place to start. To make “us all stop and remember our role in bringing an end to gender-based violence in South Africa”, it presented us with images of 18 men strutting about in sharp suits and shiny shoes. This reduced the campaign to a fashion shoot whose link to empathy was only superficially literal.

To understand how badly #InHerShoes misunderstood its subject, compare its glamour with the photograph of Mrs P below, shot in the face by her estranged husband. Mr B, her neighbour, was injured in the same shooting incident when he attempted to intervene with Mr P. This is what an empathic response to domestic violence looks like.


Because of their ability to stir fellow-feeling, images like the two above are typical of domestic violence campaigns. They were the basis of #TheDress, the Ireland Davenport advertisement distributed in March this year on behalf of the Salvation Army and #MakeItStop, the social media campaign launched early in August by 5Fm DJ Thando Thabethe.



What lifted #TheDress out of the ordinary was its reinterpretation of a social media storm over the colour of a dress – black and blue, or white and gold? By pairing an image of a bruised woman with the question “Why is it so hard to see black and blue? The only illusion is if you think it was her choice”, the agency reinterpreted the original question in a way that was both clever and opportune. This may also have been the campaign’s weakness. For it was admiration of Ireland Davenport’s cleverness that took centre stage, rather than meaningful discussion of how, beyond retweeting an image, domestic violence was to be stopped.

#MakeItStop, in its use of celebrities made up to look injured, can be read as a reply to Marie Claire’s ill-advised decision to include Euphonik in its campaign (Euphonik having allegedly assaulted his former celebrity girl-friend Bonang Matheba). These pictures had an effect. At least one woman was prompted to write about her particular experience on Thabethe’s Facebook page, which may have helped broaden others’ understanding of domestic violence. However, there were those who suggested that pictures of actual violence may have been more effective.

This is a demand amply met by Mrs P and Mr B’s photographs, whose injuries make you flinch. But while eloquent with pain, images of battered women do not speak for themselves in any simple, uncomplicated way. They capture women at the moment of defeat and reduce them to their powerlessness. What counts as domestic violence also becomes fixed in particular ways so that forms of mistreatment which do not resemble these depictions go unrecognised as abuse. Further, once made rote, they are either absorbed into a generic wallpaper of distress, or forced into Marie Claire-like gimmickry to attract attention.

The use of such images is made even more complicated when they depict actual violence. Cultivating compassion by contemplating images of suffering has a long history in many spiritual traditions. But it is one thing to meditate on misery within sanctity and silence and quite another to glance at it within a stream of LOL cats, what’s for dinner, candy crush sagas and pictures of your friends’ children. To become an inattentive spectator to others’ very real suffering is, in many ways, to disregard that suffering.

There is also the question of what should we do with these feelings once they have been aroused. Two campaigns grapple with these questions: People Opposing Women Abuse’s (Powa’s) ‘More than a click’ and ‘Disturbing the peace’. Because they take the form of short videos these two campaigns are also able to embed their ideas within a narrative far more capable of contextualising domestic violence than an image.

Rather than asking viewers to gaze at women’s pain ‘More than a click’ invites them to identify with women’s agency. In a more sophisticated approach to being in her shoes, supporters are asked to temporarily alter their Facebook status to single and change their cover photo to read: “I changed my relationship status with one click but abused women go through a much more difficult process to break free of a partner”. As an additional act of support, the campaign asks for a donation towards Powa’s services to women who leave their violent partners.

Disturbing the peace’ is perhaps the only campaign against domestic violence that foregrounds empathy’s moral dimension. It does this by setting people’s irritated interventions on their neighbours’ noisy drumming against their silent non-interference in a couple’s fight. The comparison raises discomfiting questions about our duties to each other and points to how we resist our sympathetic attachments.

Redrawing and troubling the boundaries of compassion, expanding them to include a variety of situations and forms of abuse, as well as a range of women experiencing abuse (including those who withdraw charges), showing how to safely help – this is the territory that future campaigns should chart. For while Women’s Month has ended, domestic violence has not. DM


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