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Ilsa Evans

Further information

About the author

Ilsa Evans lives in the Dandenongs of Melbourne’s outer-east with her three children and keeps busy by writing both fictional and academic material. Her first novel, Spin Cycle, is being published by Pan Macmillan in December of this year. Ilsa is also currently in the middle of PhD studies at Monash University in Melbourne, where she is researching the long-term effects of prior domestic violence.

Publication details

Volume 9, May 2002

Picturesque Falsehoods:
An examination of Romantic Love, the Press and Domestic Violence

Loneliness will disappear if you have a husband, even one you don't love…happiness is loving and being loved by your husband…
(Mademoiselle Magazine in Meyers 1999, 31)

Several years ago, whilst researching press representations of domestic violence, I began noticing a pattern emerging on the periphery of the project that was as curious as it was persistent. This pattern involved the use of a romantic discourse within articles dealing with domestic violence. It seemed increasingly evident that the narratives used to guide the discourse, whilst all based on 'traditional' notions of romance, differed considerably according to whether the protagonist was male or female. As the pattern grew, I began taking notes to put aside for a more detailed examination at a later stage. This article is the result.

I shall begin with an examination of the "generalised tyranny of romance" (Puren 1994: 5) in order to identify the key elements of popular understandings of "romance". I am particularly interested in the use of romance as a "practical ideology" in the sense that Wetherell et al. use this term to describe "the often contradictory and fragmentary complexes of notions, norms and models which guide conduct and allow for its justification and rationalization" (1987: 60). I then look at how the press draws on this practical ideology in the discursive choices they make in the coverage of domestic violence. I do this by utilizing five press articles that I consider indicative of these particular discursive patterns used in reporting domestic violence. The articles are drawn from the research mentioned earlier and were chosen as they best demonstrate the discursive differences adopted by the press according to the gender of the perpetrator. Three of the articles deal with male perpetrators and female victims, two of which concern domestic murder, and one an attempted murder. The remaining two articles were the only two articles published during the six-week research period that dealt with female perpetrators of non-fatal domestic violence. The contrasting content of the articles has been used to separate their discussion into three categories that reveal how the press utilizes the romance formula to reconcile the ideals of love, hearth and home with the experience of abuse. I argue that the concept of romance plays a pivotal role in both the violence that occurred and in the choice of scripts used to report the violence.

For the purposes of this paper, qualitative textual (or discourse) analysis has been used to explore underlying discursive or representational patterns. This type of evaluative analysis is considered ideal for phenomena such as romance and domestic violence, both of which have their roots in societal values, as discourse analysis is "concerned not simply with micro-contexts of the effects of words across sentences or conversational turns but also with the macro-contexts of larger social patterns" (Mills 1995: 25).

Romance as a formula

The title of this paper, picturesque falsehoods, comes from the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of romance which continues as "a mental tendency to be influenced by romantic tales, which themselves are 'remote from experience, quixotic, dreamy" (cited in Cozens 1995: 141). The romance formula is one that is continually and relentlessly reiterated within film, magazines and books. The basic plot is simple - boy meets girl, boy behaves in a dominant manner, girl behaves in a passive manner (although a limited amount of feminine feistiness is permissible), and, after the requisite obstacles are overcome, they live happily ever after:

The moral fantasy of the romance is that of love triumphant and permanent [and] since romance is a fantasy of the all-sufficiency of love, most romantic formulas center on the overcoming of some combination of social or psychological barriers. There seems little doubt that most modern romance formulas are essentially affirmations of the ideals of monogamous marriage and feminine domesticity (Cawelti 1976: 41-42).

Indeed, from classic fairy-tales to modern film, the female characters are largely weak, passive and, sooner or later, domesticated, whilst the male characters are assertive, aggressive and larger than life. On the other side of the coin, the witches, stepmothers and other active, single women are as discursively contemptible as an effeminate male, and they usually pay a high price for their pursuit of power. As McCaughey (1998: 278) argues: "cultural ideals of manhood and womanhood include a cultural, political, aesthetic, and legal acceptance of men's aggression and a deep scepticism, fear, and prohibition of women's." This set of assumptions positions aggression as a 'primary marker of sex difference' and promotes a cultural understanding of male violence and female vulnerability as natural and normal. Women are allowed to be many things in 'the name of love' provided they remain 'feminine' and, by association, non-aggressive. Therefore, heterosexuality itself can be widely "conceptualized in terms of opposites: male aggression, strength, hardness, roughness and competitiveness as the opposite of female nurture, weakness, softness, smoothness and co-operativeness" (Dyer 1997: 264). In this way, a film like There's Something about Mary, which presents a positive plethora of male stalking, can be critically described as "a romantic comedy with its heart in the right place" (Rozen in Anderson & Accomando 1999: 24-28), whilst a movie such as Fatal Attraction can be held up as a salutary lesson of female stalking as crazed, family-destroying and punishable by death.

Consequently, the archetypal romance formula contains three overlapping elements. The first sets up the heterosexual dominant/subordinate paradigm that provides the parameters within which the romance operates. The second specifies the obstacles, social and/or psychological, with which the path to true love must be strewn; and the third deals with the reward bestowed upon all those willing to negotiate those obstacles - the happy ever after.

But what happens when this idealistic script fails and the promised true love is not uplifting and supportive, but destructive and abusive? In fact, the more the 'romantic' male dominance/female passivity script is adhered to, the greater the chances of this paradox unfolding as the script itself is both unrealistic and self-defeating. Research has shown that extreme male dominance is not only a predictor for domestic violence (Wiesz et al. 2000: 75-90) but that "abuse tends to gravitate to the relationship of greatest power differential" (Finkelhor 1983: 18). In this way one of the key elements in the concept of heterosexual romance, the eroticised power imbalance (Dyer 1997: 265), is hijacked to legitimize the foundations for domestic violence that, in turn, becomes an obstacle to be negotiated. Threadgold argues that romance is, in reality, actually activated by abusive men as "a technique of capture" and by abused women as "a technique of agency" (1997: 12-16). Both concepts operate to convince the woman that it is her responsibility to ensure change and that this change is dependent upon her love, her support - and her staying in the relationship. This is one of the great ironies of the romance formula. Despite the promotion of male dominance and female dependence, the script holds the woman responsible for the preservation of the male-female relationship itself (Meyers, 1999: 28 & 31) to the extent that women are socialized into believing that the "love varies and depends on their own efforts" (Cancian in Jankowiak 1995: 9). Thus romance becomes more than a pleasant bedtime story, it becomes a historical force which acts to position both men and woman within a script that undermines the equality crucial to the success of their relationship, and then hands the least equal partner the responsibility for the maintenance of the relationship. The extent to which this script contributes to press articles covering domestic violence is the focus of the next section of this paper.

Single, spurned and suicidal

We exist within a culture that "fetishes the family as the ideal unit of human community, the perfect container for our lusts and loves" (Ehrenreich 1994: 62), and the 'happy ever after' of the romance formula is, more often than not, supposed to be the family. This situation gives rise to a certain dilemma when an incident of domestic violence must be covered within the press, because it is the very arena of this violence that is elsewhere promoted as the centre of our existence. However, the dilemma can be solved if the abusive incident is discursively positioned within the context of "social constructions and lived realities of women as caretakers, attention-givers, and the ones responsible for keeping relationships going" (Seuffert 1999: 211-240) because then the women can be held accountable for events which transpire after a separation - especially if they have instigated the break-up. Furthermore, women are held responsible for finding a suitable 'protector', and, if they fail to do so and/or fail to regulate their behaviour in ways that minimize the possibility of harm or abuse, then they are also ultimately blamed for any injuries they receive (Cahill 2000: 55). In short, a series of alternative discourses are available that make recourse to the formula of romantic love and its elements. Each and any of these can be invoked in order to re-naturalise the violence.

This strategy translates into an undue emphasis within articles covering domestic violence on who broke up the relationship rather than why the relationship broke up. Both the articles discussed in this section deal with men who murdered their partners after the female had ended the relationship . In the first article, Soldier stole rifle, shot wife (The Australian 19/9/98), the estranged husband, a soldier, stole an army rifle, drove to his wife's house and killed her. In the second, Gunman left apology note (Herald-Sun 23/9/98), the accused visited his 16-year old ex-girlfriend in hospital as she was recuperating from a horse-riding accident and sprayed five shots around the room before shooting her in the head. The discursive presentations of the two articles are very similar, despite the fact that they are written by different journalists, one male, one female, and for different newspapers with different target audiences. Apart from the emphasis on the instigation of the break-up, both articles also note suicide as the original intent of the accused and go to considerable lengths to foreground his state of mind at the expense of that of his victim.

This is especially apparent in Soldier stole rifle, shot wife where the article opens with an account of the perpetrator's emotive state - angry - due to his wife's 'rejection' of him, and ends it with an sympathetic explanation for his actions:

(First paragraph) ANGRY at being rejected by his wife and spurred by a cocktail of alcohol and drugs, soldier Brett John Dean stole an army rifle and, for reasons he still cannot explain, drove to her home and shot her dead.

(Last paragraph) Dean's defence counsel told the jury he was distressed and had stolen the gun for the sole purpose of killing himself and only went to his wife's home to say goodbye.

The reader is not told why the relationship collapsed nor is the deceased given a voice, or an occupation, within the article. The only active roles she is awarded are those of rejecting her husband and - through the logic of the romance ideology - failing in her responsibility for ensuring the continuity of the relationship. In this way, the text of this article follows a discursive pattern favourable to the perpetrator, and not the victim, who is indeed barely visible and yet is still awarded partial responsibility for her own murder because she can be perceived as precipitating the event. Even Dean's defence reflects the belief in limited culpability as his plea of not guilty was based on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

Gunman left apology note follows the same pattern but with a specific omission that initially robs the coverage of context. Whilst the perpetrator's alleged regret is emphasized by the word 'apology' in the headline, the actual relationship between him and his victim is obscured within both the headline and the opening paragraphs. For example, the first paragraph reads: A GUNMAN shot a 16-year-old schoolgirl dead in her hospital bed after leaving a note of apology for her parents, a court heard yesterday. It is, in fact, not until the sixth paragraph that it finally becomes clear that the victim was his ex-girlfriend. Both the headline and the introductory paragraphs work to obscure the intimacy of the murder and rob the coverage of a context within which readers are readily able to identify an incident of domestic rather than random violence. The apparent senselessness of the crime serves as a warning to all women, reinforces their supposed vulnerability and begs the question - What did she do wrong? The assumption is that she has abdicated her responsibilities for self-protection and self-surveillance (Cahill 2000: 48), because the dangers of "violating the codes of behaviour are gender specific, positioning all women as vulnerable to male violence and in need of protection" (Meyers 1997: 9). Ironically this protection, according to the romance script, is afforded by securing, and maintaining, appropriate masculine guardianship.

Once paragraph six establishes the existence of a relationship, the text works quickly to provide an elaboration and justification with the whole of paragraph eight reading: The two had allegedly broken up only days before the shooting - at the instigation of Adele Smith. Thus, like Janine Dean in Soldier stole rifle, shot wife, Adele Smith, despite her youth, is granted an active role only in that she set the tragic events in motion with her repudiation of her partner. According to the logic of the romance script, each woman failed to commit herself to the relationship and to tackle the obstacles that are mandatory to the script. However, the obstacles themselves are not presented as an issue, and are in fact not mentioned in either article. Rather it is the failure to commit and to stay committed that is the focal point. One can only imagine the horror the 16-year-old went through in the moments before her death as her former boyfriend sprayed bullets around her hospital room, but this is given no space within the script used. Instead, as with Brett John Dean, the perpetrator's positioning as a 'rejected lover' guarantees his emotions a discursive space that his victim is denied. This automatically places the murder in the 'crime of passion' genre and, once again, grants the transforming power of a failed romance as a defence for the accused.

Another tendency evident within the articles is that of heavy journalistic reliance on statements from the defence when the perpetrator is male. In Soldier stole rifle, shot wife, no statements from the prosecution are included, and neither are comments from the judge, although it is reasonable to suppose he was fairly critical of Dean's actions, given the fact he sentenced him to 12 years jail. Gunman left apology note is slightly more balanced, with five prosecutorial statements and six defence, however only two of the prosecutorial statements read as condemnatory, whilst all of the defence statements work to both explain and excuse the perpetrator's part in the crime.

In Soldier stole rifle, shot wife the focal point is the mitigating circumstances surrounding Dean's actions - anger, alcohol, drugs, distress. Ironically, earlier in the month The Age published an article titled How drink spurs men to fight (7/9/98), which detailed a survey of violent behavior by men whilst 'under the influence'. Terminology such as 'under the influence' and 'spurs' holds an external agency responsible for dictating individual actions and, with the reader informed that Brett John Dean was 'spurred by a cocktail of alcohol and drugs', the privileged interpretation is that of a loss of control, not specific intent. In this way, the first paragraph mitigates Dean's active role by bringing in two outside agencies - his wife and his alcohol/drug consumption - to share the blame and establish a loss of personal agency highlighted by his inability to explain his actions.

For both articles, the inclusion of a claimed intention to commit suicide by the accused also invokes the despair of a failed romance and buys into a discourse of loss of control. The suggestion that the perpetrator actually meant to harm himself but, in the heat of the moment, 'accidentally' killed the one he loved conjures up images of tragic or consuming love, misery, desperation and, inevitably, diminished responsibility. However, a closer examination of Soldier stole rifle, shot wife reveals discursive contradictions within the text with the participants - Dean, his defence and the journalist - seemingly trying to have it both ways. Can Dean really be simultaneously both angry/murderous, according to the first paragraph, and distressed/suicidal, as detailed in the last paragraph? And, with both these options available, how can someone not be able to explain why he drove to his ex-wife's home, the woman the script claims he loved to the point of distraction, and shot her dead?

Love will find a way

The two articles discussed in this section, Man accused of love trap (Herald-Sun 22/8/98) and Love conquers even stab in back (The Age 28/8/98) both contain the word 'love' within the headline, immediately proclaiming the intention of the journalist to utilize a romantic scenario to portray the crime. Man accused of love trap is yet another article dealing with a spurned lover (this one actually using the term 'spurned lover'), but which did not, this time, end in death. In this case, the accused went to considerable lengths to set a trap for his 16 year-old ex-girlfriend by wiring a can of Coca-Cola with 117 volts of electricity and leaving it in a garden shed that she habitually frequented. Fortunately, a neighbour became suspicious and contacted police.

Headlines such as Man accused of love trap negate the seriousness of the crime and play into a script with undercurrents of romance, rather than abuse. Yet the term 'love trap' is not even justified by the facts in evidence as the device was clearly not designed to ensnare affection, but rather to cause bodily injury. It follows that if a possum trap traps possums, a grease trap will trap grease, and therefore a 'love trap' should trap love - not electrocute one's beloved. Furthermore, the use of the word 'love' in conjunction with such an attempt uncritically perpetuates the myth that violent men are abusive as a demonstration of love towards their victims. As I wrote this paper a report in the Herald-Sun (17/5/02: 4) regarding the murder of career criminal Victor Pierce, quotes a relative as saying: Victor and Wendy were like a lovey dovey Barbie and Ken … He may have given her a backhand once or twice, but it would only have been once or twice. As McCaughey argues, whilst discussing rape culture, prevailing cultural models "accept men's aggression against women as normal, sexy and/or inevitable and often regards women's refusal of it as pathological, [and] unnatural" (1998: 278). The discursive strategies used within the text transfer the concept of the violence from an act of simple abuse or premeditated revenge into a by-product of love or passion, therefore providing, once again, mitigating circumstances that at least partially redeem the perpetrator.

When explanations are required for male violence towards women, they often focus on whether the male aggression was 'natural' in relation to the woman's behaviour (Stanko in Belknap 1996: 126). This has largely developed out of the stereotypical and historical notion of the 'nagging wife', and calls into play the 'good girl/bad girl' dichotomy that is an inherent part of our culture. The premise is that had the victim not behaved in a certain (bad) way, the violence would never have eventuated. Bearing this in mind in conjunction with the social tendency, as stated earlier, for women to be held primarily responsible for both the maintenance of heterosexual relationships and for her own personal safety, the ready inclusion within the text of female agency regarding break-ups becomes more sinister and more discursively damaging. It is a power dynamic that holds women accountable for their own physical victimisation (Cahill 2000: 48). Yet again, in Man accused of love trap, the reader is immediately informed of who can be held responsible for the demise of the relationship, and yet again no further explanation is given as to why the relationship may have foundered. Apart from meeting her friends in a garden shed, spurning her lover is the only active role that this victim is allowed within the article. It is difficult to know whether the absence of a statement by the girl is by journalistic intent or by her wishes, however the dearth of prosecutorial statements appears to be a discursive strategy where the perpetrator is a male.

In her 1984 study of romance reading, Janice Radway found that, for readers, "the ultimate pleasure is to see how the hero's masculine defence mechanisms crumble beneath the love of the heroine. The transformation of the reserved and indifferent male into a warm and loving human being signifies a victory of female values of care and nurture" (Van Zoonen 1994: 109). One would imagine that it would be difficult to enscript an incident of domestic violence within these parameters, but the second article Love conquers even stab in back shows that it is not impossible. In this article, Colin Wilkinson proposes to his girlfriend, Tracie Mears, as she stands in the dock charged with wounding him with intent and affray:

A lovestruck boyfriend proposed to his sweetheart when she appeared in a court dock charged with stabbing him in the back.

Once again, although in this case he is not the perpetrator, the emotive state of the male involved takes centre stage. He is lovestruck, loyal, brave and romantic - and the fact that he deliberately chose an odd day to propose is overlooked, as is his sweetheart's lack of a joyous reaction, because neither fit neatly within the romantic theme chosen for this particular script. Instead, the apparently dysfunctional nature of their relationship is displaced by the transformation of Colin Mears from victim to saviour:

Imagistic discourses routinely position women as boundariless, vulnerable sex objects - objects that brave and physically capable men protect, save, and have sex with. Gender is no less bodily or material because it is discursive or textual. (McCaughey 1998: 279)

The romantic discourse is enlivened with the sentimental terminology of 'lovestruck' (with the inherent double meaning) and 'sweetheart', and demonstrates a disturbing twist to the notion of the triumph of romantic love. Here the male victim romantically proclaims "I never thought anything about it … I love her and that's it", thus providing a privileged interpretation that not only does love conquer all, but that it is actually somewhat heroic (perhaps even manly) to play down the violence. The attack itself is rendered powerless, a kind of pinprick, by his forgiveness. The female perpetrator is saved from both legal condemnation and societal disapproval by the 'selfless' actions of her boyfriend who provides a discursively instructive example of overcoming the obstacles necessary for true love to be secured. Paradoxically, there were no articles published that dealt with full details of male-female abuse where the victim was still alive, and no articles at all that ended with the abused female vowing romantically to continue the relationship. Indeed, in the latter instance they may well have been represented as pathological had they done.

In fact, female voice was largely absent in articles both where the women were still alive and where they had been murdered. The only exception to this rule was where the female was the perpetrator and, even there, female voice was limited. In Love conquers even stab in back, the accused only nods acceptance to her boyfriend's proposal and no interview or mention of why the attack took place is included. The covert message also deals with the privacy of abuse, and the labelling of crimes within the homes as mere domestics. However, Tracie Mears is not just denied verbal expression, but visual description as well. The script provides adjectives for everyone except her. Colin Wilkinson is 'lovestruck', the official are 'astonished', yet Mears is wholly expressionless. The reader is merely told that she is 'his' sweetheart - and that she caused him to undergo 'hours of surgery', a fact which emphasises the discursive theme inherent within the double meaning of the stab in the back. In fact, the mention of the 'hours of surgery' Colin Wilkinson was forced to undergo is the only hint of condemnation for the accused. She is rescued from harsher journalistic treatment by her boyfriend's proposal and the subsequent recuperation within a romantic script. Yet even this hint of disapprobation is more than is evident in Soldier stole rifle, shot wife, Gunman left apology note or Man accused of love trap, even though in two of these cases the victims were actually murdered. It seems that, to be sure of moral outrage and a conscionable response to a sickening crime, one must turn to articles dealing with child abuse. For example, on 22/8/98 the Herald-Sun published an article titled Vile grandfather jailed, which dealt with an elderly man who was jailed for the sexual abuse of six of his daughters. The text included words such as 'depraved' and 'disgusting' and relayed the judge's opinion that the man had "betrayed his role as a father.' Paradoxically, nowhere in articles regarding domestic abuse was the reader told that the man had betrayed his role as a partner/husband, and words such as 'vile' were conspicuous only by their absence:

The fact that social tolerance for aggression is gendered reflects the cultural equation of violence and masculinity in a way that naturalizes their coincidence. Both men's self-defensive violence, and their sexual violence against women fit neatly into what we understand as natural masculinity, while women's aggression is seen as unnatural and, therefore, pathological (Jones 1980 in Grindstaff & McCaughey 1998: 180)

Witches and bitches

"Lesbian vampire, witch, black widow, female castrator, monstrous mother, dangerous daughter - the idea of the female killer has gripped people's imaginations for centuries" (Creed 1996: 108). Promoting an offender as evil - a witch - is "an umbrella 'explanation' for badness which is felt to be otherwise inexplicable" (Naylor 1995: 88) and an explanation which is exclusively female. In her 1997 study of media coverage of violence against women, Marion Meyers argued that society responds harshly to women who step outside the traditional role of victim - "'good girls'…follow the rules and, in doing so, stay out of trouble; 'bad girls' do not follow the rules and, therefore, get what they deserve" (1997: 36-39). The article discussed in this section, Witch's brew attack (Herald-Sun 24/9/98), covers the second case of female-male violence, falls into the 'bad girl' category, and is awarded a journalistic treatment wholly dissimilar to the other articles discussed in this paper.

This article covers yet another relationship breakdown but this time the instigator is the male and the violent partner is the female. After being informed that their four-year relationship was over, Melanie George boiled a pot of various substances (disinfectant, candle wax, bleach, honey, etc.) and poured it over her partner's groin. After Leon Tsouris hid in the bathroom she apparently refused to call an ambulance and instead crushed some firelighters, lit them and attempted to throw them over him. She was sentenced to seven years jail.

In Witch's brew attack, the use of the word 'witch' in the headline already conjures up stereotypical images of a violent, vindictive woman wielding unnatural female power. This image is a powerful representational strategy that has been used against women for centuries. Whilst those accused of being witches may no longer be hunted down and summarily executed, the witch image "sits on top of a pyramid of related images of deviant women as especially evil, depraved and monstrous" (Heidensohn 1985: 92). The use of this image within Witch's brew attack renders a romantic script implausible and therefore George is denied the romantic alibi granted to other perpetrators discussed in this paper. The discursive power of this alibi should not be underestimated - "it enables men to narrate their violence as romance… [and] locate their unethical actions in a discourse which will exculpate them" (Puren 1994: 243).

In this way, the article labels Melanie George as deviant before the text itself even opens. However, she is soon to become doubly deviant as the reader learns that she was not content with metaphorically stabbing her lover in the back, she threatened to remove his manhood itself. As the generally hysterical media coverage that followed the Bobbit case indicated, emasculation generates abhorrence largely absent from mere murder:

Touted in the media as the ultimate example of male bashing, male hysteria over the Bobbitt case was not unlike that over the film Thelma and Louise; both illustrate a tired double standard in which isolated cases of female aggression ("real" and Hollywood) are read as evidence of the routine victimization of white men rather than as rational responses to male oppression. This double standard highlights white men's greater power to voice their complaints in the media (while silencing women's) as well as their sense of entitlement to sexual invulnerability (Grindstaff & McCaughey 1998: 176).

Or, as one writer expressed it in Newsweek during the height of the Bobbitt media frenzy: "rapists are chopping off women's arms and getting out on parole two years later, and maybe it's covered once in the news. But let one woman touch one single penis and the whole country goes ballistic" (Heimel 1984 in Grindstaff & McCaughey 1998: 178). Whilst the threat to Tsouris's penis may not have sent this whole country ballistic, perhaps that has more to do with the fact that this particular penis survived relatively unscathed than any claim Australia might have to more balanced reporting. Indeed, the injury to Leon Tsoursis's groin area, and his fear of possible harm to his penis, is treated with a level of disgust and horror that is simply not evident even in articles dealing with domestic murder, such as Soldier stole rifle, shot wife. This is exemplified by the marked shift in the word space given to the judge's comments. In this article, five paragraphs are devoted to the judge's rather appalled summing up of her "deliberate, well-planned act" of "dreadful violence" and, whilst no prosecutorial statements are included, George's own defence lawyer is represented as less than sympathetic to her client's cause:

George's lawyer, Sheila Amsden, described the mixture as a "witch's brew". "She intended to do grievous bodily harm to a particular area of his anatomy which was particularly important to him because he was a man obsessed with sex," Ms Amsden said.

In fact, despite the fact that her victim lived to tell the tale, Melanie George stands as the only perpetrator in this sample who was continually and relentlessly condemned for her actions.

There were several other elements within this article that made it stand out from similar ones dealing with the more common male-female violence. Firstly, the language chosen was unusually graphic with details such as Waking up in agony, Tsouris, 34, ran screaming… and George yelled, "Suffer - I'm not going to ring an ambulance for you … drop your pants and I'll cut your dick off". These inclusions are gratuitous elaborations that stand out simply because they are unusually descriptive. Secondly, whilst George's actions, like the perpetrators in both Soldier stole rifle, shot wife and Man accused of love trap, are foreshadowed by her victim's decision to end the relationship, it is her 'unnatural' frightening anger that is the focus here - not her distress. So whilst in Soldier stole rifle, shot wife, the male perpetrator is presented as angry and distressed, in Witch's brew attack, the female perpetrator is presented as simply angry and vengeful.

Another textual dissimilarity was the amount of space given to Leon Tsoursis in this article. Unlike the female victims, he is given considerable voice within the text and his feelings and injuries are made abundantly clear. In fact, more text is used foreshadowing Leon Tsouris's distress (agonised, screaming, terrified) than Melanie George's feelings (anger) regarding the events following the end of their relationship.

Melanie George's main crime appears to be not so much attempting to punish her lover, but for falling between the social and moral cracks. Whereas men are socialized to dominate women and male violence is in fact "more conforming than aberrant behaviour" (Bograd & Yllo 1988: 17), female violence offends the status quo, upsets cultural expectations and is seen as necessitating harsh punishment. This is further aggravated by the simple fact that George presented a threat to a male penis. As Grindstaff and McCaughey argue, the phallic regime of the masculine identity is by no means as invulnerable as patriarchy would have it seem. Rather, "it has to be endlessly narrativized, idealized, and defended against threats, both internal and external, revealing that men have castration anxiety, precisely because their masculinity is not as unproblematic or invulnerable as they would like to believe" (Grindstaff & McCaughey 1998: 186). Therefore, George has threatened not just Leon Tsouris's penis, but the status quo itself. She suffers the consequences journalistically by being portrayed as single, aggressive, and powerful - all negative discursive attributes for a female (Wykes 1995: 68). Paradoxically, Melanie George's 'power' was one of the most compelling aspects of this article as well as its major exclusive feature - Witch's brew attack was in fact the only article to refer to domestic violence as a means of establishing or redressing power imbalances. Ironically, and tragically, George's admission that her actions had "made her feel powerful" were swiftly used against her in sentencing.


Romantic love is "one of the most compelling discourses by which any one of us is inscribed; throughout the world there are cultures in which individuals are educated in the 'narratives of romance' from such an early age that there is little hope of immunity" (Seuffert 1999: 211-240). This, in turn, brings into play underlying assumptions regarding active/passive and dominant/submissive gender roles inherent within notions of romantic love and naturalizes male-female aggression in a way that is simply unavailable for most other forms of abuse. The articles examined for this study appeared to reflect this in the differing treatment afforded male-female abuse from female-male abuse. If the perpetrator was male, the newspapers tended to focus on shifting the blame by either holding the victim at least partially responsible or by emphasizing any possible extenuating circumstances. Ironically, despite 'romantic love' being popularly understood as the domain of 'the feminine' (Williamson 1996: 24), the sample studied here made the excuse of 'love' available exclusively for the males. In this way, men were represented as being driven to violence by overpowering love, all-consuming passion, or overwhelming grief. Women are merely collaborative victims or aggressive ball-breaking (penis-threatening) witches.

In fact, all of the women in the above articles were presented as somehow derelict in their femininity. The three women who 'rejected' their lovers also rejected romance, failed in their 'duty' to nurture their relationships and failed to protect themselves, whilst the two female perpetrators were portrayed as lacking in passivity, compassion, obedience, acquiescence - all traits inherent within the idealized feminine role (Cranny-Francis 1992: 134-135). Yet the voices of the women were all but absent within the articles as well, perhaps because "when men's lives, values and attitudes are taken as the norm, the experiences of women are often defined as inferior, distorted, or are rendered invisible" (Bograd & Yllo 1988: 15). Certainly, of the two cases of female-male violence, one was transformed into a salutary lesson of male heroism and love winning out over the obstacles, whilst the other was utilized as a moral tale of the pathological aggression of predatory females and their frightening tendency to strike at the heart of a man - his penis.

Why, with so much feminist research being conducted into the ramifications of skewed representations, is there no evident shift in popular discourse or even an inclusion, within opinion-articles at least, of a feminist analysis of domestic violence? Adrian Howe (1998: 35-38) provides some illumination in his examination of a series of articles published by the Age in 1993 under the title 'The War Against Women.' One of the most unusual aspects of this series was the space given to feminist explanations of domestic violence. However the backlash from readers was enough to ensure the editorials published during the series read "as desperate attempts to steer a path between what the feminist experts and their own research was telling them, and the angry reaction of misogynist readers." They did this by labelling as extreme any attempts by feminists to identify domestic violence as a male problem and, by doing so, fell back into their more customary, and more popular, anti-feminist rhetoric:

It is as if the stark 'reality' of men's violence against women is simply too awful to contemplate. It must be hedged in with discursive strategies which have the effect of deflecting attention away from the harshness of the verdict that men are responsible for their own violence. Resistant speech, in this case feminist speech about the pervasiveness of men's violence, may sometimes be given space in the mainstream (that is, non-feminist) media, but it is quickly subsumed by the 'recuperative machinations of power' deployed by the dominant discourses (Howe, 1998: 38)

Therefore, the formula inherent within the romance script remains intact and offers an "expectation of male violence and the potential to tame aspects of this violence by passive acceptance and respect for male domination" (Gilbert & Taylor 1992: 81). In other words, a romantic discourse does not just excuse male violence - it anticipates and naturalises it. It should then come as no surprise that the press representations in the sample studied here implicitly, and at times explicitly, convey the acceptability of male violence and therefore reinforce "the belief that men should use violence to deal with their problems. This in turn strengthens the other powerful media message that minimizes, tolerates, and condones violence toward women" (Thorne-Finch 1992: 69). Coupled with a parallel message of the desirability of romantic love and the sanctity of marriage, this creates a complex paradigm that requires someone being held discursively responsible when things go wrong - and that appears to be the women.

However, I do not mean to suggest that readers are acquiescent recipients of the representations proffered by a wholly blameworthy press. Instead, a common socialization within a patriarchal society ensures that the editors, journalists and readers all participate in an active collaboration that defines the discursive structures used - and that certain interpretations become privileged. In her paper, 'Resisting Passion: Pedagogy and Power', Burack (2000: 105) argues that contemporary scholars identify two broad categories of prejudice with regard to race, gender, sexuality, or other dimensions of identity. The two categories are individual/private and structural/collective/public. Ordinary public discourse is more often than not focused within the first category, with issues such as racism, sexism or homophobia being a matter of personal preference or viewpoint and best countered with education. However, the second type of prejudice is structural, "and in the most sophisticated forms of analysis, demonstrates the ways in which public discourse, institutions, and social, economic, and political practices operate to stereotype, discredit, marginalize, and disempower members of particular social groups" (Burack, 2000: 107). I argue that the press, as exemplified by the examination of the articles presented here, fall into this second category and therefore that individual education is not sufficient. Burack goes on to say that the remedies for forms of institutional prejudice and discrimination do not merely depend on the willingness of individuals to change their attitudes, but rather requires a more collective approach to deeply held prejudices and social 'truths' which affect the active collaboration mentioned earlier.

This active collaboration can be best summed up as a "cultural blindness", which has as its root "the social structures and values that deny male violence against women in a serious systemic problem rooted in misogyny and patriarchy" (Meyers 1997: ix). Yet newspapers connect the individual to the world, "telling stories of social life, news is a social resource. A source of power, news is a window on the world" (Tuchman 1978: 217). And with the power of such a window, 'cultural blindness' is a luxury the press, and society, can ill afford.


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