This Stuff Matters

by Shaker phdintraining

I am not the first one around here to point out that how stories are represented matters and matters and matters. In fact, what I do depends on the fact that how stories are presented and represented matters.

So, let me tell you a story.

One Sunday in September my husband came home from work visibly shaken. A former co-worker and acquaintance had been brutally beaten and set on fire in her home. The man that was with her was murdered and also set on fire. There was more to the story, but those are the elements that I can confirm. When he finished telling me what he knew, I was sick to my stomach. I'd never met the woman, but my stomach churned at the thought of the horror she must have felt.

Although the crime happened in her home and she is the surviving victim, in the local media the story was presented as one about the murdered man. In most articles about the case, you have to dig to find Deborah's name mentioned. Certainly, this man's murder was horrific, but as the surviving victim of this crime, Deborah's story deserved to be told.

It wasn't until December that a local, free, weekly paper published an article about the crime. While that article does at least present an image of Deborah Moy, it makes sure she is viewed as both a partier and a victim.

She is described as some one who "tears it up," was "part of a party crew" and a person who "liked to be the center of attention." She took the same risks we all take. She and some friends wanted to party after-hours and to do so went to her place. What is disappointing is that throughout the article Deborah Moy is represented as either a hard partier or victim as if one situation is the result of the other. The author juxtaposes his description of Deborah as someone who "tears it up" with that of her as, "a living breathing crime scene."

By the end of the paragraph the author has striped Deborah of her humanity and made sure that the image of a woman as both someone who parties and a dehumanized victim are synonymous in the reader's mind. These descriptions subtly imply that Deborah the victim is the result of Deborah being a partier. Without stating so explicitly, this article reinforces the old stand-by that the female victim is somehow responsible for the crime against her.

An addendum, published this week in the same paper, reinforces that idea. The article, "Revisiting the fire at the castle, the friends of Deb Moy," attempts to represent Deborah in a more human light by referring to her with a more familiar name; however, ultimately the article fails, even in the title. The way it currently stands it's a "revisiting" of an arson. This crime was more than a fire at a unique local building. It was an assault and murder. By foregrounding the fire and the "castle," the author, once again, manages to equate Deborah to an inanimate object, stripping her of her humanity.

The author says that in the original article he
respected the wishes of the Moy's and their friends while researching the piece – pretty much all of them declined to comment for the record. But without their input, my portrait of Deb was one-dimensional.
Without their permission he couldn't write about "how she loved her dog" or "[that] she liked to drink two glasses of milk before going to bed every night." These humanizing details could not be included in the original article because they fit neither the image of a woman who likes to "tear it up" nor a "living breathing crime scene."

As I said, I don't know Deborah. I cannot tell you if this second representation is more true or false than the first. What I can say is that this article inadvertently plays into the standard Madonna/Whore dichotomy. It is steeped in sympathy for a person the author just learned "loved her dog." From the stories my husband told me, Deborah is a woman like any other. She partied and drank milk every night. The point is that either way she is a victim of a horrific crime and deserves the same sort of sympathy when all the author knew was that she liked to party as when he knew that she loved her dog.

At first someone reading these articles may not pick up on the implications of these word choices; however, language matters. The author never overtly blames Deborah for the crime against her, but his disapprobation of her lifestyle is evident. When he wrote a second article to clarify her "character" the author was equally careful to leave out all mention of that lifestyle. When this kind of language use goes unquestioned it reinforces the idea that in order to earn sympathy, women must be, first of all, sympathetic victims. They must not take risks or enjoy life. They must "love their dog."

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