by Loretta Campbell
Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 49-52
Women are governed by social mores that prevent them from fully exercising their human rights. State policies, male violence, and women's own socialization facilitate the abuse of women. Three films distributed by Third World Newsreel examine the range of how women get abused. INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE; SUZANNE, SUZANNE; and TO LOVE, HONOR, AND OBEY look at the physical abuse of women, as it occurs in the United States. The films are structured within a framework of oppositions: feminism versus patriarchy, the individual versus the state, and humanism versus materialism.
In the film, INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE (Christine Choy and Cynthia Maurizio, 28 min, color, 1978) the filmmakers interviewed prison inmates who gave an analysis of the penal system. As one inmate put it, "You don't get the feeling like you being reformed, you get the feeling you're getting oppressed." Prisoners, in this documentary, bear witness to what incarceration means to women. At the tame time, none of the women interviewed tells exactly what crime she committed. This atmosphere of oppression lets prison be viewed as a metaphor for abusing women. The crimes seem like acts of survival committed by poor women (crimes mentioned in the film are forging checks, prostitution, drug abuse). The causes and effects of the women's crimes are shown as more important than the crimes themselves.
Confined in these spaces, the women work. Their labor is regulated by a series of State agents, i.e., wardens, prison guards and trustees. The other "officials" shown are the counterparts of State agents who more frequently govern the lives of non-incarcerated women. These are the middle class purveyors and preservers of the dominant culture — educators, clinicians, clergy, spouses, et al.
Prison labor, as one of the inmates states, is not skilled labor. There is little consideration for workers' safety. We watch some women at sewing machines doing piece work. As a prisoner describes their work, we see other prisoners struggling with heavy crates containing groceries, some of which weigh 40 pounds or more. It is another task for which the women are not paid despite the severity of the work. There was no mention of rest periods.
Inmates state that recreational facilities are lacking. The women seem to have neither a gymnasium nor any organized recreational activity. The camera pans across the prison grounds, a monotonous landscape broken up by cinderblock houses and dying shrubs. This shot of prefabricated structures, with the camera acting as an universal eye, presents this prison as representative of all prisons. We believe an inmate when she says that even walking around outside for exercise feels discouraging. The conditions under which these women are imprisoned make any kind of respite impossible. This oppression created by their living circumstances, in effect, keeps them in their place.
In TO LOVE, HONOR, AND OBEY (Christine Choy and Marlene Damm, 55 min, color, 1980) the filmmakers examine the plight of battered women. While the soundtrack plays Ella Fitzgerald singing, "Our Love Is Here to Stay," we look at snapshots of bruised and swollen women. Victims from various ethnic backgrounds pose rigidly in these photographs — resembling poses in mug shots. The photos present the victims looking like criminals. Choy and Damm are making a statement about the way society tries to make women responsible for their abuse.
The State and its agents, as shown in these films, function in collusion against battered women. Victims talk about the insensitivity to their suffering on the part of law enforcement officials and the criminal justice system. The film aptly demonstrates the validity of such grievances by questioning two police officers responding to a domestic dispute call. The officers give their opinions about the victim's behavior. They do not talk about the behavior of the batterer or possible actions against him. Statements are made by other officials about women's low selfesteem, masochism, and fear of reprisal.
Dr. Paula Caplan, in her book, The Myth of Female Masochism, explains how labeling abused women's behavior as masochistic encourages even worse abuse.
"The myth of women's masochism has helped to justify the view of women as appropriate targets of mockery and sexual objectification and depersonalization, as the appropriate people to carry out society's low-status work of housekeeping and child rearing and as the objects of verbal degradation and physical abuse for men who feel frustrated or insecure."(p. 12)
In one of the film's initial shots an elderly woman is being chased onto hospital grounds by her husband, also elderly. A doctor comes to the woman's aid and begins to take her inside. The husband is left outside looking bewildered. Will she go home to this, the viewer wonders. How long has she had to face the abuse of this now old man?
Most of this film is shot inside women's shelters where victims have sought refuge for themselves and their children.
The locations of shelters must be kept anonymous to protect these women and their children from reprisals. The film deals in depth with one particular case where the woman did not have the option of leaving an abusive man and going into a shelter.
Bernadette Powell is currently serving a 15-year sentence in Tompkins County Jail, Ithaca, New York, for the murder of her husband. In TO LOVE, HONOR, AND OBEY, Powell is interviewed in prison by Choy. Powell's ex-husband had abused her before, which precipitated their divorce. The film makes it clear that the police and criminal justice system have sided automatically with all the batterers of women in this film. Powell's lawyers tell us that she had taken her ex-husband to courts numerous times because of his abuse of her. Yet the court awarded them a joint custody settlement, where Powell would be in contact with a man known to be dangerous.
Then the ex-husband kidnapped Powell and their son and threatened to shoot them. Powell, talking to the camera in what appears to be a visitors' room in the prison, is interviewed in close-up, long takes. Calm for the most part, she talks about the various ways the police and authorities responded to her pleas for help. Finally, she breaks down while explaining how she did everything she could to protect herself; i.e., notifying the authorities, getting a separation and divorce. When her own self-defense resulted in the abuser's death, she was shocked to learn that the law came down on her ex-husband's side. The camera lingers on her faces encouraging us to identify with Powell and wonder what we would have done in her place. As the scene ends, we see her being locked back into her cell.
For many viewers, the question arises of what male victimizers think of their crimes. The film includes a therapy session for spouse abusers. The reason for the men's behavior is revealed best by what they do not say. (The men in this session are all white, which is reflective of the population of that group, not the population of batterers.) Each man interviewed equates his wife with a problem. At the beginning of these interviews, the men are relaxed. However, as they begin to discuss their behavior toward their wives, they display the kind of hostility that they previously vented on the women. Their faces become strained; a few talk confusedly.
For the most part, they blame their abusive behavior on frustration. Frustration, according to them, means their wives' lack of understanding or their own unfulfilled job aspirations. None of the men is repentant. None of them examines the source of his frustration, i.e., the socialization process that teaches battering as a means for males to release frustration. Implicit in the abusers' conversations is the many ways that these men have incorporated violence as an integral part of their self-definition, their manhood. Womanhood, then, means to them and to society at large that women implicitly consent to this violence.
Survivors in TO LOVE, HONOR, AND OBEY are women who lived through violence. Regardless of how long they remained with their spouses (because of financial need, fear of reprisal, or love) before finding help in a shelter, if they came through it alive, they are survivors. When they talk about why they remained with their spouses, many needed money to maintain the family, and many (like my own mother) were reluctant to break up the nuclear family structure.
This film questions this structure. When the women appear in their "defined" roles, i.e., as homemakers (in kitchens, making bed, in playrooms) the presence of children is either onscreen or off. Men and women are not on camera at the same time. The men are never shown with their children, as if to illustrate that their violence has no place in a happy home. We see how survivors of abuse have learned to create new family structures, composed of former abuse victims. The women and children in the shelters live in a communal situation in a new kind of extended family. Emphasis is finally placed on the wholeness of a nonviolent home.
SUZANNE, SUZANNE (Camille Billops and James Hatch, 30 min, B/W, 1982) deals with women and children's role in consenting to family violence. An Afro-American middle-class family is shown in a home-movie style documentary. The family's status is indicated by a pretty home, stylish clothes, and well-kept neighborhood. Suzanne, the film's subject and narrator, recounts her family's life with Brownie, her abusive father. Filmed after his death, this documentary addresses Suzanne's and her whole family's problems as a result of the father's violent behavior.
Billops described the film, during an interview at the 1983 Womanist Film Festival in New York City, as essentially a home movie about Suzanne's triumph over addiction. The film gives information about Suzanne's father, Brownie, and his part in Suzanne's drug problem. In the film, Suzanne, speaking against a curtain as a backdrop, recalls how she entered into drug use. She said she used tactics to gain her father's attention, which she equated with love. She depended on negative behavior, specifically drug abuse. She says that if her father were alive, "I would ask him why he didn't love me," as she lowers her eyes and reflects on her life. In the beginning, she is afraid to meet the gaze of the camera. As she begins to explain why she had this problem, she self-assuredly stares into the lens.
Augmenting this interview are images taken with the family's home-movie camera and still photos. These portray happy times for the family, but Brownie is not in any of these movies or snapshots. In the majority of the pictures, Suzanne, her mother and her brother are together. With one exception, the photographs of the father Brownie show him with friends and coworkers. In one snapshot, he is alone, holding a can of beer. For him, alcohol seems to have been a substitute for loving his family. Later in the film, Billie, Suzanne's mother, describes how Brownie beat her when he was drunk. Other family members are interviewed about Brownie, and while they all express concern about Suzanne's drug problem, none of them makes the connection between his violence and her addiction.
The texture of the film — the family activities shown and the fact that this was filmed in their home — make SUZANNE, SUZANNE truly a home movie. The look of the film also demonstrates how Suzanne and Brownie's problems were kept inside the family. For while family records can be shown to outsiders, they usually remain a private method for documenting family history. Only the family members looking at the family album usually know the secrets behind the smiling faces.
In SUZANNE, SUZANNE the extended family members continue their daily tasks during Billops' interviews. This depiction of the family adds to the home-movie feel of the film and to its validity, since information unfolds in a kind of "real" time. The family members are comfortable discussing family concerns with Billops for she is Suzanne's cousin, and family members address her, Billops, in familiar terms.
The use of home movies in this film underlines the family's middle-class values. First, during the time of Suzanne's childhood, roughly the 1950s, the ability to record family history with a movie camera was more affordable in the Black community to the middle-class. Second, the family seems to have purposely captured its best moments on film. The middle class has been characterized as enamored of appearances. Without Suzanne's narration in the film, the shots would indicate that these people are happy.
In one scene, Suzanne and Billie appear in profile talking about their life with Brownie:
At this point, Billie tells Suzanne that she (Billie) believed that sometimes Suzanne did deserve punishment though not as severe as Brownie meted out. In addition, Billie was too afraid of Brownie to intervene. Both women agreed that the beatings were violent and left emotional as well as physical scars. Billops captures the sisterhood of abused women in this scene. She also focuses on Suzanne's strength and compassion as a survivor.
In all of these films, women assert their human rights — usually against the oppression of the State and social mores. The batterers in these films represent this oppression. They keep certain members of society in their "place" by using violence and intimidation. As is exemplified in these films, women cannot challenge the status quo if they are overwhelmed by their fight for survival.
Victims in TO LOVE, HONOR AND OBEY, who considered their abusive marriages more important than themselves remained in abusive unions. Those women, especially mothers, who sought outside help only after living for a long time with a violent man (the women were possibly not even aware that help was available) inadvertently fostered the myth that families must be kept intact regardless of the circumstances. The questions raised by the police officers ignore the complexities of this kind of family relation. As representatives of the State, these officers embody its refusal to understand the myriad of problems resulting in family violence. Furthermore the officials' attitude explains the funding problems shelters are burdened with and the insensitivity of clinicians and authorities toward victims of this violence. Worst of all, no authorities advocate tough legal sanctions against violent men. The viewer can conclude that ours is a harsh reality, in which society gives permission for this kind of behavior.
SUZANNE, SUZANNE also tells the same story, in this case, how society is especially tolerant of batterers who are "good providers." Financial comfort, therefore, seems more important than love and respect. In addition, the State placed more emphasis on Suzanne's drug addiction than on the family problems which caused it. These problems were in a sense fostered by the State, and for the State to recognize its role in covering over middle class family violence might have meant admitting social guilt.
While the State is responsible for the rehabilitation of prisoners in INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE, it does not pay the women for the jobs they work at during incarceration. One inmate does mention vocational training offered by the prison. It is not specified which skills are taught. Furthermore, in prison the women endure physical abuse from police officers and prison guards, "When I got arrested, I was pregnant, I was beaten by the arresting officer," one inmate says.
Inmates who are single mothers must rely on relatives to care for their children. Without this help, the State places the women's children in foster homes. These women are vulnerable to the State where their children are concerned, and once freed — without skills — they remain vulnerable.
SUZANNE, SUZANNE; INSIDE WOMEN INSIDE; and TO LOVE, HONOR, AND OBEY depict a society which is indifferent to the needs of half of its population. By promulgating myths about battering in marriages; by promoting the status of women as underclass; and by praising the dominant style of male-female relations, our society victimizes women. By doing so, as these films outline, society creates the climate for male abuse.
These films are distributed by Third World Newsreel, 335 West 38th St., NYC 10018. (212) 947-9277.