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Stand up to your man

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 8 July 2009

NRL player Greg Bird has announced that he is appealing his gaol sentence for smashing a glass into his girlfriend's face in August 2008. The assault left her with facial lacerations and a fractured eye socket, requiring surgery. Bird was ordered to comply with an Apprehended Violence Order - which was placed despite the woman's objections.

At Bird's sentencing hearing, his lawyer Leslie Nicholls adopted a Bart Simpson line of defence for his client. First, if there were an "incident", the glass was not wielded as a weapon by Bird. Nicholls conjectured that perhaps the woman had fallen on the glass: "Katie Milligan might have been holding the glass (and there may have been) some act that caused her to fall". Second, Nicholls claimed that, however it was caused, the "incident" was "almost instantaneous and over in a matter of seconds". Third, Nicholls invented a new test of criminal liability by claiming that any injuries from the "incident" were trifling: "Although the injury was sufficient to need operative treatment immediately after the incident, there's clearly no evidence whatsoever that that injury has caused any damage, disability or disfigurement."

Nicholls' trump card was the refusal of Bird's girlfriend to press charges or give evidence against her assailant. Indeed, the woman provided a character reference for Bird, as did her parents. In the letter, she wrote, "I would like to make it absolutely clear that Greg Bird has never intentionally harmed me nor been abusive towards me in any form, physical or emotional." Given her actions, Nicholls asserted, "Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this case is that the victim has never made any complaint of criminal conduct against Mr Bird".


Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of domestic violence "incidents" would know that Nicholls' last claim is nonsense. That is, perhaps the most usual aspect of such assaults is that the victim refuses to make a complaint of criminal conduct or to give evidence against the assailant. There are many reasons that a woman stands by the man who hurts her, including emotional and economic dependence on the attacker, or fear of losing any children and of being seen as a bad mother. Or fear of being vulnerable to even more severe violence if she leaves, a well-justified fear given that the incidence and intensity of domestic violence escalates dramatically in the period after a woman leaves a relationship. Given such considerations, it can be both rational and risk-minimising to stay in a relationship marked by violence.

But what does not make sense is to excuse the violence by blaming the victim - even when the victim is blaming herself and excusing her partner. Our mothers and grandmothers were not always well placed to speak for themselves in an autonomous voice. But even these days, when women are mostly independent, we are still not always able or willing to call out domestic violence for what it is: an inexcusable attack on the person and her autonomy.

We seem to have lost our independent voice, just as we finding our own place in the world.

What is worse, this loss of a voice of our own seems to be often praised as a sign of sexual empowerment. Last week, as I waited for a class to begin, one of the students chanted, "Shush girl. Shut your lips". The others in the class, men and women, all joined in an impromptu refrain, "Do the Hellen [sic] Keller and talk with your hips." The song they were singing is Don't Trust Me by 3OH!3. For 3OH!3 and  their fans, the modern girl acts dumb and lets her sexual appeal do the talking.

It is not surprising that songs like this, and the lessons they teach, are so popular, given their sponsorship by large and powerful multinational music and media corporations in our world. And it is also not surprising given how apologists for such corporations dress up corporate interests as liberation and a form of power. In Australia, for example, Duncan Fine has notoriously defended Paris Hilton as a role model for young girls, asserting: "Sexed up, dumbed down, Hilton evokes an escape from the Western Taliban".

For Fine, modern girls are so "incredibly media savvy" that their fascination with figures like Hilton who speak with their hips can only be read in one way, as a preference for freedom over repression. And anyone who thinks otherwise is allegedly in the grip of an ill-defined phenomenon called a "moral panic".


A few years ago I visited a primary schoolroom in Sydney displaying a poster in which the 6th grade children set out what they wanted to make of themselves and of their lives. All but one of the girls wanted to be rich and famous: an actress, a model, an MTV singer with her own dressing room and ball gown. Only one of the girls had her heart set on being a doctor and "helping others". Her choice seemed so lacking in glamour when set against the glittering dreams of the other girls, and yet hers was the truly radical and unconventional choice in its scant regard for outward show.

I am not criticising these little girls for their choices. The criticism should be sheeted home to where it really belongs: to those who sponsor and defend the damaging myth that power for girls and women lies in shushing their lips and talking with their hips.

Moreover, a problem with a song like Don't Trust Me is that Helen Keller herself did not talk with her hips, and never allowed herself to be shushed. Keller called herself a militant suffragette and unreservedly supported the suffragette tactics of smashing shop windows, and of hunger strikes. Keller told the New York Times in 1913, for example, that "The women of America … cannot hope to get anything unless they are willing to fight and suffer for it. The pangs of hunger during their hunger strikes simply are a sample of the suffering they must expect. But I am a militant suffragette because I believe suffrage will lead to Socialism, and to me Socialism is the ideal cause." Keller's collected writings dispel any doubts about the power of Keller's independent voice (or see James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me).

Helen Keller was inspired by the fearlessness of the suffragettes who knew the consequences of their courage. That Keller should now be a byword for dumbed-down and sexed-up is bitter irony. But perhaps even more ironic is that examples of women who stand up to their men, with bravery and at the risk of suffering, are nowadays more likely to be found among the veiled women of Iran than in the "liberated" West. Perhaps they know something about power that we have forgotten.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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