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Privacy or Poster Child: Janay Rice and the Painful Spotlight of Domestic Violence

5 minute read
Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based non-profit that uses art to end violence against girls and women.

This past week, Janay Rice finally told her side of the story. In a highly orchestrated rollout with an interview published by ESPN’s Jemele Hill last Friday and a two-part interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show earlier this week, Janay consistently strove to distance herself from her image as the country’s latest poster child for domestic violence. She did so, however, by telling Lauer that her violent encounter with her husband, Ray Rice, was just an one-time act and that unlike a real domestic violence victim she would never remain “silent” and let that “just happen again.”

Janay’s assessment of domestic violence victims as passive and quietly enduring their trauma reveals a troubling logic: if not for the release of the elevator footage of Ray punching her and dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator, Janay might well have been another victim who endured that night in silence and been vulnerable to more violence.

Her reticence also reveals a major paradox. Over the last 40 years, the major gains of the domestic violence movement have been over matters of privacy and to insure that those who experience it are legally considered victims. But, because Janay was thrown into the spotlight as the face of domestic violence – against her own demands and desires – she reveals the limits of these gains in an era of 24-hours-news cycle and viral media.

Today, domestic violence is increasingly becoming more visible as a social problem. This is partly because advocates have made significant inroads in redefining domestic violence as a public crime and not as it was previously considered, a private family matters between a husband and his wife. Before, privacy laws were invoked to protect the assailant. Now domestic violence is illegal in every state, and more than 20 of those, including New Jersey, have mandated arrests.

While privacy was historically used to protect assailants, according to law professor Kimberly Bailey’s journal article “It’s Complicated: Privacy and Domestic Violence,” there is now “no role for privacy in the domestic violence context.” The result is that many victims, especially for victims of color, are less likely to come forward because they might be aware that might not be treated with the privileges of privacy or a sense of personhood or dignity by the criminal justice system or by consumers of social media. In the case of Janay, it also meant that few critiqued TMZ’s release of the video. Her assault was sold, widely circulated, and repeatedly watched, all under the premise of social good.

At the same time, as feminist activists were challenging legal definitions of privacy, there was a concerted effort to change the sexist image that women who experienced such violence must have deserved it. In order for domestic violence to be a crime, activists and prosecutors had to alter a discourse from victim-blaming to victimhood and create new narratives of individuals who were worthy of public sympathy and state protection.

And while the video of Janay is a testament to her vulnerability and victimhood for the larger public, her family considers it a stain, a breach of privacy that has changed their lives forever. The disconnect between being called a domestic violence victim and not considering oneself as one was on full display in that two-part interview with Lauer. For it was not only Janay who refused to see herself through that lens, but also her mother, Candy Palmer, father, Joe Palmer, and Ray himself.

Candy Palmer adamantly said she didn’t raise “a young woman to be an abused woman,” and Ray said that the public’s response to his hitting Janay made him understand how domestic violence was “a real issue in society” and that he was “truly sorry to the people that are really going through it.”

While this strategy might partially help rehabilitate her husband’s image as a perpetrator of domestic violence, and might rescue his career, it continues to stigmatize “real” domestic violence victims as people worthy of our concern but not respect, people who have the right to privacy, but not state or community protection.

For advocates and policymakers in the domestic violence movement, however, it’s a rare opportunity to insure that all victims of domestic violence have the chance to shape their own disclosures as well have a sense of privacy and personhood. And this might be the biggest irony of them all because respect and the right to make her own choices, tell her own story, and tell it on her terms is what it seems to be Janay Rice was craving all along.

What’s sad is that it came at the expense of the millions of men and women who experience these forms of violence every day – people who in fact are more like her than she would care to admit.

Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a Chicago-based non-profit that uses art to end violence against girls and women.

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