It was a graphic reminder that domestic abuse can occur in any family. Last week, several news outlets published photographs of Nigella Lawson looking distraught as her husband, Charles Saatchi, grabbed her neck. After the photos came out, it was widely reported that the celebrity food writer had moved out of the home she and Saatchi shared and he eventually accepted police caution over his abusive behavior.
Since all of this is playing out in the press, Saatchi and Lawson will now have to consider how their marriage affects their public image. Saatchi will have to do damage control to stop the “abusive monster” label from sticking while Lawson runs the risk of being labeled a “weak woman” if she doesn’t end the relationship.
So far, Saatchi’s has tried to dodge the “abusive monster” label by downplaying the incident. Here’s how he described what happened to the London Evening Standard:
“…we were sitting outside a restaurant having an intense debate about the children, and I held Nigella’s neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point. There was no grip, it was a playful tiff. The pictures are horrific but give a far more drastic and violent impression of what took place. Nigella’s tears were because we both hate arguing, not because she had been hurt.”
Of course, no one bought his explanation, and he was widely criticized for using the term “playful tiff” to describe a fight that brought his wife to tears. At the heart of this botched attempt to brush off the incident, is the assumption that physical intimidation isn’t really abuse—real domestic abuse is much more violent. This is evident by the way he stresses that “there was no grip” and that she wasn’t really hurt.
Saatchi isn’t the first person who’s tried to justify abuse using this logic. Abuse that doesn’t leave a victim battered and bruised is sometimes minimized because it doesn’t seem that bad in the scheme of things. Since this type of abuse is considered milder than “real” abuse, the terms used to describe it are frequently also mild. For example, an abusive partner might be described as “passionate” while the victimized partner might be called “emotional.” Referring to a scary incident as a “heated argument” or the result of someone “losing their temper,” is another way abuse is sometimes downplayed.
Lawson seemed to use this kind of language to tiptoe around saying “abuse” when she explained her reaction to Saatchi’s outbursts. In an interview from 2007 she said, “I’ll go quiet when he explodes, and then I am a nest of horrible festeringness.”
This reluctance to use the a-word goes back to a popular assumption about what constitutes “real” domestic abuse.
“Real” domestic abuse, the thinking goes, is perpetrated by abusive monsters who use extreme forms of violence.
For example, this PSA uses the abusive monster stereotype to convey its message about domestic violence:
CONTENT WARNING: THE FOLLOWING VIDEO DEPICTS GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AGAINST A WOMAN.
The man in this PSA is so extreme that he doesn’t seem like a real person, Instead, he’s a one-dimensional monster who becomes horrifically violent over the slightest annoyance. This doesn’t mean this type of extreme violence doesn’t occur. Sadly, it occurs all to frequently. However, domestic abuse doesn’t always look this extreme and abusive people don’t always seem like villains from horror films.
Another stereotype about domestic abuse has to do with the assumptions people have about female victims who stay in abusive relationships. Often, these women are indirectly labeled weak.
You see this idea expressed in some of the reports speculating about whether or not Nigella Lawson will leave her husband. Take for example, this quote from The Mirror:
“Nigella is a domestic goddess in American eyes too. To stay in a violent relationship could harm her reputation as a strong woman.”
In a way this kind of thinking blames the victim—a woman returns to an abusive partner not because the cycle of abuse is complicated, but because she isn’t a “strong woman.” Famous women in this situation often have the added burden of being called a “bad role model.” This is what pop singer Rihanna was called when she went back to an abusive boyfriend. What made this all the more heartbreaking was that, as Rebecca Carroll pointed out, some of her most vocal critics were feminists.
In that same article, Carroll does an excellent job of explaining why condemning domestic abuse victims in this way does more harm than good:
“I certainly understand people’s inclination to think that they know better, indeed, to feel like they are better than someone who is in an abusive relationship. Who in their right mind subjects themselves to repeated violence? But that is a short-sighted and actually not very smart response to what is actually going on with domestic abuse, and precisely the mentality that makes the survivor feel judged rather than understood.”
Of course, understanding the dynamics that contribute to domestic abuse and being supportive is easier said than done. Domestic abuse can be complicated. Sometimes it can be gruesome and sometimes it can be subtle. It can be embarrassing. When we hear about it happening to other people, particularly people we care about or admire, it can make us angry.
Understandably, this anger is sometimes expressed by feeling disgust for the attacker and disappointment in a victim who doesn’t leave. But labeling someone an “abusive monster” or “weak woman” only fuels the ignorance and social stigma associated with domestic abuse, and in the end, it often does a disservice to people struggling with this issue.