RVA Family: The wrong way to teach kids about violence against women

Back in January, Luca Laverone’s video “Slap her” made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter as viewers saw it as a glimmer of hope in the movement to end violence against women. But…is it?

If you haven’t seen it already, I invite you to watch the “Slap her” video here.:

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This video purports to take a stand against violence against women by showing how absurd that violence is to children. While this video might conjure up applause for some, it gives me pause for thought.

Here’s the thing: This video still objectifies a female–in this case, a girl named Martina.

Luca Laverone, the filmmaker and the voice you hear directing the boys, set this video up as a social experiment.1 The boys are asked what they like about Martina, as though they’re tasked with describing their favorite toy. They describe her in terms of her beauty and what she’s wearing. “Her shoes, her hands,” one boy assesses approvingly. “Her eyes, her hair,” says another. They describe her abstractly, directing their approval of her features to Laverone, rather than to Martina. From what we’re shown in the video, the boys don’t ask anything of Martina as a way to get to know her–everything is taken at face value.

Next Laverone instructs the boys to “Caress her,” and they gamely do it. They reach out tentatively to stroke her cheek or run a hand down her side–and while Martina does not object and is assumed to be in on the experiment, this is nonetheless concerning. The boys never ask Martina if they can do the things they’re told to do to her. Martina has no agency in this equation; she isn’t consulted by Laverone2 on whether or not she’d like to be touched.

The last few seconds of the video in which Alessandro is asking if he can kiss Martina on her lips or on her cheek are especially telling: he doesn’t ask Martina. He asks Laverone. Martina should be the one answering the question, but instead, she doesn’t say a single word. She is in the film, but she’s not really part of the conversation and has no say over the “nice” things people do to her. Teaching young men to ask is really important, and on that level, this video fails.

This “on the street” scenario also seems absurd to me. Violence against women doesn’t happen as straightforwardly as this. Violent men aren’t walking around, kind and good bakers and firemen and pizza-guys (roles these boys say they want to fill one day), and then turning violent because someone says “slap her” on the street while they’re being filmed. This kind of violence doesn’t generally happen on a lark, as a “Huh, I should slap her? I never thought of that but sure, I’m gonna do it!” game. It’s much more insidious than this video is showing. And, OK, it’s a three-minute video, so there’s not much time for nuance, but it troubles me that we’re supposed to see this as some sort of success story. I’m not saying that these young men are not genuine in their stance against slapping Martina, but I’m not sure this video proves anything about the larger conversation about violence against women, because the context is so particular and removed from the actual violence that takes place. Women aren’t being slapped because men are being told to slap them randomly. Violence is much more complicated, and involves issues of power and control. And these little boys are encouraged to take control of Martina! Caress her! Make a face at her! This feeds into the problem, rather than solving it.

It’s good that that these little boys are horrified at the idea of slapping her. But it is not enough to say, “Congratulations, you didn’t slap someone, here’s a medal!” I don’t doubt that some men who commit violent crimes were at one point sweet little boys, too. There are plenty of “good” people who do terrible things behind closed doors. To say that all is well and these boys are fine misses the point that a society that takes young men like this and tells them again and again and again that Martina isn’t their equal, that they deserve to be in control. It’s not a one-time “slap her” but a thousand little things, day after day. But in the video, the music swells, our hearts feel full, and we are manipulated into thinking, “Phew, glad these boys will turn out great! Good work, society!”

The truth of the matter is that this is the moment society needs to not pat itself on the back but to pick up the conversation and keep running with it. Keep telling them not to slap her, again and again, and again, in a thousand little ways.

Imagine, instead, a video in which a little boy is told to hug a girl. If he does so without asking her permission, he’s asked why he didn’t ask her and gently–but firmly–taught about how even nice things should be done respectfully. Then we learn what Martina would like to be when she grows up, and they bond over their aspirations. Maybe she wants to make pizza or save people too! Suddenly, instead of being just a pretty face to these boys, she’s an equal, and they learn that being pretty isn’t a reason to hit or not hit people–being a person is what makes it not okay to hurt them. Period.

Violence against women comes in many shapes and sizes and hides under many guises. The de-personification of women is part of the problem, and objectifying Martina is ultimately unhelpful in terms of the larger problem of treating women like people rather than things. When we teach our kids to be kind, part of that lesson should be about asking to do the things we think of as nice, not just the (you’d think) super-obvious stuff like “Don’t hit anyone.”

OK. Deep breath. All of that said, at the end of the day, I’m still happy each time I watch this to see the looks of horror on each little boy’s face. I can feel multiple layers of things! Because while this video is flawed, it’s always good to see kind young hearts on display. And I’d go to that kid’s bakery any day.

  1. I know, saying something is a “social experiment” is sort of a joke on the Internet, but stay with me. 
  2. At least in front of the boys, where it matters. 
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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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