Black, blue, and victim blaming: the problem with domestic violence PSAs

According to a 2010 CDC survey, 1 in 3 women have at some point in their lives experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by a current or former partner.1 Domestic violence and intimate partner sexual assault occur every day, and occur across all classes, races, gender identities, and orientations. These issues are everyone’s issues. Yet our limited coverage of domestic violence, including awareness campaigns, features a very homogenous group: bruised, battered (and nearly always white) women.

You may or may not have seen this recent ad, released on Twitter by the Salvation Army of South Africa. The first image, which went viral within hours, shows a young, white woman covered in large, dark bruises, with a prominent black eye and cut lip. She is wearing a white and gold version of “#thedress” of recent internet fame, and posing rather seductively beneath the caption “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?” A tiny sub-caption, which interestingly was eliminated or edited in many retweeted versions of the PSA, reads, “The only illusion is if you think it was her choice. One in 6 women are victims of abuse. Stop abuse against women.”

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To be sure, this ad means well. If it brings any survivor of domestic violence closer to help, then it earns the dubious qualification “better than nothing.” However, even setting aside potential debate about the tastefulness of this ad, which equates a meme with a serious and widespread issue, this PSA is fraught with problems. It propagates a harmful trope: the visibly battered, bruised victim. Are there survivors of domestic violence who display obvious trauma? Definitely. Indeed, many do not survive: more than three women per day are murdered by husbands or boyfriends in the US alone.2 But holding up this woman as the picture of domestic abuse suggests that cuts and bruises are always part of abusive relationships. In reality, abuse can take many forms. Even in situations where abusers are physically violent, a push or slap constitutes abuse even when it does not leave a mark. The many abusers who perpetrate sexual, emotional, verbal, or financial abuse, who stalk, isolate, harass, or threaten their partners, should also be condemned. Survivors of these abuses, too, should have their pain and experience accepted as legitimate. Equating domestic violence with “black and blue” enforces a very narrow definition of abuse and delegitimizes the experiences of many survivors.

A second component of the PSA, which did not spread as widely but was also tweeted by the Salvation Army, brings in further issues. Another white young woman covers a severe cut on her face with makeup, beside a caption that answers the question from the first image: “Because they cover it with white and gold.”

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Taken in two parts, this PSA asks why domestic violence is so often hidden and ignored, then answers by blaming survivors for concealing their abuse. Domestic abuse, this ad tells us, would be more visible and preventable if “they” weren’t always hiding. Of course, there are many reasons for a woman not to report abuse. These include the difficulty of the legal system, pathetic conviction rates, a desire to stay with her abuser for various reasons, and, often, physical barriers, such as children, financial dependence, or fear that her abuser will harm or kill her or her loved ones if she leaves. This ad addresses exactly none of these issues.

Even more harmfully, the ad places blame for abuse on survivors, which already happens all too often. Though the first image tells us (in miniscule font) that abuse is not her choice, the ad as a whole places all focus on victims and none on abusers. A story of domestic violence, it says, is a story about a victim. No perpetrator is depicted or even mentioned. Ads like these, which seek to raise awareness, in reality perpetuate a culture that obsesses over female victims of domestic violence. This focus can be helpful when it provides resources for survivors or actively aids them in escaping violent relationships. Too often, however, it also blames women for their own abuse and creates a one-sided crime. We see abuse only in its results. The harmful action highlighted by this particular PSA is not the inflicting of this woman’s bruises and cuts, but her concealment of them.

The same one-sided presentation of domestic violence is prominent in another much-praised PSA, the commercial aired during the Super Bowl by NO MORE. This ad was effective in that it elicited emotional reactions and commanded attention to domestic violence. While its message was somewhat more inclusive than the Salvation Army ad’s, it too fails to hold any abuser accountable. We see an abusive relationship only from the side of the victim. We hear her voice as she seeks help, which is a deeply empowering action, but we do not hear or see her abuser. As in the more recent ad, he is absent and cannot be held accountable.

Millions of people watched NO MORE’s Super Bowl commercial. Now, more than a million have viewed the Salvation Army’s dress ad. If either PSA has convinced people to spare a thought for domestic violence or even spurred them to action, great. But the Salvation Army ad has also perpetuated a dangerously narrow definition of domestic abuse. Both ads, by focusing exclusively on victims, have failed to hold abusers accountable. Yes, these ads are something, but they are not enough. Let’s make sure that when we focus on survivors in coverage of domestic violence, we act to empower and provide resources, not to victim-blame. Let’s push for coverage of domestic violence that accurately portrays the many forms abuse can take and that holds abusers, not survivors, accountable.

[1] “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report.” National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010. Web. 7 Mar 2015.

[2] Catalano, Shannan. “Intimate Partner Violence: Attributes of Victimization.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. U.S. Department of Justice, 2013. Web. 7 Mar 2015.


Molly Munsell

University of Michigan

College of Engineering Class of 2018