Why Emotionally Abusive Women Are Given a Pass in Pop Culture

Cultural commentary is usually interesting because it’s easy to relate to. Even if you don’t agree with the author’s conclusion or any soft political message, you recognize the scenes and situations that the writer describes. Yet as I read Karen Rinaldi’s article in Motto (an online project of Time), I thought she must live on another planet. Here is how she sets the stage:

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about another friend’s husband who had called his wife a “stupid bitch” in front of their daughters in a moment of anger. He later apologized to the family. He’d had a hard day at the office. He didn’t really mean what he’d said, and he’d humbled himself in front of his wife and kids. We knew that he was basically a good guy. Basically a good guy….

What is the female equivalent to that catch phrase? There isn’t one. Men are forgiven for behaving badly because the assumption is that underneath it all they are basically well intentioned. They can’t help themselves from being belligerent or abusive, because, well, “it’s what men do.” This generalization is entirely unfair: unfair to men who do not behave badly and unfair to men who do — and need help — and unfair to women.

I don’t know where she lives or who her friends are, but I cannot imagine anyone I know shrugging off a husband calling his wife “stupid bitch”—particularly in front of children, but even if they were alone—as the forgivable transgression of a good guy having a bad day. It’s not that my friends wouldn’t be able to forgive him, but they’d see it as a symptom, at least, of larger anger issues that overshadow any other “good guy” traits. The verdict would be that he needs help since his behavior was completely out of bounds.

Rinaldi’s other examples—a man who makes a sexist remark at a meeting or a man who insults his date in front of his friends—might be shrugged off as anomalies, depending on their specifics. Did the man perhaps think the “insult” of his date was a teasing jest? Could the sexist remark have been careless phrasing? Those more shades-of-gray incidents might earn someone the “good guy” pass.

But Rinaldi insists that women are far less likely to have their own bad behavior excused, writing:

When has anyone ever heard, as a pardon for a woman’s bad behavior, “She is basically a good woman?” Never. Because as frequently as we hear, “He’s basically a good guy,” we also hear, “She’s such a bitch.” Women are not so readily forgiven for their transgressions, no matter how small.

But this doesn’t ring true with my experience either. She’s right that I’ve never heard the phrase, “She’s basically a good woman,” but I’ve heard plenty of excuses like “she’s under so much stress” or “she’s juggling so much” to explain why a woman yelled harshly at her kids, over-reacted to a perceived slight at work, or was rude to a colleague or friend.

In fact, when it comes to relations between the sexes or within couples, I’ve seen far more women treat their husbands badly in public than the reverse. Certainly there is deplorable treatment of women showcased in rap music and violent video games, but in most of society, women seem to have far greater license to mistreat and belittle men. Men in commercials and sitcoms are routinely characterized as bumbling Homer Simpson-style morons; intellectuals routinely ponder if it’s The End of Men and ask Are Men Necessary? and appear not to feel at all uncomfortable with effectively devaluing half of our population.

This double standard is everywhere. The day after I read Rinaldi’s article, I saw a sign outside of a bar that read:

HUSBAND DAYCARE CENTRE

Need time to relax?

Need time for yourself?

Want to do shopping?

Leave your husband with us!

Standard package: 1 Glass of wine

Delux [sic] package: 1 bottle of wine & carbonara

Granted, I was in Malta, but this kind of marketing gimmick is common in the U.S. as well. Everyone I was with chuckled when we saw it, but we all agreed that one would never see the same sign offering daycare for a wife. It would be considered entirely inappropriate to suggest, even jokingly, that an adult woman is in need of “daycare” and that it’s the husband’s duty to find a place to park her for the day so he can have some fun.

Rinaldi’s perspective seems driven by her frustration with Donald Trump’s election, in spite of the infamous Billy Bush tape, in which he made graphic, vulgar remarks about women. But this overlooks that Trump survived that scandal in spite of Americans’ disgust with that tape and his behavior. Voters had to weigh all of the personal failings of both candidates and their different visions for the country when deciding whom to support. That doesn’t mean they endorsed what he did or would accept such behavior in other circumstances.

Rinaldi also suggests that women, particularly in the wake of Trump’s election, have little power or voice in influencing society or how these debates unfold. That belittles the tremendously important role that women play in setting the boundaries of what’s acceptable—as teachers, mothers, community and business leaders. She’s right that we shouldn’t excuse men’s truly bad behavior, but we also shouldn’t overlook our own responsibility to create an environment that judges both sexes fairly and treats everyone with respect.

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  • Paula

    You are right, and I want to expand on it. Women have the responsibility to create an environment of equality between women. The opposite is happening, Women create and accept inequality between women.

    Everyone seems to be ignoring the two most basic issues in feminism. First, feminist leaders create inequality between women. Second, feminist followers choose to live with inequality between women.

    The National Organization for Women (NOW) denies voting rights to its own members. 2017 is an election year for NOW’s president and vice-president. Members can vote only if they attend the national conference in July. NOW leaders chose Orlando, Florida in the middle of the Florida peninsula for this election conference. Orlando is about as far away from the rest of the country as is possible to get. No absentee voting. No voting through chapters. No voting for members who do not have the money, transportation, time, or substitute care for children, parents, and/or spouses to attend the conference.

    What’s even more frightening is that NOW members choose inequality for themselves by making choices similar to the choices Trump voters make. They keep choosing to let elitist leaders create inequality for them and between them.

    Why are NOW members making choices that are similar to the choices Trump voters make? Trump voters support a president who plans to take basic necessities away from them. NOW members support an organization that takes voting rights away from them. Why? Self-sacrifice for the greater good? Their self-sacrifice benefits elitist leaders, but neither Trump voters nor NOW members see that. If Trump voters are unintelligent, what does that make NOW members?

    Elitist leaders work for their own interests, no matter what they promise to do or whom they make promises to. How many other feminists are making choices that support elitist leaders?

  • Michael Ziilch

    I’ve noticed that men have a culture of camaraderie and brotherhood, they say we can get in a fight and have a beer the next day. Women tend to be very competitive with each other, not to say Men aren’t competitive with one another either, but they are different styles. Men seem to not hold grudges for long periods of time, or harbor feelings we won’t say while acting in an opposite manner, while this is typical amongst many women, though this could be anecdotal. I feel like the movie “Mean Girls” is spot on with how power trips in women circles have a sort of high school nature to them with a heavy pettiness and snootiness with a desire to hog the attention for one’s self and an inability to play fair. This usually benefits the most tyrannical and manipulative in the group to dominate the others. Yet women are traditionally seen as compassionate and empathetic. I’ve watched this even among waiters (like at this burger joint just the other day) where we were having take out, the female waiters should be treating everyone equally with the date I had, the women would always ignore the girl as if she didn’t exist, yet would smile and acknowledge me. So all the feminism often times seems to preach one thing, about equality and inclusiveness, but can be very cliquish, with strange power dynamics. But I don’t feel this is a biological problem, but a social problem or a cultural problem.

  • Derrick Maurice Sanderson

    Women have support from each other, men tend to let things go and hold it in thinking it will go away . Men don’t want to feel labeled as weak when a woman abuses them physical or mental. My brother was married to a verbally abusive woman ,it was horrible eventually he left her I didn’t like her at all but I was very supportive of him , he ignored her words he was no saint it takes two but she was loud and the words she used ,,my mom never said things like that to my Step dad.