While the Baltimore Ravens have cut Ray Rice and the National Football League has increased his penalty of a two game to an indefinite suspension, the scandalous domestic abuse captured on footage and leaked by TMZ is far from being “old news.” While people should be talking about why the NFL and the Ravens claim they had never seen the video until this week (despite the fact they most likely could have easily obtained a copy from the authorities upon request), or the fact that they failed to act more decisively when Rice was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault, there is another facet of this story that no one has discussed but requires immediate attention. One of the most critical aspects of the entire media frenzy that has been entirely obscured is the role we as viewers of this video have played.
While it may seem unavoidable, given the video being played on a loop by almost every major media outlet or appearing to some as a critical part of understand the scandal, watching this video itself feeds into a very dangerous and damaging aspect of our society’s treatment of domestic abuse victims. The video was leaked by TMZ not to educate society about the emotional traumas of domestic violence; rather, it was a shameless attempt to gain viewers and earn money, and sadly it worked. By tuning in to the footage, we have tacitly perpetuated a narrative that allows victims to be exploited for money, leaving them subject to additional judgement and isolation from friends, family and even total strangers.
We can see just how culpable we as a society that accepts the exploitation of abuse victims by thinking back only a few years to a similar domestic violence scandal among the famous. In 2009 TMZ published photographs taken by the police of Rihanna following her assault at the hands of then-boyfriend Chris Brown. The police evidence was leaked by a police officer and soon was seen on countless websites. While many abuse victims’ rights groups condemned the actions, and it seemed that society slowly learned the inherent wrong of publishing these confidential photographs, it seems we have not truly learned.
It is also important to note that the emotional and physical damage done to a survivor of domestic abuse is deeply personal; almost no one watching the clip is thinking about Janay Rice as a person or a victim—they are looking at her only through her relationship to her then-fiancé. Every survivor handles the aftermath of assaults differently, and they should have the right to dictate how they choose to handle what has happened to them.
By watching the video, we as civilians can in no way help Janay Rice to proceed with her life following the assault; we are not the authorities seeking criminal justice or the NFL seeking to punish Ray Rice. Instead, by watching it, we have taken away some of her agency in life and made her subject to verbal abuse by strangers in the name of our own curiosity or morbid entertainment. No survivor of abuse should need to release statements to strangers like the one made by Janay Rice, which reads, “I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I’m mourning the death of my closest friend. But to have to accept the fact that it’s reality is a nightmare in itself” (Colorlines, “Janay Rice on Domestic Violence Video: ‘Reality is a Nightmare,’” 09.09.2014). As everyone watching the video discusses the implications of this violent act for Ray Rice’s career or endorsements, Janay Rice becomes a one-dimensional character in this narrative, again teaching society that victims of abuse only have worth when placed in relation to their abuser.
In the instances when the focus is shifted to Janay Rice, the narratives prove to be equally disturbing. As many news sites point to the fact that the couple married one month after the assault took place or Janay Rice’s statements in defense of her husband since the release of the video and criticize her for staying with her abuser, others point to her decision to remain with her abuser as fodder for narratives that take blame away from Ray Rice and attribute a degree of equal culpability for the incidents that night. As author of “Crazy in Love” and domestic abuse survivor Leslie Morgan Steiner explains, the reasons for women remaining with their abusers are complicated and personal. The emotional and physical damage done by abuse changes every survivor and each responds differently; while we as a society should seek to promote a society that prevents abuse before it happens, we must also understand that survivors have the right to cope with their abuse in their own way. We should not shame or judge survivors for their choices. Criticizing Janay Rice for her decision is neither our place, nor will it solve the most troubling part of this story: that abuse still happens today.
Instead of arguing about whether or not the NFL should ban Ray Rice from ever playing another game, something much more important should be done by the League and America at large. The NFL changing its policy on domestic violence is only the very tip of a very large iceberg. Society needs to better educate the coming generations about domestic violence—against and by both women and men—and we must stop tacitly supporting those parts of our society that harm survivors.
-Bethan Johnson ’15 is a history, English, and Jewish studies major.