Columnists

Women take a beating online

Verashni Pillay

The controversial DJ Avicii cartoon points to deeper cracks in our society, writes Verashni Pillay.

I’m ridiculously lucky, you know. I’ve never been beaten by someone I love. I’ve never been pinned down beneath a weight I could never hope to fight off and casually raped. And I’ve never had a man punch me in the face so hard that my lips split and bled.

It’s unpleasant reading those words, right? Try seeing some of them illustrated in a comic strip: the first frame showing a slender brunette gazing tenderly at a large man; the second depicting his fist ramming into her face, blood flying as her face buckles beneath the blow.

Not just once, mind you. The image plays on repeat, like a hideous pop culture manifestation of Nietzsche’s eternal return, each illustration weighing heavier than the last on our collective conscience.

The first time I came across the so-called “Alpha boyfriend” cartoon I had no idea it was an internet “meme”. Two weeks ago a colleague pointed out a version that was doing the rounds to promote the upcoming South African tour of international DJ Avicii. Local club H2O had posted it on its Facebook page and popular radio personality DJ Fresh had tweeted it as a joke.

I wrote two columns condemning it and Fresh hit back but later, to his credit, he apologised—yet the club in question remained silent. So far so par for the course in the argumentative South Africa we know and love.

Then I discovered that the image had first appeared on a Portuguese humour site in August 2010 and was tweaked thousands of times by people across the world, who gave it different words:

“Honey, I’m pregnant” ... “Here’s your abortion.”

“Do you want a new punching bag?” ... “No, I like the one I already have.”

“I prefer black guys” ... “I prefer black eyes.”

It was bad enough that the misogynistic image existed in the first place. I never dreamt it could be something that had been remixed ad nauseam to carry different messages, each more horrifying than the last.

I’ve wondered why it went viral so successfully. Was it the sudden narrative turn implied by the second image that invited each nauseating new version? Was it the artistic “watercolour effect”, as scientifically described by memegenerator.com? Or was it because violence against women is so horribly pedestrian that we don’t even see it anymore? How could a media personality who has previously campaigned against gender violence be so blind to the implications of the image that he tweeted it with a “LOL” (laugh out loud) to his 200 000 followers?

The meme achieved the second-most popular, or demigod, status on memegenerator.com, the go-to website devoted to the fad of evolving popular web content. It’s right up there with the likes of “First World problems” and “High expectations Asian father”. Yet, although the site carries a disclaimer for the “Asian father” meme, condemning the racism it has inspired, there was no such renunciation of “Alpha boyfriend”.

I began by telling you how lucky I am. Lucky, because I live in a country in which 40% of women report that their first sexual encounter was forced, according to the World Health Organisation’s September 2011 fact sheet. A country in which, a 1999 study found, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six hours.

In light of these statistics, I am unusually privileged. The only abuse I’m likely to face is in the comment section beneath my weekly online column. Like the last batch, where I was told I was creating a storm in a tea cup and that this one cartoon did not warrant the media space I had devoted to it. This, despite the findings by the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre last year that there is a dearth of press coverage about violence against women. Still, the mostly male critics lambasted me for my “thinly veiled feminist agenda”.

In other words: leave them to their harmless memes and repetition of the same shocking image.

It’s little wonder that Nietzsche called eternal return “the heaviest weight”. Because the echo of such an image could not but weigh heavily on any woman who has not been as lucky as me, confronted repeatedly with the casual portrayal of her abuse.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. You can read her column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.



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