Looking Beyond the Frame

Roger Goodell, the NFL, and when men pretend they can’t see the bigger picture of gender inequity.

Earlier this year, when watching the first video clip of former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice dragging a motionless Janay Palmer (now Janay Rice) out of an elevator, commissioner Roger Goodell and the leadership of the NFL — like so many men when faced with the oppression of women — chose to ignore the truth they knew existed beyond the edges of the frame.

They chose not to further ponder the events of an already disturbing story they knew started long before that clip, and continued long after.

Following the leak of the second video last week, showing Rice further assaulting his then fiancée, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti sent a letter to his team’s supporters explaining that “seeing that video changed everything.” The team released Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely, with Goodell also citing the second video as the impetus for increasing the original two game suspension. (The public outcry has since led to the NFL appointing three domestic violence experts as “advisers” to the league).

The first video though, which prompted that suspension, was already clear evidence of domestic violence. There was also the original police complaint, which described Ray Rice striking and knocking Janay Rice unconscious, long before TMZ posted the new footage.

Anyone who has ever watched a movie or has any familiarity with a video camera knows that what you see in one clip is just that — one clip. But on March 27th the Baltimore Ravens didn’t issue a statement acknowledging that there was more to this story of abuse than a single video, but instead decided to say, “we know there is more to Ray Rice than this one incident.”

After watching a man drag an unconscious woman across the floor, they made a choice not to see it as a serious crime or reflective of a broader culture of misogyny. They chose to respond to Rice’s actions as if they weren’t connected to larger issues of domestic violence within their league and beyond.

They practiced a willful ignorance of oppression that is as harmful to society as the overt acts of sexism we more easily condemn.

It’s akin to the men who are aware of the daily sexual harassment and abuse leveled at women online, but who choose to respond by first asserting that “not all men” are abusers. Or the many who have reacted to the growing spotlight on misogyny and sexism in video games, not with concern, but by claiming it’s proof of a conspiracy in the media. Or those who blame and shame women when their private pictures are stolen and shared all over the Internet. All these men, like the NFL’s executives, despite knowing that women have long been treated as lesser in our society, pretend to think the real issue lies elsewhere. Whenever confronted with the continued subjugation of more than half the world’s population, there is suddenly something else equally or more important to consider.

They continue to pretend there’s only one video, or one tweet — that they can’t see the beginning or the end of the story.

“We cannot dismantle a system as long as we engage in collective denial about its impact on our lives.”
bell hooks, The Will to Change

Most men in America, especially if we’re heterosexual and cisgendered, spend years building an immunity to noticing gender inequity. Our lens is distorted over time. And we become particularly adept at missing the oppression of women of color — especially black women.

As boys, every time we see a woman being whistled at on the street — and see the adult men around us either ignoring or participating in that harassment — we hear the first echoes of the phrase we’ve heard repeated all too often recently: “she must have provoked him.”

And as adult men, each time we turn away from the public demeaning of a woman, that same defensive voice in our head asks, but “why does she stay?,” or, if it unfortunately sounds like this guy, it reminds us to think of the larger circumstances and context that must exist.

Strange that the context never seems to include the global and historic epidemic of violence against women. Goodell and his colleagues may claim that new facts entered the story with the second video, but the fact of women’s oppression was always present. The very specific facts of an abusive culture within the NFL, where rates of domestic violence are unusually high, were also present.

But they, with their multi-million dollar marketing campaigns designed for women and purported deep passion for raising awareness around women’s breast cancer, apparently didn’t make the connection.

Years of turning away from the pain and suffering of more than half the world creates that kind of limited vision in men. And each act of denial only increases this kind of blindness.

But women are killed in this world simply for being women, and this is a fact (one that women do not have the luxury of avoiding). We don’t need any more videos or evidence to know this. As men, it can seem hard to accept our role in it, and there are certainly years of social conditioning we must reject, but pretending we don’t see is, as Mychal Denzel Smith recently put it, a delusional way of thinking. It’s also not helping anyone.

Contrary to what we grow up learning, the marginalization of women — when we put women’s experiences at the edge of or beyond the frame— is a self-destructive choice for men. It’s how we ended up “feminizing” and thus rejecting something as elementally human as love.

Every time we see the hatred of women and look past it, we not only allow that hate to perpetuate, we deepen the pain of lying to ourselves about it not being a big deal. It’s like living your entire life in a 911 call center and never once answering — or acknowledging — the bright blinking red phone.

Meanwhile, we’ve been watching women answer the call for centuries. Had it not been for the work of so many women who have devoted their lives to fighting violence against women, institutional sexism, persistent racism, and bringing to light this larger culture of hate — work that was going on even before the founding of this country—the NFL wouldn’t have responded at all to Rice’s crimes (it wouldn’t even be recognized as a crime without that work).

There are no medals for joining a movement that has been right in front of us for this long. But to finally peer around the edges of the frame—to confront the oppression we know exists there—is entirely more fulfilling than continuing to practice avoidance. Just one slight move towards acknowledging, within ourselves and with others, that the story of men abusing women is greater than one video or one crime, is a move towards embracing our own humanity.

On the other side of that embrace is greater empathy, intimacy and a more emotionally engaged life.*

The end of the willful ignorance of men, especially those in positions of power, would mean less depressing press conferences filled with half-apologies, and quicker access to real freedom for all of us.

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
— Nelson Mandela

In a world where men didn’t hide behind arguments of “context,” and truly rejected the patriarchal lens, women might soon be able to take more walks without fear, or share their opinions online without receiving death threats. Women, and especially women of color, might finally have a freedom that men like Goodell and Bisciotti take for granted — the freedom that comes with being seen and treated as a human being, always.

But first, many more men must find the will to change. They must be honest with themselves about the deep pain of living amidst gender-based violence. Many more men, especially those in power, must make the choice to see the bigger picture — which they have long known exists.

*Full disclosure: I spent the last three years working at The Representation Project with Jennifer Siebel Newsom and the team behind The Mask You Live In, a forthcoming documentary on this topic.

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