men, masculinities and gender politics

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Swiper, no swiping! What “Dora the Explorer” can (and cannot) teach us about responding to domestic violence.

I have a little one at home. As a result of this fact, “Dora the Explorer” has become a rather frequent visitor to our house. For those who don’t know her, Dora is a cartoon character: a four year-old Latina who goes on all sorts of adventures near her Central American jungle home. But she travels around the world as well. Sometimes she even goes under the sea, and also into outer space!

Dora is always accompanied by her little monkey friend “Boots”, and she always has her trusty backpack and map along with her. Dora is a model of courage, initiative, fun, and competence. She is both an inspirational leader and a wonderful problem solver. She is always full of encouragement for others and faith in herself.

Dora sometimes makes me think of what Barbie could have been if only the model for Barbie had not in fact been “Lilli,” a cartoon character (and then plastic figurine) representing a 1950s male fantasy of a hyper-sexualized (and financially strapped) secretary. “Lilli” was designed to pique the interests of middle aged German males. Among her more famous quotes was: "I could do without balding old men but my budget couldn't!" (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bild_Lilli_doll .)

Yuck.

But the world that Dora inhabits is a pretty cool place. A place where the right amount of determination and effort can overcome the greatest of challenges. And where empathy, compassion, and sharing are the cardinal values. That’s a pretty positive message. And in every book and video, it is up to this bright four year-old girl to solve the problem, and to come to the rescue.

Containing the sneaky fox. Although the Dora the Explorer videos and books do a pretty good job of undermining any harmful cultural and gender stereotypes, one preconceived notion that remains totally intact is the character of the sneaky, thieving fox. And this fox’s name is Swiper. As his name implies, that is exactly what he tries to do: to swipe things. Often these are things that are essential to Dora and her friends as they attempt to complete their adventures. Sometimes Swiper the Fox indeed manages to swipe the thing that he is after, and the adventure then becomes an attempt to retrieve whatever he has stolen.

But most of the time Dora and her friends (with the active assistance of her readers/viewers) are able to prevent Swiper from completing his dastardly deed. And they do this by holding up their right hand in a gesture that means “stop,” and saying three times in unison:

Swiper! No swiping!

Swiper! No swiping!

Swiper! No swiping!

If they can say this a full three times before he completes the theft, Swiper is then prevented from taking the item. Thus thwarted, he emits an exasperated “Oh, man!” and slinks away.

Everyone – Boots, Dora, the other assorted friends in Dora’s world, in addition to us, Dora’s disciples – are participants in this collective containment of Swiper.

And you know what? It works!

A community response to bad behavior. As I watch this collective containment of the thieving fox (okay, to be totally honest, I participate in it too, along with my little one, each of us with our right hand upraised, and using our sternest voice to proclaim: “Swiper! No swiping! Swiper! No swiping! Swiper! No swiping!”), it occurs to me that this model is exactly what the people who work against domestic violence have long been calling for (and, in many instances, enacting): a coordinated community response to the issue!

According to the United Nations Women’s Global Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls, a “coordinated community response” should exist because:

The implementation of new laws and policies is most effective when paired with the development of a community-wide strategy that ensures all members of the community respond in a consistent way to violence against women and can be held accountable for their responses. Coordinated community response (CCR) programs engage the entire community in efforts to develop a common understanding of violence against women and to change social norms and attitudes that contribute to violence against women. Law enforcement, civil society, health care providers, child protection services, educators, local businesses, the media, employers, and faith leaders should be involved in a coordinated community response. http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/127-what-is-a-coordinated-community-response-to-violence-against-women.html

Anyone who has a stake in ending domestic violence – and that is all of us – must come together as a community to address the issue. To help the victim. And to contain and correct the abuser. It is an ideal (and essential) model to dealing with what is, after all, every bit as much of a social issue as it is an issue of one man behaving badly. Although domestic violence becomes most visible to us when we see one man beating – or killing – one woman, it is in fact a behavior that is deeply rooted cultural norms of female subjugation and male supremacy. And because men who beat – and kill – women are still nauseatingly common in modern society, there needs to be a social – and not just individual – response to this horror.

We all need to confront violent men on their violence. No matter who we are, or where we are, together we all need to take it upon ourselves to declare:

Abuser! No abusing!

Abuser! No abusing!

Abuser! No abusing!

But confrontation is not enough. While the response of Dora and her friends is an excellent model of reacting when we catch someone in the midst of bad behavior, there is unfortunately throughout “Dora world” a lack of any meaningful consequences for Swiper the Fox. Although he is most often thwarted in his pursuit of his antisocial agenda, he never truly faces any meaningful penalty for his criminal acts.

This is also often the case with men who perpetrate domestic violence. They are not often arrested, and, even if they are, the charges are often dropped. To the extent that these men are prosecuted at all, they are still typically sentenced to counseling, or to batterer intervention programs that attempt to re-socialize them into leading a more egalitarian lifestyle with regard to gender relations.

Many jurisdictions around the world have begun to implement standards to which these batterer intervention programs must adhere in order to receive funding and criminal justice referrals. And while this increased accountability is no doubt a good thing, it still seems that the programs themselves are generally ineffective. The men are confronted, and many do ultimately emit some Swiper-esque phrase like “Oh, Man!”, but there are rarely long-term consequences for their violence. They – like Swiper – will simply reengage in antisocial behavior the next chance they get.

After several decades of relying on this re-education approach to dealing with men who behave abusively in relationships, the numbers remain pretty bad. Just this year, the USA’s Department of Justice stated: “Most findings show that these programs do not change batterers' attitudes toward women or domestic violence, and that they have little to no impact on reoffending.” http://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/intimate-partner-violence/interventions/batterer-intervention.htm

So it turns out that while confronting these guys and telling them “No!” is indeed essential, it is not sufficient to enact any change! These men become very well educated into the reality that violence against women is unacceptable. But for most of them, all of this intervention – and all of this “newfound” knowledge – simply makes no difference whatsoever.

The need for immediate and predictable consequences. According to the tenants of “behaviorism,” in order to extinguish an undesirable behavior, the negative consequences for performing the unacceptable act must be both immediate and predictable. And I think that is exactly what needs to happen with violent men: meeting with unpleasant consequences that are both immediate and predictable.

Some people argue that it is disrespectful to use an approach based on pure behaviorism with human beings, who have the ability for higher levels of complex thought, and who must be given the opportunity to develop insight in order to change our behaviors. When it comes to most areas of life, I would tend to agree with that stance. But not when it comes to men’s violence. In this case, the research clearly shows that a man having insight into his violent behavior simply does not matter.

So with this one, I am with the behaviorists. And the numbers back me up. The one intervention that does seem to have been proven effective in working with violent men is a dedicated “domestic violence court” that can handle these cases in a rapid and predictable fashion. Researchers have demonstrated that these specialized courts do seem to have a significant impact on reducing men’s violent behavior. It would seem that regardless of your level of insight, simply having the knowledge that your future bad behavior will get you in real trouble – which will likely include incarceration – does seem to have an impact on many men who perpetrate domestic violence.

The good news is that there is an intervention that makes sense. The bad news (to progressive humanists like me) is that all of our compassion, understanding, and empathy for these men makes no difference whatsoever. Domestic violence offenders need punishment, pure and simple.

And all of this makes me wish that Dora and her friends would follow up their impassioned cries of “Swiper! No swiping!” with: “And, Mr. Fox, what will happen to you if you try to steal from us again is that you will be locked in a cage. And you can count on it.”

Then they need to follow through on their promise.

And then Dora and her friends – and the rest of us – will finally know some peace.