HOLD THE FRONT PAGE! Spanish media representations of violence against women

This post was contributed by Barbara Grut, a research student in Birkbeck’s Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies.

On Friday 2 November 2012, I attended a Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies (CILAVS) lecture given by Visiting Professor Dolors Comas d’Argemir, from the University of Tarragona, on a subject that is close to my heart: the media representation of violence against women in Spanish society.

Violence against women (and its representation in Spanish films) had been my chosen subject for my MA dissertation with Birkbeck’s Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies in 2011, and whilst I have chosen a different (and less harrowing) subject for my MPhil this year, listening to Professor Comas’ lecture in some ways felt like coming home. She made me realise how strongly I still felt about the issue – and indeed, it is difficult to remain dispassionate about the issue of gender-based violence.

I was particularly impressed not only by Professor Comas’ academic research into this field, but also by her political commitment to the issue. As a member of Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds, Dolors Comas has been both a City Councillor and a Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, and in that capacity, she has worked on various pieces of legislation to advance women’s rights. She is living proof that the old clichés about academics sitting in their ivory tower and politicians having lost touch with reality need not always be true – at least not in Catalonia!

From impunity to retribution: a long journey

In her lecture, Professor Comas gave an overview of how violence against women has been perceived by Spanish society over the course of history. For a long time, it was considered just a private issue: isolated domestic incidents between a man and his wife, behind closed doors. The male perpetrators went unpunished, and the female victims were to some extent “blamed” (she must have done something to deserve this?).

As women began to occupy positions of authority and responsibility in Spain’s post-dictatorship Transición, they started raising awareness about what were clearly not just isolated private incidents, but rather a fairly widespread societal phenomenon: the concept of “battered women” was born. Shelters were put in place. Women were identified as the victims of this phenomenon, but the perpetrators remained a nebulous entity.

However, a sea change took place around 1997, with the spine-chilling case of Ana Orantes, an ordinary housewife who appeared on television to talk about her experience of domestic violence, and who was beaten and burned alive by her husband a few days later. The brutality of the case rocked the nation, arguably because Spanish society could relate the phenomenon of violence against women to a real human being, with a name, a face, and an articulate voice – not just to a statistical figure.

In 2004, the statute books finally recognised that this was a form of violence overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against their female partners. Female victims could henceforth seek protective measures (such as restraining orders) and male perpetrators were brought to justice.

The media’s role: an ambivalent position

Having established that violence against women had become “an affair of state”, Professor Comas then went on to examine media representations of the phenomenon. She noted, first of all, an increase in the amount of reporting (all fatal incidents are now reported in the news), as well as a more informed way of representing the problem (looking not only at individual cases, but also investigating the root causes behind this societal phenomenon).

However, Professor Comas also drew the audience’s attention to some decidedly unhelpful media tactics, such as bringing victims and violent perpetrators together “for a reconciliation” on day-time chat shows (one such case in 2007 led to a young woman, Svetlana Orlova, having her throat slit by her jilted boyfriend, whose wedding ring she had refused on live television), or newspaper columnists who on occasion showed “understanding” for the formerly-humiliated-now-turned-violent boyfriend (Salvador Sostres “Un chico normal” article for El Mundo in 2011 had to be pulled, following public outrage).

With her recent experience as a member of the Audiovisual Media Council of Catalonia, Professor Comas concluded that media self-regulation had its pitfalls – an argument her audience could but agree with.

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