Earlier this week, a Christmas card photo, depicting a family posing amid a Christmas tree farm began wildly circulating on Facebook. It wasn’t its cutesy creativity that caught everyone’s attention; it was the surprising and disturbing display of rape culture and domestic violence captured in a single, “Happy and Silly Family” Christmas card shot.
The photo depicts a mother and two small girls, bound in Christmas lights, mouths sealed closed with festive green duct-tape. Behind them, stands a maybe four year old boy, hands and mouth free, offering a thumbs-up. His kneeling dad is next to him, smirking and holding a sign that reads, “Peace on Earth.”
The photo, according to the professional photographer who took the shot, was supposedly, “taken with humor in mind, and was meant as a comical Christmas photo per the family’s request.” When the photographer posted the photo on her facebook page, it garnered attention, and fast, most calling out the blatant normalization of abuse. Hannah Hawkes Photography quickly removed the image from her page, then issued a statement, basically relinquishing herself and the family from responsibility for the triggers this caused for people. She assured people that the family is not abusive, and that “no one was harmed during the process!”
‘No one was harmed’
Her ‘no one was harmed’ comment is worth considering. I wonder what the definition of ‘harm’ would be? Because when I look at this image, I am harmed. When any person who has been abused looks at this image, they are actively harmed. When women view this image, who have been inundated with messages throughout their entire lives, they are reminded of their assertive “bitchiness” and their expected subservience to men, and they, too, are harmed.
And what of the actors in this image? Surely we are not to believe that gagging and binding humans in an active display of who’s valuable and who’s not; of who should be heard and who should shut the fuck up is all harmless fun. Girls acting out their own silence and confinement alongside their mother in “good fun” is hugely damaging. It reinforces the subtle and overt messages hurled at girls about who they inherently are, and who they believe they can be.
Little boys learning, alongside authoritative daddies about what kinds of people are in charge, who ‘wears the pants’ – and about the supposed flippancy of white, male power is anything but harmless. All of it is hugely damaging to not only those involved, but to every person who views it and is reminded that putting women and girls in their place is no big deal.
Girls who are taught to be quiet and to be good are far more likely to think abuse is normal and to not tell anyone about it. Boys who are taught that they are authorities are far more likely to be abusers, themselves.
Triggers and patterns of dominance
Within the conversations on social media around this photo, it didn’t take long for the male “ally” to swoop in. In discussing the trouble with this photo, he said, we were all participating in the ‘predictably catty’ thing by attacking this woman. He went on to instruct that, we, as women, should stop tearing each other down.
It should be noted that no one in the thread in question was personally attacking the mother in the photo.
How could we?
This photo triggered every one of us in so many ways. Most women can resonate with the complex feelings of being complicit in our own oppression. We know, on a logical level, that no one perpetrates their own abuse, but messages that tell us everything is our fault – from the way we dress, to where we walk, to how much we drink, and what we ‘allow’ to happen – means that it’s pretty damn hard to shake the feeling that we were asking for it, we must have liked it, we didn’t think it was a big deal.
Women’s motivations and internal feelings that surface when viewing such an image is an aside, though. The self-appointed male authority who feels the need to step in and police women and their dialogue is all too familiar. I had to choke, just a bit on the irony – the attempted silencing of the women talking about the silencing of women. It was rich, indeed.
What does Domestic Violence look like?
The photo is a disastrous attempt at humor, but it is enlightening. When I look at it, I see what could be the perfect ad campaign for what domestic violence looks like. I have visions of it on large billboards – each one with a different fact about domestic violence, and a link to a website or hotline that can offer signs of abuse.
One might say, “4.8 million women experience intimate partner-related abuse each year.”
Another: “1 in 3 women will experience violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime.”
And another: “An average of three women every day are killed by an intimate partner.”
We like to think we could spot abuse; that if a woman and her family appear happy, then they probably are. The reality is, we all put on our best faces – when we step out of the house, for family photos, at holiday gatherings. And for a person experiencing abuse, it’s tragically difficult to recognize because it often happens slowly and over time until it simply becomes the new normal.
We need to start to garner an awareness of potential abusive behaviors – both for our own safety, and for the safety of the people we care about. It’s never funny to make light of violence against women – especially not when such a large percentage of us will suffer from it in our lifetime. When we see things like this “funny” Christmas card, we should call it out for the toxic bullshit that it is. Naming abuse, naming violence, naming the things that perpetuate it are all what truly bring us closer to Peace on Earth.
The YWCA is committed to ending violence against women, and they are an excellent resource for information about intimate partner abuse. Below, are lists they have compiled of signs of intimate partner abuse. Please share this information with your networks and the people you love. The Holidays are often a time where people experience an increase in violence in their homes.
How to detect if it may be happening to you:
Coercion and threats to hurt self and others
Sexual abuse – including coercion and humiliation
Isolation from outside relationships
Makes light of abuse and shifts responsibility by minimizing, denying, and blaming
Uses children as a form of manipulation
Emotional abuse – mind games, “joking,” humiliation
Economic abuse – “allowances,” prevents employment
Signs it may be happening to someone you love:
Lack of a social life
Visible limping or bruising
Excuses that aren’t consistent with injuries