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Kathleen Parker: Making Sense of Things

A slap in the face of domestic violence

By Kathleen Parker

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on September 5, 1999.

Andie McDowell did it to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; Gwyneth Paltrow did it to Colin Firth in Shakespeare in Love; Heather Locklear does it to Michael J. Fox in Spin City.

They slapped them. And the men -- because they're "real men" -- turned the other cheek, while we, the audience, looked the other way. Or didn't even notice it.

So ingrained is the female slap in our cinematic psyche that we hardly blink, much less flinch, considering the slap more as a quirky female statement of disapproval than as an act of violence. Usually delivered with little to no provocation, the slap is even considered comical under certain circumstances.

On film, the man routinely accepts the slap without any significant response. His head swings back front and center -- ready for whatever comes next -- as though nothing happened. When Michael J. Fox gets his during a conversation in a Spin City episode, he doesn't even stop jabbering. Talk about funny.

But a woman slapping a man is no funnier than a man slapping a woman, even though we respond differently to each. In films, we despise the brute who slaps a woman. In life, we charge him with assault, throw him into jail, alienate him from his children, add another folder to the domestic violence files, pass Washington and collect $200 for another woman's shelter.

Why, in this era of heightened sensitivity toward domestic violence and sexual equality, are we still passing off the female slap as the innocuous, cutesy manifestation of the little lady in the throes of a spat?

Violence isn't cute or funny, and slapping is violence regardless of context. I don't want to rear boys in a world thattolerates female violence against men, nor do I want to rear girls to think that they can hit a man without consequence.

In fact, a woman who slaps a man in real life may well end up in the hospital. That's not to excuse the man who hits back -- or to imply that the woman deserves it -- but common sense suggests that striking someone may get you hurt.

To imply otherwise, through film, television or humorous anecdote, is what's known as bad information.

Murray Straus, co-director of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Laboratory, noted the prevalence of such bad information during a 1998 psychology symposium.

"Millions of young women have been told, 'If he gets fresh, slap him,' rather than, 'If he gets fresh, leave immediately,' " said Straus.

Straus has been at the center of controversy over "couple conflict" studies in which he found that women instigate violence as often as men, though women suffer more serious injury and, sometimes, death. The reason for the discrepancy between his research and others', he said, is that other studies focus on "crime" reports, most of which are filed by women.

Few men would call the police over a slap, and for good reason.

A 1960 study by the Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence found that slightly more than one in five American adults believe that it is permissible for a woman to slap her husband's face. Replicating the research in 1985, 1992 and 1995, Straus got the same results.

Our dubious approval of the female slap has been made possible largely by the repetition of cinematic and television images through the decades.

But it's a bad message for everyone, especially for the woman who thought she could get away with it and didn't.

[Posted 09/03/1999 4:08 PM EST]

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