According to this common narrative, the men who are committing gender-based violence are all imaginary.
‘Real man’ narratives seem to be well-intentioned. They aim to incentivise men not to rape, abuse or be violent in any way by describing these actions as non-masculine.
Unfortunately, there is an awful side-effect to this narrative. Society already has an idea about what ‘real’ men are: real men are heterosexual, cisgender, and conform to traditional gender roles. Instead of challenging gender stereotypes and set gender roles, ‘real man’ narratives simply redefine them. In other words, the goal-posts shift but the goal-posts shouldn’t exist at all.
The idea of ‘real men’ being less inclined to commit violence is problematic, because men who fulfill societal expectations, but commit violence, are often overlooked. On the other hand, men who are trans, queer or effeminate are further demonised. This demonisation takes a number of different forms, one of which the emphasizing of marginalized sexuality in apparent perpetrators.
Case in point: Shrien Dewani. Dewani was charged with the murder of his wife, Anni. On Monday, the court heard a plea document submitted by Dewani. In the document, he plead not guilty to all five charges relating to the murder of his wife, including murder, kidnapping, robbery with aggravating circumstances and conspiracy to commit these crimes. He also described his relationship with Anni and his life in general, including the fact that he has sex with both men and women.
The media’s reporting focused not on Dewani’s recounting of his wife’s murder, but on his sexuality.
On my way to university yesterday, I saw a number of headlines drawing attention to the ‘shocking’ fact that Dewani ‘confessed’ to being bisexual. ‘Dewani drops a bumshell’ was plastered on the front page of the Daily Voice. “Ja, êk het seks met mans [Yes, I have sex with men]” was on the front page of the Beeld. A great number of print newspapers and online news sources alike referred to Dewani as ‘Bisexual Dewani’.
In this piece, Haji Mohamed Dawjee asks why Dewani’s sexuality is relevant to the murder trial. “Why are the media trying to create something contentious out of something that really isn’t?”, she wrote. “It is irresponsible reporting and, more than that, it does nothing for the causes of sexuality and gender roles, causes that are already fuelled by age-old burdens and misunderstandings.”
How is Dewani’s bisexuality relevant to the murder trial? It’s relevant because it offers an explanation. His sexuality deviating from the norm ‘makes sense’ because we’re told that real men aren’t bisexual and real men don’t murder their wives.
When ‘real men’ narratives dominate mainstream discussions of gender-based violence, it’s really obvious why the media would sensationalise the sexuality of a murderer. We constantly look for explanations for the occurrence of gender-based violence. What better explanation than the idea that Dewani was not a ‘real man’?
Although bisexuality is quite common, it appears to be unique. This is often because the media erases the bisexuality of well-known people and celebrities. Strangely, though, when the well-known person is notorious like Dewani, the media sensationalises bisexuality. By emphasizing the ‘uniqueness’ of the murder-accused, we can fool ourselves into thinking that femicide is somehow unique: that we can be safe from gender-based violence if we perform our gender roles perfectly, if we behave, and if we avoid men who don’t conform to societal expectations.
To give another example, consider how the public sensationalised the news of Oscar Pistorius’s generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) a few months ago. Anxiety (and mental illness in general) is not associated with real masculinity.
We sit around and ask why femicide and gender-based violence happens. Instead of looking at the patriarchy, or the greater kyriarchal system, or ourselves, we create scapegoats out of those who are the most oppressed.
It’s extremely sad that we live in a society where the media ignores victims of heterosexist hate crimes, but emphasizes the bisexuality of apparent perpetrators.
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