Today in social science, scholars have taken to heart the Shakespearean quote, “All the world’s a stage.” No matter whether on an actual stage, we humans are performers. Anthropology shows us all human cultures make gendered distinctions between men and women, and across cultures, masculinity and femininity vary from place to place.1Sherry B. Ortner, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?,” in Woman, Culture, and Society
, eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974), 68–87. So, no gendered identity is fixed or “natural,” but rather, fluid and flexible. And thus, for most people, manhood or womanhood seem like “second nature,” even though they are really the result of a meticulous cultural construction built over a lifetime through repetitive acts and behaviors that have come to mean “man” or “woman.” Much of this second nature “acting” is carried out through speech, and language philosopher John Austin told us long ago that humans do things with words.2John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). Along these lines, social theorist Judith Butler suggests gender is not something we are that is waiting for us to express through language, but rather something we do through acting and through language.3Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theater Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519–531.
Likewise, identities such as “victim,” “survivor,” “witness,” and “advocate” are acted out according to sociohistorical and even situational contexts. How one “acts” as a victim, a survivor, or a witness often also depends on circumstances. Here, I will discuss how my work on narrative—a method of situated identity constructing—which began as a study in which Latinas told stories of gender-related violence in sociolegal interviews, has morphed into a theatrical production in which college students write plays about rape and sexualized violence in a public anthropology project for audiences of their peers.
Latinas’ narratives of gender-related violence in the US sociolegal system“My goal was to show that when people speak about their victimization, their stories could change from context to context simply because that’s how storytelling works.”
In 1997, I received one of the SSRC’s Sexuality Research Fellowships to study the ways in which Latinas reported sexualized assault, rape, and domestic violence. I focused on these women’s methods of telling their stories in legal settings, which require a rendition of an experience that can then become actionable by law enforcement and service providers. I was most interested in how their stories would change from one telling to the next, and how these changes aligned with sociolinguistic theory about the construction of narrative, gender, and identity. My goal was to show that when people speak about their victimization, their stories could change from context to context simply because that’s how storytelling works.
While it is true that people lie sometimes, it is not true that there is one real story that can be faithfully retold time and again without variation. I show how stories and their meanings are negotiated in different contexts (i.e., settings and scenes; the language of the telling, such as Spanish vs. English; the purposes and the participants present) by narrators and interlocutors who also become speakers themselves. My findings challenge entrenched language ideologies in the United States that assume people have to own their words as if they themselves were solely responsible for them. People in our culture believe that a story originates with the person who is either asked to recount an experience or who, for one reason or another, is motivated themselves to talk about it. Add to that the complexity of context and other considerations—such as trauma; clouded memory; lack of attention to certain details, since people sometimes forget certain things; emotional, physical, and chemical states of mind—and we get a recipe for different versions, not of the same story, but of a single event.
In my book, Latinas’ Narratives of Domestic Abuse: Discrepant Versions of Violence,4Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2003More Info → I recorded and transcribed interviews with Latinas applying for a protective order from their abusive partners in a district attorney’s office and a pro bono law clinic. Having two versions of the same real-world experience of domestic violence—the oral interview and the affidavit written by interviewers—I compared the discrepancies that emerged when the interview participants’ stories were written down as testimony in the sworn court documents. While many types of inconsistencies were apparent—omissions of important information, the addition of words that mitigated or aggravated the violence reported by the women, and a rearrangement of the order of events narrated—one of the most important alterations to how hundreds of women expressed the violence they endured was how institutional interviewers transformed experiences of an abusive relationship into simple, discrete incidents of recent physical violence. In so doing, these interviewers obscured the critical dynamics of domestic abuse, which function on either the abusers’ constant acts or threats of violence.
Women’s inability to be heard when representing intimate partner abuse was not because they themselves did not have a voice or were too demure to talk about family violence. The data indicated that (1) the legal system rejected their representations and insisted on making them conform to what it deems adjudicate-able, (2) women use a wide range of communicative resources to create their complex narratives of their complicated abusive relationships, and (3) intimate-partner violence, as women experience it, is rarely documented in the legal record, because such representations are stopped in the marginal, regulatory, and bureaucratic space of the protective-order interview. Often couched in phrases with vague time descriptors (i.e., “He always threatens to take my kids” and “He never lets me have access to the money in the bank”) and underdeveloped kernels (i.e., “And one time he took the iron out and threatened to hit me with it”), accounts of women’s episodic abuse, emotional and mental abuse, economic control, or the constant threat of physical, emotional and psychological violence are filtered out by paralegals and volunteers who favor writing affidavits with two or three discrete incidents of recent physical violence. My study predicted that the paralegals’ transformational narrative work would have grave ramifications for all women in battering situations, because it leaves legal professionals, such as district attorneys and judges (not to mention jurors), without complete knowledge of how abuse occurs and the real effects it has on women.
As the roles that mental, psychological, economic, and emotional control play in intimate-partner abuse remain unrepresented in official legal documentation of intimate-partner violence, it stands to reason that they would also remain misunderstood and thus, often downgraded to “less dangerous than physical violence” by legal professionals and the public at large. This perception makes a self-defense strategy for women in battering relationships who kill their abusers nearly impossible. I concluded that for the women in my study and perhaps all women:
“…having ‘voice’ and being (rendered) ‘silent’ are not binary states of being from which women themselves move in and out. Instead, they are complex personal and political stances…in the process of trying to gain rights to represent and to representation of social realities. [Battered women], once engaged [with the legal system], encounter elements that either enable or hinder their abilities to represent their lived experience…[and] the act of transformation for immediate and archival purposes ascribes ‘voice,’ but renders critical characteristics of it silent.”5Trinch, Latinas’ Narratives of Domestic Abuse, 277.
The power and consequences of representations
My SSRC-funded research provided a framework for thinking about language and gender-related violence as not only the linguistic minutiae of individual women’s stories, but also how representations of gender-related violence are displayed or erased from the legal actors’ and lay people’s ability to think about them. Without the full representations of domestic abuse, rape, and other types of sexualized violence, we as a society are left with only traditional, androcentric views of this violence that entail legal notions such as “the reasonable man” standard, “imminent danger,” and even “self-defense.” The interception and alteration of women’s stories before trial deny people, both inside and outside the legal system, a serious understanding of the violence suffered by its actual, as opposed to idealized, victims.“These narrow representations of sexualized and gendered violence…continue to have a hold on law and culture, and they condition us to see only certain types of activities as ‘really’ violent while rendering the building blocks of abuse and control to ‘mere’ psychological or emotional turmoil.”
These narrow representations of sexualized and gendered violence—such as a recognizable threatening moment, a recent incident of physical violence, or a violent sexual assault—continue to have a hold on law and culture, and they condition us to see only certain types of activities as “really” violent while rendering the building blocks of abuse and control to “mere” psychological or emotional turmoil. This research has been taken up by scholars in many fields. Legal scholar Leigh Goodmark furthered our understanding in her book A Troubled Marriage, by showing how idealized stereotypes about women in abusive situations continue to plague the law and ultimately hurt women’s chances at justice, because they feed into notions of victims’ helplessness rather than painting a realistic picture of how women survive these situations.6New York: New York University Press, 2011More Info → Along these lines, cultural anthropologist Sameena Mulla’s award-winning book, The Violence of Care, takes the institutionalized legal story as a point of departure and complicates it by showing how the law intersects and interpenetrates with the medical system in the forensic exams conducted by nurses who both treat the patient/witness and gather evidence from her for rape kits. Mulla’s work (also a product of the SSRC’s SRFP) excavates people’s experiences of sexualized violence from the medico-legal settings that tend to conceal them from view.7New York: New York University Press, 2014More Info → And just this year, sociolinguist Sibley Slinkard’s dissertation illustrates how such narrow institutional definitions of abuse keep expert testimony, like the theory of coercive control, out of the courtroom, leaving women who kill their abusive spouses with no strategy to claim self-defense.8Sibley Slinkard, “’She Chose to Get Rid of Him by Murder, Not by Leaving Him’: Discursive Constructions of Battered Women Who Killed in R v Craig” (PhD diss., York University, 2019). For more information on “coercive control,” see Evan Stark, Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Performing representations of gendered violence: A public anthropology project
My research and the studies that have followed suggest that representations of gender-related violence need to be expanded upon and rounded out in order to change culture in ways that benefit women. To this end, I have cofounded, with playwright Barbara Cassidy, a public anthropology project called Seeing Rape, which addresses this issue of representation for a much larger, and not always scholarly, audience.
Since 2012, Professor Cassidy and I have been coteaching an undergraduate course also titled Seeing Rape, in which students engage with theory and data portraying representations of gendered violence in various settings and in different cultures around the world, including scholarship, films, and contemporary plays in New York City. As their final project, students write plays about rape. We encourage students to use their own representational resources, such as languages other than English; code-switching varieties of English and their native languages; nonstandard dialects, like US Latino English and African American English; as well as the appropriate linguistic registers for the contexts of their plays. The result is a performance that resonates with all theatregoers, but especially with their student-peers, who are challenged to think beyond rape and gender mythologies, question their own belief systems, and even see themselves as part of a culture that enables gender-based violence. The themes range from incest, asymmetrical abuses of power in prison and the military to stranger rape, intimate-partner rape, and sexual harassment in the workplace. The student playwrights problematize seeing rape in dorm rooms, court rooms, and social service encounters as well as among football teams, high school kids, and friendships, to name a few of their settings.
We honor and elevate the students’ work by producing their plays in a public performance brought to life by professional New York City actors. To date, we have brought six separate performances to the stage with more than 50 student plays for a total audience of approximately 4,000 people. Actors, students, administrators, law enforcement, and social service professionals say the performance is powerful because of its boldness in representing sexualized violence broadly with the rich diversity in languages, dialects, and cultures found not only at John Jay College, but in New York City more generally.“My goal is to show through both fictionalized plays as well as nonfictionalized legal narratives that there should not be a standard narrative of gender-based violence to which all others are compared.”
This public anthropology project attempts to undo the way cultural systems of law, media, and medicine direct and channel women’s (and all people’s) narratives of violence into standardized reports that then become the yardsticks by which every new telling is measured in terms of the degree of danger, the veracity of the telling, the credibility of the person victimized, and the severity of the aggression endured. My goal is to show through both fictionalized plays as well as nonfictionalized legal narratives that there should not be a standard narrative of gender-based violence to which all others are compared. Instead, we try to create spaces to diversify and round out representations of rape and domestic violence so that, as a culture, we can come to understand the complexity and the complicated ways in which gender-based violence is discussed and represented by victims.
The 2017 production of Seeing Rape
Banner & author photo credit: Nikolai Shorr
, eds. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974), 68–87.