Alex (Margaret Qualley) and her daughter Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) from the limited series *Maid*. Courtesy of Netflix

Can media create a more nuanced understanding of domestic violence?

We need to change how survivors’ stories are told

Domestic violence is a severe problem in the United States. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an average of nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner, equating to more than 10 million women and men.


Unfortunately, despite the clear and present danger of domestic violence in our society, the media is one of the biggest perpetrators of false or incomplete narratives of domestic violence, failing to represent and understand those who experience domestic violence in almost every way. 


The culture of violence—perpetuated in nearly every facet of our society—is unfortunately exploited in the media’s discussion and portrayal of domestic violence rather than uplifting victims’ experiences. 


Staff at the domestic violence resource center Raphael House of Portland—Development Director Amanda Ives and Prevention Education Program Manager Julia Tycer—clarified this distorted point of view towards domestic violence survivors. 


“We don’t, as often, see things from the perspective of a survivor or presented with empathy for the trauma that’s occurring,” Ives and Tycer stated. “Nor do we see representations of holding the abusive person accountable.”


Because domestic violence victims face apparent danger, people sometimes ask why they don’t just leave. Sadly, the media perpetuates this question without recognizing the difficulties involved. Raphael House staff attribute this to a lack of nuance in the media. 


“So often, the stories we see portrayed are very over-simplified, and create a false narrative for people on the outside,” they stated. “They can say ‘it’s so easy, just do this’—when in fact it’s incredibly challenging.” 


As long as this question is asked and repeated in the media, we fail to recognize the extreme danger of leaving, the uphill battle of rebuilding one’s life from scratch and the difficulties that some face, often without much help. 


“Whether documentaries, news, or otherwise—even good examples often leave out a critical component of someone’s leaving situation: whether they can do so safely, or if they have anywhere safe to go,” Ives and Tycer stated.


Safety is a significant concern for individuals leaving violent domestic relationships, and is often a reason they can’t leave. Raphael House reported that many formal studies and surveys have established safety concerns as a primary reason for staying. 


“Leaving is the most dangerous time for a domestic violence survivor,” they concluded.


More often than not, individuals recognize their relationship is not safe, but leaving is not a viable option—not only because of the extreme danger they face if they do leave but also the failure of our system to provide enough resources for individuals to safely leave and rebuild their lives. 


Raphael House staff cited lack of resources and help as another issue. 


“Across the board, most communities don’t have enough resources for every single person to have a safe place to go,” Ives and Tycer stated.


Another major issue with domestic violence representation is the primary—or even exclusive focus—on physical abuse to the exclusion and minimization of emotional, social or financial abuse that solidify the abuser’s control. 


Emotional abuse manipulates the individual’s mind, social abuse keeps them isolated from anyone that can help and financial abuse takes away individuals’ economic resources that might allow them to leave. 


Abuse is about control—and all forms of abuse should be treated equally. Yet many individuals don’t recognize other forms as valid or even as abuse at all—and the media continuously perpetuates this message.


One good representation comes from the Netflix adaptation of domestic violence survivor Stephanie Land’s book Maid. Staff at Raphael House described it as an exception to the norm. 


“Many media portrayals also focus mainly on physical abuse,” they stated. “Maid spotlights the incredibly insidious impacts of emotional, social, and financial abuse.” 


The book and TV series are accurate partly because they do something that many forms of domestic violence media fail to do—portray the survivor as the one telling the story—which Raphael House staff stated as vital. 


A constructive representation, according to Raphael House, would be “centering the voices and experiences of survivors themselves—and vitally, a diverse community of survivors” in order to highlight the experiences of LGBTQ+ survivors and survivors of color. 


In addressing this problem, it is essential that we stop asking survivors questions the question “why didn’t you just leave?” 


Instead, we must hold the abusers accountable for their actions and start questioning what we teach our children about healthy relationships and consent. 


According to CNN, as of 2018, “only eight states require mention of consent or sexual assault” in public school sex education—one of which is Oregon. However, the funds necessary to support these programs are lacking, preventing schools from providing comprehensive education on healthy relationships.


Some schools in Oregon have partnered with Raphael House’s prevention education program. 


“We want to help young people, in particular, have a strong baseline of understanding around what is safe and not safe, and to be able to know and recognize equitable, healthy relationships,” Ives and Tycer stated. “We want them to feel empowered to say no when something isn’t okay and to feel and expect respect from their partner. We want to reinforce that they deserve this.”


This program seems to have had massive success, as Raphael House reported that “95% of students surveyed [had a] better understanding [of] relationship power dynamics” after participating in Raphael House’s prevention education. 


The media should highlight messages of consent and healthy relationships above all else. However, prevention education, while incredibly valuable, is not the end-all-be-all for responding to the issue of domestic violence. Advocacy for individuals who have experienced domestic violence is imperative, and Raphael House staff highlighted the media as one such potential advocate. 


“Individuals and media alike can help by advocating for more funding to provide supportive services and housing for survivors of domestic violence,” they stated.


Ultimately, the media must elevate the stories of victims and survivors by supporting their journey, by acknowledging that abuse comes in many forms and by holding the abusers accountable for their actions—since this is where the responsibility should lie.