I spend a lot of time thinking about words.
I teach a college class about censorship and the First Amendment. If I had to describe the theme of the class, I would say it’s about the effects of language and self expression. Throughout the semester as we talk about Mapplethorpe, Lenny Bruce and 2 Live Crew, I push my students to think about the power of a word, the significance of the words we choose, and what our word choices reflect about our culture. It’s something I am passionate about and a topic I often discuss at the dinner table.
That is why I was more than a little surprised when last night my 15 year old son asked if he could get a “wife beater”.
We were talking about his Halloween costume. He and some friends had decided to dress up as the gang from Jersey Shore. Of course, it was the night before Halloween and we were a bit desperately trying to decide if we needed to go to the store.
“Everyone said they are wearing wife beaters” he said casually, “can we go buy one?”
I stopped what I was doing and turned to face my son “A wife beater?” I asked stalling for time.
“It’s like a tank top”, he explained, “A tight white tank top.”
Of course, I knew what he meant. I have heard the phrase many times before, but hearing it come out of my 15 year old son’s mouth was somewhat startling.
“Do you know why they call it a wife beater?” I asked.
“Because it’s what people wear when they beat their wives,” he replied matter-of-factly. Then, as he thought about what he said (and knowing his mother) he said, “It’s just an expression.”
Just an expression . . . . I am not sure there is any such thing.
After my son went to bed, I did some research to learn the origin of the phrase. In 1947, James Hartford Jr. was arrested in Detroit Michigan for beating his wife to death. The arrest was captured on camera and for months local news papers ran photographs of his arrest. In the pictures, James Hartford was wearing a dirty tank top with baked bean stains down the front. The media constantly referred to Mr. Hartford as the “wife beater” and the phrase thus became associated with a dirty white tank top.
It’s hard to imagine a similar phrase describing any other crime becoming popular in our vernacular. If a child murderer was photographed wearing a blue t-shirt can you imagine blue shirts being called “baby killers”? If a kitten crusher (and there are kitten crushers) was photographed wearing a green skirt, can you imagine anyone jokingly wanting to wear a “kitten crusher”? If Lorena Bobbit was arrested wearing bright red shoes, can you imagine the phrase “penis cutter” being thrown around to describe a pair of shoes? It difficult for me to even write those phrases, yet the term “wife beater” is thrown around all of the time and until my 15 year old said it to me, I know for myself, it barely registers. We have become so desensitized, so used to, so accepting of violence against women, that it is almost an abstract. Even as I write this, I have to ask myself why am I more worried and uncomfortable about writing the phrase “kitten crusher” in my blog than “wife beater”? Both are horrifying and yet one is said in passing, every day, to describe a t-shirt and no one seems to care.
It’s not just an expression. It began with a woman’s death. There is a reason it has been allowed to flourish and a reason that nobody minds. It reflects our feelings about women and our tolerance of violence against women. I am not saying that my son or anyone who uses the phrase “wife beater” wants women to be beaten or even condones violence against women. What I am saying, is that there is something wrong when we can use that phrase and not cringe. It cannot be dismissed as “just an expression” when we can use that phrase and not feel sickened. There is a problem when the phrase “wife beater” is used and a white tank top comes to mind instead of the beaten, mangled body of a wife.
We are all desensitized to violence against women. We see it in movies and video games. We hear about it in music lyrics and stand-up comedy. At some point, we have stopped reacting and stopped paying attention. I know this is true for me because until the words came out of my son’s mouth, I had never stopped to consider the danger they reflect. I have heard the expression hundreds of times and failed to make the connection. And I am someone who thinks about and teaches about the power of words. It is time to start paying attention and time for our language to reflect our intolerance for violence against women.