31 January 2012

More About Kitty Genovese

I realize now that yesterday I overlooked something very important when I was writing my post about Kitty Genovese:  the gender power structure that existed at the time of her murder.

Why is that important?, you ask.

Well, while I have my doubts that 38 (or whatever the number) people witnessed her murder and did nothing, and even graver doubts that anybody saw the incident from beginninng to end, I do think that some who heard the screams may have reacted from the (mis)conceptions that existed at the time.

At that time, it was commonly assumed that if a man attacked a woman--whether physically, verbally, emotionally or financially--"she must have done something to deserve it." 

According to the attitudes of the time, if a woman was raped, her skirt must have been too short, her heels too high or her blouse too revealing of cleavage.  Or, she was someplace where she shouldn't have been, or been there when she shouldn't have been there.

In line with that way of thinking, if a man yelled at or beat his wife or girlfriend, she must have done something to make him unhappy.  Perhaps the meal wasn't to his liking or the house wasn't tidy enough.  Or, maybe she withheld sex (although nobody would come out and use the word) when he was tired and needed to "get his rocks off."  There was also the possiblity that she "didn't know her place," which meant that somehow she didn't bolster his sense that he "wore the pants" and was therefore in charge.

Just today a colleague at work told me that after her first marriage ended--not long after Genovese's murder--people, including family members and people she beleived to be friends--echoed the things I recounted in the previous paragraph.   Nobody talked about "domestic abuse" in those days, and those who were subjected to it faced ostracism and sometimes even legal troubles, and often medicated themselves or did other self-destructive things.  Even clergypeople and psychotherapists, to the extent that they knew or discussed such problems, advised battered women to try to "make amends" with their husbands, and to try to please them more.

All of the notions and attitudes I've mentioned were voiced by adults I knew during my adolescence, about a decade after Genovese was left to die in a Queens doorway.  In fact, well into my adulthood, I heard people who urged sensitivity and understanding when it came to other issues echo the notions I've described.  I even heard women voice their support for men who abused their significant others, and denigrate those who were battered.

Now, I don't want to insinuate that all of Kitty Genovese's neighbors were misogynistic, any more than I'd want to portray them in the way they have been by the media, and even in academic journals.  Rather, I think that if some of them heard those screams--and it's entirely possible that they didn't, or they mistook them for those of a lover's quarrel or rowdy bar patrons--they may have been acting, or basing their inaction, on assumptions they didn't even realize they held.  In fact, almost nobody who held such assumptions would have recognized him or her self as having an internalized misogyny because most people had it, to one degree or another, at that time and long after.

I know I had it, too, and it was entwined with my internalized homophobia--or, more accurately, internalized phobia about anything that wasn't heterosexual and cisgendered.  They are among the factors that prevented me from transitioning earlier in my life than I did.  At least I got to live a life, at least more than poor Kitty Genovese did.

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