Beyond broken and battered: Media portrayal of domestic violence survivors should change

Most of the PSAs and videos in the media focus on physical violence, often failing to convey the emotional and financial abuse meted out to survivors.
Silhouette of a woman
Silhouette of a woman
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A cursory glance at Public Service Announcements or educational videos on domestic violence shows a predominant theme – a broken woman. There is a set template that aims to create a shock value for audiences. Most of these videos focus only on physical violence and often fail to convey the emotional and financial abuse meted out to survivors. Public discourse shaped by the media too does not acknowledge the other forms of violence that is more internal.

“Shut up Panadhinga”, the recent campaign by The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) aims to break the glass ceiling on depiction of woman who go through domestic violence. It tells us the story of a resilient woman who is not afraid to seek help. Part of the ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence’ campaign, a yearly movement, the video seeks to spread awareness about Dhwani - a 24/7, multilingual national domestic violence hotline.

Talking about the representation of domestic violence in popular media, Swetha Shankar, Director Client Services of PCVC, says that most of the representation around domestic violence is inappropriate and alienates women seeking help. “These videos are meant to show survivors that help is available and they can reach out for support. But the visuals of violence end up being triggering and in many cases, are not accurate representations of their experiences. Videos which show overt physical abuse often end up invisibilizing the impact of emotional and sexual abuse within relationships.” she adds.

While brainstorming for the campaign video, the writers were surprised to know that the available content only focused on depicting the violence and not so much about the internal struggle faced by women. “Every single PSA had a woman with a black eye, or a woman bleeding, a man beating the woman. There is no need to show violent images when we talk about domestic violence as people know what it is. That’s why our motto was to portray a resilient woman”, says Tarana Reddy, Head Producer, The News Minute Brand Studio.

According to Tarana, the idea of the campaign was to inspire confidence in women who are suffering in silence to reach out for support. “When you look at it, the core struggle is internal. In the video, you can see the protagonist answering her own questions. We want to say that it is okay to be confused and torn. There is a support system that can navigate this tough road.”

For Sandeep K Vijay, Director of Photography, working on the campaign was an eye opener. He could see the vast difference in story telling from a survivor point of view. “Trigger warnings help to create an avenue for informed interaction and mental preparedness. But the number of videos and films which lack of sensitivity was evident when I looked at the content that was already out there. The writers of the campaign showed me that we don’t need trigger warnings or disclaimers and yet convey a powerful message.”

On one hand talking about domestic violence is considered taboo and women are often asked to adjust, and on the other hand, other forms of violence like emotional and financial abuse tend to go unnoticed. Worse still, it is normalised in the society and brushed under the carpet. Tarana points out that they had deliberately placed the scene of the protagonist taking her money and documents to highlight the freedom and power that comes with financial independence in an abusive relationship.

For Director Drishya Gautam, working on the campaign was a humbling experience. “Films and educational videos about domestic violence more often than not portray graphic imagery – a battered woman, a beating husband, crying, blood stains, the woman in foetal positions and so on. This can do more harm than good; triggering and alienating the audience it is made for. Rarely are the dignity and resilience of woman captured. Rarely do we see emotional abuse as equally harmful. Rarely do we dig deeper into the constant dialogue that the woman is battling daily,” she adds.

It is the responsibility of the media to create awareness that abuse is not just physical but also emotional. If this message does not get across then many women remain silent and oblivious of being a victim; as society has conditioned them to not acknowledge emotional abuse or financial abuse as a form of domestic violence.

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