Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(1) (1994) 8-11
On the afternoon of November 22, 1993, I screened for the first time in the privacy of my den, Domestic Violence: Which Way Out?. Later, that Monday evening in my 600 level graduate seminar, "Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault," I shared the video with eleven students and a female anthropology colleague who has sat in the class during this fall semester. Although this tape generated more than a fair amount of discussion from the students, most of it was of a critical nature. In sum, we rated this video 13 thumbs down and found ourselves asking, "Which Way Out?" of this bad video production. Our joint recommendation is for college and university media centers and libraries to save the $300 and to put it to better use.
Before sharing our collective review here, I think that it is important for me to describe the make-up or demographic constituency of the raters, and to say a word or two about the milieu of this class. Our ages span roughly thirty years from 25 to 55. There are nine women and four men broken down as follows: five white women, four white men, two African-American women, one Japanese woman studying abroad, and one Asian-American (Filipino) woman. Besides myself, the other three white men are police officers. One of the white women is a domestic violence/sexual assault worker and another is a probation officer. Most of the students are pursuing their masters' degrees in criminology/criminal justice, sociology, or women's studies.
Moreover, at the time of the screening we were finishing up our discussion of Bell Hooks' Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics in general, and her critique of the critically acclaimed movies, My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, in particular. In addition to a coursepack, other required books for this course include: Lonnie H Athens' The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, David Levinson's Family Violence in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Claire M. Renzetti's Violent Betrayal: Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships, and Gary D. LaFree's Rape and Criminal Justice: The Social Construction of Sexual Assault. At the time of the classroom screening, the only book that we had not formally [End page 8] discussed was LaFree's. Nevertheless, underpinning our discussions all semester long were issues of social, political, and economic construction. To say the least, we were an informed and tough audience, well founded in both theory and practice, and ready to pass judgment on this or other videos on domestic violence.
Domestic Violence: Which Way Out? is neither a docu-drama nor an info-tainment commercial on the power relations involved in domestic violence between the abused and the abuser and between the offender/victim and the criminal justice system. Instead, this video is some kind of nebulous blend between a poor docu-drama and an unconvincing information commercial. Neither fish nor fowl, this video attempts to provide a history of sorts of the evolving responses to domestic violence in Bellevue and Tacoma, Washington. With shots of middle-class and upscale neighborhoods in Bellevue and with shots of burned out and depressed Tacoma, we move through the environs of domestic violence as seen from the perspectives of the police, prosecutors, social workers, counselors, judges, perpetrators, survivors, etc. The video correctly represents the overall changing response by the police, the criminal justice system, and the public. During the 1980s, the police and the courts, not to mention the media and general public, came to understand the danger and the need to respond to the growing presence of domestic violence with a stepped up policy of social intervention.
At the same time, this video is making the case for an alternative approach to responding to batterers. Instead of ignoring the problem, separating and cooling-out domestic disturbance participants, or trying to prosecute and incarcerate abusers, the makers of this video are advocating arrest, overnight detention in jail, and mandatory participation and completion of a counseling program as a means of having the formal charges dropped. Failure to complete the program results, instead, in the case being fully prosecuted and/or tried. This approach to the problem should have been augmented by a philosophical and empirical discussion of the value of arrest, deterrence, punishment, treatment, costs, etc. in relation to the reduction of domestic violence and/or sexual assault across society. This missed opportunity would have also allowed for the video to address issues of a social and structural nature.
There are many problems with this video production. Putting aside the poor quality of the indoor videography, most of these have to do with the content or lack of [End page 9] information about the problem and its distribution in those areas of Washington state that are featured, and in the United States more generally. More specifically, no statistics are provided about the number of people who have started and/or finished a rehabilitative program that consists primarily of group encounter discussions with other batterers and a counselor. Most damaging to the value of the video was the lack of any kind of social or causal analysis of individual perpetrators' anger or need to control people.
One student noted, for example, "this video tape does not offer enough information about anything." Or as another student put it, the "video painted what seems to be an unrealistic picture of rehabilitation." On the other hand, although recognizing and pointing out the problems mentioned so far, one officer wrote in response to his viewing, "the video did a pretty good job of showing a batterer's process through the system...especially with regard to the new spouse abuse policies allowing arrest for assaults not committed in an officer's presence." Relatively speaking, the video's strongest quality has to do with its overall representation of the players involved in the attempt to resolve domestic violence.
More generally, while most students recognized and appreciated the fact that perpetrators and victims from different ethnic and socio-economic classes were portrayed, stereotypes, misrepresentations, and contradictions prevailed nevertheless. For example, on the one hand, it appears as though the problem has something to do with poverty and deprivation. On the other hand, it is represented as if both males and females, adults and children, are all equally likely to be batterers or battered. One could, in other words, come away thinking or believing that the chances of being victims or offenders was evenly distributed throughout society. Two other valid criticisms of this video production included: the fact that the police, prosecutors, judges, social workers, and counselors were all white and the fact that there was follow-up with only one battered family whose male perpetrator had been successfully rehabilitated. The overall emphasis on male batterers rather than battered females, however, seemed appropriate, even though, as one student commented, it was a bit "too rehearsed or staged." [End page 10]
All in all, we cannot recommend this video except possibly for the Kiwanis Club or Parent Teaching Organization circuit where the value of advocating treatment for batterers over punishment seems to be a socially responsible course to pursue. But for serious students of domestic violence and sexual assault, this video production is incomplete, failing to document both the nature of the problem and the response to the problem. In the final analysis, because media involving news and video representations are key to cultural production and understanding, it is important pedagogically that instructors pay close attention to those media purchases that its institutions might make. With scarce dollars available for video acquisitions, instructors should not advise their colleges and universities to buy just any film or video that comes in a box with marketing material that refers to "award winning films and videos" such as Domestic Violence: Which Way Out?.
Eastern Michigan University
Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology [End page 11]