Commentary: The Sounds of Silence

Jul 15, 2013

Commentator Celia Brewer wonders why we as a society tolerate one form on injustice but loudly protest another. Please note, the thoughts expressed in this commentary are those of the commentator and do not necessarily reflect the views of WKMS or its staff.

Carousel, the 1956 movie made from the hit Broadway musical, recently aired on Turner Classic Movies. Told in flashback, the movie opens with a carnival barker named Billy Bigelow in heaven. He had died in a bungled robbery, desperate for money to support his wife, Julie Jordan, and their baby on the way. Billy is granted a day to return to earth to console his troubled teenaged daughter Louise.

Carousel had been one of my favorite movies, full of great songs such as “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I first saw it a few years after my own father died, when I was 6. The idea of seeing my father again, even for a day, was a powerful fantasy.

Which is why, I suppose, that back then I did not recognize the darker side of Billy Bigelow. When he meets his daughter on earth, Billy cannot convince her to take the star he offers, and he slaps her harshly. Crying, she runs to her mother and says, “He hit me. But it seemed like a kiss.” Julie had also been on the receiving end of Billy’s hand. The couple had had to move in with her cousin, because Billy could not find work. This blow to his pride is given as the reason that he strikes Julie.

Like so many battered women, Julie had stayed with Billy, and she tells Louise dreamily, “Yes, I know how a slap can feel like a kiss,” thus producing the next generation of women who will internalize violence as a valid demonstration of love.

Brutality against women has been tolerated for centuries. In a recent Washington Post column, Kathleen Parker discussed the 4th annual “Women in the World” summit, a conference not about getting women equal pay or into country clubs. “No, it’s about letting girls go to school without risking a bullet to the head,” she wrote. “It’s about changing cultures that treat women like animals (or worse). [It’s about] saving them from honor killings and abuse.”

The columnist praised Sunitha Krishnan, a former Hindu nun featured in a documentary about human trafficking. Krishnan’s group rescues women and even little girls from the sex slave trade in India and attempts to improve their lives. The thousands rescued so far she describes as “girls who had endured unimaginable torture yet found the will to heal and thrive.” Her ultimate message: “Everyone needs to overcome silence about this modern form of slavery.”

Which leads me to my final point. For years we in America have tolerated a form of despicable music which denigrates women, which treats us violently as objects, which calls us by the “b--” word and the “h--” word—really the “w-h--” word, if you can spell. Yes, I know, not all rappers use these words. But far too many of them do, getting rich in the process. Millions of people have heard this hatefulness, some of them walking in public while the words boom from the speakers of cars driving by.

Now, I do not know Paula Deen or how often she allegedly used the “n--” word. And I do NOT condone any use of this word, even by the minority who are its intended target. No, what disturbs me greatly is the double standard of the media firestorm over this one woman and the many sponsors jumping on the “let’s punish Paula Deen” bandwagon. Where is our equivalent outcry over the repeated use of woman-bashing words and imagery in rap music?

Tolerance can be a double-edged sword. One well-known white woman admits to using a slur word, and the response should be “We won’t tolerate this,” firm but not rabid. So why are we not equally adamant when so many well-known men, including, yes, a great many black men, use vicious words against women? Why do we tolerate this injustice—but protest the other?

Former newspaper reporter Celia Brewer has studied language and observed human nature for over 60 years.