A long, long time ago, when newspapers and TV shows were closed off to the comments of the public, we decried their lack of transparency and openness. Now, most online newspapers and television shows allow us, the mighty public, to critically engage with them. In theory, this is a process of democratizing the media, of coming closer to what Jurgen Habermas thought a free public sphere - where people engage each other in a critical, rational manner to discuss political decision-making - should be like.
But, up to now, the main thing I get from reading the comments posted on various news items is a feeling of narrow-mindedness. One may say this is because the access to the public sphere is not free, as Habermas requested. Not everyone participates; and not everyone participates in a critical manner (which I think is Habermas' main fault: assuming the human being is a rational being).
In most of the cases, those news items gathering hundreds and thousands of comments are those touching upon ideological issues: patriotism, women's role in society, politics and politicians, religious beliefs. Today's perusal of online news was no different. The story harvesting most of the public's comments (being surpassed only by a couple of political news) is the one of a woman's conflict with her husband.
Behind the story is the question of a woman's social behavior vis-a-vis men and other women. And because the woman married a rich man, the story is also about class relations, intertwined with gender issues. To summarize, this woman is a well-known pop culture star, an icon of beauty and a role-model for 'women who make it'. But the story is about her marriage to a rich man, with whom she lives for 10 years and has a child. The marriage breaks up, and the ensuing divorce is being carried out in the open: she alleges he wants to destroy her and that he has the means to do it.
No divorce is an easy story - and nowhere is truth harder to find than in such a context. Assigning blame is always complicated: what do we impute each person? Based on what values do we label their interactions as 'wrong', 'faulty' or 'immoral'? How do we think about marriage, what does it mean for us and why? All of these questions are means to probe into the underlying worldviews behind our evaluation of the situation.
Reading the comments people left on this beautiful-woman-divorcing-rich-man story is a saga in itself - and requires a tremendous deconstructive effort to understand just what prescriptions of gender roles transpire out of them. I have a few quick favorites to share:
- the theme of retribution rooted in a class antagonism: she got what she deserved for marrying a rich guy, cause we all know those rich guys are all jerks. She should've known better, but she wanted to enjoy his richness, now she has to pay. He might be a jerk, but hey, that's what rich people are!
- the theme of religious kindness: a loner in the comments section, the religious devout cries out for forgivness and kindness. Yes, she made a mistake, but hey, we're all human, so we should help her out. We should not envy her material well-being and hate her for indulging in it, but we should forgive this to her because all human beings err.
- the theme of retribution rooted in a frustrated feminism: it's all her fault, because she didn't want to make it on her own in life. She relied on a rich man even if she knew being what being a trophy wife implies (namely, her degradation as a woman), so ultimately she gets what she deserves.
- the theme of the oppressed male: she probably married him for his money, because that's why beautiful women marry rich guys. But, with all this gender equality stuff, she's gonna take all his money in court, and the poor guy - a jerk, yeah, but still a guy - will pay the price of being rich and married.
- the theme of retribution rooted in the patriarchal thinking: she is to be blamed, because she married a younger man and because she is really a whore who married for money, not like a real woman who works hard by her man's side to sustain the family. She should protect the child, and not create a public scandal out of the divorce. Let her give up her fancy cars and pay for her child's upbringing instead.
Photo credits: Kevin Dooley