In Scrubs episode #77 (season 4, episode 9), “My malpractical decision,” which aired on September 21, 2004, we meet Neena Broderick (Julianna Margulies), an attractive malpractice lawyer who came to the hospital to check on her sick father. JD is afraid of her. “Ok. Stay calm. You can handle this. She can’t be that much of a ball buster.” In fact, she is. To the tune of “One singular sensation” she hits 10 men in the groin with a stick and kicks another 5 in the same spot with her pointed shoes. This takes barely 30 seconds. Only the orthodox Jew, whose hat she takes, remains unscathed. Perhaps she spares him because he is not the typical predacious, testosterone-poisoned white male. The man whose cane she takes to bust balls just tumbles to the ground, groin intact. Frightened JD exclaims: “I’m wearing a cup!” She retorts: “Thanks for the crotch update.”
Now that’s entertainment—and stereotyping. Or is it? According to the cultural stereotype, men are the violent sex. Aggression is the male domain. Men love violent play, men go to war, men beat women (or worse). On the theory that the media create and reinforce stereotypes, one would expect depictions of violent men and victimized women to be abundant. It seems, though, that the contents of the most popular shows, and comedies in particular, are precisely the opposite, and Neena is a representative sample of 1.
The frequency and ferocity of female-on-male violence on TV has fascinated (and appalled) me for years. Men, and in particular dates, boyfriends, and husbands, are regularly slapped, hit, or kicked, whereas the reverse hardly occurs. Test my assertion by sitting through 3 or 4 comedy shows and tell us your count. If my observation is correct, the question is why violence against men is considered funny. Does anyone believe that a kick in the groin feels rather like a pinch on the forearm? Add the psychological dimension to the physical one. A kick in the behind may be humiliating; a kick in the groin is degrading and castrating. For this to be considered funny, something else must be added to the mix. But what? Is it the idea that men, being the truly violent sex, deserve to be taken down a notch during primetime? It is noteworthy that much of the violence against men is unprovoked. A man need not be an individual offender, or would-be offender. If the guilt of male aggression is a collective one, any individual male will do—as demonstrated by Neena. Is the point of violence against men on these shows to exorcise fear of men?
I submit that by showing violence against men, TV can actually reinforce the stereotype that men are more violent than women. I have repeatedly heard the argument that it is ok to show men being beaten because they can take it. They are strong enough to defend themselves. In contrast, showing violence against women would be truly horrific because women cannot defend themselves; they are definitively victimized. I am not impressed by this argument. The Neena episode, though it is over the top in terms of the number of victims per second, uses a typical script. The men do not defend themselves, although they could, at least in theory. They look puzzled—as if they’re trying to hold onto their stereotype of the pacific female. The show cleverly reinforces that stereotype. Neena is only acting tough and the serial detesticulation occurs only in JD’s wimpy fantasy. In fact, Neena is just a scared and vulnerable girl, who is worried about her dad. This is brilliant. Woman gets to be violent and vulnerable in one stroke—so to speak.
So what about the stereotype of the violent male? Is it true? Well, yes and no. If we look at criminal records, it turns out that men out-aggress women by a factor of about 10. When it comes to domestic aggression, there is only a small gender difference, and it is the opposite of what most people expect and it is consistent with what we see on TV. Women are more likely to hit, kick, or threaten their partners with a weapon. When violence occurs in a couple, usually both partners participate. When only one partner is violent, it is twice as likely to be the woman than the man. Many people find this hard to believe. But take a look around or check out the research literature, such as:
Archer, J. (2000). Sex differences in aggression between heterosexual partners: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 651-680.
Straus, M. A. (1999). The controversy over domestic violence by women: A methodological, theoretical, and sociology of science analysis. In X. B. Arriaga & S. Oskamp (eds.), Violence in intimate relationships (pp. 17-44). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.