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The Oscars slap and the scapegoating of women

For the last week, the now infamous Oscars slap has reverberated throughout our lives, providing endless fodder for late-night shows, Twitter feeds, podcasts and memes (so many memes!). No demographic has escaped the sensational story — my elementary school son has heard the jokes, my college students have their own hot takes, and even older folks on Facebook who had no idea who Chris Rock or Will Smith were — have given their social commentary. Everybody has something to say about it.

Although the incident was troubling on many levels, most analysis has focused on the personal level rather than the societal. We have debated the appropriateness of Chris Rock’s joke, discussed the impact of Will Smith’s Oscar acceptance speech, argued over apologies or lack of apologies, rehashed the reactions of Hollywood’s elite.

Jennifer Garcia Bashaw

What I have not heard much about are the forces at work behind the scenes — how toxic masculinity continues to hijack our society, how the cult of celebrity in America is growing in its absurdity, how social media has become dangerously voyeuristic, how the Hollywood that condemned Will Smith’s violent act also has created and rewarded violence throughout its existence.

This is why the aftermath of the slap has been more upsetting to me than the event itself — what we have obsessed over and what we have ignored in this viral escapade reveals the practices and priorities that lay at the heart of our culture.

A tale as old as time

One practice that reared its ugly head as we endlessly discussed the Oscars debacle has been particularly disturbing. It is a practice as old as civilization itself and has caused great suffering through human history but often has remained hidden: the scapegoating of women.

I cannot tell you how many times last week I heard people from every stratum of society say something to the effect of, “Well, did you see Jada Pinkett Smith’s face after the joke? What else could Will do but go up and defend her?” Or, the even more telling remark, “Will probably did what he did because his wife had cuckholded him (or been unfaithful or not treated him well, you get the picture). He was just trying to regain his masculinity in the face of her emasculation of him.”

In a situation that involved two men, one who inflicted verbal injury and one who inflicted physical harm, the person whom many in our society thought to blame was the victim in the situation — the woman.

Women have suffered as scapegoats for all of human history. René Girard, a scholar who has studied the literature and culture of many peoples throughout time, defines “scapegoats” as those marginalized people or groups who are forced to carry the sins of society on their shoulders. According to Girard, all human civilizations struggle with the problem of mimetic violence, a force that threatens to obliterate society but that can be tamed by scapegoating, a practice that involves focusing blame on a single victim or group.

“Scapegoats tend to be minorities or marginalized peoples, those who do not hold the power or authority and can be easily blamed for the sins of others in the group.”

Scapegoats tend to be minorities or marginalized peoples, those who do not hold the power or authority and can be easily blamed for the sins of others in the group. Focusing the violence wreaking havoc in society on a single entity relieves the tension in the larger group. In this scapegoat mechanism, the innocence of a victim is hidden so that the peace-keeping function of blame continues to calm the violence that beats at the heart of humanity.

The earliest scapegoating against women happened in cultures that utilized ritual sacrifice in their religious ceremonies, offering up women on their altars as virgin sacrifices. However, even societies that refrained from deadly acts of sacrifice have practiced scapegoating in the more subtle form of storytelling. A society’s literature and mythology (or, in our case, media) are culture-shaping, and much lore has been marked by the human tendency to blame others, especially women.

Zeus sent Pandora to humanity as a punishment for Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. According to the myth, men previously enjoyed fellowship with the gods and lived lives free from disease, pain or labor. But once the woman opened her box, all matters of evil leaked into the world.

Christianity and scapegoating

Christianity’s origin story is not much different. The story of Adam and Eve often has been interpreted to mean that Eve and all women are temptresses who lure men to sin and are to blame for the sin in humanity.

The tendency to scapegoat has been alarmingly prominent in Christian history. In the first centuries of the church, theologians and prominent leaders blamed women for the sexual sin of men and made sure they knew they were the cause of their downfall. As Tertullian wrote around 200 CE (in “On the Apparel of Women”): “And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.”

“The tendency to scapegoat has been alarmingly prominent in Christian history.”

This unjust blame of women grew more deadly in the Middle Ages when the church instigated and fueled witch hunts. For several centuries, religious leaders quelled the societal panic that came with natural disasters or disease by offering up women as the cause of calamity. They targeted independent women, single or widowed women, educated and influential women, any woman who would not conform to Christian standards of femininity or come under the rule of religious male authority.

Medieval witch hunts accounted for the deaths of innumerable women, but they also were destructive in other ways because they encouraged silence and conformity for all women and discouraged their education and independence, further marginalizing women who already were second-class citizens in church and culture.

The scapegoating of women continued into the modern era, but it manifested in more insidious ways. The Protestant branch of Christianity was especially adept at holding women responsible for the ills of society; they placed the responsibility for taming men and raising the next generation of citizens in women’s laps. The “cult of domesticity” initiated in the Victorian era encouraged women to stay at home and to train their children in the ways of strict gender roles and religious purity. Anything that went wrong in family or culture, then, became the fault of the woman.

Now disguised as complementarianism

Our contemporary reality retains much of this scapegoating tendency, although it is disguised in a culture of equal rights. Although women now can vote and go to college and theoretically hold positions of power and authority, many have been coaxed by Christians who call themselves complementarians into a submissive and limiting role in the family and society. Many of these conservative evangelicals create a subculture in America that persists in blaming women (especially young women) for the sexual misbehavior of men and place the burden of purity and holiness on the women in society while they keep the same women out of positions of authority and leadership in the church.

That evangelical subculture has shaped American culture more than we care to admit and plays out in our assessment of events such as the Oscars slap. Add to all this the horrific scapegoating of Black women, in particular, in U.S. history — which simultaneously hyper-sexualizes and desexualizes in attempts to control and dismiss. Maybe it should not have been a surprise that Americans cast Jada Pinkett Smith into the well-worn trope of the “Jezebel” and blamed her for Will’s actions.

“Maybe it should not have been a surprise that Americans cast Jada Pinkett Smith into the well-worn trope of the ‘Jezebel’ and blamed her for Will’s actions.”

Scapegoating is a real problem and, sadly, the church has participated in it throughout history — especially the scapegoating of women.

Jesus ended scapegoating

Girard’s scapegoat theory tells us that of all people, Christians should oppose scapegoating because it is Jesus’ death as the innocent scapegoat that exposed the power of violence at the core of human societies. We should be able to recognize scapegoating because the story of Jesus shows us its destructive power; he is the scapegoat who should end all scapegoats. The best way to end scapegoating is to expose the workings of it in society and place the blame for sins where it should go.

Maybe it is time that we stopped participating in the scapegoating and started calling it out. When our coworkers or our Facebook friend or our teenager tries to do what so many people before them have done — shift the blame for male misbehavior on to a woman — we must stand up for the victim. We should not entertain salacious gossip about Jada Pinkett Smith’s background or her supposed manipulation of her husband.

We should be much more concerned with the fact that our storytelling — and our tendency to scapegoat women in that storytelling — teaches the next generation to unfairly blame and marginalize women. If we don’t interrupt the age-old cycle of scapegoating, women will continue to pay the price for the sins of society — just as they have for all of human history.

Jennifer Garcia Bashaw serves as assistant professor of New Testament and Christian ministry at Campbell University in North Carolina. She is an ordained American Baptist minister and her forthcoming book, Scapegoats: The Gospel through the Eyes of Victims is available for preorder on Amazon.

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