“What Would You Do?” Sees How Strangers React To An Abusive Relationship

Warning: this clip from a new ABC TV show called “What Would You Do?” is hard to watch, even though I know the “abusive boyfriend” and the “abused girlfriend” are only actors.

On four different occasions, “What Would You Do?” filmed diners at a restaurant watching two “couples” — one white, one black — sit down at a table when the “girlfriend” has obviously just been beat up. In both cases the “girlfriend,” who has cuts on her face and bruises on her arms, is terrified of her “boyfriend” and tells him to stop making a scene in public. Of course, he does not stop making a scene at all and only escalates his anger in front of all the other diners.

Good Samaritan strangers step in to help these abused “girlfriends.” Except when they are dressed provocatively, that is.

When the white “abused woman” is dressed “provocatively” — i.e., a low-cut tank top — not one single person comes to her defense while the boyfriend grabs her arm, pulls her hair and yells at her. One diner is even filmed rolling her eyes at the scene, as if it’s just a 3-year-old throwing a tantrum! Yet, this in its own way is telling: a “provocatively” dressed white woman is seen as less worthy of help, or maybe a man’s aggression is seen as more acceptable when there’s jealously involved.

At least a couple intervenes when the black “abused woman” wearing a low-cut tank top is being abused — but later, they tell the cameras their concern is not “stop hitting your girlfriend,” but “take it somewhere else.” Seriously, take it somewhere else? Like home, where maybe she could get killed? Great idea. But still, that response is nothing compared to the bystanders whose (racially charged?) speculation was that maybe she’s a prostitute and he’s a pimp. Ugh.

On one hand, I’m pleased diners didn’t just sit there either ignoring the abuse or rubbernecking and I’m pleased ABC is at least having a conversation about it. As blogger Samhita Mukhopadhyay wrote on Feministing, “I appreciate the overall sentiment and maybe that is what viewers need to think about dominant perceptions of domestic violence and the rightful time and place to intervene.” Over at Jezebel, blogger Lindsay Robertson concurred, “It can’t be a bad thing to force viewers to think about issues such as racism or domestic violence. Maybe the next time they see someone being abused, they’ll be more likely to step up.” But still, “What Would You Do?” is a highly problematic experiment.

First of all, the trouble with a show like this is that not all incidences of domestic violence are quite so brazen in public: the bruises, the crying, the man grabbing her arm. That “abused woman”‘s face alone looked totally busted — who wouldn’t have said something? The over-dramatization for the cameras is just that: an over-dramatization. The experiment doesn’t show how people would act in a perhaps more realistic, less dramatic, real-life incident or how people respond to abuse that is everything but physical, like threats, put-downs, controlling behavior and coercion. When the domestic abuse is not screaming in our face, so to speak, who steps in then?

Second of all, all four of these staged incidents were man-on-women violence. Since the reported statistics of intimate partner violence are overwhelmingly men abusing women, I understand why “What Would You Do?” chose those pairings. But it still leaves out the fact that abusive relationships can be woman-on-man, woman-on-woman or man-on-man. Just something to think about.

Third of all, it doesn’t take into account a legitimate fear that bystanders have when intervening on any crime, but especially domestic violence, which is that the perpetrator might have a gun or some other weapon. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t step in when they see abuse happening; however, out in the real world and not on staged television shows, a legitimate belief that the “abusive boyfriend” could have a weapon he might turn and use on the Good Samaritan is a variable to consider.

I also wonder about the impact of the bystanders, seeing as a few of the women who intervened on the “abuse” started to cry and one woman’s hands were shaking. How do we know they weren’t in abusive relationships themselves and ABC’s video cameras — some would say needlessly — triggered old issues? Is that worth it for a media stunt?

Overall, I say the domestic abuse acted out on “What Would You Do?” is an ethically dubious experiment at best — what do you think? [ABC’s “What Would You Do?”]