Monday, November 29, 2010

A Funeral in Clay, New York

A funeral will be held Wednesday for Jenni Lyn Watson, a resident of Clay, NY who disappeared November 19 and whose body was found a week later, dumped behind a storage shed four miles from her house. Her ex-boyfriend is being charged with murder.

Jenni was one of three or four women who were killed November 19 in the United States by intimate partners. Since her death ten days ago another 30 or more have died or disappeared.

The narrative surrounding her death is a familiar one. And Watson’s murderer, Steven Peiper, fits a very typical profile of a controlling partner, a boy who called and texted her continually when she was not in sight, who limited her contact with friends and family. One photograph has appeared in the media of Peiper, a thin wide-eyed young man with the terror of being photographed for a mug shot evident in his face.

But the narrative that is being built in the media will not focus on Peiper. It will focus on Jenni; the tragedy of Jenni Watson’s death as an unavoidable, random loss. It will not focus on her murder as part of an epidemic of violence that is well documented, well studied, and has well known root causes, among them the killer’s exposure to a pervasive attitude of misogyny and a culture in which women are devalued.

Jenni Watson has already been described in several newstories as “pretty.” Photographs of her in a bikini on a beach, dressed as an angel in a spaghetti straps and cardboard wings, hugging a teddy bear, and practicing ballet have all accompanied stories of her disappearance and murder. The practice of describing rape and murder victims as “pretty” and “attractive” has been going on for a very long time. Joan Didion wrote incisively about it two decades ago in the essay “Sentimental Journeys,” which appeared in the New York Review of Books in the early 90s and is still one of the better pieces about how rape is covered in American media. Part of Didion’s piece focuses on written descriptions of victims, surreal in their neo-pornographic or overtly racist and classist content. Descriptions, like the ones of Jenni Watson, that reduce the victim to a series of symbols, that convey a kind of subtextual propaganda.

Today with the aid of facebook and flickr, we have access to intimate and casual photographs of victims. And these inevitably become a crowd sourced beauty contest. Nearly without exception, every online story about a woman’s death, sexual assault or disappearance that is accompanied by a photograph, is also accompanied by commentary from readers with sentiments like “She’s hot!” or “I’d do her.”

Why don’t we see full body pictures of men who are kidnapped or murdered? When a high school or college boy is assaulted why don’t the stories run with several pictures of the victim wearing a bathing suit? Dressed for prom? Standing shirtless with a group of friends? Trying to look sexy and charming for a photo their girlfriend took in better times?

A person’s gender determines whether or not we will see them partially naked after they have been sexually assaulted or killed. Their body offered up for titillation, and excitement. Their body offered up, without their consent as a public curiosity, just as it was in life.

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