As of this writing, a short video called “Slap her: children’s reactions” has accumulated well over 19 million views since going up on YouTube a mere week ago. Produced by an Italian company called Ciao People Media Group for the website Fanpage.it, it is presented as a social experiment to gauge the attitudes of little boys to the notion of violence against women, with a feel-good twist. Unfortunately, its viral message is confusing, disturbing, and worst of all, useless.
It begins with an overlay of gentle piano music as the voice of a male adult introduces us, one at a time, to a handful of charming Italian boys ranging in age from seven to eleven (it’s unclear whether the man is actually conducting the experiment or is simply a voiceover added later). They dream of becoming firemen, soccer players, policemen, pizza makers – nice, normal kids.
Then they are introduced to a pretty blonde named Martina who enters the camera frame. She wears a friendly smile but does not speak. The off-camera adult asks the boys what they like about her. “Her hair,” one says. “Everything!” says another. “I’d like to be your boyfriend,” says a third, with the adorable, uncomplicated openness of youth.
But the video suddenly shifts gears from amusing and cute to creepy and alarming. “Now, caress her,” the off-camera adult commands. Excuse me? He’s telling these boys to caress her? It occurs to me that perhaps the word doesn’t have the same connotation in Italian, but it’s still unsettling. One by one, the boys shyly brush her arm or cheek. “Make a funny face at her,” the man suggests. They do, and Martina reacts but continues to say nothing.
This time the video doesn’t just shift gears – it grinds them. The gentle music stops and the man orders sharply, “Slap her!” The boys’ smiles fade. “Slap her, hard!” Confusion sets in. The boys, like the viewer, wonder what the hell’s going on. “Slap her, come on!” the man insists.
One by one each boy shakes his head and tells him “no,” as the music returns with a sentimental swell. “Why not?” the adult asks. “She’s a girl,” one replies, “I can’t do it.” “You’re not supposed to hit girls,” says another. “I don’t want to hurt her.” “I’m against violence.” “Girls shouldn’t be hit, not even with a flower.” “Because I’m a man.”
The climactic message is obviously that even little boys know that it’s wrong for a male to hit a female. Whether by nature or nurture, this awareness is ingrained in them, and they know that striking a girl would constitute a serious breach of their manhood (many of the video’s commenters objected that striking anyone is wrong, but since this is about violence against women, we’ll set that aside).
It finishes with an attempt at a cute coda in which the adult tells one boy to kiss Martina. “Can I kiss her on the mouth or on the cheek?” the bold child asks. This too is creepy and inappropriate. The adult is urging the boys to kiss this strange girl? Was Martina herself ever asked permission for any of this? Certainly not on camera.
The video has been shared widely and approvingly on clickbait sites like aplus.com, which called the boys “little men with very big hearts.” “Don’t ever change, kiddos!” it applauded. The problem with such sites is that, like this video itself, they are long on emotional manipulation and short on rational thought – which is the secret of their success, of course.
This disturbing video was clearly intended to have a heartwarming impact, but my immediate response was revulsion at the filmmakers’ sexualized manipulation of children and confusion about the garbled message they are trying to send.
I wasn’t alone. Dr. Rebecca Hains – “author, professor and speaker on children’s media culture” – found the video “sickening” and “absolutely disgusting.” She posted a lengthy dissection of it which closely mirrors my own response. In it she explains why she believes it “objectifies girls, exploits boys, and trivializes domestic violence.” Although I don’t agree with every word, her argument is worth a read in full because it is so devastating, but I’ll sum up a couple of key points here.
First, Martina is objectified as “a prop—there to be seen, not heard”:
While the producers present the boys as interesting people, they present Martina not as a person in her own rights, but as a girl who is expected to be an object of boys’ desire. The producers are doing boys and girls everywhere a disservice by perpetuating the idea that girls’ appearance is of paramount importance.
Next, the “caress” sequence is very “unsettling.” “Given the problems with sexual assault and other forms of violence against women that pervade our world,” Dr. Hains writes,
one of our top priorities should be teaching boys to only touch girls who wish to be touched by them—girls they have a friendly relationship with, who don’t freeze up or flinch at their touch… Her silence and stiffness remind me of how many victims of molestation react to an abuser’s touch: by freezing up.
As a researcher who works with children, Hains worries that the video could be a harmful experience for the kids. In any case, “the conclusion of the video… betrays a complete lack of understanding of how domestic violence against women actually functions”:
The whole point was to shame men who engage in domestic violence by suggesting that these little boys are more manly than they are—even though this discourse is completely useless in actually reducing violence against women…
This is not how batterers operate: They don’t slap at first sight. Domestic abusers work their way towards physical abuse gradually, beginning with other forms of abuse first. As such, the boys’ predictable refusal to slap Martina, set against an emotionally manipulative soundtrack, doesn’t prove anything about domestic violence. In fact, it trivializes the matter.
As Dr. Hains notes, the video doesn’t even offer any resources for victims of domestic violence at its conclusion. It seems to be little more than a marketing gimmick for Fanpage.it which neither creates informative awareness about violence against women nor provides any help combating it. Now that’s a cynical slap in the face of women everywhere.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/20/15)