Using a cartoon and humor to fight violence against women

A new public health approach to fighting violence in all its forms against women is showing up in surprising places

A public service announcement produced by human rights group Breakthrough uses humor to urge men to stop other men from abusing or hurting women.

Earlier this week, Boston firefighter Billy Vraibel watched a zippy 30-second animation while buying skates for his three sons at Pure Hockey, a sports store in the center of the working-class city of Medford, Mass. The eye-catching animated spot showed fans at a NASCAR race. As a female beer vendor walks by, a man raises his hand to slap her bottom. After his buddy grabs his hand and shakes his head, bystanders and race car drivers applaud.

The final screen clarifies the message: “#BeThatGuy. Stop violence against women in its tracks.”

The message? Don’t just stand by—step in.

“I think it’s great,'' Vraibel said. "That’s what I teach my kids. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.”

That was the precise idea delivered to NASCAR fans at the Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. last month, where the 30-second cartoon kept popping up on the Jumbotron during races over the weekend of the 14th.

Every time the spot came on, people stopped what they were doing to watch, said Vanessa Wojtala, director of programming at Grazie Media, a Toronto-based business that programs public service announcements on Jumbotrons for U.S. sporting events.

"The graphics were amazing,” said Wojtala. “Having a funny PSA that kind of conveys a really, really, really, really serious message—that's just brilliant.”

'Ring the Bell'

The video came about after a Grazie staffer heard about the human rights group Breakthrough, which is based in both the U.S. and India, and has run campaigns in both countries to make violence against women culturally unacceptable. Grazie issued an invitation: if the group had a video, they had a Jumbotron.

Breakthrough jumped at the chance, said Lynn Harris, the nonprofit's communications director. In a couple of weeks, drawing on years of research about social attitudes and aided by a professional animator, it produced a spot it felt might work.

Mallika Dutt, the group's founder, said that Breakthrough’s goal is global — “to make violence against women unacceptable.'' Born in India, Dutt has been based in the U.S. since she came for college in the 1980s. In 2000, she launched Breakthrough to, in its own words, “use the power of arts, media, pop culture, and community mobilization” to get men to discourage other men’s violence.

Breakthrough’s largest campaign has been Bell Bajao, or in English, Ring the Bell. Launched in India in 2008, the campaign includes a series of clever stories delivered via television, puppet shows and other media. In them, a man hears another man hitting a woman inside a nearby home. The first man rings the doorbell and asks for something irrelevant—the time, a cup of milk. Abashed, the abuser stops his beating.

“That campaign caught the public imagination and really created a huge conversation, a huge buzz in this country,” said Dutt, speaking from New Delhi via Skype. The message was worked into soap opera storylines, debating competitions, comics, local public art projects and youth trainings, reaching 130 million people in its first round, Breakthrough reports. It was then picked up and adapted by local groups in Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Pakistan and elsewhere, reaching 200 million and beyond.

Of course, Ring the Bell did not end gendered violence in India. Partner violence, child marriage, forced labor, sex-selective abortions and sexual assault remain rampant in India, as evidenced, for instance, by the brutal 2012 gang rape of a young New Delhi woman who later died of her internal injuries. Ring the Bell was just the beginning of an ongoing effort by Breakthrough and other groups to end cultural acceptance of gendered violence, a massive task in a country of more than one billion people who speak more than twenty native languages.

Bystander intervention

While an anti-violence video at NASCAR might be surprising, the concepts behind it are in keeping with the latest public health approaches to violence against women and children: bystander intervention.

Dating back at least to the 1990s, researchers and practitioners at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been refining and promoting bystander intervention and shifting cultural attitudes. Programs like Mentors in Violence Prevention, Men Can Stop Rape and Coaching Boys into Men have been working to teach men—athletes, high school students, coaches—to let their buddies know that, say, rape jokes aren’t cool, or to step in when someone’s at risk, as in this University of Wisconsin training video.

The larger idea is to treat gendered violence as a behavioral epidemic—like smoking or drunk driving—that cultures can either encourage or discourage.

Breakthrough’s particular contribution is to “use culture to change culture,” Dutt explained.

But does it work?

At Kelly’s Diner in Somerville, Mass., having breakfast before heading off to work on a freezing morning early in December, a business-suited David Hartley reacted to the #BeThatGuy video.

“It’s kind of strange that they’d even have to have a cartoon about that,” said Hartley, adding he liked the message, but thought it too obvious to need stating.

His waitress, Noelle August, disagreed; she loved it, adding that too many men are “cowards” afraid to stand up to men like her father who, she said, “shouldn’t treat women the way he does.”

In a nearby booth, a father and son eating breakfast together, Luke and Dean Lambert, had different reactions from one another. The elder Lambert didn’t see the video’s point; he said he couldn’t imagine not saying something in such a situation. But his son Dean, a college student at Tufts University in neighboring Medford, was quietly enthusiastic, saying it was lively, fun to watch and much needed, “especially on campus. It would be a good idea to get kids thinking about” stepping up when someone mistreats women.

The guys he knows probably laugh uncomfortably when they see such incidents, he said, “a little weirded out” because they’re not sure what to do.

That’s the video’s goal, said Lynn Harris: to reinforce men’s instinct to speak up against even “microviolence” toward women. Grazie estimates that since the video ran more than 70 times over the weekend, 250,000 attendees saw it an average of four times each; online, the video had been watched 18,000 times as of early this week.

Harris hopes that NASCAR and online viewers will think, “Maybe I’ll be like the guy in the video. Maybe next time my friend is being a tool, I’ll tell him to knock it off.”

Getting the other 50 percent

Other hockey dads were a little more cautious at the Tyngsboro hockey rink an hour north of the Boston area. Several who watched the video said they’d worry that if they stepped into something that wasn’t their business, it would escalate into a fight.

That’s a common American reaction. Breakthrough’s on-the-ground interviewers at the Miami Speedway report mostly positive responses to the spot, including a group of 18-year-olds from a local college wrestling team who wanted to buy shirts and bring the project onto their campus. But more often, interviewers heard that same caution: It’s none of my business; he might go after me if I say something.

 It’s “fascinating,” said Dutt, that in countries like India where violence against women is considered culturally acceptable, Ring the Bell is being enthusiastically embraced. While “the United States prides itself on being more evolved, a safer country for women,” she said, “men there were far more worried about their personal and physical safety.”

Nevertheless, the video is a useful contribution to an important effort, according to Esta Soler, president and founder of Futures Without Violence, a U.S. nonprofit focused on preventing family and sexual violence. Getting men involved is essential, she said. “We’re not going to solve the problem if 50 percent of the global population is not engaged in the solution. I think it’s a good ad, it’s a great market, and I’m glad they’re doing it.”

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