Women finally can hold men accountable for the crimes that they commit. The wake of the #MeToo movement has helped many women, feeling empowered by their fellow survivors, to accuse men of rape, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and other gender-based violence. Women have accused men in power, including numerous political figures, of such crimes. However, in history, such action rarely occurred. William Shakespeare’s Othello gives readers a glance into Elizabethan society, especially how it treated women. Men in power abuse the three main female characters in the play, and each of them offers a unique window into how men treated women. Seen in both the current #MeToo movement and in the story of Othello, people prioritize the struggles of rich white women over those of low-income women of color. Desdemona, Bianca, and Emilia all face abuse at the hands of men in their lives. Many people defend Desdemona, a white woman, against the abuse and accusations of Othello. However, Bianca and Emilia face oppression and abuse, yet no one seems to care. These two characters give special insight into the domestic abuse faced by lower-class women and women of color. In Othello, Desdemona, Bianca, and Emilia highlight the differences between the treatment of rich, white women who face abuse and low-income women of color who face abuse, both in Shakespearean times and in the movements in society right now.
Domestic abuse disproportionately affects women of color and lower-class women. Many researchers have concluded that “minority and economically disadvantaged women are disproportionately represented among those most affected [by Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)]” (Schmidt). Bianca and Emilia provide good examples of the way that society treats lower-class women and women of color. In the play, men disregard them, treat them as objects, call them derogatory names, and overall abuse them.
Shakespeare never gives Bianca a physical description, though people commonly interpret Bianca as a woman of color, and black women have played this part. Shakespeare also never fully discloses Bianca’s relationship with Cassio, but they do have a relationship of some sort. Cassio led Bianca on, and then he disappeared without telling her where he went. He returned, told her that he does not love her, and then publicly embarrassed her in front of the other soldiers by calling her a whore and making jokes about her love for him. When people think of domestic abuse, physical violence typically comes to the mind first. However, women also experience another form of domestic abuse: psychological abuse. Some examples of psychological abuse are “threats of physical violence, degrading comments meant to humiliate, and threatening to withhold financial support…” (Kramer). When together, he treats her with love and respect, and he calls her names such as “…my most fair Bianca” and “…sweet love…” (3.4.193-194). However, when with his friends, he calls her a prostitute and laughs at the mention of him marrying her. This is a form of domestic abuse: an example of psychological abuse in which he humiliates her in public.
Similar to Bianca, Emilia also experiences domestic abuse in Othello. As Desdemona’s servant, Emilia belongs to a lower class. Iago, the main villain of the story and Emilia’s husband, repeatedly shows that he does not respect women. Early in the play, he speaks of Desdemona as property when he tells Desdemona’s father that she was stolen: “Thieves, thieves! Look to your house, your daughter and your bags” (1.1.80). He insinuates that Desdemona belongs to her father and that Othello took his property. He continues throughout the play to say incredibly sexist things and boils women down to either smart or dumb and either pretty or ugly. This disrespect and abuse extend to his own wife. Throughout the play, he calls her “a foolish wife,” “a villainous whore,” and “filth” (3.3.308, 5.2.273, 5.2.276). Because of Emilia’s class, she is “… more vulnerable to negative psychological sequelae as a result of IPV” (Schmidt). She will more likely face long-term effects from the abuse that she endures from Iago. Oftentimes, surviving domestic abuse results in PTSD, but the symptoms manifest themselves in women of a lower class more commonly than in upper-class women and with different and harder-to-treat effects. Because low-income women and women of color have unique experiences and barriers as a result of IPV, many researchers agree that “there is a need for an intervention model for treating PTSD and other mental health issues tailored specifically to the needs of low-income women of color” (Schmidt).
The way that IPV and domestic abuse disproportionately affect low-income women of color shines a light on the media coverage of the #MeToo movement. Despite the higher rates of domestic abuse amongst low-income women of color, rich and influential white women make up almost all of the cases that the media covers. People seem to hear the cries of the white women, but silence the voices of the women of color that experience the same problems at a higher rate.
A woman of color herself, Tarana Burke coined the #MeToo movement. She originally started the movement to “provide an outlet for women of color…” (Issitt). However, the media began to only cover white women and left women of color behind. In an interview, Burke explained that the #MeToo movement silenced the voices of black women, and she created a new group to “… come up with new practices that will help get Black survivors ‘believed, heard, and supported’” (Congleton). The new group, called “We, As Ourselves,” aims to include those who felt that the #MeToo movement left them out. The media needs more representation of low-income survivors and survivors of color because all women deserve to tell their story and all women’s struggles with domestic abuse and sexual assault are valid and worth discussing.
Just as the #MeToo movement focuses on the abuse of rich white women, Othello focuses on the abuse of Desdemona. The abuse faced by Desdemona follows more traditional signs of abuse than the other two women in Othello. At the beginning of the play, she and Othello seem deep in love, and they profess their love for each other regularly. However, as Iago begins to poison Othello’s mind with doubt, Othello begins to question his wife. He starts by saying quick remarks to her about what he believes that she has done, but it quickly escalates from there. While all three women faced abuse in many forms, Desdemona endures the clearest. Her husband hits her, publicly calls her derogatory terms, and treats her as no more than his possession. At the end of the play, Othello smothers Desdemona, killing her. All of this occurs without Desdemona standing up for herself, blinded by the love that she has for Othello. However, at least she has other people who stand up for her. Othello horrifies Lodovico when he strikes Desdemona, and he tells Othello to “make her amends. She weeps” (94.1.274). He sees Desdemona’s innocence and fragility and stands up for her to Othello. He also attempts to persuade Othello of Desdemona’s goodness and maintains that he should apologize to her. Also, throughout the story, whenever Othello mentions something about his wife’s presumed unfaithfulness, Emilia always quickly defends Desdemona in front of Othello. Emilia, when questioned about Desdemona’s loyalty, tells Othello that “if she be not honest, chaste, and true, / There’s no man happy” (4.2.19). Even though she experiences a similar problem with Iago and no one stood up for her, she still stands up for Desdemona and does what she can to help.
By no means should anyone invalidate Desdemona’s struggles because of her privileged race or class, but the way that others treat Desdemona differs clearly from the way that people treat Bianca and Emilia surrounding their struggles with abuse. From the beginning of the play, Shakespeare highlights Desdemona’s whiteness as a key part of her identity, and the idea of whiteness, pureness, and innocence follow her throughout the play. Iago gives the very first description of Desdemona in the play by calling her a “white ewe” (1.1.108). This whiteness differentiates the treatment of Desdemona and the treatment of the other women. When Othello kills Desdemona, Emilia displays clear pity for Desdemona because of her race: “O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil!” (5.2.161). While everyone seems to want justice for Desdemona, with the exception of Iago, no one seems to care when Iago abuses Emilia or when Cassio abuses Bianca. Desdemona’s status and whiteness cause others to feel sympathy for her and want to help her, but no one helps the lower-class women or women of color, just as in the #MeToo movement. And, just as Burke explains in the context of the #MeToo movement, “[poor and black women’s] voices and [their] needs are continually sidelined and ignored” (Congleton).
Although the #MeToo movement began by trying to combat domestic abuse against all women, it quickly became a very mainstream movement. Once this happened, the majority of women who saw justice for the abuse that they experienced were wealthy, white women. Of course, these women have every right to seek justice. However, when women of color and lower-class women experience abuse, fewer people seem to care. The media rarely covers the story of a woman of color who faced abuse because that is not what the public wants to see. Many cases of abuse against women of color and low-income women go unreported because the justice system does not treat those women equally. And, the same goes for Othello. While Shakespeare shines a light on the abuse suffered by Desdemona, he marginalizes the abuse suffered by Bianca and Emilia.
Congleton, Nathan. “Left out of MeToo: New Initiative Focuses on Black Survivors.” NBC News, NBC Universal, 25 feb 2021, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/left-out-metoo-new-initiative-focuses-black-survivors-n1258846. Accessed 14 Apr. 2021.
Galano, Maria M., et al. “Dyadic Profiles of Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Mothers and Children Experiencing Intimate Partner Violence.” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, vol. 51, no. 6, Dec. 2020, pp. 943–955. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10578-020-00973-y.
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Ioana Dana Schmidt. “Addressing PTSD in Low-Income Victims of Intimate Partner Violence: Moving toward a Comprehensive Intervention.” Social Work, vol. 59, no. 3, July 2014, pp. 253–260. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.24881574&site=eds-live.
Issitt, Micah L. “Me Too Sexual Misconduct Movement.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2020. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=132204393&site=eds-live.
Kramer, Liz, and Laura Finley. “Domestic Violence: An Overview.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2019. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=89158162&site=eds-live.
Piotrowski, Nancy A., PhD, and Lillian M. Range PhD. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Magill’s Medical Guide (Online Edition), 2020. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=86194496&site=eds-live.
Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Updated edition. ed., New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017.