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Sunday, April 1, 2001

MEDIA MIX

The courage to air dirty laundry


Problems can't be solved until they're acknowledged, and it is considered the job of the media to bring hidden social problems into the open. The media, however, can't be counted on to provide perspective, which means that what are often perceived as new problems are actually old ones.

As the number of reported domestic violence and child abuse incidents increases dramatically, the media has latched onto the word gyakutai (abuse). Stories of parents murdering their children seem to appear in the news on an almost daily basis. The tabloid press and wide shows report the more sordid cases in detail.

Abuse is cyclical in nature: A parent feels stress in raising a child, takes his or her anger out on the child, and then feels guilty about the anger, thus becoming even more stressed. Full-time housewives make up the bulk of the audience for wide shows, and many spend their entire days with small children. It's inevitable that they sometimes recognize themselves in reports of egregious child abuse because they empathize with anyone caught in the cycle, even if they don't, legally speaking, abuse their children.

On March 17, NHK invited 10 couples to discuss the stress of family life in the second of a series of special shows titled "Otoko to Onna no Tettei Talk (Men and Women Talk It Out)." Considering the frequency and freedom with which the participants uttered the word "gyakutai" during the show, it obviously weighs heavily on the minds of young mothers right now.

While none of the women admitted to abusing their children, they despaired that they might be capable of it, even if it was more a matter of semantics than anything else. (Does yelling at an 8-month-old baby who gets under your feet qualify as abuse?) At the same time, they plainly understood that the media was at least partly responsible for their anxieties.

The three-hour program was broadcast live, and for the first two hours the couples were separated: the wives in the main studio discussing their problems with the celebrity guests, and the husbands sequestered in a different room watching them on a monitor. Every so often, one was asked to comment on what his wife had said.

The separation was important, since it soon became clear that the real topic of the show was not the hazards of child-rearing, per se, but the lack of communication between partners. With sympathetic ears at their disposal and without the presence of mates to make them think twice about what they were saying, the women were free to vent their frustrations, which in almost all cases were not caused by their children but by their husbands and friends.

The women were trapped within an ideal of motherhood that was impossible to attain. One participant said she knew firsthand how the media pushed the idea of "perfect" mothers because she once worked for a magazine herself. Nevertheless, when she became a mother she too fell into the trap. She feels inadequate and frustrated, even though she understands that she can never fulfill such lofty expectations.

In their everyday lives, these women are surrounded by people they can't talk to. They don't want to burden their husbands with their problems after they return home from work; and they can't discuss them with their friends because that would leave them open to the charge of being "bad mothers."

"Half the problem is solved when you talk about it," one woman said. Another admitted that sometimes she simply wanted a hug from her husband, but that she was afraid to ask him for one. Confronted with this information, the husband sheepishly said that he would "try from now on."

The concession was halfhearted, but even if the men sometimes came across as defensive, they listened carefully to what was being said and were as forthcoming as they could be.

It obviously took real courage for these men to appear on the show, but the very fact that they were there, either tacitly or actively accepting responsibility for their roles as husbands and fathers, solved "half the problem," as it were, in front of our eyes. During the last hour, the husbands were brought into the studio and joined in the discussions. For the most part, their self-images didn't fare well in the light of their wives' revelations, but one could confidently surmise that their marriages would be stronger for it.

One wife said that after NHK had called her to say she was accepted for the program, her husband's behavior changed. The knowledge that he would be on television made him more attentive to her needs.

It was an interesting paradox. On one side of the media divide, these women had been made anxious by daily reports of family-related abuse. On the other side, in the hot, white glare of the studio, they had achieved a measure of understanding with their partners that should go a long way to dispelling those anxieties.



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