Gayle King asked FKA Twigs on CBS Morning Thursday’s broadcast: “Nobody has ever been in that position, and I often wonder if it is even appropriate to ask. And you know the answer is: Why didn’t you leave?”
After FKA Twigs (real name Tahliah Barknett) had made her claims of emotional and physical abuse against Shia LaBoeuf, the interview was conducted. Elle profile Twigs responded to King’s question, saying that she agrees with King that it is inappropriate.
She said, “I think that we must stop asking that question.”
“I am going to take a stand and say that I won’t answer that question anymore. The question should be directed to the abuser: Why do you hold someone hostage?” The artist explained, “People say that it couldn’t have been so bad, otherwise she would have gone.” It’s not true, it’s because it wasn’t that bad, I couldn’t leave.”
People in abusive relationships may not be able to leave their abusive partners when they get worse. A combination of practical and psychological factors can play a role in keeping an abuser trapped. Victims of abuse might be financially dependent upon their abusive partner or feel so alone from their support network that they don’t know where to turn.
Emotional and psychological abuse can also prevent people from feeling that they should end a relationship. Gaslighting is a method of preventing a person from trusting in their instincts and feelings. They may also be subject to abuse without realizing it. A person may feel they are being abused if they are constantly berated and criticised. Love-bombing and other forms of abuse can lead to a false sense security for victims. The doting, dedicated behavior undercuts the cruelty.
Twigs relates how she was subject to all these psychological abuses in her claims, which she first revealed in an interview with The New York Times. Twigs claims that LaBoeuf was a master lover bomber. He told her she loved her within weeks of their first relationship, and then jumped her fence to send her love-notes and flowers. He soon set up impossible tests to prove his affection, such as a quota of hugs and kisses, and berated her when she failed. Elle explained that “people wouldn’t believe that it would happen” to a woman such as her. “The biggest misconception about you is that you are smart. Why didn’t I leave? ”
Understanding how abuse can keep victims in a relationship makes it clear that King’s questions are another form victim-blaming. It is not unlike asking why a victim who has been sexually assaulted didn’t do more. We are still letting men off their hook if the default position is to put all responsibility on the women.
Culturally, the media’s ability to influence women’s stories, to create the context by which they understand their personal relationships, and to cast the roles of villain and hero can be devastating. This kind of blame-shifting, especially when interviewing someone famous can confuse our notions about power, victimization and control as well as mental health.
Twigs admits that she was able to leave abusive relationships because she was financially secure and had a support system. However, this privilege doesn’t necessarily translate into the same power in interpersonal relationships. She was still afraid for her life. She was still being manipulated by an abuser and a manipulator to her mind.
King’s soft, slowing, “Why didn’t you leave?” The interview that Diane Sawyer conducted with Britney Spears in 2003 is recalled in the documentary Framing Britney Spears. Spears was at the peak of her fame, and she had just split with Justin Timberlake. Timberlake repeated his claim that Spears broke up with him, that she had bulldozed and thrown away his heart, Sawyer asked in soft, hushed tones, “What’s your story?” Spears broke down.
Sawyer had accepted Timberlake’s story and frame the question so that Spears didn’t have an opportunity to share her own experience. Because it was a pre-prescribed narrative that we are familiar with, Spears was the femme fatale. Spears was young, hot and successful. Why wouldn’t she?
King asks Twigs “Why didn’t you leave?” to attempt to do the same with Twigs. She retells her story to assign Twigs a level she doesn’t have or never claimed to have. This suggests abuse victims have an implicit level or agency. However, this is false. This kind of assumption can be created by framing the story this way. It can also create an atmosphere of shame which can help victims to stay in the relationship.
Nobody wants to be “the type of woman who allows a man to hit her.” Nobody wants to be “the type of woman who stays.” There is no one type of woman that stays, or woman who leaves. If you ask “Why didn’t you just go?” you are giving a victim the title of “woman who stays”. You have referred to her as the weak one. You’ve called her the weak one. Sometimes, the shame and humiliation of it is enough to make you forget about the abuse and pretend that it’s not taking place. This makes psychological manipulation even more powerful. If you assume that victims of abuse have enough agency to escape, you are only helping them take what agency they do have.