Dr. Elana Fric, Scarborough family doctor and mother of three, at her funeral. (Photo by Dan Janisse/The Windsor Star.)
The murder of Dr. Elana Fric late in 2016 was simultaneously ordinary and unusual.
Ordinary in that police arrested her estranged husband, as statistically speaking when a woman is murdered it is nearly always one of the men closest to her that is responsible, and unusual as both Elana and her husband were respected doctors, and very few in the physician community had any idea of the abuse that had allegedly been happening at home.
It is not uncommon for high status women in abusive relationships to be especially skilled at hiding or minimising the violence they are experiencing. The burden of maintaining their societal position (and often that of their partner as well) is greater and they tend to be more practiced at presenting the right sort of facade to be perceived as successful. But make no mistake, violence against women doesn't discriminate, it is present in every demographic group in every community throughout the world. Women who are marginalised by poverty, disability or their racialized or transgender status face unique difficulties in finding safety, but Elana's many privileges ultimately didn't protect her from being violently ripped away from her three young children and the rest of her family and friends.
Both the ordinary and unusual aspects of this tragedy shaped its coverage in the media. Initially, when Elana was reported missing, the focus was on her, but when her body was found and her husband arrested the ordinariness of yet another woman allegedly murdered by her intimate male partner shoved her into the background of her own story. Instead, the seemingly unusual fact that a successful neurosurgeon had been charged with murder took centre stage and the media did what they do best: they chased the sensational. Elana's husband's educational achievements and career highlights were presented in great detail. Many of his patients, now distraught to have lost a doctor, were interviewed at length and much ink was spilled in describing the excellent, skilled and kind surgeon he apparently was. Elana was also highly educated and accomplished, her loss was also a tremendous shock and a tragedy for her patients, yet her achievements often went unmentioned and there were no journalists quoting her patients and waxing poetic about the loss of a highly skilled physician. Why not?
Quite simply, Elana as the female victim had already fulfilled her culturally assigned role. There was nothing more to say about her other than to describe her husband's actions upon her. Her husband, on the other hand, was promoted into the role we usually reserve for men: that of protagonist, the hero (or anti-hero) of the story, the one who is active, whose psychology we contemplate, who accomplishments or evil deeds we mull over and debate. Elana's only purpose now was to be the passive demonstration of her husband's actions, the body in the suitcase. Her achievements, her personality, her goals, her attempts to escape her abusive situation, her relationships to her patients, colleagues, children, all irrelevant now that she had been neatly placed into her expected role: that of standard female victim.
If this seems like an overreach, consider for a moment the dominant narratives in our culture, by which I mean our movies, our TV shows, the stories we tell our kids, and so on. Who are the main characters? Who are the most active, the most represented, the most imbued with personality? Overwhelmingly these are men, men who also tend to almost always be white, able-bodied, straight and cisgender. When women are present in a narrative (which is not always a given), they are by and large objects not subjects. They serve as plot points to move the action along between male characters, mere bodies upon which the male characters act and they are rarely given much in the way of psychology or agency. Minimally realized female characters are so often the objects of more developed male characters that it's a trite cliché of modern storytelling for a woman to be brutalized as a way to expedite the plot or create emotional resonance for the men in the story (also known as “fridging”).
There is a saying about discrimination that it is so ever present in our lives and in our culture that we are like fish swimming in it. To stand back and identify a particular way in which discrimination is present is like a fish identifying the water in which it lives and breathes. So too with the dominance of male-centred narratives in our culture. It is hard to step back and see the way in which we unfailingly centre the male perspective in any story, whether real or fictional. So when two prominent and beloved doctors become a news story about domestic violence, we have a hard time appreciating the way in which the woman's perspective is ignored while the man's perspective is focused on. After all, she's already served her purpose by becoming the body in the suitcase (or fridge), the next step in the story is to find a man to talk about. And if that man's profession and accomplishments create some click-bait headlines? All the better.
Could the news stories on Elana's death have discussed her academic and professional achievements? The impact she had as a family physician, a medical educator and a health policy advocate? The struggle that a woman and mother in an abusive relationship with a prominent man goes through? How about simply talking about domestic violence, and the fact that once Elana served her husband with divorce papers, as she did shortly before her death, she was statistically in the most danger of violence?
Yes, the media could have covered these topics, and no, overwhelmingly they didn't. Instead they chose to both humanise and glamourize a man who police believe planned and then executed the greatest betrayal possible of his own children. Journalists and editors swim in the same misogynistic waters we all do, where a woman is simply a bit player in the narrative of the male protagonist. In doing so, the media perpetuates the same misogyny and contributes to the epidemic of violence against women. It is simply irresponsible to act surprised and clutch our pearls when a prominent man is revealed to be an abuser. Not only is this not actually news to anyone who has been paying attention, but it directly endangers any woman who is in an abusive relationship with a powerful man. It makes it that much harder for her to find safety if the deck is stacked against her being believed and supported. The media needs to acknowledge and act on this societal responsibility if we are going to make progress against this epidemic.
After Elana's death the Canadian medical community was stunned and devastated. When learning about her murder many of us felt insulted by how the media chose to belittle her in the service of sensationalising her husband's arrest. I started a petition on change.org which has spread beyond my collegial community and engaged many who agree that the sexist imbalance in reporting on violence against women is itself an act of misogynistic violence. At least one mainstream journalist has so far agreed and written an article supportive of a paradigm shift in media focus on this topic. I encourage you to go to www.change.org/genderviolenceinmedia and add your name as well. Together we can force greater media accountability and responsibility in how violence against women is presented.