Joan Smith: Blame the victim – a classic with wife-beaters

The sexual revolution, second wave of feminism, and a raft of equality legislation seem to have passed Dennis Waterman by


I could be wrong about this. I mean, what do I know about actors? But I'm not sure that going on TV and admitting that you gave your ex-wife a black eye is the smartest of career moves. Then claiming that it was her fault for being cleverer than you seems downright catastrophic, as well as bidding for a place in a category of men who are simultaneously not very bright, and quick with their fists. I can only imagine it's head-in-hands time at the BBC, which has announced a new series of New Tricks, and now has to deal with an astonishing admission of domestic violence by one of its lead actors.

In an interview for Piers Morgan's chat show, Life Stories, Dennis Waterman admits that he hit the actress Rula Lenska on two occasions. He's played hard men throughout his career, and the portrait he paints of himself in the late 1990s could be a parody of his TV roles. He says he's "utterly ashamed" of hitting Lenska but what really does for him is a series of increasingly lame excuses, starting with his denial that she was ever a battered wife: "She certainly wasn't a beaten wife, she was hit and that's different."

The purpose of this unconvincing distinction is, I suspect, to maintain Waterman's distorted image of himself as a man who might get a bit rough at times, but isn't a wife-beater. I'm sure something similar has been said many times by men who can't bear to think of themselves as brutes who beat up women. But Waterman was only just getting started, and went on to propound a theory of provocation so offensive it's hard to see how he can continue to be offered work by a publicly funded broadcaster. Domestic violence accounts for up to a quarter of recorded violent crime, and his remarks don't just trivialise a serious social problem. Some of his statements can read as excusing violence against an intimate partner.

Statement one: "It's not difficult for a woman to make a man hit her." A favourite of wife-beaters, this is what's technically known as "blaming the victim". According to this theory of human relations, women have been put on earth with a special task of never challenging, annoying or upsetting men. It's based on the myth that men can't control their tempers, even if most adults of both sexes seem to do it perfectly well.

Statement two: "The problem with strong, intelligent women is that they can argue, well. And if there is a time when you can't get a word in... and I... I lashed out. I couldn't end the argument." Actually, to put it another way, Waterman did end the argument – with his fist. It's a shaming confession of weakness and lack of self-control, which is probably why Waterman denied it for years, despite Lenska's insistence that he abused her during their marriage. The fact that he thinks intelligence is a "problem" in women suggests that Waterman's thinking about gender hasn't evolved much since she divorced him in 1998.

Statement three: "I'd never done it before or since. But if a woman is a bit of a power freak and determined to put you down, and if you're not bright enough to do it with words, it can happen. And it did happen in my case." Few public figures would be relaxed about admitting on TV that they're not very smart, but Waterman's appetite for settling old scores apparently outweighs other considerations. Perhaps he secretly read women's magazines in the 1950s, and grew up assuming that his wives (he's had four) would have the decency to conceal their intelligence.

It's always surprising to come across someone who's so utterly unaffected by the time he's lived through. The sexual revolution, the second wave of feminism and a raft of equality legislation appear to have passed the actor by, even though he was born in 1948 and in pole position to join in. Lots of men did, and enjoy relationships with women in which both parties treat each other as equals. For those who don't, there is a problem in the shape of a philosophical shift: behaviour that used to be regarded as private, such as knocking "the wife" around on a Saturday night, is rightly no longer overlooked by the state. Spain's first equality minister, Bibiana Aido Almagro, put it well when she told the UN in 2009 that gender violence had "stopped being a personal or private matter" and is now understood as a question of public interest.

Waterman's remarks have caused outrage because they run against this current. It's clear his understanding of domestic violence is as outdated as his Victorian (in his own words) view that "there is a place for women at home". At home or in the wider world, women are entitled to be safe, and there is never any excuse for assaulting a partner.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde

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