By: Monika Sidhu
© Copyright 2017 Monika Sidhu, Ryerson University.
On August 8th, 2014, Christine Mackinday, better known as adult film star Christy Mack was attacked by her on-again-off-again boyfriend and mixed martial arts fighter Jonathan “War Machine” Koppenhaver. The ordeal was made known by Mackinday who released images of her assault via her Twitter account. The images are graphic in nature and display an unrecognizable version of Mackinday. Nearly two months after the ordeal she posted another picture onto her Instagram account, documenting her healing progress. These pictures seemingly depict awareness to the cause of domestic violence, however, it did not come without commentary from multiple sources. In her novel Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag gives an insightful account into the world of images and pain, “Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed” (Sontag 81). This is exactly what happened to the pictures of Mackinday; she became a possession of the world and for people to freely comment on.
This essay will work to analyze the three different perceptions geared towards Mackinday’s photographs of first her assault and then her recovery. First, there is the official lens which belongs to news reporting on the incident; the male gaze with specific attention given to internet trolls, and lastly the feminist reading of the situation. Furthermore, by paying attention to the reception of past popular images of domestic violence such as the case of Rihanna and Chris Brown as well as Ray Rice and Janay Palmer, this paper will work to further understand the reception of Mackinday’s photographs.
The commentary that came with the images of Mackinday requires an understanding of the events leading up to her documented experience with domestic violence. Mackinday met her ex-boyfriend Jon “War Machine” Koppenhaver in the Spring of 2013; over a year before her August 2014 assault. Koppenhaver was a mixed martial artist who had been featured on popular promotions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championships. For a while, Koppenhaver also dabbled with working in adult films which is where he met Mackinday. In her interview with ESPN journalist Jane McManus, Mackinday recalls that the two ended up having a rough relationship: “he became abusive about four to five months in, but by that time I was totally in love with him. So, so in love. The first time I thought, ‘Oh it’ll never happen again.’ The day after, he stayed home from training and coddled me. After every time he would hit me, those were the best days of our relationship”(Mackinday, qtd from McManus). After having an increasingly troubling and abusive relationship the two parted ways however they never lost touch. In fact, Koppenhaver had a key to Mackinday’s residence which he used to allow himself into her home the morning of August 8th, 2014. Koppenhaver found Mackinday in bed with a male friend by the name of Corey Thomas and had a violent outburst which left Mackinday with a ruptured liver, 18 broken bones, missing teeth, and a fractured rib. His strikes to her body were so intense Mackinday was not able to walk from severe bruising to her legs(McManus, ESPN).
In March of 2017, nearly two and a half years following the assault, Koppenhaver was found guilty on 29 charges which include kidnapping, domestic violence and sexual assault to name a few (Kaye, CNN).
With the history of the situation established, there is also a need to understand the ideology surrounding domestic violence. The definition of domestic violence is quite self-explanatory insofar as it is the violence against a significant other in a domesticated setting. Considering the presence of violence within the term, there is an intrinsic implication of negativity. Furthermore, in many states, especially within North America, the very act is a crime punishable by law. This is clear in all three of the aforementioned cases as they all went to criminal trial. While there are obvious negative connotations surrounding domestic violence, it still seems to have a grey area when it comes to sexism.
In a study done for the University of Spain, Inmaculada Valor-Segura, Francisca Expósito and Miguel Maya addressed the common perceptions for victim-blaming and exoneration of the perpetrator in domestic violence cases. Their study found that when no particular cause for the aggression was presented, participants were likely to side with the perpetrators: “In other words, when faced with doubt or uncertainty people tend to be suspicious of women and give some credibility to male perpetrators of abuse about a possible reason for their behavior” (Valor-Segura et al. 203). They go on to explain that even though Spain has had a strong presence condemning domestic violence, ambiguity in domestic violence tends to allow room for sexist ideology (203). The existing ideology surrounding sexism is commonly towards women and suggests that based off of sex, women are far less superior and therefore prone to discrimination. Moreover, ideologies surrounding domestic violence are associated with negativity and the legal system; however, these ideologies are also heavily saturated in sexist ideologies. This is important not only in relation to those who responded in attempts to discredit Mackinday, but also because news sources did not cover the incident until pictures were made available.
The Impartial Lens- News Media
From social media to popular discussion forums, there are many platforms permeating with accounts and opinions on events happening in today’s world. When there happens to be a popular adult film star and ex UFC fighter involved, these opinions and accounts seem intensified in both quality and quantity. Sontag speaks to this intensification in her novel, “some peoples sufferings have a lot more intrinsic interest to an audience (given that suffering must be acknowledged as having an audience) than the sufferings of others” (Sontag 116). Therefore, because of the degree of attention garnered by a case like this one, an objective lens is necessary. In this case, that objective lens would belong to a reputable news source. Not much was posted immediately after the assault; rather, reports came out after Mackinday posted a photograph taken of her from her hospital bed which displayed the extent of her injuries. The tweet was sent out on August 11th of 2014 which was nearly three days following the attack. The Los Angeles Times posted their first story on August 12th “California MMA fighter accused of pummeling ex-girlfriend in Las Vegas.”
There is a powerful message inherent in Mackinday’s release of these photographs via her Twitter. It was these particular images which had the ability to create the need for this story to be reported on. In fact, each of the aforementioned stories all include a mention of Mackinday’s original Twitter post. The possible question then arises: was Mackinday’s experience not regarded as newsworthy until there was tangible evidence to go along with her story? To refer back to Sontag, she mentions that photographs are meant to be material evidence as well as illustrative: “Photographs of atrocity illustrate as well as corroborate. Bypassing disputes about exactly how many were killed (numbers are often inflated at first), the photograph gives the indelible sample. The illustrative function of photographs leaves opinions, prejudices, fantasies, misinformation untouched” (Sontag, 84). Sontag’s mention of the corroboration element of photographs is consequently what the news organizations made use of.
Moreover, the release of Mackinday’s photographs and the subsequent reaction from news media is all too similar to the delayed reaction that came from the Janay Palmer and Ray Rice incident from February 15th of 2014 (Brown 197). Rice did endure a legal battle, yet the charges were dropped as per Janay Palmer’s request, however, he was only suspended for two games. What is interesting in this situation is what happened upon the release of the entire video. Brown writes, “when the full video of the elevator incident was released to the public, the societal reaction was yet again powerful. The Raven’s responded by terminating Ray Rice’s five-year $35 million contract” (197). Brown goes on to explain that Rice lost all of his endorsements; sporting good’s stores pulled his jerseys and EA Sports announced that it would pull Rice’s character from their video game, Madden 2015 (197). This response combined with the reaction to the media response surrounding Mackinday creates the notion that in order to take domestic violence seriously it needs to be showcased and seen.
Even with explicit pictures detailing Mackinday’s experience, there were many who chose to discredit her pain. There appeared to be a popular belief amongst a particular group in the internet community that deemed Mackinday as a person who deserved the abuse, primarily because of her prior profession as an adult film-star but also in attempts to justify and stand-up to Koppenhaver’s actions. Nearly three years after the assault, Internet personality Matthew Kline Kader tweeted the following to Mackinday: “@ChristyMack it’s fucked up what you did to warmachine! You destroyed his life. You made him lose his mind by doing what you did #HOE,” (Kader, Twitter). Kader’s words fall suit with the idea of victim-blaming, which is the literal act of placing the onus of the assault onto the one who was attacked as if there were some preventative measures the victim could have taken. Once these comments are fully comprehended what is worth analyzing is the way in which these internet trolls (trolls being those who provoke arguments in an online setting) are working to strip Mackinday of her experience with domestic violence. This is done by stressing her work as an adult film star as if she does not deserve sympathy for her ordeal. It is important to differentiate that these trolls are not saying that the pictures of her recovering abuse are falsified photographs; moreover, they are trying to convince others to not concern themselves with her. This also deals heavily with the ideologies surrounding domestic violence; when ambiguity comes into the equation it is easy to side with the perpetrator. The ambiguity in this case is the fact that Mackinday was an adult film star.
In regards to the abuse experienced by Rihanna in 2009 by her then boyfriend Chris Brown, Annette Houlihan and Sharon D. Raynor noted that Rihanna’s behavior was often misinterpreted. “Her ‘risquéness’ is situated in an aesthetics of artist, performer, celebrity and commodity that at times draws in her personal life and is embodied through photos and reports of her multiple tattoos, alleged cannabis use and bisexual desires, edgy and revealing clothing and sensual and erotic live performances” (Houlihan & Raynor 326). Houlihan and Raynor continue to extract the notion that because of Rihanna’s risqué image, she was put into a vulnerable position for media scrutiny and victim blaming (Houlihan & Raynor 327). The same understanding of the risqué female that was applied to Rihanna is also applicable to Mackinday as she often presents herself either nude or in little clothing, has many tattoos, and mainly because she is involved in the porn industry. As a result, Mackinday is left in a similar position to that of Rihanna; being scrutinized and victim-blamed.
Contrary to the negative tweets and comments, there were articles and posts that worked to defend and support Mackinday during this sensitive time. The website Thought Catalog published an entire piece upon the release of the first set of pictures which showed Mackinday’s recently received injuries. The piece outlined why this story in particular was important stating that the responses that came with Mackinday’s ordeal were nothing other than misogynistic (O’Malley, Thought Catalog). Furthermore, the online women’s publication Jezebel went on to publish many pieces regarding the topic including a story titled “Christy Mack Posts Recovery Photos, Is Called a Dick Sucking Whore.” While it may be vulgar in its title and content, the article condemns the name calling towards Mackinday and appreciates the struggle she has already faced in her recovery. Both of these responses to the images of Mackinday are working to invalidate the comments of the internet trolls and those in support of Koppenhaver by bringing attention to their sexist nature. Furthermore, they are ensuring that they place the onus on Koppenhaver, maintaining the feminist narrative that no action should provoke such a violent outburst. In their piece titled “In Her Own Time: Rihanna, Post-Feminism, and Domestic Violence,” Kristen Rodier and Michelle Meagher make note of the type of necessary support needed for survivors of domestic violence, “support for victims of domestic violence needs to be of a critical and feminist nature. It must call the perpetrators of violence and rape culture to account, rather than empowering individual women to improve their self-esteem so they can overcome the situations in which they find themselves” (Rodier & Meagher 191). Therefore, the type of support we are seeing here falls suit to description that Rodier and Meagher offer. This is done in both articles by not only responding to the photographs but also to the comments that accompany the photographs.
Christine Mackinday’s decision to release the photographs of her assault undoubtedly made her an object that others feel they can comment on. However, without the release of these photographs perhaps there may have never been a call to action from news media to cover the story. Without the release of these photographs, the world may have never known how victim-blaming views on domestic violence continues today thanks to the internet trolls. Lastly, without those pictures being released, there may have not been a deeper discussion from feminists about the support necessary for Mackinday or the need to correct these views on domestic violence.
Even though Christy Mack’s profession has left her with a countless number of images, the images she released of her abuse at the hands of her ex-boyfriend will forever be the most notorious due to the discourse and circumstances that surrounded it.
@ChristyMack. “Added below are the graphic photos and story about what happened.” Twitter, 11 August 2014, 5:03 PM, https://twitter.com/christymack/status/498937852382965761
@Shallowking. “it’s fucked up what you did to warmachine! You destroyed his life. You made him lose his mind by doing what you did #HOE.” Twitter, 20 March 2017, 9:21 PM,https://twitter.com/Shallowking/status/844041156623134720.
Brown, Maleaha L. “When Pros Become Cons: Ending the NFL’s History of Domestic Violence Leniency.” Family Law Quarterly 50.1 (2016): 193-212. ProQuest.Web.
Kaye, Diane. “War Machine faces life sentence in ex-girlfriend’s beating.” CNN. CNN.com. 21 March 2017. Web.
Mackinday, Christine. (@christymack). “Sometimes half of your temp teeth decide to fall out to match the rest of your face…” Instagram, 10 October 2014,https://instagram.com/p/t-yJiTJ6-x/
McManus, Jane. “The Tragic Love Story of Christy Mack and MMA Fighter War Machine.” ESPN Women. ESPN.com. 25 April 2015. Web.
O’Malley, Harris. “Why You Should Care About the Beating of Christy Mack.” Thought Catalog. Thoughtcatalog.com. 20 August 2014. Web.
Queally, James. “California MMA fighter accused of pummeling ex-girlfriend in Las Vegas.” LA Times. latimes.com. 12 August 2014. Web.
Rodier, Kristin, and Michelle Meagher. “In Her Own Time: Rihanna, Post-Feminism, and Domestic Violence.” Women: A Cultural Review, vol. 25, no. 2, 2014, pp. 176-193.
Shrayber, Mark. “Christy Mack Posts Recovery Photos, Is Called a Dick-Sucking Whore.” Jezebel. jezebel.com. 16 October 2014. Web.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003. Print.
Valor-Segura, Inmaculada, Francisca Expósito, and Miguel Moya. “Victim Blaming and Exoneration of the Perpetrator in Domestic Violence: The Role of Beliefs in a just World and Ambivalent Sexism.” The Spanish journal of psychology, vol. 14, no. 1, 2011, pp. 195- 206.