Have you ever looked at a particular word in a poem and thought about how magically it evokes a certain feeling or idea, or brings back a memory? You have a rich network of built-in associations, and your brain automatically tries to fit any new idea into a familiar context so that you can make sense of it. In more technical terms, when you hear a word (which is part of a message), its frame is activated in your brain. If you want to activate a different frame, you have to use different words.
This is powerful stuff, and can be tricky. Think about victim-blaming (like saying that a rape survivor was “asking for it” by wearing a short skirt). When a news report mentions what the survivor was wearing, it automatically evokes this victim-blaming frame, which focuses all the attention on the survivor’s actions while completely ignoring the actions of the person who committed the crime of rape. This frame assigns all responsibility to the survivor, and conveniently lets the audience think self-comforting thoughts like “I would never have done x, y, z… I would know better.” It effectively reduces the problem of sexual violence to a simple matter of one individual person acting in an irresponsible way in a particular situation and suffering the consequences, and implies that the only way to end sexual violence is for women and girls to remain constantly vigilant against sexual assault. How do we shift this frame? A first instinct might be to run an ad campaign that says something like “It’s never her fault” or “It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing.” However, these statements evoke exactly the frame that you’re trying to change. When Richard Nixon said “I’m not a crook,” it made everybody immediately think of him as a crook. Bad move – simply negating a frame only reinforces it. Changing a frame, on the other hand, can be revolutionary.
As framing expert George Lakoff writes in Don’t Think Of An Elephant:
“Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions…To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.“
If we want to end gender-based violence and promote gender-equity, we need to start reframing. How do we change the victim-blaming frame? By taking the victim completely out of the picture. News reports change the frame when they focus on the person who committed the crime and avoid mention of what the victim was wearing or whether she seemed “mature for her age.” Ad campaigns that focus on bystander intervention also do change the frame.
I want to clarify that while the above example is a sexual assault on a woman, both male and female victims are affected by victim blaming. The frame of victim-blaming applies to all forms of gender-based violence, and it also interacts with racism, homophobia, and gender-policing in ways that need to be addressed when thinking about reframing.
Here are some links to general messaging and framing resources, as well as research on framing related to gender-based violence and gender equity. If you know of any other great resources, please send them my way!
General Framing and Messaging Resources
Some of the following are focused on political campaigns, but the information is definitely relevant to any campaign aimed at shifting public opinion.
- The Political Brain by Drew Westen
- Don’t Think Of An Elephant by George Lakoff
- National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia
- Center for Story-Based Strategy
- Theory: Framing and Principle: Reframe by Beautiful Trouble
Feminist Messaging and Framing Resources
- American Perceptions of Sexual Violence: A FrameWorks Research Report by FrameWorks Institute, prepared by Moira O’Neil and Pamela Morgan (2010)
- Key Findings from Research on Ending Violence Against Girls and Women by Move to End Violence (2012)
- “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Millar, in Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape by Jacklyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (2008)
Other Great Resources
- “The Secrets of a Memorable Infographic” by Fast Company