The myth of the perfect victim

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Last month, Tory Lanez was convicted of shooting rap superstar Megan Thee Stallion in the foot following an argument. While I am relieved that justice was served, I am horrified by the media coverage of this case and the harmful narratives that arose from it. Many major news outlets simply ignored the case entirely, while others directed their scrutiny towards the victim instead of the suspected perpetrator or treated Megan’s suffering as little more than a comedic meme. Unfortunately, the horrific level of insensitivity towards Megan in this case is merely one more example of how the myth of the “perfect victim” harms survivors of violence. 

First of all, what is a “perfect victim”? Throughout history, society has crafted a narrative that women who survive violence must meet an unrealistic level of moral purity to deserve compassion. Literature has established two archetypes for suffering women: the saintly victim and the sinful villainess. The saintly victim is usually a beautiful, naïve, chaste young woman who either bears the burden of someone else’s sin, is falsely accused of wrongdoing, or simply suffers to reveal the cruelty of mankind. For example, Cosette from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a symbol of purity and goodness, so the abuse she suffers at the hands of the Thenardiers evokes pity. Shakespeare’s Desdemona, Ophelia, and Juliet are seen as tragic figures because their characters are similarly innocent. It’s impossible not to sympathize with these characters because it’s obvious that they did nothing to deserve mistreatment. 

But the moment a woman does not fit our narrow definition of the “perfect victim”, we start to doubt her accusations and question if she played a role in the altercation. Phrases like “gray area” and “two sides to every story” creep into our discussions, especially if the victim and perpetrator were ever in a relationship. While mutually toxic relationships absolutely exist, we often use this theory as a default whenever we hear allegations of physical altercations. We give accused men the benefit of the doubt, but we give women doubt with no benefits. 

Why do we instinctively hope that it’s a mutual fight rather than an attack? Because saying that a man and a woman “got in a fight” implies that two individuals had an interpersonal conflict, but saying that a man attacked a woman forces us to examine the social structures that contribute to the high rates of violence against women. Of course, many men are also victims of violent crime, and we definitely need to discuss how gender stereotypes negatively impact male survivors. However, the disproportionate rates of domestic and sexual violence against women demonstrates a strong correlation with patriarchy. 

Our society struggles to believe women unless they are the perfect victim. But the perfect victim doesn’t exist; she is a myth created to protect dangerous men. When women fight back – whether verbally or physically – against their attackers, they risk being framed as aggressors. Many people refuse to believe that women who are physically strong or outspoken can be abused because the media has convinced them that all abuse victims are meek and incapable of defending themselves. And when women try to expose their abusers, they’re often accused of being vindictive opportunists. 

Instead, they’re told to forgive the men who have wronged them because it’s not that big of a deal – but even when they do so, they’re still criticized. When Rihanna and Chris Brown started dating again in 2013 after he was convicted of domestic violence against her, people shamed her for going back to him or used her decision as proof that the incident was not serious. Our society pressures women to stay silent about the violence they experience, then calls them weak when they obey.   

With these misconceptions so firmly entrenched in our perspective on violence against women, Megan Thee Stallion never stood a chance at getting fair media coverage. At first, she lied to protect Lanez at the expense of her own well-being; she initially denied that she had been shot because she was afraid that the police might harm or kill Lanez if they knew he had shot her (a valid concern considering the high rates of police brutality against Black men). But Lanez’s fans used her selflessness to portray her as dishonest and untrustworthy. 

When Megan finally decided to take legal action against Lanez, the media scrutinized her relentlessly in hopes of finding some fallacy in her claims. Since her public persona is centered around being a strong, confident, and sexy woman, her critics characterized her as a Jezebel archetype. Reporters speculated about her past sexual relationships and commented that the purple suit she wore to the trial was “too revealing”, while others were quick to argue that she was not blameless because she must have verbally provoked Lanez into shooting her. The media paid much more attention to Megan’s sexuality and personality than Lanez’s violent crime. Why? Because in this patriarchal society, being an outspoken, sexually liberated woman is considered a bigger offense than shooting someone, and getting shot is considered a deserved punishment for being a woman who dares to violate the status quo. 

Misogynoir – the specific combination of racism and misogyny directed towards Black women – also played a crucial role in the narratives surrounding this trial. Black women are often stereotyped as aggressive, hypersexual, and unfeminine – the opposite of the “perfect victim”. Therefore, they are rarely seen as vulnerable or deserving of protection. While non-Black women still face many of the same misconceptions about victimhood, Black women experience a specific form of misogyny rooted in racist stereotypes, making them most susceptible to injustice and disrespect.  

Megan Thee Stallion’s case has exposed how the media exploits victims for newsworthy headlines and how society still holds many false beliefs about what victims look and act like. Until we unpack the myth of the perfect victim, survivors will continue to face scrutiny, humiliation, and injustice.