The Kitty Genovese Myth and the Popular Imagination

On Monday, April 18th a 22-year old woman named Chrissy Lee Polis was severely beaten by two teenagers at a McDonald’s in Baltimore, while several bystanders watched and a McDonald’s employee videotaped the whole incident. Late last week, the video went viral, and now the employee has been fired, the two girls (one of whom is only 14) are in custody, and Polis is considering a civil suit. The victim, who is transgendered, told the Baltimore Sun this weekend that she considers the beating a hate crime.

Meanwhile, the incident has elicited several comparisons to the famous 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death in the courtyard of her New York City apartment building while 38 neighbors watched and did nothing to help her. The widespread coverage of her case had a huge impact on both policy and the field of psychology: The NYPD reformed its telephone reporting system; researchers began studying the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility; and the dead woman became a symbol of the dire consequences of inaction.

One of the most elegant uses of that symbolism is the chapter (above) from the online motion comic based on the graphic novel Watchmen. Genovese figures prominently in the origin story of the superhero/antihero Walter Joseph Kovacs, aka “Rorschach.” Rorschach constructs both his identity and his costume as a direct response to the passivity and even cynical voyeurism embodied by the neighbors who heard and watched her die.

But the actual reactions of the witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s murder were more complicated than originally reported. It’s unlikely, for example, that any of the infamous 38 bystanders heard the entire crime, or realized its severity in the moment. For a fascinating account of the discrepancies between the facts and myths of the case, you can listen to this 2009 story on NPR, or read this 2007 article from American Psychologist (the link is to a PDF from the author’s website).

The Kitty Genovese parable is no less morally instructive for being not quite accurate. The bystander effect is still real, the McDonald’s worker’s decision to tape the beating last week rather than stop it is still reprehensible. And of course, Rorschach is still one of the most righteous dark avengers in popular culture. But it’s worth remembering that we’re more likely to learn from our mistakes when we dig for the truth, even — and perhaps especially — when the truth isn’t so simple.

Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly



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  1. Harrison H says . . . | April 28, 2011 / 3:23 pm

    If the bystander effect is real, was filming the beating a decision that was made, and if so can the action then be reprehensible?

    There were other people watching too, why single the person who filmed it out? From a utilitarian point of view, the fact that it has been documented (and widely publicised) means this could have a greater good.
    That’s something you suggested while talking about the Kitty Genovese case by saying

    “The widespread coverage of her case had a huge impact on both policy and the field of psychology: The NYPD reformed its telephone reporting system; researchers began studying the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility; and the dead woman became a symbol of the dire consequences of inaction.”

    I think it is easy to forget the video and what happened are two different things, both won’t have the same impact or power as each other. We should be thankful a video was made at all.

  2. José Leitão says . . . | April 28, 2011 / 4:06 pm

    I’d just like to point out that the youtube video in your post is not from the Watchmen Motion Comic at all, it’s just some fan-made video using scans from the Watchmen GN. The Motion Comic is much better.

  3. James says . . . | June 25, 2012 / 12:28 pm

    I can’t access the PDF, but on the Genovese case, it’s worth noting that the police did not find anywhere near 38 witnesses. That number seems to have been pulled out of thin air. They actually found about ten, only a couple of whom actually saw anything, and one of them actually did scream out “Leave that girl alone!”

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