When Women Say No: The Case of Bianca Devins

As part of She’s Right’s participation in 16 days of activism to end violence against women, each piece will be dedicated to a woman who has lost her life due to gender-based violence. This article is dedicated to Xi Wang, killed by a man on 10 December 2018, at the age of 34.

By Jessica Sutton.

Content warning: This article contains graphic details of violence that may be distressing for readers.

After pleading guilty to second-degree murder earlier this year, the killer of 17-year-old Bianca Devins is soon to be sentenced. This was a case that caused a media firestorm, due to the brutality of the violence that ended Bianca’s life on 14 July 2019, and the subsequent sharing of photographs of her body online.

Footage of the murder shows that Bianca was stabbed to death by the perpetrator in a premediated attack after she rejected his desire for a relationship. Almost decapitated, she was wrapped in a tarpaulin when discovered by the Utica New York Police. As is customary, many media outlets and members of the public seemed to draw exactly the wrong lessons from this act of violence. First there were disapproving mutterings about Bianca using social media to meet people. Didn’t she know the dangers? Then focus turned to whether Bianca provoked the killing by kissing another man in front of the perpetrator. Young men lose control when they’re angry.

The real message coming from this awful loss, is that young men like the perpetrator are increasingly unable to deal with rejection and feel entitled to romantic or sexual interactions with anyone they desire. After the killing, the perpetrator posted on social media that he was not simply an “orbiter”, someone trapped in the “friendzone” with Bianca, but someone with real control and possession over her. Online communities that legitimise violence against women reacted to the killing with disgusting levels of admiration.

the “Friendzone” and Male Violence

Many factors likely played into the series of events that lead to Bianca’s death. However, a key element to the killing was the entitlement the perpetrator felt over Bianca, and the resulting rage he felt when she treated him as only a friend. Now, obviously, not having your feelings reciprocated is a universal experience. Where it can become gendered, is in responses to rejection. For certain men, the idea of being properly friends with a woman seems to be at least pointless, and in some cases shameful.[1] Many women reading this will have seen the disdain and panic in a man’s eyes when they realise that they are entering the dreaded friendzone. Let’s say you get into an interesting conversation with a man, maybe at a bar or out at an event. Then the second you mention you have a partner, or aren’t attracted to men, their eyes glaze over, and they disappear. It’s hurtful, because you realise that he only spoke to you with the semblance of respect in the hope of gaining something more.

One side of the friendzone, as some men experience it, is being denied romantic and sexual access to a woman you find attractive. The other side of the friendzone, as a woman, is realising that someone you thought cared about you as a person, was only hoping to have sex with you. The concept of the friendzone is sexist because it assumes that women have nothing to give men outside of a romantic and sexual relationship. Entitled men may perform kindness to a woman only as means to achieve the ultimate objective of sex or a relationship. If she accepts his advances, his fragile sense of masculinity is legitimised. If she rejects him, the blame is twisted back to her. She friendzoned me. One misogynist commented after Bianca’s death that “she belittles him [the perpetrator] makes him feel like human sh**”.[2] All by not wanting a relationship. A simple friendship with a woman is somehow valueless and can be seen as reducing male status.

The assumption that men and women cannot be friends is not only grounded in good old-fashioned sexism, it can also have dangerous undertones. Women are human beings with autonomy, who are entitled to not find certain men attractive. They are entitled to find a different man attractive. They are entitled to find another woman or gender diverse person attractive. And they are entitled to not find anyone attractive. Men are not owed anything for being a “nice guy”, listening to a woman, supporting her, spending time with her. Least of all sex or a relationship. Yet, if men are taught that any friendship with a woman is simply a gateway to these things, they may feel entitled to “payment” for time spent building a connection with a woman. When this fantasy relationship or sex does not play out as planned, an entitled man may pull away, engage in verbal or online abuse, or lash out physically. In the case of Bianca’s killer, the result was fatal.  

This form of fatal violence is a manifestation of male entitlement, rape culture, and toxic masculinity. The particular brutality Bianca experienced is a form of “overkill”, where the violence used far outstripped the violence needed to end her life.[3] It attempts to send a message that the perpetrator has ultimate control over a woman and can determine whether she lives or dies. In Bianca’s case, the perpetrator also ensured that she died without dignity, by publicising her murder online.

misogynist Content on Social media

By all accounts, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Discord failed to control the dissemination of the photographs of Bianca’s body, and failed to prevent users capitalising off the morbid fascination with Bianca’s death.[4] The psychological toll of this kind of publication cannot be underestimated. The accounts of Bianca’s family members were identified and sent the photographs repeatedly. Many users claimed to be in possession of the video footage of Bianca’s murder, and offered to post it return for follows and likes. Sharing evidence of the murder also fuelled admiration from communities of misogynists on 4chan and other platforms.[5] From the Isla Vista mass murders,[6] to the murder of Jennifer Alfonso,[7] to the death of Bianca, evidence of violence against women is going viral. This pattern could encourage other misogynists to commit “copy-cat” crimes in the future.

However, the role social media played was only one aspect of this case. Sharing the photographs on social media is another layer to the control imposed by the perpetrator. Not only did Bianca lose her life, but her death was mocked and used to celebrate objectification and murder of women. The US National Network to End Domestic Violence reinforced that the social media element of Bianca’s case is simply a further manifestation of male entitlement, domination, and control.[8] This year saw the introduction of “Bianca’s Law”, aimed at requiring social media companies to identify and remove violent content.[9]

And where is Bianca in all this horror? Where is the girl who loved her sister and mother, who fought to improve her mental health, who was excited for college? Bianca, who wanted to help other young people struggling with mental illness. Bianca, who was also an emerging role model for queer teens.

Bianca, who should have come home safely.

We cannot lose her humanity to the horror of her death and the pathetic reactions of misogynists. Bianca mattered. Every woman who dies due to male violence matters. The perpetrators do not. Bianca had every right to say no. And each action we take against rape culture, against male entitlement, against something as simple and insidious as the “friendzone”, will move us closer to a future where women can say no without fear.

[1] https://www.thecrimson.com/column/femme-fatale/article/2016/2/18/friend-zone-sexist/

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/07/17/bianca-devins-death-posted-instagram-thats-not-story/1748601001/

[3] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/111091452/what-is-overkill-and-why-is-it-so-common-in-new-zealand

[4] https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/bianca-devins-viral-death-murder-926823/

[5] https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/bianca-devins-teen-s-murder-on-social-media-highlights-much-larger-problem-experts-say-1.4518735

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43892189

[7] https://www.jacksonville.com/article/20160205/NEWS/801242736

[8] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/07/17/bianca-devins-death-posted-instagram-thats-not-story/1748601001/

[9] https://www.wktv.com/content/news/Brindisi-introduces-Biancas-Law-to-prevent-graphic-content-on-social-media-572480521.html

Photo by Pedro Henrique Santos on Unsplash

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