A strange and disturbing spectacle is taking place in the Argentine media. Barbie Vélez and Fede Bal, once a popular celebrity couple, have been playing out their violent break-up — including the various court filings and the breaches of mutual restraining orders — in public, as though it were an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

There is Vélez in interview, eyes downcast, talking about the moment Fede pushed her into a cupboard. There’s him, on television, talking about her locking him in a room. The cover of Gente magazine, Barbie in a sensual pose, her bruised arm poised on her hip. Fede, on the aptly-titled daily gossip television show Intrusos, stammering, “Enough is enough…if not, this will end in murder.” There’s both of them on Dancing For A Dream (The local version of Dancing With The Stars) in separate cars, making carefully calibrated entrances so as to avoid breaching mutual restraining orders, (“We’ve got cameras in both cars to ensure they don’t cross paths in the studio,” celebrates host Marcelo Tineli, that rangy, bronzed dandy of the Argentine small screen.)

The line between truth and fiction has never been so blurred. And at a time when Argentines are more focused than ever on stopping violence against women, the attitude seems to be a stark reminder of just how difficult it will be to end a culture of gender violence. In the process, intimate partner violence — a true blight on modern society, which shows no signs of abating — is turned into a banal thing, so hackneyed and staged as to be boring.

A short history of “Fede y Barbie”

Fede and Barbie are both “children of…” She is the daughter of Nazarena Vélez, a famous vedette (vedette means “starlet”, and in Argentina they’re kind of like multitalented showgirls) and he is the son of iconic comedian, Santiago Bal, and Carmen Barbieri, who started out as a vedette and is now a producer, director, comedian. All around Argentine showbiz royalty.

They grew up surrounded by the worst parts of sexist Argentine culture: his first sexual encounter, at age 13, was with a sex worker, financed by his godfather. She’s been doing “racy” photo shoots since she was a teen. 

They’re both young. She’s 22 and he’s 26. They met in Mar Del Plata in the summer of 2014/2015 and their relationship was immediately public. Then, in May of this year, Fede went to a police station and reported Barbie for assault and damage, and, a few hours later, Barbie went to a separate police station and denounced him for “gender violence.” Since then, it’s been a race to the bottom. They both have restraining orders out against each other, which they both breach, deliberately or not, but always with a resulting headline.

Theirs has always been depicted as a “fatal attraction” kind of relationship, with lovers’ quarrels, mutual obsession and passionate sex. Exhibit A: Fede’s explanation for their tortured on-again, off-again relationship – delivered to television gossip king Jorge Rial on Intrusos – appears to consist of the most backdated notions about desire and masculine identity: “I fall [into temptation], because I’m a man … She shakes her hair, I smell the scent of a woman, and I just have to make love to her.” Rial eats it up: “Really good sex between you two.” Complicit silence from Fede.

The banalization of domestic violence

From its very beginnings, their relationship has been both “revealed” and created by the news media. There’s the reporting of the “events” of their relationship: Were they or weren’t they together at Mar Del Plata? But also the fabrication of “live” scenes: How will Barbie react to Fede’s sexy dance with partner Laurita? It was also violent long before she reported him for assaulting her. “If any other girl tries to get it on with Fede, I’ll break her face,” said Barbie in 2015.

Barbie on Intrusos talking to host Jorge Rial about their violent relationship. He grabbed me hard by the arm and neck, he pushed me...That Friday I felt like he could have killed me." Rial has played a key role in dramatising and mediating the violent relationship between Fede and Barbie.
Barbie on Intrusos talking about her violent relationship with Fede: “He grabbed me hard by the arm and neck, he pushed me…That Friday I felt like he could have killed me.” Host Jorge Rial has played a key role in dramatizing and mediating their violent relationship.

The directors and enablers of this horribly disturbing dance of machismo, violence and real intimacy elevated to level of performance (and performance made intimate), is the Argentine media.

During his programs, Tinelli seems to work particularly hard to generate an “attack of jealousy” in Fede. On a screen, they project a huge photo of an actor that Barbie kissed in a telenovela. “Thanks for putting it up right here,” says Fede.

Marcelo Tinelli attempts to cause a jealous fit in Fede on his program Bailando para un sueño. Addressing Barbie's dance partner, with Fede standing off to the side, "you know her boyfriend's a jealous type?"
Marcelo Tinelli attempts to cause a jealous fit in Fede on his program Bailando Por Un Sueño. Addressing Barbie’s dance partner, with Fede standing off to the side, “you know her boyfriend’s a jealous type?”

And then, on El Trece’s This Is The Show (Este es el show), which lives off the controversies sparked on Tinelli’s program, surprise Barbie with a revelatory “confession” — Fede had divulged that sometimes, in the morning, Barbie has bad breath. Barbie is disgusted. Fede denies the accusations and jokingly complains about the presenters.

Fede and Barbie on Este Es El Show. The show hosts push Fede to admit what he said about Barbie's 'halitosis'.
Fede and Barbie on Este Es El Show. The show hosts push Fede to admit what he said about Barbie’s ‘halitosis’. “Look how Barbie reacts when she finds out that Fede Bal revealed the most intimate details of their relationship,” reads the description.

What’s the point? There is none, except to make them feel emotions. And worse than that, the point is to fabricate and perpetuate the violence of their relationship. Even Fede seemed to understand in what was an unusually candid moment on, of all places, Intrusos: “This is the problem. Normalizing these jealousies, these unhealthy attitudes.” But then host Rial reduces it all to a sexist comment: “She domesticated you.”

When it seemed like it couldn’t get worse, it did. Barbie and Fede were suddenly pitched against each other in Dancing For A Dream, going to obscene lengths to ensure they wouldn’t breach respective restraining orders — and then turning these lengths into part of the show, with split screens and timed exits and entrances.

Barbie seemed finally to break.

“A tough night”, says the interviewer to Barbie. “A horrible night,” she says, crying. He pursues her to her dressing room. “It’s not a game,” she says. “Obviously it’s not a game,” he chides.

“What went through your head today,” he asks, desperately trying to plow her emotive depths, as she stares despondently into middle distance, dramatic violins sounding sharply in the background.

Barbie’s restraining order against Fede expires this week. She has said she won’t renew it for her own mental health. It will no doubt lead to a new set of scandals, both partly-fabricated and “exclusively” revealed by Clarín-owned broadcast network El Trece. The domestic violence circus is simply too profitable for all involved. The only loser? Society as a whole.