When Violence Is Romantic: How Media Portrays Abusive Relationships

Posted on June 20, 2015 in Gender-Based Violence, Media, Society, Taboos

By Aindrila Chaudhuri:

The reactions of some feminist activists and the BDSM community to the book series “50 Shades of Grey” and its subsequent Hollywood onscreen adaptation was mostly in the form of outrage and protests. The former called the series a glorification of abuse and the latter talked about it not being an accurate portrayal of the BDSM culture. While it is true that the story is problematic on various accounts, in fact, a lot of serious issues regarding consent and relationship abuse were not handled well enough, we need to move beyond targeting just one movie. Instead, the outrage should be against an entire culture that makes it profitable for mainstream media to normalize depictions of violence against women and often times, even justify them. Let us be proactive enough and recognize the misogynistic portrayals of female characters and their complicated relationships with men rather than waiting for the next viral content that targets women’s agency.

A still from the film '50 Shades Of Grey'
A still from the film ’50 Shades Of Grey’

A lot of famous movies and novels are filled with depictions of abuse and manipulation of some kind. A major theme of many romance novels, much like ‘50 shades…’, is the female protagonist trying to ‘fix’ her abuser and eventually making him fall in love with her. Equating violence with passion and dominance with love is a common subject matter in these books. What is problematic is that a lot of the content is consumed by women themselves. This leads to the practice of internalized misogyny, which eventually impedes women’s fight for equal rights. Thus, they unknowingly participate in their own subjugation. What is desirable is often shaped through the popular images and ideas that surround us. Novels, motion pictures, songs etc. are instruments of culture and it is through them too that we understand what is acceptable in society.

Romanticized violence and abuse is quite a common trope that is used in movies and TV. A lot of classics were never called out for the depictions of domestic violence and sexual assault by the ‘hero’ until quite later. How many stories have we seen that imply that the women actually enjoyed the sexual assault and eventually fell for the man (take “The Fountainhead” for example)? Why, isn’t the hunk Stanley Kowalski, played by Marlon Brando in the movie “A Streetcar Named Desire”, who regularly batters his wife, considered a popular fantasy among women? The old Hollywood movie “Carousel” also has a male protagonist who is a wife beater. And the violence need not necessarily be physical in nature; it can manifest in the form of emotional and psychological manipulation.

Normalization of the problematic behaviour happens due to stereotypes and societal expectations that have their roots in gender-based dictates in the society. Not only is the abuse never discussed properly, it is in fact sidelined. The disturbing qualities of the male protagonists are often seen as rather attractive. The dark and brooding ‘central’ character is passed off as desirable instead of the creep he actually is. Often times, emotional distancing and the silent treatment by the hero is seen as a consequence of masculinity, eg. Wuthering Heights. On various occasions, the justification for the abuse comes from the idea that the hero is the one who fixes problems in the story, as men are expected to do. Thus corrective rape (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) or manipulation (“Taming Of The Shrew”) is not seen as a serious issue.

On the other hand, portrayals of femininity also play a hand in the way romanticization happens. The female characters fall into the Mother-Whore dichotomy, where the female lead is shown as a meek being who enjoys the coercive control her partner seems to exert in the relationship. At the other end, we have media representations of ‘feisty’ women who rebel against the violence they face. However, before we can label these storylines as feminist in nature, we need to inspect how truly emancipated the characters are.

Let us inspect why women holding guns does not necessarily translate into an image of empowerment. There is a visible trend of eroticization of ‘strong’ women in violent movies. These characters end up as plot points in revenge dramas. Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium series is shown as a woman who deals with a traumatic past and punishes men that abuse women. She is stoic and awkward, refuses to show her emotions and maintains a distance from people in the book (and the subsequent movie adaptations). These traits are passed off by the author as strangely attractive, thus, in a way being an obvious glorification of hyper-masculine traits. Hyper-masculinity refers to an exaggeration of certain behaviours that are usually attributed to men in society, like physical aggression, emotional bankruptcy, addiction to taking risks etc.. Instead of showing the healing process for these characters, who are actually survivors of violence, they are fetishized in the movies or books. Let us take the example of the Quentin Tarantino movie “Death Proof” which features two groups of women in the movie and a retired stuntman that stalks them – The first group is comprised of ‘giggly’ and ‘gossipy’ women who eventually fall victims to the psychopathic and misogynist character that kills them in a brutal manner, the second group includes women who are adrenaline junkies, perform stunts and are comfortable wielding a weapon and they punish the man in the end. These women and other such similar characters neatly fit into the popular male fetish of the ‘dominatrix’.

In a way, a certain cinematic caricature of masculinity is sold through the female performers. It all boils down to male gaze and institutions of violence that remain unchallenged. I personally believe such movies are a devaluation of the feminist movement and purpose. What seems to be missing is a peaceful intervention as well as some form of emotional closure for the protagonists and the audience. And thus, the romanticization of the culture of violence continues.