Monday, December 01, 2008

How Romantic Comedies Train Women to be Abused Wives

Today, I had a lecture basically about the Battered Wives' Syndrome (in the technical context of self-defense as a defense for criminal responsibility in cases of murder). As the professor lectured about the typical behavior patterns of the abusive husband before and after the marriage, I realized that a lot of them sounded quite familiar. And that is because I have consumed my fair share of chick flicks in my life.

What do I mean? Well, firstly, I don't mean that chick flick heroines, immediately following the ending credits, would become abused wives (even if they were bereft of the protection offered by fictionality). The movies are written with certain implicit assumptions about time compression and such like that make it impossible to judge the actual relationship. But a lot of the behaviors exhibited by abusive husbands, even long before they become physically abusive, are the very behaviors that chick flicks laud, expressly and implicitly, as healthy and/or romantic. Examples*:

1) The Big Romantic Gesture: Abuse generally works in escalating cycles, typified by extremes on both ends of the spectrum. Immediately after the abuse (and particularly in the earlier stages of the abuse, which usually starts just after the wedding), the husband is effusively apologetic, romantic, sweet. He buys jewelry, presents, new furniture to replace anything that he destroyed. (One police officer says that every time a woman came to report abuse, he could tell how often she hadn't reported it by counting her rings, necklaces, and bracelets.) Every good romantic comedy has a scene in which the hero engages in some over the top romantic gesture to atone for something that he has done to the heroine; the gesture proves that he is a good guy, that he truly loves her, that he will never hurt her again. Obviously, this is never physical abuse, but the core idea of "Gestures atone for misdeeds" is well-established.

2) They're all Just Jealous: Abusers typically seperate the wife from family and friends who attempt to stand in the way of a relationship that they see as problematic. They have never really understood her; they are just jealous that her relationship is succeeding; they want to keep her for themselves; they don't understand how happy she is; they are over-protective; will they never be happy for her? This serves both to silence any voices of protest and to cut the woman off from other people who might be able to help her get out of the situation later. In the romantic comedy form, there is usually only one over-protective parent or jealous friend/sibling and in the end they always acknowledge their flaws and the beauty of the relationship. Nevertheless, the idea that you should listen to your heart and boyfriend over your family is pretty well-rooted.

3) The Stalking of Love: Abusers typically slowly take over every aspect of their partner's life. They want to be with them at every moment, they pop up at unexpected times, because they always just want to be with them. Romantic comedies are full of this stuff, and it's hard not to notice the creepiness even without the abuser stuff going on. Nonetheless, even if the behaviors are exaggerated, the idea that there is something romantic about them wanting to spend every moment with you, and popping up in every aspect of your life, is reinforced. To make matters worse, romantic comedies often have an aspect of fixing your life as you find your man, who is often the one to point out that character flaw that you need to fix to make yourself happy and healthy. Of course, in the romantic comedy, he is generally absolutely right. This does not change the controllingness of the situation, or weaken the message that the man should be introducing major changes into your life.

The list continues, my time does not. In summation: Chick flicks are more than innocent cotton candy for the mind- they reflect some seriously twisted conceptions of love, and not just those of the "love conquers all variety".

*Based on one 1.5 hour lecture on a slightly different subject


e-kvetcher said...

Children's fairy tales can also be viewed like this - many contain very dark themes of cannibalism, torture, violence, incest, etc...

Yoni said...

maybe i'm a future abuser. . .

Tobie said...

E-Kvetcher: Yeah, fairy tales are straight up disturbing, but I think that they are slightly less insidious indoctrination into assumptions about romance than chickflicks. On the other hand, their ideas of romance are pretty crumby too.

Yoni: We didn't learn about the profile behavior of the abuser, just about how they appear to the abused. So I would check out some actual literature on this topic before drawing ANY conclusions from this. That said, you don't seem the controlling type to me...

e-kvetcher said...

I think what you are highlighting in your post has something to do with degrees. Sure the behaviors are similar, but it is all about context and degree. Here, for example, is a quote from a New Yorker article about psychopaths:

"The most agreeable vocation for psychopaths, according to Hare, is business. In his second book, “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work,” written with Paul Babiack, Hare flirts with pop psychology when he points out that many traits that may be desirable in a corporate context, such as ruthlessness, lack of social conscience, and single-minded devotion to success, would be considered psychopathic outside of it."

It probably also has to do with the fact that pleasure and pain are in many ways not opposites and hence may both tingle the same receptors.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Many other genres (in film in particular) have benign looking, yet very psychologically destructive undertones. True, our perceptions of romance have been sqewed by modern notions of romance and how they're displayed, but "guy" films also have many huge problems. Almost all such movies where there's one almost invisible hero have one major idea; you're better than everyone, so you can do anything by yourself. American homour is abusive. Their sexuality is unsensitive, stc. etc..

Miri said...

very interesting indeed. But I think you fail to take several factors into account:
1)Occasionally, it is the woman who does something to the man and she's the one big-gesturing to get him back
2)in other films, it is not a matter of wrongdoing being atoned for by the big gesture, but rather a misunderstanding, sometimes a mutual one, which has been suddenly and sometimes even simultaneously understood, and the two figures rushing together at once
3)ocasionally, the gestures fail
4) frequntly, the gesture is something like "a rushed to the airport to catch b just before b boarded a plane" which, I know, dramatic, but come on now, how big i that a gesture really? modern security standards excepted, as in the case of "Love Actually," but again, no wrongdoing there, just clearing up some important miscommunication or lack thereof and finally
5) these movies are not infrequently placed within the halls of a high school, which makes the "popping up spontaneously" thing sort of silly since, come on now, they're trapped in the same building already.

Tobie said...

I feel like it's only fair to publicly acknowledged that I'm no longer so into this theory. That is, I still think that romantic comedies are disturbing on a lot of levels, one of which is the way that they support stalker-like behavior and another being the way that they create perceptions of love that are often false and potentially damaging to people who buy into them. But the particular examples: somewhat true of some films, less so for others, possibly not all that insidious in any case.

So, yeah, um, sorry about that.