By Shannon Montgomery, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
Most of us can agree that violence, in particular intimate partner violence, is wrong. It’s not something we would want to take part in, and we certainly wouldn’t want our friends or family members to experience this violence. But for some reason there are numerous portrayals of intimate partner violence (IPV) that are seen in the media. And instead of reacting to the dangerous and unhealthy nature of violence in relationships, many people are instead enamored with the “romantic” and “sexy” side of that same relationship. I can’t help but wonder why we are so fascinated by “love stories” that involve undertones of violence, control, and abuse.
Take, for example, the Twilight (Meyer 2005) series. This story portrays a teenaged girl, named Bella, who falls in love with a vampire, Edward. Throughout their romance together, Edward displays characteristics of abuse, such as jealousy, social isolation, and even watching over her while she sleeps.
Take a moment to watch this video, as it provides a parallel between the story of Twilight (which was made into a movie) and the stories of actual survivors of IPV:
Despite Bella’s discomfort with some of these instances, and constant fear of his immortal strength, Bella chooses the infatuation she has for Edward as more important than her safety. She also justifies Edward’s dangerous characteristics by associating them with his vampire nature, and since he has controlled his desire to kill her, she assumes he must love her beyond the threat of harm. As the story progresses, the violence increases, even the point of Bella being severely bruised after their wedding night. Bella once again brushes this off and attributes his violence to his supernatural strength, even admitting she enjoyed his closeness and wanted more. Danielle Borgia, author of Twilight: The Glamorization of Abuse, Codependency, and White Privilege (2014), describes the novel’s storyline as an “unhealthy definition of passion as pain and fidelity as sacrifice” (p. 163). This unhealthy definition is not only seen in this series but in other novels, movies, and songs alike. The idea that ‘love hurts,’ and that love should be dramatic is being played out all over the media. As long as there’s an indication of ‘true love,’ it’s as if the lines between healthy and unhealthy relationships become blurred. Do we love the idea of love so much that we are willing to look past the violence that comes with it?
Another great example of violence is seen in a well-sought after book series, Fifty Shades of Grey (James 2012). This book involves a college student who meets a multi-million dollar man and is involved in an extremely passionate, confusing, hypersexual, and violent relationship. He, Christian, coerces Anastasia to engage in BDSM (bondage/dominance/submission/masochism) both in and out of the bedroom. Through threatening and violent altercations, Anastasia admits a certain fear and intimidation of Christian, but at the same time feels a strong desire and love for the man who abuses her, and sense that she can make it work.
Again, I find myself uncomfortable with the fact that we are willing to look over instances of abuse in order to enjoy the pleasures of feeling sexy and/or loved.
In a study done by Bonomi, Altenburger, and Walton (2013), researchers analyzed the Fifty Shades of Grey novel with a hypothesis that this storyline portrayed aspects of intimate partner violence. Here are a few quotes from Fifty Shades of Grey that were used in this research study that helped to link this fictional relationship with intimate partner violence:
With this information, you would think readers would be appalled at this behavior and would want the main character Anastasia to leave the relationship by the end of the book. But this is not what takes place. Readers of this book overwhelmingly support the relationship between Anastasia and Christian. How could this be?
One reason might be the manipulation that often takes place by violent perpetrators. To further manipulate Anastasia (along with readers of the novel), Christian begins to open up more about his troubled past, indicating a history or being neglected and abused, both physically and sexually, as a child. Bonomi et al. (2013) explain, “Christian manipulates Anastasia by using information about past childhood trauma (underlying mental health issues) to appeal to her sympathy and to condition her to respond to his needs—a classic move used by chronically violent domestic violence offenders to entrap women in relationships” (p. 741). The idea of sympathizing with the abuser, feeling bad for him and feeling the need to “save” or “fix” him is commonly seen in both real and fictional cases of domestic violence. And seemingly what is also happening among readers of this novel.
With this, Anastasia also has a desire for a “normal” relationship, and keeps up this hope as the novel continues. This is also very common for victims in abusive relationships. Authors Jacobson and Gottman (1998) of the book When Men Batter Women, explain it this way: “Another thing that keeps some women in violent relationships is that they are holding on to a dream that they have about what life could be like with these men. They love their [partners] and they have developed a sympathy for them and their plight in life. They hope they can help their men become normal husbands and fathers. These dreams can be powerful and are very hard to give up” (p. 51). Anastasia believes there is a possibility of having this normal relationship, and it’s this hope that also keeps her in the relationship. Is it possible that readers are having similar hopes for a “happily ever after” ending for Anastasia and Christian?
But you may think that even though we may make exceptions and justifications for these stories, they are all fiction so it doesn’t matter. Well, maybe, but over time we become desensitized to the things we read and watch, and they may even become more appealing to us. Researchers Vidal, Clemente, and Espinosa (2003) looked at the effects of young people as they watched violence on television. Initially, participants remained neutral on their feelings of violence, but over time their reactions and responses to violence became more positive. They found that the more young people watched violence in television, the more positively they regarded violence. Expressing their concern, the authors stated “the continual appearance of violence in the media hampers our emotional response toward aggressive behaviors to the point that it could make us unable to answer properly” (p. 382). Our overlooking of violence in the media now may soon lead to a decreased concern for real-life violence in the future.
I’m not trying to insinuate that the media is “out to get us,” or that media sources are attempting to exploit the general population into becoming more violent. I don’t doubt that these stories were created as a love story, and that the characters were meant to be portrayed as lovers, deeply caring for one another.
But I do believe we are becoming more unaffected by the presence of violence as a result of the media. The difference between real life and fictional stories is that we know and understand that these stories are fake. But if we know these stories are fake, wouldn’t it be easier to identify abusive behaviors? Wouldn’t we be more clear-minded and willing to say, “I don’t support this”? But instead, we’re sympathizing and justifying. This is all too similar to the entrapment that victims fall under when being abused in relationships. Hoping and believing in another person are good habits, but not in place of personal safety and security. Love is beautiful and worthwhile, but should never be coupled with physical, sexual, or emotional harm. Therefore, we need to be more mindful about what we are deeming acceptable and unacceptable in our minds as we participate in media sources. We need to be more careful to examine what we are watching, reading, and hearing and the way it shapes the way we see the world.
Shannon Montgomery is pursuing a master’s degree in Couple and Family Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Shannon completed her undergraduate degree in Human Development and Family Studies at Kent State University in Ohio. She has worked to provide educational workshops and presentations covering topics such as sexual assault, healthy relationships, and feminism. Shannon hopes to continue these efforts in her career as a Professional Counselor.