The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Kabir Singh, 365 Days—what do all of these shows and movies have in common?
No, it is not the inability of male leads in these to keep their shirts on. Neither is it the poorly written, seemingly empty, out-of-depth female characters that serve but a single purpose: to advance the storyline. The common thread stringing all of these uber-popular shows and movies together is their unrelenting glorification of abuse. The occasional backlash against movies like Kabir Singh and similar others may make it seem like instances of abuse on the silver screen are not that common. More often than not, various types of abuse are cleverly hidden in subtext and may not be immediately evident. But if you’re willing to dig deep—you’d be surprised at what you find.
Taking up a very recent example—365 days— it’s easy to see everything wrong with romanticising abuse. The story starts with a mafia leader kidnapping a girl he has been chasing and stalking for the last five years, followed by him giving her a year to fall in love with him. The male lead really breaks all boundaries of propriety with how he treats the girl. The wide range of questionable and outright abusive acts he does right from kidnapping her, cutting off her communications, invading her personal space repeatedly to sexually harassing her is horrific. Yet, it is painted up as if this man genuinely wants to be loved and cares about the girl—through some ridiculously made-up incidents. It is problematic from the get-go, yet somehow this movie gained immense popularity, even making it to Netflix’s Top 10.
Why is the romanticisation of abuse problematic?
Often included as an arc to make a character seem ‘deep,’ romanticising abuse serves as nothing but an example of what not to do in a relationship. Growing up, we all tend to look up to and idolise TV and movie stars. Mainstream media shapes a large part of our thinking and influences our opinions. We form attachments with characters, and their actions carry a lot of weight. So, when these characters themselves partake in or endure abuse, it tells the people that it’s okay for it to happen—that it’s expected of them to sit back and not speak up against abusive behaviour. It essentially desensitizes the audience to abuse. This sets a dangerous precedent not only for those currently struggling in an abusive relationship but also for people with little experience in relationships.
How do directors get away with the glorification of abuse?
When it comes to covering up instances of abuse, the scriptwriters usually tend to bury it in subtext. This is especially true in the case of emotional abuse and manipulation. Most of the characters are made out to look very desirable. This leads to people thinking “Oh if it’s good enough for him/her, it’s good enough for me.” Most of these movies are also riddled with shameless attempts to justify abusive behaviour as a manifestation of the passion between “lovers.” For example, in 50 Shades of Grey, we see that Anastasia is deathly scared of Christian. She dreads his every move and even changes herself so as not to enrage him. Christian stalks her and tries to control every aspect of her life. Yet, instead of condemning such abusive behaviour, this myriad of red flags is hailed as the existence of a fiery passion between the two. How writers make the far leap between abuse and passion, remains a mystery.
Another route that writers take when they try to make abuse look appealing is the familiar trope of ‘female-lead-fixes-damaged-male-lead.’ This gives them the perfect setup for a narrative where the male lead can do as he pleases and the female lead has to just lay back and take it because she’s “fixing” him.
Another major reason is how abuse has become so normalised. Instances of abuse on-screen have become so common now that people just tend to overlook them. Themes of abuse have been so ingrained in modern-day storytelling that they’re considered an acceptable narrative. A perfect example would be how not taking ‘no’ for an answer is a major rom-com trope. Upon being turned down by the female lead, the male lead follows her around everywhere she goes. He tries to pressure her into liking him back. Even though it borders on stalking and is outright creepy, many people find it incredibly ‘romantic.’
How does romanticising abuse affect us and shape opinions in reality?
Often in movies, there’s an undoubted display of harassment, but it is strategically portrayed to be linked with the male protagonist’s “emotional journey” and “soft heart”. This paints a rather false picture of an alluring romance that many female fans end up idolising. Abuse is painted as attractive dominance, emotional blackmailing is posed as doing anything for love—that’s how they disguise it for the audience. For many people watching these movies or TV series, ‘abuse’ isn’t even a word that would cross their minds.
A popular example is Ross from F.R.I.E.N.D.S. There are many instances where he came off as very self-centered and inconsiderate. He was, however, shown as a sad and sympathetic person who deserved nothing less to pity. For instance, he doesn’t get his marriage to Rachel annulled—never caring about how Rachel feels and hiding it from her. He always feels insecure whenever there’s another man around her and becomes too possessive. But fans still love this couple, showing how men can get away with emotional exploitation if they have an emotional basis even if it’s purely malevolent and selfish.
Overall, the industry rarely pushes the idea of a powerful female, mostly portraying them as some attractive side character with little to no role but as a distraction to the male lead. Even the strong characters with good story arcs are overly sexualised in terms of their attire. As a result, their power and skills are not credited enough, and the focus shifts to physical attractiveness. On top of that, the movies that show harassment of any kind as love only add to the narrative that females are physically and mentally weaker, easily persuadable, and more of an object of physical desire.
Many people have shipped Damon and Elena from The Vampire Diaries, when in truth, Damon is a dangerous controlling character. He tries to control Elina by any means–violence and sexual assault, among other unacceptable acts. Fans ignore this and end up thinking his possessive form of “love” is very attractive.
This is not the type of romance that should not be desirable to people. But when there are such subtle displays of questionable acts through movies and TV series, it unconsciously stirs wrong imaginations and expectations in young and impressionable audiences. An obvious example is a slew of fanfics in apps like Wattpad that are written by young teens. There’s an abundance of these ‘mature’ stories that ironically show male dominance and possessiveness in the most toxic ways.
Why do some movies face immense backlash while others don’t?
While some movies like Kabir Singh were met with outrage, that isn’t usually the case for all movies with displays of abuse in them. Many Hollywood movies, for example, slip quietly under the radar. One of the main reasons for this, as mentioned earlier, is how scriptwriters cleverly mask abuse. While physical abuse is readily evident, emotional abuse and manipulation are often much harder to catch. There is also the issue of herd mentality. Some people may find a movie problematic but may be reluctant to speak out about it because their immediate peer groups think otherwise. A more significant reason though is that of selective activism. People sometimes tend to pick and choose their battles. What they tend to forget though, is that regardless of majority opinion or race—abuse is abuse. And it should be opposed, no matter what.
Abuse is not passion. Abusive behaviour doesn’t add depth to your character. Toxic relationships aren’t “#couplegoals.” Abuse is a serious issue that scars people for life. It changes the way they perceive and interact with others. It causes them to develop long-term emotional or psychological problems and affects their relationships. It is high-time that scriptwriters and directors realise this. Someone else’s trauma—is not your drama.
Written by Sabarish Padmakumar and Anushka Bhattacharyya for MTTN
Featured Image by Ishika Somani for MTTN