A couple of months ago, I wrote that the misogynistic jerk who always gets the girl is a myth made popular by TV and movie characters. I’ve come across some interesting discussion about that post in forums and comments that makes me think I should clarify a few things. In that article, I mentioned:
Now people really believe there are women out there who realize “I am being treated like garbage” and decide “I like it – I want me some more of that, oh, yes.”
Those women don’t exist either.
I stand by this. There are no women who think, “Gee, I like being treated like shit” just as there are no real life bad people who think, “I’m evil! I love being evil! Let us revel in my evilness!” Both of these are fictional caricatures, oversimplified so everyone’s crystal clear on who’s who in the drama. In real life, bad people think they’re doing what’s right or at least acceptable, and women who get into and/or stay in relationships where they’re being mistreated imagine their situations to be something other than they are. There are four major reasons why women stay in abusive relationships, but before I talk about any of them, I must point out:
Men stay in abusive relationships, too, but nobody talks about that.
In order to maintain the myth that Manhood is some special state above and beyond mere humanity, our culture refuses to acknowledge that men can be vulnerable and overemphasizes the vulnerability of women – in some ways. This is tricky, so read carefully: yes, we frequently turn a blind eye to the abuses women endure when it would help to pay attention. But for titillation’s sake – when it appeals to the heterosexual male gaze – we are all over those abused women, yes, sir. Crime shows parade before us a steady stream of bruised, teary-eyed babes in need of a rescue. These depictions bear no resemblance to the uncomfortable and ugly rape and abuse scenarios portrayed on Cagney & Lacey almost thirty years ago to raise awareness. And in these same shows, the few male victims who appear are usually victims of fake female victim lies. The idea that women victims are really wolves in sheep’s clothing is more palatable to our culture than the idea that a man could find himself in a relationship with a woman who systematically undermines his self-confidence, isolates him from family and friends, and maybe uses the kids or household finances to manipulate him into staying (the exact same things male abusers often do). It doesn’t matter on TV or in movies which direction the abuse travels as long as everyone looks like they’re in their usual gender roles.
This is all meant to reinforce the myth that sex is inherently dangerous for women (and therefore should only be had by women under circumstances carefully controlled by the men who run our lives) and an unfettered, glorious good time for men. Men can easily see how “sex” turns out to be less than carefree when they get saddled with support payments or charged with rape, so these are the storylines many of them most easily relate to on TV. More subtle – and humiliating – are storylines in which sex and/or love trick a man into over-investing in a relationship with a woman who is too damaged to love him: the female equivalent of the misogynistic jerk. Men are supposed to be too powerful for that, aren’t they?
The upshot of all these denial myths is a collection of devastating messages:
- Boys, you can score a hot babe by treating women like shit.
- Let’s all pass judgment on women who stay in abusive relationships. Dumb pathetic sickos! (But they’re kinda sexy, too, right?)
- Men who stay in abusive relationships? Never heard of ‘em. And if we did, we’d publicly humiliate them to make sure no one ever, ever tries to expose the myth of masculinity as less than perfectly sound again.
- Those women who claim men have mistreated them? Bullshit. First of all, they’re just lying to get money or revenge. And second, women like being mistreated. So no way are they telling the truth.
These messages don’t hurt women or men. They potentially hurt every honest person on the planet while making it easier for the amoral to walk all over everyone with impunity. With all this established, now I can move on to talk about something that went beyond the scope of my first article.
The myth of the woman who craves abuse
I said above there are four major reasons why women stay in relationships outsiders recognize as abusive.
- They don’t think the relationship is abusive. They rationalize that it’s their fault, or that he’s struggling to overcome his own abusive childhood, or that they can change him (another devastating fictional myth – that the love of a good woman is enough to “fix” a man damaged enough to engage in abuse).
- They don’t know there are men who treat women better (think that can’t be true in this day and age? Just a few years ago, I overheard two very young, very pretty women comparing how much their boyfriends earned and how often they hit them. The one whose boyfriend earned less (but still 6 figures) realized she was getting hit more often than the other woman, so now she felt wronged).
- Religion. A common ploy of abusive men is to play the perfect gentleman – feminist, even – until they’ve got you committed. For religious women, this can mean you’ll get no sign of the abuse until you’re married in front of God. Not only may divorce be something you’re ashamed to consider, but religion also perpetrates the myth that you and God together can fix the abusive personality. Sorry, folks: the abuser has to want help before you, God or a fleet of doctors can do a thing for him/her. And sadly, the vast majority of them don’t (even though they put on a convincing act of it to string everyone along).
- That she’s neurotically seeking relationships that mimic a relationship that screwed her up early in life in hopes it’ll turn out differently this time and some inner compulsion to find the solution will be released. This is a very complex mechanism that TV writers should not be allowed to touch without a license. [ETA: this is not the only reason, but all the psychological reasons will be similarly complex, and equally unlikely for screenwriters to get right, unless they've actually had the life experience themselves, or done interviews and serious amounts of research. It is not, in other words, an appropriate topic for this week's episode of Cops & Robbers.]
TV and film have dealt both responsibly and frivolously with the first two cases. Those are the versions of the story that can happen to anyone, even feminists and even men, unless you’re armed with enough wisdom about psychiatry or the nature of human beings and their personalities. And maybe I’ve been watching the wrong stuff, but I’ve rarely seen #3 depicted on screen at all, so I’ll leave that one aside.
#4 is the one TV and film writers use way too often and way too ignorantly, with the distinct air of having a really sick kink for the idea of a beautiful woman who seeks degrading and unhealthy relationships. Women who seek abusive situations are actually quite rare because it takes some serious neurosis to get to that point – so much so that relationships won’t be the only part of their lives in disarray. Unlike 99% of TV portrayals, this woman won’t appear to be “together” in every aspect of her life but her sick relationships with men. She’s stuck in a psychodrama that consumes her, pulling her away from work and other pursuits, from supportive family and friends. A good dose of feminism or common sense won’t help her; she needs therapy (psychiatric or otherwise) and lots of emotional support.
People occasionally tell me about some female friend who is so smart and successful, yet keeps picking jerks when there are nicer men to be had. How, they wonder, can I argue that she doesn’t crave abuse? Simple. Often what she’s seeking is a fellow recovering victim, but she ends up with an abuser instead. By the same token that you may be unable to relate to someone who grew up bossing illegal immigrant servants around while you were the child of illegal immigrants, a woman who grew up with abusers but recovered (and I speak from personal experience here) can have trouble connecting with people who don’t understand abuse and think it happens to some segregated chunk of society that fits conveniently under a rug. This woman will seek men who can understand her, often via their own history of childhood abuse. Unfortunately, men are less likely than women to fully recover from childhood abuse, mostly because the cult of masculinity insists they can overcome anything simply by “being a man”, which aparently does not include the very emotional work required for full recovery. So they end up abusive, or – more often – somewhat abusive but not enough to stop you from thinking full recovery is right around the corner. (This last has not been my personal experience, but I’ve seen it happen to others and have experienced the flip side: I attract abuse victims who got stuck in victim mode rather than abuser mode, and leech onto my strength until I’m worn out supporting them in an effort that never reaches payoff.)
To the outside observer, it can look like this woman is really smart and together in every aspect of her life except for her insane choice of who to date. Why on earth won’t she date that Nice Guy? The woman may be unable to articulate what her instincts are telling her – not everyone feels my need to spend hours distilling it into words – but you may be absolutely wrong to think she’d be better off with the Nice Guy. For one thing, he may be an abuser that’s good at hiding it, and she’s picked up on this but you haven’t. For another, he may not be an abuser, but he may harbor some offensive beliefs about abuse – that your problems with your sociopathic parent are just an exaggerated personality conflict and you should sit down and talk it out with the parent (and he won’t stop nagging until you do), that it would be wrong not to let any children you might have know their grandparents, etc. Nice people can be incredibly ignorant. Do please excuse the woman who opts for someone who has a clue what she needs in her life, even if it means putting up with the occasional demeaning remark and a tendency to call her too many times a day for fear she’s off somewhere betraying him. You are in no position to judge.
But that’s the position TV and movies put us in – the position audiences like to be in (yes, in this case I think the audience bears at least half the responsibility). We like to judge women and put them under a microscope and review every detail salaciously. It’s exceedingly rare that we put a man under a microscope (there’s Dan Rydell on Sports Night and… um…?) where we can see the unhealthy family dynamics that led to his issues with women. Why? Partly because the cult of masculinity can’t stand seeing men as victims, and because the system we have entitles men to most everything while simultaneously expecting more of women and limiting our opportunities. But also partly because in our warped culture, and especially in our fiction, the entire experience of human emotions is a burden heaped onto women. Because it so embarrasses those who believe the advice “Just be a man!” fixes everything in male experience to look at men who need more from them than a bullshit platitude, we’re only comfortable examining the emotional experiences of all humanity in our female characters.
Therefore, a lot of the damaged women you see on TV and film – most frequently the ones who seek damaged men who will hurt them – are actually projections of men, and this is why they don’t ring true to women viewers who know a thing or two about abuse. These TV and movie women are often completely unconscious of themselves and their motives in a way only men (and sociopaths) can be in a culture that teaches us from girlhood to look at ourselves in third person, anticipate what others will think of us and change ourselves to create the right impression in accordance with their biases, and teaches boys to focus solely on outperforming the competition. Many of the TV/film women you see staying in abusive relationships make more sense when you flip the gender. For example, how many women do you know who stay with abusive men because the men are hot and their friends envy them? Now, really think about it and ask yourself: how many men do you know who stay with abusive women for the same reasons? How often do we talk amongst ourselves about truly decent guys who keep dating nasty women when (often less gorgeous) nice women are right there in love with them? Isn’t that the same phenomenon disguised by a different terminology? From my experience and from listening to what people tell me, I’d say about equal numbers of men and women stay with partners who are perfect on paper yet make them feel like shit.
But which do we see on TV and in movies 1,000 times to the other?
The woman who craves abuse because she was abused is a gross distortion of the psychiatric observation that abused children who don’t get help early enough can end up locked in abuser or victim mode in adulthood. Note the word “children”, not “boys” or “girls.” Note the phrase “abuser or victim”, not just “victim.” It’s true girls are slightly more likely to get stuck in victim mode because our society encourages women to feel helpless and men to seek power, but by focusing almost exclusively on men who become permanent abusers and women who become permanent victims, TV and film do a disservice both to the people who need to understand abuse in order to foster their own recovery and the people would be in a position to help them, if only they could get so much as a hint from their culture that these problems don’t get solved in a 44 minute storyline with a dramatic gun-wrestling climax at minute 42.