The Problem with Domestic Violence in the Movies

The Problem with Domestic Violence in the Movies

When domestic violence happens, it’s behind closed doors in a place where abusers don’t just have total control of the abuse but total control of the narrative. It’s an abuser’s greatest power and a victim’s greatest weakness – privacy.

Because there are only two people ever able to tell the story of domestic abuse, the one who inflicts it and the one who suffers it, the way stories of domestic violence are told matter immensely to how the rest of the world sees this kind of violence. Unfortunately, most of what we see in movies and TV get it wrong – and they get it wrong in dangerous ways.

How We Talk About Domestic Violence on Screen

First, this issue isn’t tackled enough, and, when it is, it’s often dismissed by critics as a “soap opera” trope. Consider how New York Times’ film critic, Mike Hale, described the recent hit Big Little Lies:

“[It’s] just a compendium of clichés about upper-middle-class angst.”

Perhaps worse than this complete dismissal of serious abuse is his comparison later in the post to 50 Shades of Grey. Whatever you think about that book/film, it’s irresponsible to compare domestic abuse to S&M games. But that’s the narrative that shapes the culture, and so it’s the one that many victims have to live with in their daily life. Unfortunately, many people suffer under the misapprehension that the lives of domestic violence victims are soap opera storylines where characters are flirting with consent. This underplays the seriousness of abuse and the difficulties of getting out of such relationships.

While Hale’s article is an obvious example of this problem, his voice is far from singular.

How On-Screen Domestic Abuse Shapes the Narrative

Because most of domestic abuse narratives are told by people who spin stories rather than victims of actual abuse, the telling of these tales becomes problematic. They are set up as conflict-resolution stories. The abuse is simplified into conflict, whereby the victim must confront the abuser to end the “problem” and solve the conflict. Of course, victims of abuse know there is no tidy end to this kind of abuse. Hopefully, victims can leave, but physical and emotional scars will haunt them their entire lives, sometimes affecting their children.

There are some compelling movies with good intentions, like The Burning Bed, Sleeping with the Enemy, or Enough. But they pit the abused against the abuser, often with the victim killing the abuser. It’s a fantasy element that lets the audience act out revenge against someone perpetuating violence, but it’s a dangerous narrative. In real life, victims who confront their abusers are often attacked and many killed. The tidy ending of a Hollywood movie isn’t real life – and these kind of stories can make victims further feel isolated because they can’t live up to the on-screen hero who overcame abuse in such a dramatic fashion.

A Change in the Conversation

Whether you believe Big Little Lies is a soap opera or not, it’s tackling a serious issue that affects people of all ages, social status, and income levels. It’s a much more pervasive problem than we’d like to admit, so it’s time the story is told right. And it’s okay to call some of these stories soap operas – traditional soap operas and Lifetime movies have been the only ones really ready to confront issues of domestic violence. If you check out the IMDb site and look for films about domestic abuse, you’ll find that many are made-for-TV.

Movies in the last few decades have tried to tackle the issue of domestic violence, but mostly they’ve gone about it in a wrong or even dangerous way. How about filmmakers and storytellers talk to the other person in the private space, rather than assuming they understand what makes a victim stay or go? There are plenty of people ready to tell their stories; it’s time for Hollywood to listen.


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