“That’s what we do! We fight!” he yells at her. He kicks over a table, swears at her and even threatens to hate her if she leaves. Afterward, as Ally walks to her car to escape the argument, Noah suddenly becomes soft and kind, begging her to stay, and when she resists, he becomes angry again and says he is not afraid to hurt her feelings before invalidating her decision yet again.
This may sound like a domestically abusive argument. This is actually a scene from one of the most popular romance films of all time, “The Notebook.”
Though this film is full of cursing, crying and even indirect threats of suicide, Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook” is lauded as the pinnacle of a true love story. While arguments, persistence, ultimatums and kissing in the rain may be fun to watch for the entertainment of a romance film, it may subconsciously enforce unhealthy and harmful expectations for a relationship.
One trope often portrayed in the media that is particularly bothersome is the “grumpy and sunshine” trope (e.g., Luke and Lorelai, Harry and Sally, etc.). In this, the icy, pessimistic character (often male) falls in love with the optimistic character with a sunny disposition (often female) and it is shown that the pessimist has a soft spot only for them while hating everyone else.
This also may fall under the “bad boy” trope, where a troubled man needs to be saved by the love of a good woman. Most often in these tropes, we witness the optimist spending time with people other than the pessimist. Once the pessimist discovers this, they act out and become possessive, encouraging the optimist to sever ties with others. While this can be a fun binge read in a romance novel, this behavior can result in signs of emotional abuse, such as isolation.
While some of us may dream of being told “no one else can have you,” three of the main warning signs that someone may be an abuser are if they exhibit behaviors such as extreme jealousy, possessiveness and unpredictability. Isolation is not always achieved through force; it may be asserted through more subtle forms of manipulation, such as pressure tactics or enforcing guilt onto the victim. By cutting off the victim’s other relationships, it can disaffiliate the victim from their community, making it easier for the abuser to influence their own beliefs upon the victim.
Non-consensual sex is also often romanticized in the media. The film adaptation of the novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” has grossed over $300 million worldwide since its release in 2015. While the film is praised as a steamy romance that demonstrates bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism (BDSM), there is an evident lack of mutual consent between protagonists Christian and Ana. Ana is clearly uncomfortable with Christian’s obsession with rough and harmful sex.
There is an evident power imbalance in this film: Christian is a billionaire CEO, whereas Ana is a young, sexually inexperienced college student. Christian stalks Ana at her job, chastises her clothing choices and eating habits, even pursuing her aggressively after she explicitly refuses to sign a dominant/submissive contract binding her to him. At one point in the film, Christian even breaks into Anastasia’s apartment after she calls off their relationship, seeking to “remind” her of what she’ll be missing.
The most harmful aspect of this film is that it blurs the lines between manipulative behavior and affection, negatively influencing millions to believe it is possible for love to manifest in emotional and physical abuse. While some consider the film to be a spicy romance, “Fifty Shades of Grey” embraces emotionally manipulative and abusive behavior, portraying non-consensual sex as an erotic thrill in a culture where 43 percent of college men admit to employing coercive behavior to have sex with an unwilling woman, according to CrisisConnectionInc. Films such as these can be acceptable to consume for the sake of entertainment, but this film is an instance in which life should not imitate art.
In these films, another message that is conveyed is that relationships filled with fighting and constant turmoil are what keep the relationship exciting and preserve the “spark.” It’s easy to mistake the intense emotions that come with the highs and lows of an emotionally abusive relationship for love. Know this: it’s okay to not fight. Feeling safe and calm in a relationship does not equate to your partner growing bored of you. Let’s be clear: safety and boredom are not synonymous.
It concerns me when I see how audiences will often dismiss an abusive character portrayed in the media due to their looks. We’ve seen a recent resurgence of obsession over actor Jacob Elordi following his portrayal of Elvis Presley in A24’s “Priscilla,” despite the film attempting to reveal the emotionally volatile and abusive side of the king of rock and roll.
This does not only apply to fictional characters — in November, “comedian” Matt Rife made a joke about domestic violence in his recent Netflix special, “Natural Selection.” In the special, he joked about a female restaurant server with a black eye who took his order, when his friend suggested the restaurant should place the server in the kitchen so guests would not have to see her. Then, Rife suggested that “if she could cook, she wouldn’t have that black eye.” It is sickening that a performer would consider domestic abuse and victim blaming to be cannon fodder for his next routine, but it is more devastating when we see how the career of Rife (and many other male comics) has been built off joking about misogyny, ableism and racism.
It is easier to decide the extent to which the media can influence us when we understand films and novels are pure fiction, but less so when we turn to social media for life advice — especially when the algorithm is unaware of the exact situation. The side of TikTok and Instagram reels that solicits advice for long-term relationships or marriage advice (also known as #marriagetok) offers tips from couples on how to keep relationships thriving.
One potentially harmful message that is often perpetuated on this side of social media is that the key to a successful relationship is the “willingness to have hard conversations.” While a relationship requires substantial communication to last, this advice may cause those in abusive relationships more harm than help.
By suggesting “tough conversations” are necessary, victims of abuse may be led to believe it is commonplace to endure hurtful and even frightening interactions for the sake of their relationship. This message may also enforce the idea that a victim is weak and unwilling to save their relationship if they cannot endure painful interactions. “Tough conversations” with your partner should not involve yelling, humiliation, violent behavior, ultimatums or fearing for your life.
In healthy relationships, difficult conversations are common to come across when an issue needs to be resolved, but a healthy conflict resolution never involves threatening, manipulation or belittlement. If you find yourself in a situation in which your partner disrespects, manipulates, isolates, or controls you, know that abuse is never your fault and help is always available.
To discuss signs of abuse with confidential resources on campus, contact the PAGE Center in CUB 232 (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the counseling center located in Naugle Hall (717-477-1481).
If you or a student you know has been a victim of abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence or stalking, the University can help respond to your various needs as outlined in the Sexual Misconduct (Title IX) Policy.