Literature and Media’s Portrayal of Abuse and its Effect on Women
TW: The following contains description and discussion around mental, physical and sexual abuse. If you have anxieties surrounding any of these issues, proceed with caution.
Media is perhaps the most influential aspect of today’s environment. What we see in movies, what we see on the news and what we read in books all affect the ways we express ourselves. At first that sounds relatively harmless. Someone likes Billie Eilish’s nails so they go and get their nails done similarly. However, media’s influence becomes dangerous when it inhibits individuals from speaking out against their threatening situations. This seems particularly noticeable in early women’s literature.
Domestic abuse and violence against women are two mortifying topics that have been written about nonchalantly by women writers. This lackadaisical approach can lead the women reading to think, “It’s not that big of a deal. I don’t need to make a scene.” The same issue arises when abuse is shown as an intense, dramatic event that leaves the victim bruised and bloody. Women in the audience think, “My experience isn’t that bad. I don’t need to make a scene.” Ultimately, women’s confidence to speak on their experiences of abuse is stifled by the polarized portrayal of abusive relationships in literature and media.
Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a prime example of a mentally abusive relationship. Jane’s husband John has diagnosed her with “temporary nervous depression (Gillman 648) and has prescribed her an isolation treatment while ignoring her own concerns about her well-being. While it is clear to a modern audience that John is abusing his power over Jane, she never condemns him. She goes along with it until she devolves into psychosis. In her journal, she writes “He is careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” (Gillman 648). Why does Gillman write so passively about John’s behavior? Perhaps the 1890’s audience would not allow a woman to write a story blaming a woman’s mental illness on her husband’s treatment of her. If Gillman had made John the more obvious bad guy her story may not have been published in the patriarchal society with no tolerance for criticism.
Shirley Jackson’s 1950s novel Hangsaman deals with several heavy topics including mental abuse and sexual assault. In the Waite home, Mr. Waite begins each day by telling his wife ““Your God…has seen fit to give us a glorious day.” Or “Your god has seen fit to give us rain,” or “snow”” etc. as a way to mock her religious beliefs. He has been saying this for years as a minute form of torture that Mrs. Waite must tolerate. He also forces her to entertain his friends and coworkers on the days the housekeeper has off and never gives her a moment of privacy except for Sundays in the kitchen. He manipulates and controls her and she is aware of the abuse, but she never finds the strength to stand up to him.
Hangsaman also depicts what seems to be a sexual assault right before Natalie leaves for college. Natalie is brought into the woods by a man at the end of a section, and she wakes up in her bed at the beginning of the next. The experience is never described. The closest Jackson comes to acknowledging what most readers assume is a sexual assault is through what Natalie says to herself the next morning: “I don’t remember, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened” (Jackson 43). The novel centers around this clearly traumatic experience, yet never comes forward and outright states what that experience is.
The small screen also offers examples of abuse being glazed over, notably in AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” A scene in season 2 episode 1 shows a distressed Walt attempt to force his pregnant wife to have sex with him in their kitchen despite her protests until he gets the message and walks away. This scene was extremely difficult to watch, prompting me to over my eyes for the majority of it. Even though this scene is very graphic and scary, it is completely forgotten about after the scene. The episode continues with the main story line and the attempted rape is never acknowledged in the remaining 4 seasons of the show. This article from HuffPost provides a very good description of the scene and has more to say on its apparent triviality.
The film of the musical Oliver! released in 1968 has a running theme of abuse. The show’s namesake is abused and a supporting character, Nancy, is abused by her partner Bill Sykes. Several times throughout the show he hits her or threatens to hit her and eventually kills her.
This show is an extreme example of abusive relationships. All of the women in the show seem to share experiences, singing “Thou you sometimes do come by / the occasional black eye / You can always cover one / ‘till he blacks the other one” in the song “It’s a Fine Life.” This song reflects the way many women approach the way their abusive relationships. Later in the show after being threatened by Bill, Nancy sings “As Long as He Needs Me,” a song about staying with her abuser despite the abuse. Many women use the same rationale that Nancy uses; “Who else would love him?” “I just need to help him get better,” “I’m so lonely without him.” While this portrayal of an abusive relationship can be used to give women a reality check, it can also be used for women to say, “Relative to this, my relationship is not that bad” and keep themselves in a dangerous situation. This article outlines the abuses in Oliver! in much greater detail.
In the Dream House, a memoir by Carmen Maria Machado published in 2019, is about her experience in an abusive lesbian relationship. The memoir is very explicit about the abuse the woman in the dream house inflicted on Machado, including cursing her out, squeezing her arm until bruises form and screaming at her while she is in the shower. The audience lives through these events with Machado, understanding on a personal level the abuse. Machado is not shy about her abuse. She writes it for the whole world to relate to. Her experience is also rather run of the mill, for lack of better wording. Millions of people can relate to the things she had to endure no matter their sexual orientation. Machado’s memoir is special because, even though she did not have to go through life threatening beatings, she still recognizes and draws attention to the fact that what she experienced was abuse, meanwhile providing validation for women who have not found that affirmation.
While Machado claims her experience, she still takes a few measures to distance herself from it at the same time. Machado delays the reader from reaching the meat of the memoir twice, first in “Dream House as Overture” and then in “Dream House as Prolouge.” In “Overture,” Machado states that she dislikes prologues. So why does she then write one? In a second method of avoidance, Machado writes the novel in the second person, using “you” where first person would use “I.” By doing this, it is as though she is telling the reader a story about them, not herself. Despite being able to take ownership of her experience, she still uses strategies to separate herself from the abuse.
Despite works like Machado’s entering the narrative, women are still afraid of sharing their stories of abuse. I myself have felt this fear of being pitied, coddled, shamed, or told I’m too sensitive, that I wanted or enabled it. It’s much more uncomplicated to allow my abuser to get away with the way he treated me than to bring the experience to the attention of my friends, my boyfriend and my family. It’s easier to let the memory fade and become obsolete. “It’s been years. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Singer/songwriter Billie Eilish newest release titled “Your Power” is sang to an abuser. In it, she implores him, “try not to abuse your power.” She illustrates a victim’s feeling that they deserve the abuse, that they did something wrong. She asks him, “Will you only feel bad when they find out?” By addressing her abuser she is giving more women the confidence to do the same. All literature and media provide examples of abuse, but more works like Eilish’s and Machado’s need to be added to the archive for women to access and gain the belief that their experience is valid and worthy of being recognized.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-Paper. 1890.
Ivan Yakshin. “Nancy`s Death 1968.” YouTube, uploaded by Ivan Yakshin, 16 Jan. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjblvX95Blw.
Jackson, Shirley, and Francine Prose. Hangsaman (Penguin Classics). Reprint, Penguin Classics, 2013.
Machado, Carmen Maria. In the Dream House: A Memoir. Graywolf Press, 2020.
Sedam, Emma. “Not How It Seems: Oliver!” Rebeat, 29 Apr. 2015, www.rebeatmag.com/not-how-it-seems-oliver.
Wilder, Alice. “The Forgotten Rape of Skyler White.” HuffPost, 30 Nov. 2013, m.huffpost.com/us/entry/4013319/amp.