There are three ingredients to making the quintessential cliché male love interest. He’ll usually have an uneven smile or an arched eyebrow. If your male love interest isn’t lopsided in some way then what are you even doing? He’ll have dark hair to match his dark aura. He’ll probably be played by someone such as Logan Lerman or Evan Peters, and he’ll likely perpetuate ideas in young people’s minds that abusive behaviors are the pinnacle of romance.
There are many different types of abusive personalities such as, antisocial/narcissistic, schizoid/borderline, and dependent/compulsive. However, the one that media loves to latch onto is antisocial/ narcissistic. There is something enticing about someone who thinks they are better than you, and who has a complete lack of emotional depth, that is until you come along of course.
What do narcissistic abusers do?
Narcissistic abusers may use verbal or physical abuse, manipulation, blackmail, lying, neglect, and invade others privacy to get their way. They can be controlling, jealous, and obsessed with their object of desire, while simultaneously being emotionally detached. Does that sound familiar? It should. I may have just described a narcissistic abuser, but I also just described the leading man in Fifty Shades of Grey, and Tate Langdon from American Horror Story, Severus Snape from The Harry Potter Series, and The Joker from Batman.
To be fair, not all those listed above had a happy ending to their relationship. Still, that doesn’t stop the blatant glamorization of what they do, and the message it sends to the public. If someone acts in an abusive way to you, it is the beginning of true love. A lot of times the message is love will change the abuser. However, the victim while changing him in the process doesn’t do much other than be victimized. This leads to the people watching to believe that if you allow yourself to be abused then love will follow.
So how do we know it is the media?
How do we know that what we see affects what we do? Look at The Bobo Doll Experiment, where children played with a doll on their own. Then children were given the doll after shown an adult acting aggressively towards it. The children, in turn, acted with aggression towards the doll, as it was what they had seen. This experiment was about violence in the media, but another underlying message still rings true; humans learn from other humans. We gauge how to act and how our relationships are supposed to go based on what we see in others. Children learn violence from watching violence, and children learn how to love by watching love.
How does it affect us?
While we like to pretend that attributing these personality types and qualities to a love interest in a movie or book is just fantasy, it has real-world impact. Writing this, a line from the slam poet Brenna Twohy slips into my mind. In her poem “Fantastic Breast and Where to Find Them,” she says, “the first time a man I loved held me by the wrist and called me a whore, I did not think run. I thought this is just like the movies,” and it is.
The media uses tropes to help facilitate characters and plot lines. It puts it’s cast in boxes based on these tropes. The good girl and the bad boy is a popular one, but instead of being a simple television trope it becomes a consistent thing that happens in life. A little boy will grow up watching Twilight and believe that the only real love lies in obsession. A little girl will grow up watching Grease and think it is good to change herself for a boy.
So what do we do?
I used to watch the show Supernatural like it was my religion and I realized that my favorite character was the devil himself. Growing up, I consumed Harry Potter like it was the only thing I had to eat. I did not realize until I was older, that a man saying he’ll always love you, after joining a hate organization hell bent on killing people like you, wasn’t healthy. I looked at Satan, and I saw humor. I looked at Severus Snape, and I saw tragic unrequited love, because that was what was being fed to me.
I’m not saying that we cannot explore aspects of unhealthy love in a safe medium such as the movies, but we must acknowledge its faults, and make sure to tell our children that the difference between fantasy and reality, isn’t just dragons versus lizards, but abusive love versus real love.
In Nina Simone’s song, You’ve Got to Learn, she sings, “you’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served,” but how hard is it to leave when you’ve been served abuse so much that healthy love becomes an acquired taste, instead of a food staple? It is said that when you’re wearing rose-tinted glasses all the red flags just look like flags, but sometimes it isn’t glasses you wear, but the glass on your television screen, and the power of movie magic changing the red flags into a bouquet of roses.
Bandura, A, D Ross and S A. Ross. “Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66.(1963)
Gannon, Theresa A. “Aggressive Offenders’ Cognition.” Google Books, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ocHaGVGh0SAC&oi=fnd&pg=PA247&dq=domestic%2Babusers&ots=0h1flcsO5l&sig=Qsz1ojT-vJnoB7Ux22u1xvAE9eM#v=onepage&q=domestic%20abusers&f=false.
Lancer, Darlene. How to Spot Narcissistic Abuse. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/toxic-relationships/201709/how-spot-narcissistic-abuse.
Goodfriend, Wind. Relationship Violence in “Twilight.” www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychologist-the-movies/201111/relationship-violence-in-twilight.