Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Loving Domestic Violence


In fiction, physically abusive relationships are generally regarded as irredeemably bad. When a person attacks their partner, they are depicted as a horrible villain. Should the abused partner say it’s okay, that they’re willing to ride it out, they’re depicted as in denial about their loved one’s villainy, possibly because they’ve been victimized to the point that they’re no longer capable of thinking rationally. I’ve noticed a problematic trend that subverts this, however, and depicts relationships that would be characterized as abusive instead as loving relationships that get a little thorny but if both partners work at it, their relationship can last. Not only last, but become stronger because only people who really love each other can look past such acts of violence. Examples of this are seen in the book New Moon by Stephenie Meyer and its film adaptation, the book Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer, and the television episode “What Happens Next” of Private Practice.


New Moon is a supernatural romance involving lycanthropy, and the main love interest Jacob is a werewolf in a pack at the Quileute reservation. When Jacob takes protagonist Bella to meet his packmates, she is brought to meet a woman, Emily, who is the fiancé of one of the werewolves, Sam. On the way, werewolf Embry warns her not to stare.

Bella: “Does Emily know about…?”
Embry: “Yeah. And hey, don’t stare at her. That bugs Sam.”
Bella: “Why would I stare?”
Embry: “Like you just saw now, hanging out around werewolves has its risks.”
–New Moon, page 330

Bella is startled to see that while Emily is beautiful from one side, she has slash marks scarring the other side of her face. Bella tries not to stare. As she watches Emily cook, Bella notes to herself that hanging out with werewolves does indeed have its risks. Then Sam comes in and kisses Emily in such a way that Bella feels they must share true love. By all appearances, Emily indeed returns feelings of love toward Sam, and she acts as like the girlfriend of a soldier worried that one day her boyfriend may not return (from battle against vampires).

Bella’s father Charlie, who isn’t in the know, tells her the cover story that Emily was mauled by a bear over a year ago, and that Sam was really shaken up over it. Bella realizes that it must have been done when there was just one werewolf there, which would have been the alpha Sam. Bella “shudder[s] at the thought of how Sam must [feel] every time he look[s] at Emily’s face” (p. 340). Jacob later confirms this.

Jacob explains that when he transforms he feels out of control. When he first started transforming, he almost slashed his own father. When Sam first began to transform, he lost control, transformed into a wolf and slashed Emily. “Sam lost control of his temper for just one second . . . and she was standing too close. And now there’s nothing he can ever do to put it right again. I hear his thoughts—I know what that feels like” Jacob says (p. 345). The focus of the dialog is on how Jacob doesn’t want to be a monster, and when he describes what Sam did the focus is on how Sam feels. Emily’s side is never really gone into, but she is considered to be somewhat responsible for being hurt by the fact of standing too close to a werewolf. Bella later worries about being attacked like Emily because she unintentionally makes Jacob angry and makes the effort to calm him down.

Bella and Emily make the decision to stay with werewolves—people who may attack them if they get too angry—and as such accept the responsibility of taking care to not get hurt. While Sam feels bad, it is accepted that it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t exactly Emily’s fault either because she didn’t know about the lycanthropy. Now that she knows, however, it is kind of considered her responsibility to watch out. An implication of this is that were Sam to get angry and Emily not calm him down, then she would be responsible for anything that happens to her if he were to wolf out. This is an unfortunate parallel to real world violence where people in abusive relationships are considered responsible for their partners’ violent tempers. I suspect the author never made the connection to real world violence because of the lycanthropy aspect involved. The book Hominids, however, has a more thoughtful examination of whether a relationship that one could call abusive could possibly be healthy—and it involves Neanderthals.

Hominids is a science-fiction book that makes up the first of the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, the other books of which are Humans and Hybrids. The Neanderthal Parallax involves the appearance of an inter-universal portal between our world where humans became dominant and Neanderthals went extinct and the world where Neanderthals became dominant and humans went extinct, and the trilogy depicts a polyamorous bisexual romance in this setting. Hominids has three main protagonists: Ponter, a Barast (Neanderthal) quantum physicist; Mary, a Gliksin (human) geneticist; and Adikor, a Barast and Ponter’s research partner. Adikor and Ponter are man-mates (husbands), and Ponter and Mary fall for each other after Ponter slips into the Gliksin world and becomes stranded. When the portal opens up for an instant and Ponter vanishes from the Barast world, Adikor becomes a murder suspect and a key piece of evidence is the fact that Adikor once struck Ponter and almost killed him.

The backstory is that at some point in the past, Ponter and Adikor had a disagreement over a trivial scientific issue that escalated into a huge fight. In anger, Adikor punched Ponter in the jaw, smashing it. Barasts have massive strength, so hitting someone is a lethal attack and is forbidden. Ponter almost died and had to have his jaw bone replaced with a prosthetic, but he still forgave his man-mate. We as readers see from Adikor’s perspective and understand that he feels just terrible about what happened, and he’d never intentionally hurt Ponter. Ponter explains to Mary that he understands he provoked Adikor when he should have let it go. He doesn’t consider Adikor abusive, just fallible, and they continue to have a loving relationship. Mary has a hard time accepting that Ponter isn’t a battered victim but comes to accept that the relationship is healthy by Hybrids.

It’s worth noting that the Neanderthal Parallax has an ongoing theme of rape and physical abuse, and this is the only instance where all is forgiven. A Gliksin named Cornelius rapes Mary, and he is portrayed as an absolute monster, though he ultimately becomes regretful and takes his own life, which is portrayed as redemption. In Hybrids, Mary falls for the Barast woman Bandra, who has an abusive man-mate named Harb. Harb is never seen and is only referred to in the story, but he actively beats Bandra, and Mary helps her get away from him. Author Robert J. Sawyer clearly did research into abuse situations, as the characters act realistically and the right things are said, and it comes off as a generally respectful depiction of such things. However, the fact that the demonization only occurs in situations where the persons are male/female and that there is forgiveness for a male/male situation does come off as a bit of a double standard.

There is a pervasive idea that men are naturally aggressive and as such can behave in aggressive ways toward each other and not be adversely affected. Physical violence between men is considered natural and often a healthy way to resolve conflicts. Though this is different in the Barast world, where everyone has a lethal weapon for a fist, the general sentiment is still intact. Even though Adikor’s resorting to physical violence crosses the line twice, Ponter is able to empathize with him and forgive him. In contrast, women are generally considered passive, nonviolent, and always the victims and never the perpetrators of domestic violence. Though this can work as a generalization, there are always exceptions, and this problematic stereotype makes it hard for people to recognize when a woman may be abusive. It is irresponsible to portray the stereotype as a rule, and the trilogy in general has some problematic portrayals of masculinity. This double standard is explored in Private Practice.

Private Practice is a medical/relationship drama, a spin-off of Grey’s Anatomy. I only watched a few episodes of Private Practice when actor Nicholas Brendon (Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) made an appearance as Lee McHenry, misogynistic rapist guy, so I might miss some of the nuances with the characters in my analysis here. Part of the arc with McHenry is the episode “What Happens Next”, which has a side-plot where Sheldon is worried one of his patients is caught in an abusive marriage.

Rachel and Nick are a long-lasting married couple who come to Sheldon for a therapy session. They insist that they’re fine even though Rachel has been through a difficult time with diabetes treatments and cancer remission. Sheldon presses and finds out they have frequent fights, a subject which makes them tense up. Rachel starts crying, and Sheldon goes to grab some tissues. From the other side of the room, Sheldon observes Nick try to comfort her and Rachel start madly hitting him in a quick surge of rage before running out of energy. After the session, Sheldon tries to tell Addison that Rachel’s abusive, but she rejects the notion out of hand.

Addison: “She’s the most resilient woman I know. She never complains about her health. She never stops trying. She’s incredible.”
Sheldon: “She’s abusive.”
Addison: “Sheldon, come on, she was a ballerina and Nick looks like a lumberjack. How badly could she really hurt him?”
Sheldon: “Abuse is abuse. Would we be having this conversation if Rachel was the one being hit instead of Nick?”
Addison: “Sheldon.”
Sheldon: “I’m serious. Would you tell a woman to stay with a [sic] abusive spouse?
Addison: “No, but this is a c-- This feels different. Rachel and Nick are not a cautionary tale; they’re a love story.”

Sheldon then messes up a Biblical reference, and the scene ends with a comedic moment of Addison remarking that he’s rather odd, the issue being left unresolved. Sheldon then approaches Nick alone and tells him that he (Sheldon) has to report the abuse. Nick says that he’ll deny it, that he can handle her himself, and that he’ll never give up on her. When Rachel comes in for a medical checkup, she talks to Addison about it, speaking appreciatively about how Nick never complains and just helps her deal with it, adding that she can’t control herself. Addison finds that Rachel has a high level of testosterone in her blood and hypothesizes that she might have ovarian cancer, which could be causing a buildup of testosterone responsible for her violent episodes, and recommends invasive surgery to remove the tumor. “I can’t hurt my husband anymore,” Rachel says, approving the surgery.

Sheldon fills Nick in on the surgery situation, but he recommends that Nick break up with Rachel anyway. Sheldon expresses admiration for the love they share, saying that under normal circumstances he would help keep the marriage healthy, but he has to insist that Nick walks away. Nick rejects the notion, though: “No one stays together anymore. They just… have a fight, get a divorce, pretend like it never happened. When instead, they should be fighting for each other, through whatever comes. This is what love is supposed to be. I’m never walking away.” Sheldon later expresses to Addison how truly inspiring their love is.

As it turns out, Rachel has terminal cancer and needs to be transferred to a hospice. Nick tries to say that he can take care of her himself, but Rachel says she can’t bear to hurt him anymore and the nurses will be able to take care of her. Their story ends with the prevalent idea that this is a bittersweet love story. Like with Sam and Emily, the abuse here is waved away because the abuser couldn’t control themselves. I find it equally as problematic, perhaps especially so with the reversed gender role element.

The episode starts with some interesting commentary on the gender role stereotypes involved with abusive couples, but this dissolves by the end. With a man built like a lumberjack and a woman who used to be a ballerina, one would indeed think that if there were any abuse going on that he would be behind it and she’s the helpless victim. Sheldon prods at that conventional notion, insisting that the man could be the victim, which is a progressive idea that gives respect to both men and women as human beings. When the abusive relationship turns into a love story, it subverts progressive ideas in favor of conservative ideas.

Each of these examples, New Moon, Hominids, and Private Practice, indicate a problematic trend of marginalizing abuse. New Moon puts too much blame on the victim, and Hominids and Private Practice present a double standard where men are seen as less than victims by virtue of being born strong. Private Practice touches on the double standard but ultimately reinforces it. While the unlikely love story might be appealing, it is problematic because it marginalizes what is a widespread real world problem. There might be a few cases where the abusive partner reforms and the couple’s overall love becomes stronger, this is not the case for the vast majority of incidents. Playing up the fantasy may well cause more harm than good.

1 comment:

Ophelia said...

Enjoyed your post. I just posted on the Meyer / violence issue too. It was a great opportunity for her to explore the theme in a grown up way - but instead she cloaks it in a veil of soft-focus teen romance. It's not that we need our books to moralise at us - just that we want them to be reasonably intelligent in realising that ongoing violence in relationships doesn't lead to smooth, happy endings. Even Bram Stoker realised this, and he was writing in Victorian times ...