My sister describes the state of something being a psychological or personal ‘issue’ – such as a trauma, compulsion, phobia, or obsession – as having ‘brain spaghetti’. For example, apparently she has spaghetti about me pinning her down as a child and tickling her until she screamed for mercy. She knows this because when her spouse tried to do the same, the experience she had as a child came flooding back as a complex tangle of fears, feelings, and mental images. Notwithstanding the trauma inflicted on a sibling in my youth, the spaghetti metaphor is a simple but useful tool for explaining how complex our experiences are, and I bring it up here because I believe a lot of people have spaghetti about love. So much so, that often love becomes distorted, sometimes to the point of making one completely blind to manipulation and abuse. Part of the blame for ‘love spaghetti’ can be allotted to media depictions of romance and gender, which helps entrench and maintain our deeply held beliefs about what relationships should look like.
There is little doubt that media depictions of femininity and romantic love impact culture and influence the way we think about gender and relationships. Popular narratives of romantic love depicted in Disney films, as well as films such as Twilight and The Time Traveller’s Wife, mirror the narratives which we hear from victims of domestic abuse and teen relationship violence. Mass marketing, in particular, has an important impact on women and men alike. For example, the marketing of the Disney princesses franchise impacts girls’ constructions of gender and self-identity.
A closer look at that franchise also illustrates how seemingly innocuous storylines and characters idealise pain, tragedy, and sacrifice as necessary and acceptable components of romantic love. The character of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, for example, sacrifices herself so that the beast will free her father, she accepts his nasty brutishness with grace and kindness, until eventually he succumbs to her beauty and sweetness and she wins him over. Such phenomena twist our perceptions and expectations of intimate relationships, creating cultural narratives around the inevitability, and transformative power, of abuse.
In her book Love Distortion, Tracee Sioux likens the Twilight films to ‘female crack cocaine’. Edward Cullen’s natural instinct as a vampire is to consume human blood, and Bella’s blood especially calls to him like heroin to an addict. In spite of his natural instinct to destroy, however, he does not want her to become like him, and, in that sense, he refuses to give in to his natural instinct. Both he and Bella (and the film and book audiences) interpret his attraction to her as romantic love, thus tying the will to destroy to the passionate and erotic. ‘He can’t help his natural instinct to want to destroy Bella even though he doesn’t really want to,’ says Sioux. His behaviour is not just acceptable, it’s romantic because he sacrifices his deepest instinct for her sake. He can’t help his instincts because he is damaged, turned immortal and predator against his will. Bella can save him from his fate by loving him. Bella’s death at his hands is evidence of the mingling of the erotic and the tragic, where ‘erotic and passionate love’ meets ‘violence and pain’. This narrative makes victims of women, and victimhood romantic.
This valorisation of victimhood and the tragedy of romantic love provide at least some explanation for why women and girls enter into and stay in abusive relationships. Disney distorts what love looks like, what it should feel like, and misrepresents the cues and signals girls should be looking for. Even the recent mega-hit, Frozen, which was touted as a massive leap forward for female characters, ends up following traditional romance scripts. Our love culture teaches girls that they can change and control the feelings of a man. We often believe we can make them love us. Sioux states further:
The self-defeat, the sacrifice, the giving up of self is in our feminine collective dialogue … We tell ourselves that doing self-defeating things for a man is romantic … Bella’s story – our story – feeds the rapists, child molesters, girlfriend and wife batterers. The fairytales we read our daughters at night groom them to believe in a really distorted and dangerous definition of love.
These dialogues are dark romance narratives, culturally legitimated through the perpetuation, and acceptance, of the inevitability of violence in romantic love. Certainly a recipe for spicy and dangerous spaghetti.
Prince Charming is no less controlling and dominating than the Prince of Darkness, because when a woman’s self-worth is inextricably tied to having a male partner, it matters not whether he is good or bad – indeed, the bad-boy lover and partner is possibly one of the most sought-after stereotypes. And such stereotypes are not confined to fairytales, films and Disney princesses. A recent advertisement by Dolce & Gabbana depicts a beautifully groomed young woman wearing a very skimpy, sexy gown and stilettos, being held down by a very good-looking, shirtless young man, while several other similarly handsome, buff men look on. She does not look like she’s enjoying herself; instead, she looks resigned, almost blank or numb. Despite the fact that the photo depicts four big men looking like they’re about to rape her, it also suggests that this is just another day in the life of the woman, something to be expected. Thereby, violence is not only normalised, it is applauded, because after all, she is lucky to have the attention of such obviously desirable men. The violent nature of the pose combined with the way the subjects are presented suggests that violence and domination are sexy. This is not simple BDSM (which is at least arguably consensual) – this is gang rape.
Images such as this one serve to normalise male need and female passivity and compliance. In their 1996 study, Sugarman and Frankel concluded that ‘women who tolerate assault from husbands held more traditionally feminine identities than those who were not assaulted’. Add to this the economic imperative of weddings and family life still so deeply ingrained in our society, and it is clear that the Disney princess fantasy of married life is extremely difficult for women to dislodge, even in the face of consistent abuse. We as a society have been caught up in a kind of cruel optimism, in which the retraction of the Western fantasy of what writer and academic Lauren Berlant calls ‘the social democratic promise of the post second World War period in the US and Europe’, characterised by upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively durable intimacy, dies hard. The concept of ‘life-building’, she says, provides the ‘discourses of control’ via which the ‘processes and procedures involved historically in the administration of law and bodies’ are endlessly reproduced, making it well-nigh impossible to step outside of it.
It is safe to say that relationship and family health is characterised by enduring intimacy, partnership and loyalty. For many women, there is no competing narrative on which to draw to explain abuse and violence, and therefore no expectation that they may become free of it – or that they are even entitled to become free of it. In her work on the normalisation of violence in heterosexual relationships, Julia Wood interviewed twenty women from ex-violent relationships and found that ‘women’s use of gender and romance narratives to make sense of violent relationships legitimised both fairytale and dark romance narratives.’
The cumulative impact of watching Twilight or Disney princess films influences the ways in which young girls frame intimate relationships and their roles within them. When female characters are presented as passive, nervous, fearful, and bashful, they reinforce the seeming normality of the infantilised woman who never leaves girlhood behind. The ritual of subordination reiterated in these films is non-verbal as well as verbal; submissiveness and powerlessness depicted in the way female characters pose, gaze, and move. This feeds into the popular ideal of romantic love, which sociologist Zygmunt Bauman claims is characterised by men’s ‘urge to protect, feed, shelter, caress, cosset and pamper, jealously guard’ and women’s ‘being in service’. It speaks to the need to surrender to love and possession. To quote Bauman again:
If desire wants to consume, love wants to possess. While the fulfilment of desire is coterminous with the annihilation of its object, love grows with its acquisitions and is fulfilled in their durability.
It is the surrender to and possessiveness of romantic love that feeds the distorted view of relations for people of all genders. As novelist Ivan Klima points out, ‘there is little that comes so close to death as fulfilled love’. No wonder women stay in abusive relationships.
Surviving and extracting oneself from such a relationship is a very complex issue. Not surprisingly, given the pervasiveness of the romantic love discourse in Western society, both heterosexual and non-heterosexual women seem to draw heavily on this narrative. The scripts of romantic love are implicitly and explicitly evident in both representations of abuse in popular culture and in the stories of victims/survivors, many of which I report in my recent book, Sex, Love and Abuse: Discourses of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Much is made in these stories of the struggle and pain of love and relationships, of women’s role in saving their relationships, the fusing of identities in love relationships, and the inability of many to draw a line between making it work and tolerating outright abuse. The matter-of-fact way in which scripts of romantic love are accepted by women without critical reflection is hugely concerning. The explicit connection between romantic love and abuse in these scripts doesn’t appear to be recognised in our society; the insidiousness of Westernised notions of romantic love – that it is potentially painful, all encompassing, controlling and obsessive – is not necessarily ignored, but rather, considered an inevitable part of enduring intimate relationships. Acceptance of this discourse appears to impede women’s ability to leave their abusive partners. For example, one female victim expresses her confusion in the following way:
Shortly after falling in love with him I learned he was an alcoholic and the lies began. I tried to be patient and forgave him many things I probably shouldn’t have forgiven; always hoping he maybe would appreciate it and care enough for me to stop.
And this is just one among many such examples. Perhaps it is time to formulate a more healthy discourse of romantic love, or at least to gain some insight into its potential for distortion. We should be burning the recipe for love spaghetti, or at last exposing it as rancid, rather than continuing to cook it as if it’s business as usual.
Romantic love is back in fashion after a short hiatus during the 1970s, when it was briefly replaced by sexual promiscuity. Today romantic love and promiscuity are uneasy bedmates, so to speak. How do we reconcile the Disney/Twilight version of romance and enchantment with the expectation of sexual freedom? That is the first thing we have to deal with. The second, and probably more important issue, is how to address the mass frustration felt by the majority of young men at their inability to fulfil their entitlement, their birthright, as Masters of the Universe. I will address this latter issue first.
Up until the 1960s, white men ruled their universe, whether it was a country, a corporation or a household. When the civil rights movement took hold and tenaciously refused to release its grip, white men raised the flag and resigned themselves to the inevitability of equal rights. By the end of the 1970s, women and people of colour were accessing some of the things previously reserved for the privileged group – rights to work, to equal pay and conditions, access to housing and services, and to some measure of respect. But something happened in the 1980s, and a backlash against this progress began to raise its ugly head.
In his research on adolescents’ transition into manhood, Michael Kimmel suggests that there are currently two varieties of backlash – one is clearly misogynistic, the other not so much. The latter variety belongs to the older generation of men, now in their thirties and forties, who, he claims ‘experience their masculinity wistfully, with nostalgic glances over their shoulders at the carefree boys they once were’. Kimmel claims that Gen Y men, on the other hand, ‘experience their masculinity not in terms of what they had to give up in order to become men, but rather they experience it as anticipation – what they will experience. And more to the point, what they are entitled to experience’.
Brought up with the media in their faces twenty-four hours a day, Gen Y men have soaked up the promises of advertisers, celebrities and men’s magazines of a life in charge and on top of the world. Real life must therefore hit them like a low, hard punch, and they are not taking it lying down. Rather, they are vocalising their resentment and bitterness on Twitter, Facebook, online forums, and on university campuses, and their anger is aimed at women, gays, and people of colour. According to Kimmel in his book Guyland, their misogynistic, racist and homophobic diatribes are both spiteful and intentional, and in many cases dangerous. Today, women are experiencing abuse directly by individuals and small informal groups, and when someone stands up to protest, they receive rape and death threats.
The overriding issue that no one seems to recognise, and which no one therefore has bothered to address, is the way in which media and popular culture govern our beliefs about, and expectations concerning masculinity, femininity, sex and romantic love. This mish-mash of contradictions and confusions has created a virtual monster. When Maxim magazine publishes their annual Hot 100 list, what we see is 100 very beautiful, but also very Photoshopped images of women. What we fail to realise is that, out of a world population of 7.12 billion, over half of which are women, 100, 1000 or even 10,000 such women are highly uncommon – indeed, they are more than rare, they are anomalies. And when we see film after film depicting romantic love as tragic, abusive, and inevitable, we forget that these plots and storylines are fabricated.
Thus we come back to the first ‘thing’ mentioned previously that we have to deal with: how to reconcile the Disney/Twilight version of romance and enchantment with the expectation of sexual freedom? This is an important challenge that must be faced head on. As I mentioned earlier, the popular culture version of romantic love is strongly geared toward fairytale notions of being swept off one’s feet, courted, and wed, as a prelude to living happily ever after. Film, literature and other cultural depictions reinforce love as fated, inevitable, enduring, exclusive and romantic. People of all ages, but young people especially, are inspired by role models such as Prince William and Princess Kate, who appear to live in an actual fairytale dream. How quickly the public forgets that William’s parents fell afoul of the paradox of romantic love and freedom of sexuality, that his mother was cuckolded by his father, who had a lifelong affair with another man’s wife, to whom he is now married; that his mother also had affairs in the end. Instead we remember her tragic death, which reinforces the fairytale.
At the same time as younger men are anticipating their masculine entitlements, young women are anticipating the fairytale of a Disney-like wedding and happily ever after. An example is the ubiquitous celebrity Kim Kardashian, whose marriage to basketball player Kris Humphries in August of 2011 was widely publicised. It was also the subject of a two-part television special featuring the preparation for the wedding, and extravagant festivities, which included the launching of Kardashian’s ‘wedding fragrance’ in honour of her own wedding. The marriage lasted seventy-two days, after which Kardashian filed for divorce. Subsequently, it was widely rumoured that the wedding had been a publicity stunt, though Kardashian denied it. She is now married to singer Kanye West. It would not be overstating to say that the entire Kardashian family is a media circus, with Kim its biggest act. And yet, the public laps up her every move, as she trips from romance to romance, mesmerised by her fairytale lifestyle. Again, the irony of her personal life seems to have been missed.
Unlike young men, who become resentful when they fail to realise their masculine entitlements, young women seem to become confused when they realise that neither marriage nor motherhood is like the fairytale they were led to believe. So ingrained is the plotline of a woman’s life, even forty years after women’s liberation tried to tell them it need not be so, that she finds it very difficult to release the fairytale. Just as young boys are taught that they are the kings of the castle, young girls are taught that they are all princesses. The pervasiveness of media representations, and parental and educational reinforcement, has made it so.
The nexus between love and abuse thus resides in the social discourses surrounding masculinity and femininity. Women’s training in femininity and men’s training in masculinity do little to prepare them for the realities of sex, love, marriage and children. The subjectivities to which both men and woman have access often narrowly define their roles in these contexts. This training justifies, in the minds of the role payers, violence and abuse as tolerable ingredients of a relationship. While it has always been the case that individuals are governed by the discourses of their time, particularly with respect to masculinity and femininity, today these discourses have an even deeper impact because they are all the more pervasive.
Technology ensures not only that we are constantly reminded of the roles we are expected to play, it tells us that it is, in fact, what we want. Our interaction with technology through social media, the internet, gaming and mobile devices allows us to reinforce each other in these roles, and acts as a form of masculinity and femininity policing. It also encourages us to interact with capitalism more than ever before. In an era when poverty is at an all time high in the Western world, even the poorest have a mobile phone and access to the internet. We are being trained to consume almost every moment of every day of our waking lives. This has made our love spaghetti instant: almost imperceptibly cooked up and served to us as a staple of every relationship diet.
I am not suggesting that we are dupes, passively and unconsciously sucking up and ingesting the roles we are given. There are men and women who deliberately and consciously stand outside the parameters of traditional masculinity and femininity. The forgoing is not for them. Domestic abuse is experienced by same-sex couples, people in relationships with transgender individuals, and by men at the hands of women and other men. It may also be impacted by race and class. Similarly, sexual assault, harassment and abuse are experienced by all genders and sexualities, and by all races and classes. I am suggesting, however, that it is often difficult to recognise just how pervasive these discourses are and to resist conforming in a world where conforming is rewarded handsomely. Conforming to masculine and feminine stereotypes and to scripts of romantic love guarantees that we will win social approval, at least from those who care about such things, such as our employers, our peers, and more widely, the media, government and society in general. It is the narrative that we are encouraged to strive for in our relationships. It’s how we keep the nation reproducing, and business moving along as usual, ensuring that, without greater intervention, love spaghetti will continue to be a recipe that is passed on from one generation to the next.
This phrase is borrowed from Michael Kimmel’s Guyland (2008), but was originally coined by Tom Wolff in Bonfire of the Vanities, (1987).