Haven’t we always romanticized abusive and/or toxic relationships?


Fifty Shades of Grey has gotten a lot of publicity lately for the abusive nature of Grey’s pursuit of his love interest. Much of this publicity relates it back to Twilight and similar leanings of Edward and all the attention that movie received for being considered romantic as well. To me, a part of the problem is that it goes back so much further than that. Western civilization* has been romanticizing abusive and/or toxic relationships for centuries, perhaps millennia. I can start by going back to this much romanticized moment:

Here he looks beaten down and gorgeously vulnerable, but have you ever watched the whole movie? He’s an abuser who uses that move to get his wife to come back to him for more abuse later. He doesn’t change. How about going back to Shakespeare, where Romeo + Juliet go from a having a fun with a forbidden romance to forcing the priest to marry them lest they not commit suicide in a span of days. They love feverishly for a ridiculously short period and use misguided tactics to get out of obligations that weren’t all that bad when you think about it. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the way that Paul Rudd played Paris in the 1996 version. He’s my nerd crush.
We can take this point all the way back to Greek or Roman literature. In The Aeneid,  Venus causes Dido to fall helplessly in love with Aeneas. She’s a Carthaginian queen who is strong and independent in the beginning and then portrayed for the rest of the story as a love sick woman who can’t live without her Aeneas, all for his benefit in getting ships to leave her with. Venus doesn’t even bother to reverse the situation when Aeneas leaves, she just leaves Dido under his spell to be so heartbroken that she commits suicide. The original version of many fairy tales involve great heartache and sometimes suicide as well, as with The Little Mermaid where the prince doesn’t choose her and she is faced with the option of killing him or never returning to her family.
Let’s not paint women as the perpetural victims, either. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adam is portrayed as so in love with Eve that he willingly chooses to betray God so that he will not be separated from her after she’s eaten the forbidden fruit. It ends with them holding hands and going out into the great unknown together because to be exiled with her was better than to be alone in the Garden with God.

Modern literature and film have begun to really recognize that abusive and/or toxic relationships should be portrayed as the horrendous thing they are. Many of the older stories are revamped in modern adaptations to either eliminate abuses or take much of the romanticism out of them, just as the director of 50 Shades is said to have done when moving from the book to the film. Cruel Intentions, the modern adaption of an 18th century novel called Les Liaisons dangereuses, takes the death by heartbreak out of one such story and makes it seem like the love interest will recover while remembering the fallen who had been toxic for her. Despite that this seems like progress, we still end up with 50 Shades, Twilight, and even geek culture obsesses over Joker and Harley Quinn‘s toxic and abusive relationship.  We still have songs like these:

Being heartbroken and lovesick themselves are characteristics that are romanticized here independent of the actual perpetrator in these songs. It’s almost as if we just want our hearts ripped out because we can’t feel otherwise.

Can we not feel otherwise? Can we not appreciate love when it comes by us without great conflict? So many spouses and partners on TV and in movies are depicted as boring or detached from each other after a while. Are we just teaching our teens, who many of the modern heartbreak stories are directed at, that their hearts need to be ripped out in order to feel like love is true or worth it? Make no mistake, it’s not even just the modern stories that they are exposed to. I know that most of the toxic love stories that I’ve read about were in literature classes. Are we even trying to make love that is not toxic seem just as romantic?

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite couples. Far from perfect, they try together.

*I’m not well read in non-Western literature and would no be comfortable making assumptions about other cultures.

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