By Kyle Bergerson
My sophomore year English class read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. The novel follows Offred, a woman living in a dystopian society where women’s rights are stripped away and they are assigned to men for the purpose of bearing children. You would think these disturbing ideas would be what stuck with me in the year since then. Instead, I remember most a discussion in class of a seemingly insignificant incident. In this scene, Nick, the house guard, grabs Offred impulsively and kisses her. A few girls in my class began to swoon over the “passionate” scene. They described Nick’s behavior as “cute” and “romantic.”
If Nick were the antagonist of the story, no one would see this action as endearing but as evidence of his participation in a degrading society. However, he was not the evil character. I still found their reaction astounding. To me, Nick touched her without her permission, in a sexual way, and in a society where women’s bodies are controlled by men. In no way did I see this scene as a cute expression of passion but as harassment. It made me think: What is our cultural obsession with abuse in relationships?
It is no secret that many famous relationships in novels, films, and music are glorified despite the abusive behaviors of the characters. Take for instance Noah and Allie from the novel “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks. At first glance, the hardships in their relationship are always overcome by their passion and love for one another. Yet at the beginning of the story, Noah pursues Allie with a persistence that borders on harassment, especially given her repeated verbal denials. She agrees to go on a date with him only after he threatens suicide by falling from a Ferris wheel. Such manipulative and controlling behaviors constitute psychological abuse.
Or, consider the protagonist Benjamin from the classic film “The Graduate.” Most people understand that Mrs. Robinson, a close family friend, manipulated the much younger and naive Benjamin into an abusive affair. But what about Benjamin’s abuse of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine? On their first date, he takes Elaine to a burlesque show that makes her visibly upset to the point of sobbing and then refuses to take her home. Elaine ends their relationship, but he follows her across California and shows up at her university uninvited. She again ends their relationship, yet he tracks her down even at her wedding. This is not only emotional manipulation, but also stalking. Are these kinds of relationships “cute”?
In spite of the ever-growing #MeToo movement, I hear girls in my school commonly refer to Catherine and Heathcliff, the tragically romantic couple from Emily Brontё’s “Wuthering Heights,” as the kind of relationship they want for themselves. This comment always baffles me, as Catherine and Heathcliff both emotionally torture one another out of revenge and feelings of betrayal. It is evident that their passion whether it be rooted in love or not, becomes destructive to the point they both become abusive towards the other (And don’t get me started on Heathcliff’s physical abuse of Isabella, his actual wife).
These types of relationships can be found not only in novels and on television, but also in many songs. In the song “Run for your Life” by The Beatles, the person in the song is threatening to kill a woman if she is seen with another man.
“Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better keep your head, little girl
Or you won’t know where I am
You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end ah little girl.”
As seen here, arguably the most popular band of all time glorifies controlling and violent behaviors.
My exploration led me to wonder: at what point does “playful” and “tenacious” flirting become “harassment”? Let’s compare “The Princess Bride” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” two beloved family movies that actually share a few similarities. In “The Princess Bride,” the romantic hero Westley changes his identity to get Buttercup to admit her love for him. Forgetting for a moment that he physically manhandles her and even slaps her around, he lies about his identity in order to win her back. Is this deceit not a form of manipulation, in spite of the fact that both characters truly love each other? In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Daniel, the tragically comic father, also fakes an identity to get back into the life of his kids and ex-wife. Does this type of manipulation border abuse, even though the movie is hysterically funny?
I am not an expert and I don’t know if I have the right answer to these questions. I do believe, however, that the line between romance and abuse is slippery. As a young woman, it is important to me to know when someone slips over that line. It cannot be based solely on the sincerity of their interest, their good looks, their persistence, or their position of status or authority. Would you react differently to a famous, normatively attractive celebrity kissing you without permission as compared to a random, subjectively ugly stranger? Honestly, I am not sure. What I do know is that stories use abusive qualities for dramatic effect, even novels like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a story about women’s oppression.
As a child, my teachers always said that, when a boy was mean to a girl, it meant that he probably liked them. By convincing children that love can be expressed with abuse, we grow up believing the fairy-tale myths of our popular culture. Romanticizing abuse generates toxic relationships. Just because it is tolerated in stories for dramatic effect, does not mean you have to tolerate it in your life.
Kyle Bergerson is a high school senior in Kansas City, Missouri who spent her summer with family in East Hampton. She interned with The Retreat and worked at the Amagansett Library.