Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Blame Game: Romanticizing Abusive Relationships

The tricky thing about abusive relationships is that even the people in them don’t always realize that they are abusive.

It is common for the participants (both abuser and victim) to have been victimized in the past, be it through neglect or active physical, sexual or psychological abuse. So often the dysfunction and abuse in their current relationship doesn’t seem bad or is more acceptable, because it isn’t “as bad” in comparison to what they’ve experienced in the past. The most complicated thing about these kinds of relationships is that sometimes these two very broken and dysfunctional people honestly do love each other, in so much they are capable of love.

All of this is true of both the characters in this romanticized abusive relationship.

Captive in the Dark is a fantastic example of why abusive relationships are so common, by utilizing two very powerful stereotypes about men and women, that are also very popular archetypes in books, movies and various forms media.

Men are violent and domineering, while women are naive and weak. Therefore a man loves through force, and a woman loves through surrender.

In this story the reader is taken on an thrilling and emotional journey of learning how to love an abuser, while disempowering and blaming a victim for her abuse. It’s a pretty simple formula utilized by a lot a similar abuse/abuser fantasies. It is a very popular theme that can be found in almost every genre of romance from Fifty Shades of Grey to Beautiful Disaster, as well as many popular titles aimed at young adults.

It seeks to forgive the abuser for his many sins by giving him a sympathetic back story and a very earnest belief that he loves (or cares deeply for) his victim. Conversely, it casts the victim in the decidedly unsympathetic light, even when she is doing heroic or very understandable things, like resisting the abuser or attempting to leave the abusive situation.

What is the purpose of casting a victim in a negative light? Easy. It diminishes the very real horror of what the 'hero' does to the victim, because “it could be worse” or “it wouldn’t be as bad if she wouldn’t fight him.” Suddenly all of the victim's choices, that in the real world would be applauded as heroic, are cast in a negative light in the story. She is seen as being unreasonable, idiotic and even cruel/hurtful to the abuser’s feelings.

He loves, and needs her. /sarcasm

The story begins when Caleb, a criminal in the sex trafficking industry, kidnaps the heroine with the intention of forcing her into training as a sex slave so that he may sell her to his enemy in an elaborate (aka convoluted) revenge plan. Based on the the set up alone this book screams dark, thriller or horror, not the erotica romance.

However, I don’t blame those who do see it as erotic and romantic, because the entire story is framed and presented as just that. Where an abusive, kidnapper is a reluctant hero and his unwilling victim is his lucky lady love.

Caleb is the protagonist of this story. It is HIS story of redemption and poor little Olivia isn’t even the antagonist. She’s merely the conduit through which he is finds forgiveness and love. Her resistance and reluctance to love her abuser is the obstacle that must be overcome.

If only she would give up her sense of self worth, and freedom to give him that love he so richly deserves. /sarcasm

Captive in the Dark is a actually very well constructed, though the writing isn’t that stellar (epic ellipse abuse, more telling than showing and an overwrought narrative style that made Caleb sound more like an aristocratic poet of a gothic novel opposed to a gritty streetwise criminal). The story pulls the reader in with the taboo titillation of seeing through the eyes of a predator, but it is littered with cut-away flashbacks and carefully worded internal thoughts that attempt to justify his actions and induce the reader to forgive Caleb’s loathsome behavior.

Judging by the glowing reviews and vocal fans of the series, it works. That alone shows that this book/series is worthy of recognition. Though, I withhold my praise, and respect when all of this work is being put forth to paint an abuser as hero, at the expense of his young, female victim.

I’m not going to judge people who like this book, because honestly I’ve loved a ton of books with questionable content. Rather I’m hoping that people who enjoyed this book, and feel affection for Caleb stop the next time they hear a story about a victim of domestic, sexual or any other kind of abuse.

When they wonder “why did she stay,” I want them to consider that maybe that victim loved their abuser as much as Olivia (and the readers) love Caleb.

At the end of the day this is a dark fantasy about female disempowerment, and male control that results in the sexual pleasure too taboo to admit to wanting willingly, aka a rape fantasy. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to explore these dark desires, but I'm very uncomfortable with labeling a rape fantasy as romance. That's a rant for another post.

0.5 star for the skill it takes to sell rape and abuse as romance, but Roberts' has to share credit with rape culture and misogyny.


Wow, how to spread out more of this internalized misogyny. How can this sell? What is wrong with people?

I think the better question is what's wrong with our culture. I gave credit to rape culture for a reason. There are subtler versions of these same scenario in every genre of fiction out there. Whether a female character is being enslaved or control my a male character because of bloodlust, magic, she's a robot, etc, is no different than the dynamic in Captive in the Dark.

The difference with this story is the enslavement, rape fantasy is more overt than stories like Twilight, True Blood and Beauty and the Beast. So when you take a step back and look at all of them together, you can see the progression of the a readers desire for this kind of guiltless sexual fantasy, where the victim is forced into the sex she secretly desires by a man who ultimately turns into a hero, usually through the power of love or love of a 'good' woman.

To answer you questions, it sells because in rape culture and misogyny the only way for a woman to have sex and not be a slut is to be raped. What's wrong with people? We worship purity and don't know how to deal with female sexuality.

*steps off soapbox*

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