Pop culture has a not-so-funny way of romanticizing relationships which are wholly toxic, unhealthy and, to state it bluntly, nothing aside from abusive. Some of the world’s most famous couples in books and movies are made into idols of perfect relationships, when they are, in actuality, as far from ideal as it gets.
Truth be told, in many scenarios depicted by many books and movies, neither the man nor the woman in a relationship lays a hand on their partner. No, there is no physical violence involved. Emotional violence, however, is a different story.
The couple’s words and controlling actions cut one another like knives, leaving invisible, internal scars. Yet, the relationships in which these scars are present continue to be idolized by fans of each franchise. It’s not the audience’s fault for looking upon each couple with envy; romanticizing these unhealthy relationships is a fault which falls entirely upon Hollywood’s shoulders.
The case of Harley Quinn and the Joker is one of the most evident circumstances of such abuse. Quinn, originally Harleen Quinzel, is a psychiatrist working at D.C. Comic’s infamous Arkham Asylum when she comes into contact with criminal mastermind, the Joker. Although their work together begins as a typical relationship between psychiatrist and client, it quickly escalates to much more. As Quinn falls in love with the Joker, he uses her vulnerability to manipulate her into breaking him out of the asylum. As time elapses, he convinces her to become his literal partner in crime and forces her to do all of his dirty work.
The release of Warner Bros. Pictures’ Suicide Squad in 2016 brought Harley Quinn and the Joker’s relationship back into the spotlight. Though Quinn is depicted as more of an independent, borderline feminist character than she was in past adaptations, she is still undeniably used as a ruse in many of her boyfriend’s games. Most evidently, The Joker convinces Quinn to fall into a vat of chemicals with him, thus completing her transformation into his equally insane crime partner. Yet, after the release of the movie, it was nearly impossible to turn a blind eye to the countless fans on social media who dubbed the pair “relationship goals.”
Sadly, their story is not as idiosyncratic as one might hope. Another highly publicized, glamorized relationship is that of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, the main characters of E.L. James’ controversial series, Fifty Shades of Grey. Although Harley Quinn and the Joker’s relationship lacks the physical violence which exists abundantly within Ana and Christian’s relationship, the emotional component is strikingly similar.
Like D.C. Comics’ most infamous couple, Ana and Christian’s relationship is defined by Christian’s need to control every aspect of Ana’s life. His insecurities drive him to be overwhelmingly possessive, jealous and selfish. While The Joker coaxed Harley into scheming with him, Christian uses Ana’s love for him to force her into submission. Given the fact that their relationship is based almost entirely on a sexual contract, he uses her vulnerability to paint her into the person he wants her to be rather than the person she truly is.
Given the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey was originally a Twilight fanfiction, this draws up a third pair whose relationship is shrouded in abuse: Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. These two are yet another example of toxic manipulation tactics manifesting in the form of an idealized relationship. Edward, a vampire, constantly threatens to kill himself if Bella, a human, were to ever leave him, and he holds onto strict rules when it comes to topics like sex, marriage and changing Bella into a vampire. Edward exercises extreme control over Bella in many aspects of her life as well, and, not knowing what else to do, she relinquishes.
Sadly, glorified abuse is something which is by no means limited to these three cases. Relationships in pop culture are tainted by the common inclusion of maltreatment between partners, and yet the dysfunctional couples receive praise from fans everywhere.
What message does this send to audiences in return? Especially to impressionable teenagers, this type of media makes toxic, unhealthy relationships appear acceptable when they are anything but that. As a result, if they become trapped in such a relationship, their demented ideas of what love and romance are supposed to be might prevent them from getting out of it as quickly as possible.
For victims of domestic violence who might be suffering emotional trauma in the aftermath of their relationship, the gravity of their situation becomes trivialized. Being exposed to stories like these might make them question why they continue to face internal hardship when the media tells them their relationship was something glorious.
The reason why people find these relationships so compelling could be explained for a culmination of reasons. For instance, fans of the franchises which propel these types of relationships in films or books might find themselves swept up in a fast-paced, highly captivating relationship. Despite being highly problematic, in each situation, the couple’s constant repetition of “I love you” and the cliché fairy-tale ending put each relationship in an all too positive light. This light draws audiences in and distorts their perception of what a truly healthy relationship should be.
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