Film The Visual

Domestic Violence in Film: The Danger of Abusers as Stereotypes

Domestic violence is an epidemic that is slowly earning more media space — but more representation in cinema doesn’t actually help the issue unless it carefully considers characterization, capturing the realities of complex relationships that set up domestic violence outside the screen. While the issue deserves screen time in both news media and popular culture, poor constructions of abusive antagonists, particularly those which showcase incomplete forms of domestic violence antagonism, form inherent biases and incomplete understandings of domestic violence in broader society. 

Disclaimer: This article will contain spoilers for Safe Haven and A Star is Born, and discuss suicide and domestic violence. 

Perpetrators of domestic violence are not stereotypical “bad guys” — one-dimensional, sinister characters with cruel intentions. However, in cinematic narratives, they’re often squashed into such a frame. Such a simplistic framework perpetuates an unhealthy and incomplete understanding of domestic violence in society. In real homes, perpetrators aren’t always “bad guys.” They may be loving partners and parents by day, and violent aggressors by night. It’s complex, and that’s what makes it real. We need to see domestic violence perpetrators as the multi-layered humans they are in real homes, rather than only their darkest moments on a cinema screen. 

A Star is Born (2018) delivers a complex aggressor. The film is a drama that captures the journey of a substance-dependent but successful musician, Jack (Bradley Cooper), who falls in love with a younger singer, Ally (Lady Gaga). We’re wrapped up in a tale about a kind, loving man with a substance abuse problem and a tendency to  emotionally abuse his partner. We’re even granted access to the wider context of Jack’s past; the character is constructed via moments beyond his aggression and substance dependence. We see elements of Jack’s character outside of the abuse he commits. He’s loving and affectionate toward Ally, and is initially a strong support to her music career. In one scene, he invites her onstage at his own concert, prior to her own fame, and lets her shine. Initially, the exploration of the wider context of Jack’s humanity, outside of the “bad guy” character slot, means the film’s framing of domestic violence is more grounded in reality — but A Star is Born almost does a 180 and arguably absolves the perpetrator of his violence, offering substance abuse as an excuse to justify his behaviour. 

Although the film attempted to explore alcohol as a fuel for domestic violence, the result was rocky. Alcohol is presented as an excuse each time Jack does something to hurt or humiliate Ally. In one scene, Ally is enjoying a bath, alone, after being nominated for three Grammy Awards. Jack stumbles into the bathroom, clearly drunk. He begins by congratulating her for the nominations, and goes on to say he’s trying to figure out how she got nominated. He continues to drink from his glass, and tells Ally she’s embarrassing, and accuses her of having a boyfriend. He repeatedly slurs, “You’re just fucking ugly,” insinuates she’s talentless, and tells her she’s in the music industry to find approval for herself. Later, after not drinking for several days, Jack comes to Ally’s dance rehearsal to apologize. He quite shamefully says, “I think I might’ve said some things,” despite genuinely not recalling the episode. However, the next time he does choose to drink, he humiliates Ally at a widely televised awards night by running onto the stage and wetting himself as she makes her acceptance speech.  

Despite the humiliation and abuse Jack throws at Ally, it’s difficult not to empathize for him in his death scene. The film opens with Jack performing live on stage. Slowly, his score becomes quieter as his substance dependence begins to stifle his career. By the end of the film, his suicide is trance-like: the lack of musical accompaniment, the close-up shot of the sweat dripping down his face, the vacant expression in his eyes. His silent death is juxtaposed with the loud excitement of Ally’s performance on tour. This manipulation of sound creates a metaphor for the decline of Jack’s music career, reinforcing his alcoholism as the source of his demise. 

In addition to Jack’s alcoholism, emotional abuse is framed as a key component in domestic violence. Jack’s controlling behaviour starts on a rather subtle scale, as this form of emotional violence tends to. In the early days of Jack’s courtship with Ally, he effectively forces her to attend his concert after she politely declines due to work commitments. He even sends his driver to stalk her until she concedes. The first time he asks her out for a drink, she declines — but he wins when he insists, under the guise of sweeping Ally off her feet. This is framed as romantic. Although this was potentially an attempt at painting Jack’s character as “good,” it adds to a larger theme of films portraying unhealthy relationships in a way that normalizes and romanticizes problematic behaviors.  After Jack and Ally get married, Ally’s career becomes exponentially successful, and Jack’s drinking problem escalates. The emotional violence becomes more obvious; upon hearing of Ally’s success, Jack goes to great lengths to bring her down. After Jack’s torrent of verbal abuse in the bathtub scene, Ally stands in her bath, naked — a metaphor for her vulnerability in those moments of abuse. The viewer is left with a further-developed sense of her fear of Jack, despite no physical violence being present in that scene. This reiterates the dynamics of abuse and the desire for perpetrators to strip their victims of their personhood, and utilize emotional abuse to reclaim control. 

Meanwhile, Safe Haven (2013) takes a more stereotypical approach to the portrayal of domestic violence, while also complicating the victim’s role. The film, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, is a romantic thriller about a young woman, Katie (Julianne Hough), with a mysterious past. She moves to a quiet bay and falls for a handsome widow, Alex (Josh Duhamel). Safe Haven portrays a highly concentrated aggressor in Tierney (David Lyons), the abusive husband she’s running from. In flashbacks to Katie’s previous life, Tierney is presented via low-angle camera shots, which frame him as intimidating — further adding to the “bad guy” stereotype. He stumbles into work at the police station, intoxicated. He drives to find his wife and stalks the elderly woman he suspects helped Katie escape. Some light string instruments, toned with the occasional dark threatening gust of wind, litter these moments. Darker musical accompaniment layers an upbeat festival scene, when Tierney covertly empties a plastic water bottle and fills it with his vodka instead. These scenes are framed with a shaky camera and splashed with darker tones than the scenes depicting Katie’s new life by the beach. Although the scenes from Katie’s past thoughtfully illustrate the dynamics of intramarriage violence, the film as a whole only paints the antagonist as violent. This isn’t a fair representation, given that domestic violence perpetrators in the real world are complex, multi-layered human beings, like everybody else. Styling domestic violence antagonists in cinema as pure villains is problematic because in order to deconstruct domestic violence as a significant social issue, we need to understand that real-life perpetrators are not one-dimensional. 

In Safe Haven, Katie’s escape, despite being traumatic, is highly romanticized and unrealistic. Sure, the initial scene is dangerous and dramatic. She runs, panicking, through the dark. A close-up shot of the ground shows that she is barefoot. However, although we can see she’s suffering, her escape is hugely cliched and trivialised. She runs to an elderly neighbour, cuts and dyes her hair, jumps on a bus toward Arizona, and begins a new life with a new name in a quaint, peaceful beach town, falling in love with a handsome widow with two young children in need of a mother. This sequence perpetuates the myth that it’s easy for women to escape from abusive relationships, when in reality, financial and social barriers make it difficult. To compound this difficulty, Katie must overcome the trauma of emotional abuse: in flashbacks to her previous life, we’re shown snapshots of the violence she endured. While attempting to choke Katie and throw her against furniture, Tierney screams at her, “I give you everything!” He also, despite ironically being heavily under the influence at the time, yells that he spends his days apologizing to her for the past violence, insinuating she needs to get over it. This is a tactic many domestic abusers will adopt, pushing the blame to the abused. It works in many cases, including this fictional one. When Katie finally opens up to her new lover, Alex, she tearfully explains, “I just stuck up for him all the time, because it wasn’t his fault. It was mine.” She also places blame on herself for getting into the situation in the first place, saying, “I was a stupid young girl who got into a relationship with the wrong man.”  

In A Star is Born, Ally does not escape, per se. In fact, she’s painted as a “good” partner for staying and supporting her husband, despite her victimhood. Ally’s “goodness,” however, means her only way out of the situation is through Jack’s death. This removes her agency and independence. Ally’s journey is almost the polar opposite of Katie’s, who does demonstrate independence and strength in her escape — but it is inappropriately framed as being a feat that’s easy to manage. Domestic violence victims who manage to leave their abusive partners are not “bad” partners. Many of them will attempt to support their partners on numerous occasions before finally leaving, yet are painted with the stigma of not caring, or not being loving enough to stay. 

It’s safe to say these two tales have a fair amount of influence. Safe Haven grossed $94 million worldwide (and its novel is a well-known Nicholas Sparks creation), and A Star is Born grossed $433 million worldwide. They’re both readily available on common streaming services. And in the digital age, the level of influence celebrities and media have on our lives is only growing stronger. This means that social issues such as domestic violence need to be represented in cinema with more care than ever before. Given the wide viewership, both of these films  have perpetuated faulty perceptions of domestic violence and left their viewers with blurred notions of what’s acceptable in a healthy relationship. 

Domestic violence is a severely complex phenomenon that takes many forms. It affects men, women and children all over the globe, and we need to be able to rely on our media, fictional or otherwise, to present domestic violence stories with care and precision — for only when we have accurate representation of domestic violence can we properly understand its dynamics as a community and lobby for change.