Romanticising a toxic relationship
Gossip Girl, Twilight, After, Fifty Shades of Grey, Grease, The Vampire Diaries, and many more movies and tv shows, are known for portraying everlasting and passionate love. But what they also portray is how, as a society we have normalised the toxic mentality where we believe that until women change themselves for a man or make him their whole identity and make it so their world revolves around said man, it’s not true love. We even go as far as to think that a little violence should be condoned to keep the passion of love alive. Gigi from He’s Just Not That Into You said it best, “We are all programmed to believe that if a guy acts like a total jerk that means he likes you.”
What does a toxic relationship encompass?
Harper’s Bazaar India describes a toxic relationship as one that makes a person feel demeaned, disrespected, misunderstood, unsupported, attacked, or mistreated. They continue by saying that if a person feels like they are walking on eggshells in their relationship then it most probably is toxic. Constantly being told that they are being overdramatic or unrealistic is a sign that they are in a toxic relationship.
This is also the beginning of a relationship filled with gaslighting as the person is made to feel that any and all problems that arise are their fault and their feelings are invalid.
American author Elizabeth Scott says in an article, “On a basic level, any relationship that makes you feel worse rather than better can become toxic over time. Toxic relationships can exist in just about any context, from the playground to the boardroom to the bedroom. You may even deal with toxic relationships among your family members.”
The portrayal of these relationships in media:
In the media, the very first step a man takes to grab a woman’s attention is harassment. Most times she is stalked and catcalled on the road in the hopes that one day she’ll realise that she loves him and decides to marry him. In iconic Bollywood movies like DDLJ for example Raj in attempts of flirting with Simran behaves like a total creep with her by swinging her bra from her suitcase in front of her face or by trying to sleep on her lap while she tries to read her book. This kind of behaviour is completely out of hand and should not be endorsed by anyone. But obviously, that is not the case in the film because as we all know by the famous dialogue “Ja Simran ... ja jeele apni zindagi” the creepy Raj gets his happily ever after. Even newer films like Raanjhanaa glamourise stalking as a pure form of love that is supposed to show his dedication to his lover.
Another form of toxic love is the fact that fate says that the two star-crossed lovers belong together. The two parties are convinced that no matter what they are meant to be and are hence willing to ignore all the reasons why they shouldn’t be together. For example, in Gossip Girl both Serena and Blair get married to their questionable ex-boyfriends Dan and Chuck respectively. Serena looks past how Dan was the one who created the website that constantly belittled her character and Blair ignores the fact that Chuck sold her off to his uncle to save his hotel. Blair and Chuck have one of the most toxic love stories. They are constantly playing mind games with each other. Chuck seemed to get some sort of a high by making Blair feel terrible. He’s told her numerous times that he didn’t love her and would make her feel insignificant by telling her she had lost all her value and beauty. He would always blame his love for her as the reason why he isn’t able to beat his father’s business and makes it seem like she was his weakness. There have also been times when he has gotten violent with her like the time when she told him that she was pregnant with her boyfriend, Louise’s, child. But because of the whole idea that these couples believe that they are destined to be together, both Serena and Blair constantly chose to unsee the very clear red flags.
One of the recent most popular tropes is the “I can fix them”. This is when the typical good girl falls in love with the bad boy in the hopes that she can change him for the better. Most movies have this “girl next door” kind of a woman who falls in love with a troubled boy and through this relationship, the boy feels the need to change his behaviour for her sake. He is given a redemption arc, making him more appealing to the audience and creating this notion that love can change people.
Women always end up putting up with the worst behaviours just because they think that being in this relationship will transform their partners into better people. In The Vampire Diaries, Elena is constantly forgiving everything Damon does because she believes that he is inherently good and that his heart is in the right place. Although he kills her brother numerous times on the show, compels her to kiss him, compels her best friend, Caroline, to do anything he wants her to and even attacks Bonnie multiple times. The relationship felt almost like Elena was sired to Damon rather than just being two people in a relationship of love. Time and again she is seen making excuses for him but also finds herself unable to separate herself from him as she points out in season five. She had taken it upon herself to make him a better person (or rather a better vampire) and continued to be drawn to him like a moth to a flame.
Toxic relationships are shown to be the ultimate form of love. We see how dependent the
two people in the relationship become on each other. It so happens that the relationship then becomes the bane of their existence, so to speak. This is seen in the franchise, Twilight. Bella also never seems to be able to do anything without her “saviour” Edward. She is made to be a damsel in distress who can only be saved by either her love Edward or by Jacob, her best friend who is in love with her. It is almost like she is incomplete without her love interest. Her entire personality then becomes her love for Edward. Not to mention the fact that Edward used to sneak into Bella’s room in the middle of the night and watch her sleep without her ever knowing about this for months together (yeah let's romanticise stalking because that’s not going to give off the wrong message).
The next form of this trope is the irresistibility of jealousy. Jealousy, “one of the seven sins”, is now considered a “hot” characteristic in a partner. If your partner is jealous it somehow translates to them showing you how much they are willing to do for you. It is meant to prove the undying and ever-lasting love of the relationship and how it is always going to be just those two against the world because “they are meant to be together”. Yes, it does feel comforting to know that someone wants you and to be treated like you deserve the world, but it is important to recognise that jealousy should only be endured in moderate amounts. In most movies and tv shows, the jealous lover goes as far as beating up people who even looks at their lover. This is seen in the movie, Fifty Shades Freed, it is a well-known fact that Christian Grey is a jealous person and has even told Anastasia that he “doesn’t like to share”. But because jealousy is how Ana equates deep love, she is also seen to be projecting these feelings. In the movie, the couple hires an architect, Gia, and Ana suspects that she is coming onto Christian. She warns her off aggressively which is supposed to come across as an empowering moment for her but it only highlights her insecurities. Behaving like other women are the problem because she can't seem to trust her "man" only showcases beliefs from time that's long gone.
Why this is problematic:
In most of the mainstream media, that does promote toxic relationships, the target audience is young and impressionable teens. This results in a generation that cannot differentiate a healthy relationship from an unhealthy one, thereby increasing the chances of them falling prey to a toxic, mentally and physically harmful relationship. Young people associate these traits with the ideal and accept this as the status quo. Dr Sarah Davies says, “The danger in glamourising toxic relationships is that the toxicity and intensity gets normalised and we start to see these as a model for our relationships.” People find comfort in this familiarity no matter how negatively it affects them. It’s almost as if they correlate to toxicity.
The trope that most Bollywood movies follow, i.e., the romance in stalking, portrays to young boys and girls that stalking is okay and that it is the first step to being someone’s true love. The Wire, in an article written in 2017 claimed that in 2015, the number of stalking cases was 6,266 according to the National Crime Records Bureau. It is because of the increasing number of movies that showcase how stalking is an effective way of finding love that youth nowadays think it's okay to do so. Some women that do fall prey to these false notions of love, experience the worst kind of behaviours from their partners after they get into the relationship.
The idea that a good girl can change a bad boy is unrealistic. Women are raised to be nurturing and are always told to put themselves second, and boys are raised to expect all women, irrespective of the relationship, to treat them like this. Women are forced to hold their partners accountable and be in charge of their well-being. Hence, these tropes reinforce the idea that women have the responsibility of emotionally and physically nurturing men. This then translates to all men having the right to ‘n’-number of second chances, love, and care regardless of how they treat their partner.
According to USC Medicine, a toxic relationship can negatively impact a person’s mental health. One feels drained, and insecure, and the stress of being in a toxic relationship can lead to heart problems. It is important to note that suffering through a toxic relationship won’t make the relationship any perfect.
The only way we can heal from this addiction that is a toxic relationship is by showcasing healthy ones on screen. They may not necessarily add to the dramatic element of the storyline but they would nonetheless set the correct kind of standard of what a relationship is. Couples like Elenor and Chidi from The Good Place, David and Patrick from Schitts Creek, Clair and Phill from Modern Family, and Paige and Leo from The Vow are just a few examples of what a healthy relationship looks like. They teach us that love does take work and that it’s not all rainbows and sunshine but also that love does not always have to mean that you have to feel miserable all the time. They show us that there is a middle ground and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
“In my opinion, the best thing you can do is find someone who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you.”
- Juno (2007)