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Love Hurts: Power and Control Imbalances in the ‘Tale as Old as Time’

Fri, April 13, 12:15 to 1:45pm, Hilton, Third Floor, Minneapolis Grand Ballroom-Salon G

Abstract/Description

Background: Popular romance stories marketed to adolescents often include a “virginal” female partner who is submissive and a “beastly” male partner who is inherently aggressive (Diamond, 2011). This binary portrayal of heterosexual relationships is problematic because it presents a power imbalance within the couple as essential for romance (Pauly, 1989). Indeed, the ‘virgin/beast narrative’ guides three of the most popular romance stories marketed to girls (Beauty and the Beast, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey) across three developmental stages (childhood, adolescence, and emerging adulthood). In this study, we aimed to deconstruct power and control imbalances within the romantic relationships portrayed in these popular films. To do so, we applied the Abuse Litmus Test (Bonomi et al., 2017)-a classroom tool based on the Duluth domestic violence intervention Power and Control Wheel (Pence & Paymar, 1993) and the Women’s Experience with Battering framework (Smith, Tessaro, & Earp, 1995)-to detect abuse in on-screen relationships.
Method: The study team watched Beauty and the Beast (1991), Twilight (2008), and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) sequentially together and took detailed notes using the Abuse Litmus Test framework (figure 1). Throughout the films and at the end of each film, the authors discussed in detail whether the film passed (or failed) the Abuse Litmus Test, identifying narratives and dialogue in response to the tool’s three overarching questions (table 1): 1) Do partners share equal power? 2) Is power used by one partner to control the other? 3) Is harm suffered?
Results: All three films failed the Abuse Litmus Test. First, although the films included momentary instances of shared power (e.g., Edward asks Bella if he can look into her microscope), shared power between partners was not sustained. Second, in each of the films, the male partner disproportionately uses elements of power to control the female partner, such as when Beast locks Belle in his castle, when Edward uses his powers to control Bella’s thoughts, and when Christian orders Anastasia to not discuss their relationship with anyone. Finally, the female characters in each of the film’s relationships suffers harm as a result of the power imbalance, including a loss of identity (e.g., Belle says, “I’ve lost all my dreams…my family, everything”), isolation (e.g., the female characters become disconnected from family and friends), entrapment, and disempowerment.
Conclusions: The results of our study demonstrate the usefulness of the Abuse Litmus Test for identifying power imbalances in on-screen relationships. Although a 50–50 split of power within healthy relationships may not be achieved or desirable at all times, the goal of the Abuse Litmus Test is to identify when the power imbalance is disproportionate, sustained and harmful. Given the consistency of the ‘virgin/beast narrative’ (Diamond, 2011), adolescents may not readily identify the power imbalances that occur within the relationships that depict that narrative. Future research should employ this tool with youth across developmental phases to facilitate the identification of power imbalances in on-screen relationships to promote healthy relationships in real-life.

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