Abduction as Romance

Abduction as Romance is a media trope where a man kidnaps or imprisons a woman and she eventually falls in love with him. Abduction as Romance is one of a series of popular media tropes where violence against women and abusive male behavior is presented as necessary, exciting, or romantic.

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The 2016 film Passengers was advertised as a high-concept science fiction blockbuster about a romance in space. Based on that, I was excited to see it. Unfortunately the central premise doesn’t make for a very good love story, in fact it has much more in common with a horror film. Jim is a passenger aboard a spaceship making the long journey to another planet when a malfunction wakes him from hibernation too early. It seems he’s destined to live and die alone on the ship before anyone else wakes up. Trapped by his circumstances, Jim starts obsessing over another sleeping passenger named Aurora. Intent on pursuing a romantic relationship, Jim sabotages her hibernation pod and makes it look like an accident.

From Aurora’s perspective this is the story of a strange man who imprisons her alone with him in space forever. This stranger robs her of her life, her future, and her self-determination. And yet because this movie is supposed to be a love story, audiences are meant to be sympathetic to Jim and root for the relationship to work out.

The film’s science fiction setting tends to obscure the fact that Passengers is an example of a very old and deeply troubling media convention: Abduction as Romance.

Abduction as Romance is a media trope where a man kidnaps or imprisons a woman and then she eventually falls in love with him. Like a lot of storytelling conventions, Abduction as Romance isn’t new; It can be traced all the way back to ancient literature and it was a favorite plot device in classic Hollywood.

In some versions of the trope, men abduct women for the purpose of finding love, but in most cases the woman is kidnapped for some other reason and the romance only blossoms after she’s forced to spend time with her abductor. The kidnapping or hostage situation itself may be short lived and their romance may not have a happy ending, but the abductor is framed as a “decent guy” in the end.

This plot device is especially popular with screenwriters because kidnapping scenarios provide a quick and easy way to bring two very unlikely characters together. But make no mistake, these are narratives in which a man violate women’s rights and autonomy are then rewarded with a romantic relationship.

Abduction as Romance can be found in all kinds of movies, including romances and comedies, and even in classic musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers but it’s especially popular in action-adventure genres.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis star in three separate movies each where they have romantic relationships with the women they’ve kidnapped. We see this with Schwarzenegger’s characters in The Running Man, and then again in Commando, and then again to his own wife in True Lies. Bruce Willis’s characters hold their love interests hostage in Bandits, in the critically acclaimed film 12 Monkeys, and then more recently in Red.

Audiences are meant to view the danger these men pose as an essential part of what makes them exciting and attractive. These are men of action. They take control and take what they want, with violence if necessary. You’ll notice that, with very few exceptions, these kidnappers are white men. Mainstream Western audiences tend to give violent white guys the benefit of the doubt while rarely extending the same level of sympathy to men of color in similar situations.

Like most media tropes there are variations on the theme; there’s the accidental kidnaping that later becomes a real one, there’s the clueless criminal who doesn’t know what he’s doing, and then there’s the hitman who falls for his mark, but the underlying pattern in all of these Abduction as Romance narratives revolves around men exercising complete control over women.

A theme that’s reinforced by the inclusion of scenes where the man forcibly puts this otherwise independent woman “in her place.” Indeed, the abducted women are rarely portrayed as passive damsels. Even though these women are written to me feisty, they’re often written as being a little too feisty for their own good, which provides our kidnapper the opportunity to assert his power and control by aggressively silencing her.

Movie goers are treated to scene after scene fetishizing the domination and disempowerment of women. If she tried to turn the tables on her abductor, he’s unfazed and her attempts to intimidate him don’t work. In some cases when he re-asserts his control by disarming her it’s often framed as an act of seduction.

Kidnapping and false imprisonment are almost universally understood to be reprehensible crimes. Because of that, abduction is widely regarded as an act of villainy and definitely not as something the good guy would do. This means that screenwriters need to find some way to make the kidnapper into a sympathetic character.

One way this is done is by giving the abductor a moment of basic human decency: it can be as simple as offering his hostage something to eat ot drink, or maybe allowing her to go to the bathroom or not sexually assaulting her. That’s an impressively low bar for men when it comes to being seen as a “nice guy.”

Another way the abductor is re-framed as heroic is by juxtaposing his violence against the actions of even more violent men. Writers also attempt to justified the kidnapping itself by framing it as necessary, either as something done for the greater good like saving the world, or as something done for the victim’s own good, usually saving her life in some way. That variation is so common that there’s a whole subcategory of movies in which a heroic rescue doubles as a kidnapping.

To illustrate how these rescue/kidnapping scenarios work, let’s analyze the brief abduction from the original 1984 Terminator movie. Kyle Reese travels back in time and saves Sarah Connor from the Terminator but during the getaway he makes it aggressively clear that his help is not optional. Notice that in stories like this, the man typically holds all the cards; he alone understands the danger she is in, and he alone knows how to survive.

The insidious thing about scenes like this is they’re written to twist a man’s abusive behavior into a heroic act of love. The narrative is specifically designed so that we, as the audiences, will view Kyle’s violence against Sarah as both reasonable and necessary. The storytelling trick here is to set-up an elaborate scenario in which a woman’s perfectly rational resistance to male violence seems like a naive mistake. And that framing is not accidental. It’s a specific kind of male fantasy where a man taking away a woman’s freedom and fundamental rights is presented as something done “for her own good.” Which result is a situation where she become dependent on her abductor for survival.

One of the worst examples of the “abduction for her own good” framing can be found in the movie version of V for Vendetta. Our hero kidnaps Evey, makes her believe that she’s been caught by the fascist government and proceeds to torture her mercilessly. V’s abhorrent actions are framed as necessary because it’s only through being tortured for days on end that Evey learns how to be strong. Not only does she forgive him for torturing her, she thanks him for it and then the two go on to share a series of romantic moments.

Let’s not mince words: Abduction as Romance is an abuse trope. All of the male characters we’ve been discussing engage in what Domestic Violence organizations describe as “red flag” behaviors. So I think it’s instructive to quickly go through a few of them.

    1. Physical force – Abusers will resort to the use force during conflicts, this can include restraining or holding down their partner. These actions are often accompanied by demands that the victim be quite.
    2. Threats of violence – Abusers will threaten their partners with violence as a means of coercion.
    3. Controlling behavior – Abusers will attempt to control or restrict their partner’s movement and make decisions for them. This is usually done under the guise of protection.
    4. And finally the one most central to the Abduction as Romance trope: isolation – Abusers will try to isolate the victim from friends, family or even the outside world. This often includes restricting the use of communication devices.

Each of these actions is a red flag for an abusive relationship. And most of the male characters in Abduction as Romance movies check off several of these boxes. Even the less explicitly violent abductors, like Jim from Passengers, still isolate or control their victims. Regardless of the intentions of the writers these narratives end up both excusing and romanticizing the violent behavior of abusive men.

No discussion of Abduction as Romance would be complete without mention of Beauty and the Beast, especially the two enormously popular Disney movies both of which include a version of this trope. The Beast holds the life of Belle’s father in his hands, and in order to save him Belle trades away her own freedom and agrees to be imprisoned forever in the Beast’s castle. Pop criticism of Beauty and the Beast often focuses on Stockholm Syndrome, which is a psychological phenomenon wherein a kidnapping victim comes to sympathize with their kidnapper.

However it’s not part of how I’m defining the Abduction as Romance trope. And that’s because a focus on Stockholm Syndrome tends shifts the blame away from the perpetrator and onto the victim, which then works to undermine the female character by implying she’s been brainwashed. As I mentioned before, many of the abducted or imprisoned women in these movies are actually shown to be quite brave especially given their perilous situations. Many of them try to escape and some succeed. But regardless, the victim and her motivations are not the problem with this trope; the problem stems entirely from the abductor and his actions. After all, it’s the Beast is the one who imprisons Belle, isolates her, verbally berates her, and even forbids her from eating at one point. Despite all of this abusive behavior the Beast is still framed as a misunderstood nice guy and he still “gets the girl” in the end.

Stories like this carry with them some insidious messages about men and masculinity. Chief among them is the idea that abusive men just need to meet the right woman, someone so special that the promise of her love will magically cure him of his violent ways and make him a better person.

Now, it is possible to read these stories as being about the forgiveness and redemption of troubled men. Which in some ways they are. Unfortunately, these redemption arcs play out in ways that end up reinforcing some very pernicious myths about domestic abuse. Abusive men don’t suddenly change overnight, especially not after a lifetime of being a dick. Men with a history of violent behavior don’t spare their loved ones, on the contrary, domestic violence statistics show that intimate partners and family members bear the brunt of their attacks.

In the movies, we’re usually expected to assume abduction romances will end happily ever after, but in the real world, love affairs like this would likely lead to abusive relationships. This is because the strongest predictor of domestic violence, is previous acts of abuse. In fact, men with a history of committing violence against women are 13 times more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. Psychologists refer to these patterns of repeat behavior as the cycle of abuse. Once an abusive episode stops, it’s often followed by a “honeymoon phase” where the abuser will show remorse, promise not to do it again and then act in kind, even loving ways, for a while at least. But inevitably that will be followed by a tension building phase which then culminates in another abusive episode. And the cycle continues.

The first step in breaking this cycle is often for the survivor to get away from their abuser. It is possible for violent men to change their pattern of behavior although it’s an extremely difficult process requiring years of therapy. But that’s rarely how it happens in Hollywood, in the movies we’ve been talking about abusive men are miraculously transformed by finding “true love.” And they gain forgiveness for their crimes through a single act of heroism, this means they’re never really held accountable for the harm they’ve inflicted on others. Real redemption requires taking responsibility for your actions, it requires doing the slow often painful work of self-transformation.

The bottom is it’s not possible to fix violent man by loving them in exactly the right way, but that’s the idea at the heart of Abduction as Romance stories. It’s the kind of twisted Hollywood logic can lead people of all genders to remain in abusive relationships.

The Abduction Romance trope needs to be retired. Relationships can bloom from any number of dramatic or exciting scenarios, there really is no reason for writers to continue romanticizing abusive male behavior.

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