Abuse on Screen: Portrayals of Domestic Violence in TV and Film

Abuse on Screen: Portrayals of Domestic Violence in TV and Film

Warning: The following blog contains references to actual and fictional domestic violence and abuse.


They say that art mimics life. Domestic abuse and domestic violence are sensitive topics. But portraying them in popular culture can be an effective way to shine a light on the problems facing victims and survivors worldwide. 

Representation matters. But are television and film studios representing domestic violence accurately? Or are they doing more harm than good?

Domestic Violence in TV and Film

We all know that television and movies aren’t real. Still, what we see on screen can impact the way we see ourselves. Sometimes, the fiction we see morphs into the realities we create for ourselves.

On-screen depictions of domestic abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault aren’t uncommon. Nearly every crime drama and psychological thriller incorporates domestic abuse somewhere in the plot. And while it’s important that survivors see themselves and their experiences reflected in art, on-screen portrayals often miss the mark.

Fictional Abusers: Based In Reality?

When we see abusers on TV or in movies, they’re often two-dimensional characters. They are the “bad guys,” evil through and through, with no redeeming qualities. They are violent liars and cheats – and that’s all they are. The victims see them clearly and effortlessly recognize the abuse. There is a straightforward narrative of abuse, revelation, and rescue or escape.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way abuse happens in real life. It’s often more nuanced and complicated than we see on screen. Often, abusers can seem like wonderful people on the outside; loving husbands, great fathers, and men dedicated to helping their communities. They are teachers, pastors, and businessmen. Abusers can have everyone around them fooled, saving their abusive behaviors for behind closed doors. 

These redeeming qualities often cause abuse survivors to doubt their instincts; to stay with their abusers, and not get the help they need. “He’ll change,” the survivor thinks. “He’s not all bad.”

Are these fictional characters why so many real-life survivors fail to see their abusers for who they really are?

Does On-Screen Abuse Make Domestic Violence Worse?

Some critics argue that not only do movies and TV give inaccurate portrayals of domestic abuse, but they actually glorify and romanticize the abuse.

Take Game of Thrones, for instance: one of the most popular shows of the last decade. At one point, it seemed that GoT references were just about everywhere. But throughout the series, there are more than 50 rapes depicted on-screen. And the rapists aren’t always seen as evil characters. In fact, some of them are glorified as the heroes of the tale (Khal Drogo, anyone?). 

Fans explain away the portrayals as “fictional” or “something common during that time.” (Side note: what “time” are they talking about? When in history were dragons a real thing?). We explain it away as something that moves the plot forward, makes the women seem stronger, or adds drama to the story.

In reality, though, these depictions of violence against women desensitize us to the horrors of domestic abuse. 

Imagine a woman who lives with an abusive partner. When she sees society brushing off these fictional depictions of violence against women, what is she to think about her own life? Will she downplay her own experience, believing that the abuse she’s experiencing isn’t “that bad?” Will she think that no one will believe her, take her seriously, or help her?

It’s impossible to pinpoint a connection between on-screen domestic violence and the prevalence of abuse in real life. But one thing is for certain: the abuse we see in television and film doesn’t represent the actual experiences of survivors.

Starting the Conversation

Whether what we see on screen is accurate or not, it’s bringing attention to the issue. Survivors might not see these TV shows and movies as a mirror of their own lives, but they are, at the very least, recognizing that they are not alone.

As consumers, the best thing we can do is take what we see on screen and use it to start a broader conversation. Talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships, the different types of abuse, and the complexity of domestic violence. By talking about abuse, we reduce the stigma and shame surrounding it. And that gives survivors freedom to share their truth. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, please don’t wait to get help. Contact your local domestic abuse shelter or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or thehotline.org.

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