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For immediate use

July 23, 2001 -- No. 338

Romance novels, movies and more may influence women to tolerate abuse

UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- "After her boyfriend kicked her to the floor, threw burning hot food on her and forced her to eat off the floor, Derise still thought it would be 'hard to give up the idea of the future I thought he and I could have.' "

Why so difficult? Because even today -- when many assume that female submissiveness went out with history's second big wave of feminism in the '70s -- it lives on, in the closet, influencing women to accept battering as normal and to stay in violent relationships.

And just what gives women these mindsets? Well, you think those titillating dime store bodice-rippers and hit movies like "Pretty Woman" are just innocent escapism? Think again, says Dr. Julia Wood, a communication studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In a two-year study, which she described in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Wood identified "women's use of gender and romance narratives to make sense of violent relationships."

With quotes from 20 women she interviewed who had been in such relationships, (not using their real names, as with Derise, above), Wood wrote that "all (study) participants placed themselves within western culture's primary gender narrative, which prescribes and normalizes dominance and superiority for men and deference and dependence for women."

Even when the women are really getting slapped around.

People commonly use stories to make sense of their lives, placing themselves within those stories, said Wood: "Some of the images of men and women in these romance novels are entirely consistent with the dynamics of violent relationships."

Even if Prince Charming doesn’t hit, he often shares plenty of characteristics with the real-life man who does, Wood wrote: "Prince Charming is strong, powerful, sure of himself and commanding … control, domination and even violence fit equally well with Prince Charming and the Prince of Darkness. Women who seek to sustain a relationship that is fraught with chaos have available to them culturally legitimated narratives that reconcile what is irreconcilable, make sense of what is not sensible. These narratives … simultaneously license women's oppression."

Wood didn't set out to skewer romance novels when she began her study: "I wanted to understand how you make sense of the fact that this man who says he loves you hits you." She interviewed heterosexual women who had been in romantic relationships that included emotional and physical violence. None of the women had been counseled since in ways likely to have altered their views to more feminist perspectives.

Participants were recruited by announcing the study in classes at one Northwestern and one Southeastern university. Wood chose participants who were diverse in economic and social circumstances, age (20-53) and race (12 white, five black, one Indian and two of mixed ethnicity).

Wood said her study differs from most on violence against women in two ways. First, she gives priority to the women's own voices, not the usual experts' -- although she adds her own analysis to identify common beliefs and perspectives among the women and therefore document her conclusions.

It also differs by embedding individual relationships in broad cultural contexts. "Much previous research has looked at violent relationships in isolation of social values that affect how individual relationships function," Wood said. "This study attempts to understand how patterns and practices in the culture teach individuals that violence is acceptable in personal relationships."

To a woman, each participant said she initially perceived her partner as "Prince Charming" and the relationship as "a fairy tale romance." "He made me the center of his universe," they said, and "I was swept off my feet." Wood said "every single one of them used those phrases." That's what led her to connect tolerating abuse with paperback books, TV and the silver screen -- and not just the oldies.

Consider current best-seller "The Surrendered Wife: A Practical Guide for Finding Intimacy, Passion and Peace with Your Man," by Laura Doyle. "She was unhappy in her marriage for many years until she found out the problem was that she was not surrendering to her husband, letting him take the lead," Wood said. "She's telling us, 'This really is your role. You've been getting out of it, and that's why you're unhappy.' "

The "Pretty Woman" scene in which Richard Gere's leading man punches Jason Alexander's character for punching leading lady Julia Roberts doesn't sway Wood with its message that male violence against women isn't right. Neither does the part of the plot that has Roberts influencing Gere to exchange an aggressive mindset for a happy one. Those arguments aside, Wood still recognizes that Gere rescued Roberts -- not just from punches, but also from poverty and life on the street.

In another blockbuster, "Titanic," Rose said her man, Jack " saved me in every way that a person can be saved." Despite Jack's saving her from a battering fiancé, Wood said, "the fact remains that he is still a man telling her what to do. And what did that film gross? How many people saw it?" The Internet Movie Database lists "Titanic" as the top-grossing film ever at more than $1.83 billion worldwide.

The women in Wood's study also referenced romantic stories in "efforts to defend their partners from others' knowledge and criticism in order to shore up their own view of the relationship as a fairy tale romance," as well as their belief that they deserved or provoked the violence or it was to be expected. Seventeen of the 20 said things like "All of them (men) have bad spells -- that's what mama called them -- and sometimes you just have to overlook those."

Often, Wood writes, a batterer follows an attack with remorseful behavior and courtship that convinces the partner her knight in shining armor is back, sweeping her off her feet. Identification with these stories makes it hard for her to do what would appear logical to the observer and refuse to reconcile, Wood said, "because it's not just giving up the man, it's giving up the dream, the whole image and belief of how it's supposed to be -- especially if you don't have another dream to go to."

These days, Wood is interviewing the other half: men who have beaten women. They are participants in an intensive, one-of-a-kind program in Albemarle Correctional Institution in Badin, N.C. (Stanly County), that seeks to stop repeat violence against women after the men are released. Wood aims to discover their views of men, women and relationships that cause them to strike out, just as she previously sought women's reasons for bearing it.

Meanwhile, she sees the solution to the romance narrative issue not as censorship, but change. Rather than banning bodice rippers, she would have new stories paint different pictures, and a wide range of them: women rescuing women, women rescuing themselves, women rescuing men, children rescuing adults, happy single women, etc., etc. Especially needed, she said, are new narratives for children, replacing the old Cinderella fairy tales.

"I'd like to see woven into the culture more relationship stories in which people have problems and work them out together peaceably. Our culture should give us stories of couples who experience anger, frustration and other problems and deal with them without becoming violent."

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Contacts: Dr. Julia T. Wood, 919-962-4949, UNC; John Hamlin, assistant superintendent for programs, Albemarle Correctional Institution, 704-422-3036; Joe Marinello, a domestic violence counselor with the N.C. Dept. of Corrections, mjc31@DOC.STATE.NC.US