Arts & Entertainment

How abuse is portrayed in film

The long-term effects that abuse can hold on women, and how film is able to help visualize and tell these stories accurately.

Photo by Lionsgate | Wunmi Mosaku, Anna Kendrick and Kaniehtiio Horn in “Alice, Darling”

The topic of mental health has come up a lot in the media recently, even more so now. People dangerously throw around terms such as, “gaslighting,” “narcissism,” or being “manipulating;” all these terms relate to forms of psychological abuse and might be triggering to those who have experienced these things.

Films have been able to effortlessly capture and allow audiences to see how psychological abuse can be portrayed powerfully in different genres. There are good reasons for this. Maybe it is Hollywood romanticizing abuse, or the time you’ve watched the film yourself, connecting with the main character on some level.

As director of “Alice, Darling,” Mary Nighy, said to the Los Angeles Times, “in society, physical abuse is very clearly defined as an evil, and I think psychological and emotional abuse, even for those who have suffered it, can sometimes question whether it’s a real thing.” 

Here are 5 films and shows that portray emotional abuse and an overcoming narrative. Trigger warning for mentions of psychological abuse, physical abuse and sexual assault.

Photo by Lionsgate | Theatrical Poster of “Alice, Darling”
  1. “Alice, Darling.” (2022)

“Alice, Darling,” written by Alanna Francis, is about a young woman named Alice (Anna Kendrick) who is slowly navigating her life amidst being in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship with Simon (Charlie Carrick). Most of this film centers around her anxiety and the way she must act for her partner’s approval; hypersexual, quiet, feeding his ego and making her career and herself less important. 

Kendrick said to Variety magazine, “coming from a long-term abusive relationship before filming, I made this the backbone of this film.” 

Director Mary Nighy chose to film scenes with an eerie style. For example, while on a trip with her friends, every moment that Alice begins to feel free, the audience is interrupted by flashbacks of sinister and casual ways Simon would mess with Alice’s head. These moments cause her to feel suffocated— heightened with uncomfortable ringing in her ears and an overwhelming kick of adrenaline. Alice’s fight or flight moments are accompanied with an ominous score. 

Towards the end of the film, Alice’s memories on the trip act as a trigger, along with the words of her friends Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn), who is more outspoken and independent of the three, and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku), a neutral enabler, however, still a leveled person who kept the group together. Ultimately, sisterhood is the overcoming narrative of the film. Though it’s important to have a support system, it’s also important to note that the message here could also be that you can save yourself if you listen to your own intuition. 

Photo by A24, Universal Pictures and Focus Features | Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird McPherson in “Lady Bird.”
  1. “Lady Bird” (2017)

This film shows an interesting take on strained mother-daughter relationships that most might not have noticed at first watch, unless they were able to visibly spot the signs. Apart from this film being a coming-of-age movie about dreaming for more and ultimately being met with realism, “Lady Bird,” directed and written by Greta Gerwig, shows signs of emotional abuse teetering on narcissism. The movie describes Christine aka “Lady Bird” (Saoirse Ronan) as loving, ambitious, strong-willed and deeply opinionated; all traits that her hardworking mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), has to deal with. Another story of optimism met with realism, only not quite. 

Jim Vorel, from Paste magazine, wrote about his viewpoint of realism between both characters saying, “‘Lady Bird’ is a film about its title character’s coming-of-age, struggling with self-absorption and selfishness, yes, but it’s also a film about lifelong emotional abuse, and most of that abuse flows straight from Marion in the direction of ‘Lady Bird,’” said Vorel, “Her instinctive, almost autonomous reaction to any action by her daughter is to instantly and effortlessly undermine it with passive (or active) aggression. Even when something positive happens for Lady Bird, Marion can’t bring herself to simply be happy for her.”

Marion shows slight signs of narcissistic behavior. Narcissistic mothers can “feel entitled or self-important, seek admiration from others, believe she is above others, lack empathy, exploit her children, put others down, experience hypersensitivity to criticism, believe she deserves special treatment, and worst of all, may be naïve to the damage she is causing,” said CBT Psychology. 

For example, Marion throws the act of raising Lady Bird in her face, using money to guilt her as well. Marion is also being enabled by her husband during conversations by him not saying anything, in turn validating her certainty that she is correct in her actions. 

We get to see Lady Bird overcome the narrative of a daughter versus a mentally abusive mother by taking control of her life and heading to a college that her mother loathes. By the end of the movie, we see a grateful Lady Bird for everything her mother has done for her, but where is Marion’s growth? The film fogs out Lady Bird’s overcoming narrative by having her take a few steps back once she doubts about her own decisions. 

Photo by Netflix | The mother, Alex, works hard to create a better life for her daughter, Maddy.
  1. “Maid” (2021)

A series inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” “Maid” follows a young woman, Alex, portrayed by Margaret Qualley, who is a mother making ends meet by house cleaning in order to escape an emotionally abusive relationship. She works hard to overcome homelessness and create a better life for her daughter, Maddy. This story does also involve substance abuse issues and physical abuse implications, heavily revolving around mental abuse and the discussion about it being abuse or not. 

According to Speak Out Loud, run by Clare Murphy PhD Counsellor Supervisor Trainer Researcher, many people who have gone through abuse question or diminish their own experience because of their own abusers, and in this case, Sean Boyd (Nick Robinson), the father and ex-boyfriend of Alex, shows narcissistic tendencies. In addition, her bipolar mother, Paula Langley (Andie MacDowell), and deranged alcoholic father, Hank (Billy Burke), continually enable him.

Throughout the series, the audience is able to sympathize with people who were manipulated or abused and see just how easy it is to get pulled right back in. For example, during a bipolar episode with her mother, despite all the help Alex receives, a moment of weakness finds her in the arms of someone familiar.

Photo by Netflix | One of the more well-known scenes known as the “Couch Scene.”

In the famous “Couch Scene,” Sean takes away her source of transportation, which takes away sources of freedom and isolates her in a secluded area. “Maid” discusses how abusers alienate their victims, which makes this a very powerful and saddening moment in the show because Alex realizes she is trapped. The scene visually gave me goosebumps as it framed around her view slowing down; her daughter Maddy runs by and life has passed her by. As the song “The Last Man on Earth” by Wolf Alice plays, she falls onto the couch and sinks into the darkness.

There was an overcoming narrative in this series, as she did have a support system to help her out: a woman named Regina (Anika Noni Rose), who Alex had been cleaning for and knew of her story. Regina helps her with multiple things, but ultimately Alex finds her own confidence and bravery. The final scene of this series shows both Maddy and Alex reaching the top of a sunny mountain near her school, representing finally making it to a better place, which warmed my heart.

Photo by Netflix | In this documentary Pamela Anderson shares the tragic side of her life.

4.“Pamela, A Love Story” (2023) 

The worldwide blonde bombshell and “Baywatch” star, Pamela Anderson, authenticates her side of a long-lived and tragic story in “Pamela, A Love Story.” Trigger warning: physical, sexual assault and emotional abuse ahead. 

“Pamela, A Love Story” was directed by Ryan White and heavily involves journals of Pamela’s she’d written throughout her life. This movie is a look inside her eyes; a woman who loved to love, who grew up in such tragic circumstances but made it apparent to use that abuse and turn it into love.

Pamela grew up in a home that had emotional and physical abuse between her parents. Pamela was put into many unsafe circumstances where she had been taken advantage of throughout her childhood and teenage years. She revealed having been sexually abused by a female babysitter for years.

“I told her I wanted her to die, and then she died in a car accident the next day, so I thought I killed her with my magical mind and I couldn’t tell anybody…When those traumatic events happened, I would leave my body and float away and I’d make my own little world,” Pamela said.

Photo by Netflix | Poster for “Pamela, A Love Story”

She had further been assaulted at the age of 12 by a 25-year-old-man.  

But, the documentary is about reclaiming her body and her power. Once she made it to Hollywood, she posed for Playboy to reclaim her sexuality. Sharing her body by choice is what empowered her after years of abuse.

This film also centers around her love life and briefly touches on each relationship, particularly her marriage to Tommy Lee; the whirl-wind romance that transpired over four days before getting married. 

The relationship started powerful and passionate, Pamela said it was “one of the wildest, most beautiful love affairs.” 

However, there were many emotionally and predominantly physically abusive chapters of it, all things she didn’t see as red flags until after the relationship had ended. 

Controlling behaviors during her “Baywatch” days and needing to be around her constantly were things she loved. This happened alongside the controversial and damaging sex tape, causing a strain on their marriage. They had two children together and later ended their marriage due to Tommy Lee’s abuse towards Pamela and her son during an alcoholic blackout. She took control and left and after this married and divorced a few men until she ultimately found herself alone.

Her overcoming narrative is her surprising role in “Chicago” as Mimi, doing it for herself. 

Pamela ends the film saying “I’m sure I’m not finished, but I kind’ve like this moment right now where I have no clue what’s going to happen to me. And I know I suppose it’s a part of my life, I should be settled in somewhere.” 

But this free-spirited woman never stays down and I think that ultimately is the point of this film to show that she is working on loving herself more, but finding humor and good out of all she has been through.

Photo by Universal Pictures | From left to right Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) in She Said, directed by Maria Schrader.
  1. “She Said” (2022)

I found it important to end this list with a movie about the many women who were victims of a master abuser and manipulator: producer Harvey Weinstein. The talented journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey shared these brave women’s stories in a New York Times article called “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades.

In this movie, we get to see Jodi struggle to collect stories on the record, due to the dangers it would cause for the women involved speaking out. Later, Megan joins in after maternity leave and postpartum depression leaves her questioning the reason and benefit of taking on the case. 

Throughout the film, we come to understand the dangers of being a woman in the film industry and the men who hold the power in it. Many women from ages 20 to 40, all looking for hope and being met with unwanted advances. A few victims who have spoken out on advances or assault in the article were Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lauren O’Connor and Sallie Hodges. 

In The New York Times original article, Laura Madden, a former employee of Weinstein stated, “He had a way of making anyone who objected feel like an outlier. It was so manipulative; you constantly question yourself—am I one who is the problem.”

The overall theme of this movie is not to just speak up for Hollywood actresses but to make a difference for those who do not have the voice in general. The two journalists complement each other in their work. Jodi, being more neutral, caring and uncertain in ways, and Megan, the cutthroat journalist working to get a story out; their dynamic throughout the movie works as a confidence boost for the both of them. 

Photo by Universal Pictures | A screengrab from the trailer.

It is clear that when it comes to abuse in this film, “She Said” focuses on the victim’s narrative; how badly they desired to have their words voiced, even through the fear of what could happen.

In a scene, Rose McGowan spoke to Jodi off the record saying “it does damage to shout, and no one listens.” 

For most of the scenes, it felt as though the women were being watched at every turn, paranoid and taunted along with many angles being skewed. The audience gets a recollection during a record taping of what a victim experienced  and the off-feeling during those very uncomfortable moments in the long,dark, hazy, and sickening hotel hallway.

“She Said” has an overcoming narrative for the women being able to collectively be heard, no matter the risk. 

“The only way these women will go on the record is if they all jump together,” Megan and Jodi said in the film. 

They spoke out against their abuser and the journalists at The New York Times also respectfully put together their recounted stories. After the story came out, 82 women then spoke out about their experience of sexual assault from Harvey Weinstein.

It’s important to note that for these films, no one wants to be known for their trauma, but for how they overcame it. The tattoo of shame does not follow them as their character caters to the final result, which is bravery. I advise readers to sit down for each film or series in order to take in this final message.