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Tropes in entertainment media: Abduction as Romance

Tropes in entertainment media: Abduction as Romance

Tropes in entertainment media: Abduction as Romance
July 28
17:32 2020

(This is Part 5 in an ongoing series that examines tropes that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and behaviors in media against women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Click the links to read Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4).

2016’s “Passengers” is a high-concept sci-fi film featuring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as space colonists who are awakened from their hibernation 90 years too early. The film was marketed as a romance film in space, but from the perspective of Aurora, Lawrence’s character in the film, the film isn’t a romance — it’s a horror movie.

See, the first half of the film center’s on Jim, Pratt’s character. Due to a malfunction on the ship, Jim is awoken 90 years too early and grapples with the realization that he will grow old and die alone on the ship before it ever reaches its destination. While alone on the ship, he begins to obsess over another sleeping passenger, Aurora. Intent on pursuing a romantic relationship with Aurora, Jim opens her sleeping pod.

If you’re Aurora in this situation, from her perspective, you’ve been trapped alone on a spaceship with a strange man who has doomed you to die on this ship with him. Jim robs her of her life, her future and her self-determination. But you wouldn’t realize this as the movie is a love story, and you’re supposed to root for Jim, despite the heinous deed he has committed. You want Jim and Aurora’s relationship to work, and because of this, the film is an example of the domestic abuse trope Abduction as Romance.

Abduction as Romance is a trope where a man kidnaps or imprisons a woman and then she eventually falls in love with him. This trope isn’t new and has been around since the birth of literature.

In most examples, the trope is invoked when the man kidnaps the woman for purposes other than love. But soon after the abduction, the hostage falls in love with their captor. The kidnapper is framed as a “decent guy” by the end of the movie. In more heinous examples of the trope, the man kidnaps his victim with the express purpose of love, but examples of this trope are few and far between.

Abduction in Romance is a popular plot device for writers to use as kidnappings provide a fast and easy way to have unlikely characters cross paths and fall in love. And while the use of the trope can be found in all kinds of genres and mediums, it is most popular in action-adventure films.

Action films are catered, for the most part, to male audiences. They portray their heroes as men of action. The danger they pose to the people around them is portrayed as exciting, attractive and hypermasculine. They take what they want and assert control over all situations, and in most cases, all these men are white (Western audiences tend to give white men the benefit of the doubt more than people of color).

And the pattern in all of these “Abduction as Romance” narratives revolves around these men exercising complete control over women. Whether the kidnapping is accidental and then becomes real, if it’s a hitman who falls for his mark or if the abduction is for their own good, all these examples have the same underlying identities — fetishizing the domination and disempowerment of women as romance.

However, the women in these films are never presented as passive victims themselves. The women in these films are usually independent, capable and feisty. The women are written as too feisty for their own good, allowing more opportunities for the man to assert more control and dominance. This differentiates the trope from Stockholm Syndrome, as with Stockholm the blame is shifted to the victim and not the abuser, and implies the character was brainwashed, robbing them of their agency as an individual.

An extreme example of this trope is 2005’s “V for Vendetta.” In the movie, our protagonist Evey is kidnapped by V and is subsequently humiliated and tortured by him for days on end. Yet the film portrays these actions as necessary to make her stronger, and in the end Evey thanks and forgives him. The two even share a series of romantic moments despite V’s abhorrent treatment of her.

Another more recent example is HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, wherein season 4, Sansa Stark is essentially kidnapped by Petyr Baelish and forcibly married to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton. Despite being raped and emotionally tortured by Bolton, Sansa let it all go by the end of the show, even thanking them, stating that her treatment at the hands of Bolton and Baelish made her a “stronger woman.”

But in the end, Abduction as Romance is an abuse trope. And the characters in movies such as “Terminator,” “Red,” “12 Monkeys,” “True Lies,” “Transporter,” “Commando” and “Passengers” all display the red flag behaviors as described by various domestic violence organizations. These red flags are physical force, controlling behavior, threats of violence and isolation. And despite this, Abduction as Romance portrays our kidnappers as men worthy of redemption, despite the universal acceptance that kidnapping is an abhorrent crime.

Self-reform is hard. It takes years of therapy for an abuser to stop their behavior. But in these films, the central idea is that the one thing that will make a bad man good is a woman to love, that special someone who will magically cure you of your violent behavior and ultimately make you a better person. But change isn’t sudden, and while abduction movies usually have a happy ending, in the real world, these romances will inevitably turn into abusive relationships.

There a million other more exciting ways to have a romantic relationship bloom in film. Now is the right time for writers to retire the Abduction as Romance trope because romanticizing abusive male behavior is twisted and isn’t a good look.

Featured image: Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing

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Chance Townsend

Chance Townsend

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