Beauty and the beast

The romanticization of abuse in popular culture

Laura Beres

University of Toronto


European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, ps. 191-207, 1999.


ABSTRACT This article examines the romantic portrayal of men's control of women in such popular cultural texts as Beauty and the Beast and Bram Stoker's Dracula. The author of this article has provided counselling services to abused women for many years. She describes the development of her concern in the meaning-making behaviours of abused women who engage with texts that romanticise abuse. A theoretical terrain is discussed, allowing for an unfixed positioning of both the writer and reader of the article, while considering the complex world of audience-text-academic.


KEYWORDS abuse, battered women, beauty and the beast, Dracula, romance, vampires



Just as Giroux and Simon (1989) situate their interest in studying popular culture as being influenced by their concern regarding the development of a critical pedagogy, I will make explicit my interest in analysing particular texts within popular culture. My interest has developed from my practice as a clinical social worker and particularly from providing counselling services to women who have experienced spousal violence. Victims of wife assault usually commence counselling due to a crisis in their relationship, which is often evidenced by an increase in the severity or frequency of abusive behaviours. They usually ask what they can do to improve the relationship in order for the abusive partner to be happier and, therefore, stop abusing them. In discussing the beginning stages of their relationship they often describe their partner as having been very romantic. Although they do not describe the abuse they are currently experiencing as being romantic, some women appear to interpret it as a sign that their partner cares for them and some of the women describe being attracted to controlling and powerful men. One abused woman I was counselling told me she read certain types of romance novels, with heroines she described as 'horny angels', in order to attempt to learn how to behave in order not to be beaten. This example led to my interest in the romantic portrayal of abusive behaviour m popular culture, and the not unproblematic negotiation of this by readers who are experiencing ongoing abuse.


bell hooks points out that, although women may be saying that they want men to be non-sexist in their interactions with women

“they could not desire a brother who could not take charge, take care of business, be in control . . . The one major obstacle preventing us from transforming rape culture is that heterosexual women have not unlearned a heterosexist-based 'eroticism' that constructs desire in such a way that many of us can only respond erotically to male behaviour that has already been coded as masculine within a sexist framework”. (1994: 111)


Examining texts within popular culture, I am interested in the romantic portrayal of controlling behaviour, and the subtle depictions of power differences, which perhaps is merely the romanticization of gender difference within a patriarchal structure. I am also interested in how even very violent behaviours might be presented with an element of romance. Finally, I am interested in how women learn that once in a violent relationship they should look after and help the abuser get better, rather than protect themselves.


As I began collecting texts from popular culture that I believed are related to these concerns, an article in Chatelaine, a popular Canadian magazine, captured my attention. The article, 'The Allure of the Accused', describes Lori Brown, a 27-year-old woman, who says she may be in love with Paul Bernardo. Bernardo is described in the article as having been 'charged with two murders (and) more than a dozen rapes. To many he is evil incarnate, but to Lori Brown, Bernardo is a good-looking guy who could use a hug' (Posner, 1995: 47). Bernardo and his wife, Karla Hamolka, are infamous in recent Canadian memory. They were found guilty of having held captive, sexually assaulted, mutilated and murdered two teenage girls. Hamolka testified against Bernardo, thereby plea bargaining for a much lesser sentence, but also calling upon 'the battered-wife syndrome' to attempt to explain her involvement in the crimes. The Chatelaine article is not an example of the romantic portrayal of abuse, but it is an example of a woman being concerned for an abusive man, wanting to understand and help him. Brown says that 'somebody's responsible for these actions (murders and rapes), and it's not all Paul. Responsible for hurting him as a child and making him the person he is. He didn't get that way by himself' (p. 48). Michael Posner, the interviewer and writer, spoke to a forensic psychiatrist to try and understand why women are attracted to crime figures. Dr Collins suggests that some women are attracted to the fame and the reflected fame that they receive. (Brown has been a guest on a couple of chat shows.) He also states, 'people tend to have an attraction to the macabre. There's something sexy about evil' (p. 80) and goes on to say that many of the women attracted to criminals also want to protect or save the killer. In support of the contention that popular culture fosters these attractions, Posner also spoke to a professor of anthropology, Elliot Leyton, who is quoted as saying, 'It’s obvious these women are responding to messages about power and celebrity. In the distorted reality that is built into the modern experience, these killers are often presented to the public as caricatures of manly virtue' (p. 80).


The article is a popular cultural text highlighting the concerns that guide my interest in the romanticization of abuse. It is another example of what I see in counselling situations, but does not answer any questions as to how some women develop these attitudes, while others do not. It gestures towards causes in popular culture, without any in-depth description of what exactly in popular culture contributes to this, and how it contributes.


Theoretical terrain


Turnbull (1994) discusses concerns related to academics researching women viewing media. She begins her discussion by sketching a theoretical map in which she imagines the female audience, television and communities to be located. The map is made up of a horizontal and vertical axis. The horizontal axis represents the theoretical position of the audience in relation to the text. At one end of the continuum, she suggests, is the approach which considers the audience's position as having been constructed by the media, and at the other end is the approach which analyses what individual audience members have to say about the media texts. (With this theoretical map in mind, it would seem as though Posner's article would fall nearer the end of the continuum which presents audiences as constructed by the media.) The vertical axis represents the audience's relationship to the media text in terms of sociocultural factors. At one end of the continuum is the 'mass’ - determined by 'socio-political factors such as race, gender, class, and the psychosexual desires which arise therefrom' (p. 3). At the other end is what she calls 'the undetermined audience/reader as embraced by a utopian postmodernism which regards the audience/reader as a free agent engaged in happy play with image and text' (p. 4).


Turnbull moves on to suggest a third dimension to her map, adding an axis on which intellectuals position themselves in regard to the audience. She suggests that this position is revealed by the use of pronouns -whether an 'us' and 'them' position is taken, or whether an overidentification occurs, assuming that '"we" may speak on their behalf since we too are part of the audience' (p. 7). The position which she advocates taking up is in the centre of the map, where there is a position of an unstable '1';

“It is a position which marks the confluence of all the other possibilities explored. It allows for a consideration of how our socio-cultural contexts come into play with our textual experiences, and it is therefore a discursive position in which we cannot escape the consequences of our own power relationships as academics and intellectuals.” (1994: 8)


Turnbull’s theoretical map has influenced the position I am adopting in this article. I was concerned by the fact that I was unsure where to position myself on the three-dimensional theoretical map that she describes. I am not completely comfortable with any of the extreme positions she has described on the map, and since she argues that the point at which the two axes cross is the least stable, that is where I will position myself. I do not want to take an 'us' and 'them' position with regard to other members of the audience. Nor can I assume that I am reacting to images arid texts in the same way as other members of the audience, since my access to various discourses is increasing as I pursue academic study in this area. As Turnbull says, 'to assume that we may speak with authority for our community is yet another power move, silencing other voices' (1994: 8).


Tumbull discusses her teaching as an area of her intellectual endeavour in which she can empower her students by providing them with discursive tools for understanding themselves and their relationship to media. As a social worker, I am attempting to empower the women who request counselling. I also believe that I can, and should, provide discursive tools to the women for understanding themselves and their context, including their relationship to media.


My therapeutic position has been influenced by White's narrative approach to therapy (O’Hanlon, 1994; Sykes Wylie, 1994; Tomm, 1989; M. White, 1995), combined with academic study in the area of cultural studies and critical pedagogy. White takes a poststructuralist position with regard to subjectivity, believing that subjectivity is not fixed, but that it is influenced by meaning-making activity. He believes subjectivity is produced through discursive practices and that language and meaning-making activities are powerful.  Unlike psychoanalysts who are pathology-focused (O'Hanlon, 1994: 22) and who believe that childhood experiences shape how we interpret images as adults, White believes that images start in the present and reach backwards, finding other elements with which to resonate. These texts, with which people engage, may contribute to people's meaning-making in current situations, and these images may then move backwards in time, finding memories with which to resonate, which then consolidate the meanings. White gives an example of this process by describing how an adult incest survivor will make meaning of her memories of abuse, by possibly thinking that it proves that she is bad and unlovable. That meaning is then expressed in her daily life by her being abusive towards herself. By adding a 'loving herself' story-line, she can reinterpret the past experience. While in this new territory, she can look back at the abuse and give it a new meaning, by realising that she was a victim of abuse. This new meaning will then shape new experiences - it might lead to rage and a passion for justice. White suggests that new meaning will give new expression and new action (1995), and that therapists need to provide people who are consulting them with a scaffold on which to build new meanings. This is done by externalising the problem, situating the problem within the context and politicising it, while broadening the person's audience, by involving as many others in the process as possible, in order to attempt to minimise the reliance on the therapist. If people need to be provided with scaffold-like frameworks in order to make meaning of their current situations and their past experiences, I wonder if it is possible that abused women are seeking out popular cultural texts, which can be used as frameworks for making meaning of their abusive situations. As opposed to the general perception of abused women as being passive and victim-like, my experience of abused women has been that they are actively engaged in attempting to understand and improve their situations. My concern is that they find popular cultural texts that may reinforce, rather than challenge, their positions within abusive relationships. Mercer's description of complicit pleasure (in Bennett et al., 1986) is useful to keep in mind. He represents the act of engagement with a particular text as a double helix in motion. He considers one half of the double helix as representing power, and the other half pleasure. It is then possible to visualise the relationship between power and pleasure as being made up of points of persuasion, resistance and negotiation. This explains how, despite being in a position of resistance to depictions of control of women, I may still enjoy certain texts, and why I am concerned that abused women could be in positions of persuasion, or negotiation, with those same depictions. I do not believe reading or viewing these texts will necessarily make any of us who are already in resistance to the notion of being controlled, vulnerable to abusive relationships, but I am concerned for those women who are already in abusive relationships.


The subtle romanticization of control


I think I have been clear, but want to reiterate before examining texts that I am considering the possible meanings which could be taken from these texts by women who are attempting to make sense of their context of living with an abusive partner. I am not assuming that anyone else would take these same meanings. I want to make it clear that while I have witnessed wife assault as a child, I have not experienced spousal violence. I am writing as a social worker, concerned with the practice problem of how to deconstruct meanings that assaulted women have already made regarding controlling behaviour being romantic, and their need to take care of their partner.


Due to comments made by women in counselling sessions, I first looked at the messages presented in romance novels. What struck me as I read romance novels was the similarity they shared with the story of Beauty and the Beast. Walt Disney's theatre and video release of Beauty and the Beast has obviously been very successful, and the paraphernalia accompanying it still fill toyshops and children's clothing departments. The video's cover displays a quote from Sneak Previews, saying ‘The best movie I have seen this year, period. The best for adults. The best for kids.' Broadway's Disney's Beauty and the Beast has also played at The Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto for several years. The advertisements suggest that this romance is suitable for adults and children; that the whole family will enjoy it. Why is it so popular?


There is some difference between the original story of Beauty and the Beast and the Disney version. Adams (1986) has completed a thorough analysis of the reading of the original version of Beauty and the Beast and the negotiation of affect and cognition in its reading by an 8-year-old girl. He breaks the text down into signifying units, describing the levels of semiosis, grammatical unit, affect signified, results, propositions and signifiers of each. He then provides the child's version of text, using the same units. He suggests that by displacing affect onto a signifier in the text the child makes her way through the text. Although he suggests that Beauty and the Beast is meant to direct the reader to think about marriage, guilt and herself, the 8-year-old child actually uses it to think about her mother. He says, 'postponing the grim reality she will one day face, she stays as a child attached to her father and finding every reason to distrust her mother' (p. 104). What is useful about his study is that he points out the impact of the reader's affect and cognition on the meaning taken from the text, regardless of what the intended purpose of the text might have been.


Giroux and Simon (1989) propose using the notion of consent while attempting to understand bow people 'negotiate elements of place and agency as a result of their investments in particular relations of meaning constructed through popular forms' (p. 15). They suggest that an over reliance on ideology critique limits our ability to understand hegemonic and counter-hegemonic struggles and the 'production and regulation of desire . . . as important (to) the construction of meaning' (p. 18) within those struggles. They quote Grossberg as saying:


“It is only if we begin to recognise the complex relations between affect and ideology that we can make sense of people's emotional life, their desiring life, their struggles to find the energy to survive, let alone struggle. It is only in terms of these relations that we can understand people's need and ability to maintain a 'faith' in something beyond their immediate existence. (Giroux and Simon, 1989: 18)


It is as if Grossberg is speaking about abused women. They are struggling to survive, since there is often a real danger that they will be severely beaten, if not killed, but they carry on struggling, since any alternative options may be limited, by maintaining a faith in the power of love and marriage and the patriarchy. Through the romanticization of abuse in popular cultural texts, their involvement in abusive relationships may be reinforced. An abused woman's reading of Beauty and the Beast would, therefore, be different from that of an 8-year-old's or even of an academic's, since her affect and environment of which she needs to make meaning will be different.


In Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Belle is shown as enjoying books with adventure and romance, wanting something more exciting than her boring provincial life. Gaston, the handsome village hunter wants to marry her because she is the most beautiful woman in the village, but she thinks he is a boorish lout and his description of her as his wife, cooking and darning for him and having his children, does not appeal to her. So far so good. One day, her father loses his way in a forest and takes shelter in the Beast's castle. We have been told already that the Beast had been a handsome spoiled young prince who would not allow an ugly old hag to take refuge in his castle. However, she had actually been a beautiful enchantress in disguise, testing the prince, and she put a spell on his castle, turning him into a beast and all his servants into objects, such as teapots, candlesticks and clocks. She has given him an enchanted rose and told him that if he has not learned how to love, and if he is not loved, by the time he is 21, the final petal will drop from the rose and the spell will never be broken. When the Beast discovers that his servants have given Belle's father refuge he is angry, believing him to be a spy, and throws him into a dungeon. When the father's horse returns home, Belle is worried and goes looking for her father. The horse leads her to the Beast's castle. She finds her father and is worried that he seems ill. The Beast finds them together and is furious, frightening Belle. Despite her fear, she asks the Beast to keep her, and let her father go since he is so ill. The Beast allows this exchange. This shows Belle as a strong, brave woman. (Most abused women are also strong, brave women; not merely victims, but rather struggling with ambivalence and difficulties of interpretation where their relationships are concerned.)  The Beast is encouraged by his servants to he kind to Belle in the hope that the spell might be broken, but he continues to be angry and controlling, and finally Belle attempts to escape because he has frightened her so badly. (Abused women also often attempt to escape several times, before they finally leave for good, or before their partners are willing to engage in treatment.) While escaping, the wolves in the forest attack Belle and her horse, but the Beast comes to her rescue, becoming injured himself in the process. He is badly hurt and Belle could have escaped as he lay unconscious, but she helps him back to the castle and takes care of his wounds. (Violence often escalates after a woman attempts to escape, followed by 'empathy' and a desire to help her abuser.) They argue; the Beast saying that she should not have tried to escape and Belle saying that he should not have shouted at her, but they thank one another for their help. They begin falling in love with each other at this point, although Belle is still worried about her father. The Beast loves her so much by this time that he cannot keep her a prisoner any longer and he lets her go to see her father. The town's folk, led by Gaston, decide to attack and kill the Beast, because Gaston is jealous of Belle's concern for him. Gaston almost succeeds in killing the Beast because the Beast does not think that Belle will return and so is not protecting himself. Belle returns then and Gaston falls from a high wall of the castle. As the final petal of the rose drops, it looks as if the Beast has died, but Belle says that she loves him and the Beast turns, miraculously, back into a handsome prince. It ends happily, with Belle and the Prince dancing in the ballroom and everyone smiling on. For a viewer who is living in a violent relationship, who needs to maintain faith in something beyond her immediate situation, this story suggests that if she acts in a loving way towards her abusive partner, he might learn from her how to be loving, and might turn into a prince for her. This text might give her hope and a faith in the power of love to help her partner change, winning her consent to the power dynamics within heterosexual relationships.


Robin Norwood's book, Women Who Love Too Much (1985) has sold over three million copies and has been a New York Times Best-seller. It is aimed, according to the back cover, at women who believe that 'being in love means being in pain', and asks 'why do so many women become obsessed with the wrong men - men who are emotionally unavailable, addicted to work, alcohol or other women - men who cannot love them back?' The reader is told that 'If you constantly find yourself loving men you want to change, (this book) is for you.' Norwood also comments on Beauty and the Beast. She says,

“'Beauty and the Beast', like every fairy tale that has endured centuries of telling and retelling, embodies a profound spiritual truth in the context of a compelling story. Spiritual truths are very difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to put into practice because they often go against contemporary values. Accordingly, there is a tendency to interpret the fairy tale in a way that reinforces the cultural bias. By doing so, it is easy to miss its deeper meaning altogether. .. . The cultural bias that this fairy tale seems to underscore (is) that a woman can change a man if she loves him enough.” (Norwood, 1985: 138)


She goes on to give accounts of how women have attempted to change their partners' behaviours, and how they are not attracted to nice men but only to the 'roller-coaster' ride they experience with men who are emotionally unavailable for one reason or another. The women describe how they have been attempting to change their partner, all to no avail. Norwood then describes what she believes is the real spiritual truth being told in Beauty and the Beast. She says the point is that Beauty demonstrated acceptance of the Beast and was rewarded. She says,

“Remember, in the fairy tale, Beauty had no need for the Beast to change. She appraised him realistically, accepted him for what he was, and appreciated him for his good qualities ... Because of her attitude of acceptance, he was freed to become his own best self. That his true self just happened to he a handsome prince (and perfect partner for her) demonstrates symbolically that she was rewarded greatly when she practices acceptance.” (1985: 177)


Norwood is not necessarily directing her comments towards women who are living in abusive situations, but the fact is that abused women are reading her book. I am just as concerned by what Norwood suggests is the real spiritual truth of Beauty and the Beast. Abused women are generally already too accepting of the abuse. When they are not rewarded for their acceptance in the way that Belle was rewarded, they then blame themselves for not having 'done it properly'. This type of 'pop-psychology' book merely adds to liberal and therapeutic discourses already in circulation which suggest that the individual should take responsibility for the part her own behaviour has in her abuse and that if things don't go as she wishes she only has herself to blame.


I had the opportunity to discuss my thoughts regarding Beauty and the Beast with a college tutorial of 20 first-year university students, studying 'Perspectives on Film'. Although a couple of young women understood my concerns, the majority focused on how romantic the story was, bow independent Belle was (as are many romance heroines) and how plush the seats were in the Princess of Wales theatre when they went to see the stage production. The majority of the students appeared to have difficulty stepping into a position which allowed them to critique the possible meanings abused women could be taking from the text, because they had enjoyed the romance of it so much.


I believe that the Beast is romanticised through the love story that is played out before he turns into a prince again, but also because he turns back into a prince. Beauty and the Beast also plays itself out in serial romances, such as Harlequin romances, and in narratives like Du Maurier's Rebecca and Wild Orchid, to name just a few. In these story-lines, just as in Beauty and the Beast, the hero is initially controlling and distant, if not blatantly abusive, and has been hurt in his past by a woman, or women, which has contributed to his distant and unloving manner. By being loved by the heroine, he can heal from his past experiences and become the perfect partner for her.


Miles (1988), in describing her enjoyment of reading Harlequin romances, mentions that a friend said 'Look at you'.' as she sat reading a Harlequin with a grin of pleasure on her face. The same thing was said to me as I watched one of the opening scenes in Wild Orchid, several years ago. It is hard, in retrospect, to know what appealed to me about the scene, which involved the hero, played by Mickey Rourke, walking the heroine into a restaurant and to their table. He is watching her and smiling, and obviously attracted to her and only thinking of her. It turns out that he had left the dress for her to wear and has choreographed the whole evening. He is extremely controlling, and stages several explicit sexual encounters which he observes and which he has the heroine observe. She becomes more attracted to hun, and discovers that her employer is also in love with him, hut has found him emotionally unavailable and has started playing controlling sex games herself. He is unable to he sexually active, due to an unhappy childhood and previous 'bad experiences' with women. After he explains to the heroine his reasons for being unable to love her, and after she has shown him, by her encouragement to try, that she loves him regardless, they are able to make passionate love, and ride off into the Mexican sunset on his Harley. (He is also a self-made millionaire of course.) It appeared to be like a film version of one of the sexually explicit Harlequin romances, with the underlying story-line of Beauty and the Beast, made more modern by the acceptance of women's sexuality.


My own subjectivity seems to have changed somewhat, since when I first watched the film, I enjoyed and found romantic the hero's obvious attraction to the heroine and his control of the situation in the initial scene in which they meet. Having been interested in the romantic portrayal of controlling behaviour in popular culture for several years, I find that this image is becoming less appealing to me. Why does controlling behaviour have to be portrayed in romantic ways? One possible answer is so that it may win women’s consent to the power dynamics within a heterosexual relationship. The first-year students, as well as some of the women I counsel, appear to react as though 'romantic' is by definition unproblematic. However, I believe the intersection of power and pleasure requires that romance needs to be examined closely.


Sting's 'Every Breath You Take' was a song I also very much enjoyed when it was first released, in 1983 1 believe, but I cannot say I enjoy it to the same extent now. Sting sings that 'Every breath you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you.' Having counselled women who have lived in constant fear for their lives and their children's lives, because their partner has been released from jail and because he has threatened that they won't be able to get away from him, having worked with women and children who have been moved on victim relocation programmes having worked with women who are in constant fear; because they are stalked, to me this song now seems like a romanticization of a behaviour which can he extremely frightening and dangerous for women.


The romance of vampires


As I collected texts from popular culture which I felt romanticised abuse (this was often an affect rather than a cognition, which 1 later needed to analyse more rationally), I picked up a copy of Tribute (Slotek, 1994), a magazine available in Canadian cinemas. It contained an article about the film production of Interview with the Vampire. There was something about the photographic depiction of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, who starred in the film, which seemed to call upon and romanticise the vampire characters. I became curious, therefore, about how the portrayal of vampires could contribute to the romanticization of abuse. The abuse by vampires, of course, is much more violent and blatant than the subtle forms of control which are romanticised in other formats and genres, but I am equally interested in how these frightening portrayals of abuse can also be romanticised.


I recalled, as my interest in the romanticization of abuse in vampire texts was developing, that when I had read Bram Stoker's Dracula several years ago, I bad been surprised by bow much I enjoyed the book and how romantic I had found it. The 1992 film version, Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, is very much more romantic than the original text, adding a romantic love relationship between Mina and Dracula.


In his book, Reading the Vampire, Gelder (1994) completes a thorough analysis of vampire texts, examining the various manifestations of the vampire. He presents an interesting account of society's changing anxieties and how these are shown in changes in the vampire text. This argument is similar to that of Zipes (1983), regarding changes over time in the text of Little Red Riding Hood, and also reminds me of Thurston's (1987) description of the demand for erotic romances by modern women on a quest for new sexual identity. They present fascinating historical accounts of the changes in texts. These are descriptions which could be placed, using Turnbull’s theoretical map, furthest away from the end of the continuum that considers audiences as having been constructed by the media. Due to space limitations, I will focus primarily on the romanticization of Dracula's power and control in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version, Bram Stoker's Dracula.


Kathy White (1985) says that 'film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskell explain the recent increase in violence against women in R-rated movies as a male reaction against the women's movement' (p.3). Gelder (1994) has not looked specifically at the romanticization of control, although he does describe Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula as having departed from Stoker's original text, in so much as it has been publicised as a 'New Age' love story, with the caption 'Love Never Dies'. I find it interesting that, despite Gelder's thoroughness, showing the changes of 'otherness' as called upon in the vampire texts over time, he has not mentioned the changes in the romanticization of Dracula over time. Even in suggesting that Coppola's film version is more of a love story than other versions, he does not explain why this would be.


Viewing the 1931 film version of Dracula with Bela Lugosi in the lead role, I was interested to see that Dracula had not been romanticised in this early production. It made me wonder if Ebert and Siskell's argument that the increase in violence against women in the media is a backlash against the women’s movement could also offer an explanation of the changes in the romanticization of abuse over time. The women are portrayed in much more passive roles in the 1931 version, suggesting that they do not need to be controlled any more than they are already, and that their consent to be controlled does not need to be won, since they are already passive, therefore control does not need to be romanticised. In a 1979 version of Dracula, with Frank Langella in the lead role, Dracula is romanticised and sexualised. in this version the; narrative departs from Stoker's original text, reversing the characters of Mina and Lucy. Lucy, who in this version is engaged to Jonathan Harker, falls in love with, and is sexually attracted to, Dracula. In this version, Lucy is a very strong character and the romanticization of Dracula appears to be heightened in order for him to win consent from her to control her. Coppola's (1992) version takes it one step further, combining both my interests; the romanticization of control and abuse, and the portrayal of abusers in a sympathetic manner.


As Gelder (1994) describes, Coppola's version presents Mina as the reincarnation of Princess Elisabeth, 'once the young wife of Vlad the Impaler who took her own life when she was falsely told that her husband had been killed in battle' (p. 90). The film starts in 1462, and a narrator, Van Helsing, played by Anthony Hopkins, describes the fall of Constantinople. He says that the Muslim Turks swept towards Transylvania, threatening Christendom. We are told there was a Romanian knight there, from the sacred order of the dragon, known as Dracula. Elisabeth is described as his bride, whom he prized above all things. After the battle, Dracula says, 'God be praised. I am victorious,' and he kisses a cross. The Turks are vengeful, and shoot an arrow through the castle window, sending a note to Elisabeth, telling of Dracula's death. She leaves a note, saying that all is lost if her prince is dead, and that she hopes that God will reunite them in heaven, and then commits suicide. As she throws herself into the river, Dracula can be seen realising that something terrible is happening. He whispers, 'Elisabeth', and races back to the castle, where he finds her laid out in a chapel. The priest tells him that she is damned because she took her own life. Dracula screams and asks if this is his reward for protecting God's church. He renounces God and shouts that he will rise from his death to avenge her death. He starts turning over artefacts in the chapel, puts his sword into the cross, which starts bleeding, and then drinks the blood, saying, 'The blood is the life and shall be mine.' The blood starts seeping out of statues and candles and starts pouring its way throughout the whole chapel. his expression seems that of horror as well as rage. I believe this opening cannot help but set the stage for empathy with Dracula, perhaps suggesting his overwhelming love for Elisabeth excuses his behaviour. Later in the film, when Jonathan Harker is with Dracula in his castle in Transylvania, Dracula sees Mina's picture. She looks like Elisabeth, and he cries as he says, 'The luckiest man who walks on this earth is he who finds true love.' He later also says, 'Yes, I too can love. And I shall love again.'


The love story between Dracula and Mina begins when Dracula arrives in London. Dracula is shown as an elegant, young man, walking in London, when he sees Mina. A romantic melody begins to play ('Love Song for a Vampire'), and he whispers, 'See me. See me now.' Mina turns slowly and sees him, indicating the amount of power he has over her. After she comes out of a store, he asks her for directions, but she does not want to help him immediately, though she soon feels guilty and apologises for her rudeness, at which point he introduces himself to her as Prince Vlad. 'A Prince, no less!', she says. 'I am your servant,' he replies. Later he says to her, 'Do not fear me. I have crossed oceans of time.' It looks at this point as though he is overcome with passion, hut he struggles against the urge to bite her. She moves away from him, but a wolf, which has escaped from the zoo, almost attacks her, and Dracula commands the wolf to leave her. He then tells Mina to come and stroke the wolf, which she does. He says, 'He likes you. 'There is much to be learned from beasts.' This first scene between Mina and Dracula shows a romance developing between them, but also highlights Dracula's power, which he uses to attract Mina. It hints at the power that could be Mina's, to tame and learn from wild beasts, should she be willing.


The next scene in which Dracula and Mina are together is in a private dining room of a restaurant. Dracula is pouring her a drink and saying, 'Absinthe is the aphrodisiac of the soul. The green fairy who lives in it wants your soul. But you are safe with me.' She asks him to describe his homeland to her, and he says that it is the most beautiful place in the world. She then goes on to describe it and he says that she describes it as if she had seen it. She explains that it is like a voice in a dream that she cannot place, and that it comes to her when she is alone. She then asks of the princess, and as before, she answers her own question by describing what had happened to Elisabeth and says, ‘tears of heartbreak.' Dracula is also crying by this time. They hold each other and he catches her tears, which turn into diamonds in his hand. This scene verifies for them what Dracula has suspected: that Mina is Elisabeth reincarnated, and that their love has never died. As they dance together, Jonathan is shown escaping from the castle. The next scene shows Mina receiving a letter from Jonathan, asking her to come immediately to Romania to marry him. She says, 'My sweet prince - Jonathan must never know of this.'


When Mina and Jonathan return to London, married, Mina says she feels dead, except for this tiny hope that lives in me that I might see my prince'. Renfield tells Mina she is the bride his master covets, and later Dracula comes to Mina in her bedroom. When she sees him she says, ‘Oh yes, my love. You found me. My most precious love. I want this. I want to he with you always.' He tries to explain to her that she does not know what she is asking for, and holds her hand to his chest, showing that he has no heartbeat. He says, 'I am nothing - lifeless, hated and feared - I am dead. I am the monster. I am Dracula.' She initially hits him, crying that he killed Lucy but then says, 'I love you. God forgive me, I do. I want to he what you are, see what you see, love what you love.' He answers, 'To walk with me, you must die to your life and be born to mine. You are my love and my life always. Then I give you life everlasting, love eternal, the power of the storm. Walk with me - to be my loving wife for ever.' He bites into her and then has her begin to suck his blood from a gash he has made in his chest, but then stops her saying, 'No, I cannot let this be.' 'Please, I don't care,' says Mina, and he responds, 'You'll be cursed to walk with the shadow of death for all eternity. I love you too much to condemn you.' She chooses to continue, however.


Of course, the film is filled with religious imagery, and Dracula is presented as a Christ figure at times, but my focus for this article, is the romanticization of Dracula's controlling behaviour. I believe that abused women watching this would be less affected by the religious imagery than they would by the romantic relationship. I tend to remember films in snippets, and when I think of this film, the most memorable, significant and romantic aspects are when Dracula controls Mina by saying 'See me, see me now,' and when he turns Mina into a vampire. Although the religious imagery is strong, I believe it would have less impact on abused women. Abused women, living in violent situations, are preoccupied with attempting to make meaning of their violent relationships, and are less interested, while in these situations, in higher order needs, such as religious concerns. The narrative continues much like Stoker's novel, with Van Helsing hypnotising Mina, in order to gain entry into Mina's connection with Dracula. As Dracula is nearing his castle, He senses that Mina is nearby and says, 'Mina, you are here. My love.' Mina, calls upon the winds and the clouds, and urges Dracula, who is in a crate on a wagon, to outrun Jonathan and Quincy, who are attempting to reach him before the sun sets. The sun sets just as they all arrive at the castle, and as Dracula bursts out of the crate, Jonathan slashes at Dracula's neck and stabs him in the chest. Mina points a rifle at Jonathan and Van Helsing, yelling, 'When my time comes, will you do the same to me?' Jonathan tells the others to 'let them go - our work is finished and hers is just begun'.


In the chapel, where the film first opened, Dracula, in the form of an old man, says, 'Where is my God? He has forsaken me. Finish it.' 'My love', whispers Mina and they kiss. Mina, as a narrator, then says, ‘There, in the presence of God, I understood my love could release us all from the powers of darkness. Our love is stronger than death.' Dracula turns into the handsome prince again at this point and says, 'Give me peace.' She stabs him and a mark made on her forehead by a sacramental wafer disappears. She then chops off Dracula's head. The film ends, with the romantic and melancholy music beginning again.


Even in this final scene of Bram Stoker's Dracula, I cannot help but be reminded of the story of Beauty and the Beast, as the love (and acceptance) between Mina and Dracula is able to turn the beast back into a prince. If the endings of these two films are viewed one after the other, a striking resemblance can be observed: the backdrop, lighting and magical change from beast to prince, with the heroine looking on. Although it is necessary for Mina to kill Dracula, she says that their love is stronger than death. Even though the romantic hero is killed in this narrative, the message still can be interpreted by abused women as being that love never dies, love forgives all things and love sometimes means pain and death.




My concern with attempting to understand the meaning-making behaviours of abused women engaged with popular cultural texts has guided my interest in the romanticization of abuse in popular culture. I have attempted to position myself in the centre of the theoretical terrain, not willing to take an 'us' and 'them' position, nor to speak for abused women as 'we'. Not believing that texts cause certain effects in viewers, but also not believing that all viewers are completely able to negotiate or resist texts freely, I have attempted to highlight aspects of popular cultural texts which could be perceived as romanticising control and abuse, and which could elicit empathy for the abuser. I have done this by looking at the subtle portrayal of control in a romantic manner, as well as looking at the love story in the Dracula narrative. It appears as though the romanticization of control and abuse, and empathy for the abuser, have become more prevalent in the more recent texts, which concerns me, although I am not convinced of why this might be so. This needs to be investigated more thoroughly. This article has only been the first step towards looking at empathy for the abuser and the romanticization of control in popular cultural texts, showing how some viewers may interpret them. Ongoing work will involve the narration of abused women's negotiation of a variety of discourses, including their engagement with popular cultural texts that romanticise men’s control of women.




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Beauty and the Beast (1991) Produced by Don Hahn, directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. The Walt Disney Corporation.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. An American Zoetrope/Osiris Film Production.

Dracula (1979) Produced by Walter Mirsch, directed by John Badham. Universal Pictures.

Interview with the Vampire (1994) Produced by Stephen Woolley and David Geffen, directed by Neil Jordan.

Wild Orchid (1989) Produced by Mark Damon and Tony Anthony, directed by Zalman King.


Biographical note

Laura Beres has been employed as a clinical social worker in Toronto since 1990. She is currently completing her PhD in a critical pedagogy and cultural studies specialization within the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Department of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Her interests intersect the areas of clinical social work, women's studies and cultural studies. ADDRESS: 64 Catherine Avenue, Aurora, Ontario L4G 1K7, Canada [email:]