The Exhausted Portrayals of Domestic Violence on Screen

Author: Akayla Gardner

The public perception of domestic violence is often limited to two extremes. These conceptions are evident in the cinema and television depictions of domestic violence.

On one end of the spectrum, many productions and films romanticize abusive relationships. The quintessential slap across the face or the back-and-forth insults followed by a long kiss often goes unnoticed by audience members as forms of domestic violence.

Fictional couples like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Harley Quinn and the Joker are more extreme examples of characters that engage in violent romances, but the representation is frequently used more subtly across films genres that include romance. It plays off the age-old saying, ‘He’s only mean to because he likes you.’

Glamorizing these couples can actually create the notion that passionate relationships are fueled and even enhanced by some kind of emotional or physical abuse— implying that people in these relationships enjoy abuse and do not want to leave. Normalizing views of this behavior can cause desensitization around domestic violence and can cause individuals to have a skewed view of what a healthy relationship is, sometimes condemning them to an abusive relationship because they do not realize they are in one.

On the other end of the spectrum, thrillers like “Obsessed” and “Perfect Guy” dramatize domestic violence with characters fighting for the marriages, fighting for their jobs, and fighting for their lives.

These films show obsessive and psychotic behaviors such as stalking, blackmailing, and threatening that are often present in abusive relationships. However, these films can simplify cases of domestic violence and suggest it is simple or common sense to leave an abusive relationship.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, victims leave an abusive relationship an average of seven times before they never return. Leaving is often dangerous and there are many factors a domestic violence victim must consider in the analysis of how to respond to an abuser.

The reality is that the most dangerous time for a victim is when they leave the abusive partner. Seventy-five percent of domestic violence-related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75 percent increase of violence upon separation for at least a year.

There can be countless barriers for victims to escape their situation from the threat of homelessness, traveling with children, loss of contact with support systems, lack of legal assistance, immigration status, lack of information about resources, and many other reasons that leave people stuck.

As a body of work, movies about intimate partner violence can frequently err on the side of predictability and exaggeration which can prevent audiences from sympathizing with real-life victims and understanding everyday instances of relationship abuse.

So what is the whole picture? There isn’t one. Every experience is different and we can never get the whole picture of what domestic violence looks like in a 95-minute production. That doesn’t mean the same tropes and plots should continue to be regenerated in the media. Domestic violence should be treated as a multi-dimensional issue and audiences will respond to productions that are well-rounded and authentic.


Ashleigh Diserio Consulting works with individuals and organizations, assisting them in gleaning insight into a person’s life, motivation, and past and future behavior, so certain areas of behavior can be understood with a high degree of accuracy. We provide services in the areas of criminal and intelligence investigations, management support, threat assessment, insider threat support, and education and training.