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what Fireproof and Twilight have in common

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During my undergrad days, one of my friends convinced me to read the Twilight series. At first I rolled my eyes at the “vampire books,” but I did read them— flew through them, really.

I strongly, strongly identified with Isabella Swan– but when I tried to explain it to my friends, all that I could come up with was that “we were both clumsy.” My friends laughed at me, or rolled their eyes, so eventually I shut up about it. I was never able to figure out exactly what it was about Bella that tugged at me so much. I knew it had something to do with her relationship with Edward– I was frequently able to draw direct parallels to my relationship with John*.

When our relationship ended in disaster and I realized not terribly long after that our relationship had been abusive, the connection between Meyer’s books and my relationship hit me square in the face. I’d identified with Bella because she was in love with an abuser. She felt the same way about her abuser that I’d felt about mine. She’d used all the same exact justifications, the same coping mechanisms, everything. Everything was ok, everything was fine– after all, Bella had gone through the same exact thing with Edward, and they were the perfect couple.

I remembered trying to explain this sentiment to a friend, and the best thing I could come up with was that our relationship had a lot of “passion,” and that while it was a “roller-coaster,” I would be “bored with anything less.” She stayed mostly quiet, but I could tell that she disagreed with me– I just didn’t fully realize about what. Now I knew. While Bella and Edward’s relationship had parallels with mine, the abuse John* put me through was so much worse. Everything he ever did was a tactic to control me, to get me to comply with all of his commands, no matter how extreme– even if he had to scream at me, had to physically hurt me. And it worked.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I don’t recall exactly at what stage John* and I watched Fireproof together, but it was sometime after he’d proposed. One of the married couples from church had loaned it to my family, and it was being hailed all over my college campus as a relationship-must. Its accompanying book, The Love Dare, was making the rounds among most of my friends, and was touted as one of the best books written on Christian relationships. I didn’t think that my relationship was struggling, but I was an avid believer in having the tools before you needed them, so I figured it couldn’t hurt.

After the movie ended, John* was upset. He pulled me into the hallway leading to my room and demanded that I explain to him what that had been all about. “Are you trying to say that I’m like that? That I do that? You think I’m some kind of a jerk like he was?”

And I protested, no, no, of course not, I hadn’t seen it yet, I didn’t know what it was about– and, after all, it was really the wife’s fault. He was just responding to her indifference and disrespect. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but fear was tingling in my fingertips and wrenching my stomach. I could feel his fingers clamping around me arm, I watched as rage enters his eyes.

“You’re right. If you ever treat me the way she treated him, well. . . . ” He didn’t have to finish his sentence. I knew.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Last week, one of my favorite bloggers, Sarah Moon, live-tweeted her viewing of Fireproof and Courageous. Reading through what she said brought that memory back, and it was almost impossible to stop myself from re-living the experience of looking into his eyes and knowing that he was capable of beating me if he felt like it. One of the scenes she highlighted– the part where Kirk Cameron’s character backs his wife up against a wall while he’s screaming at her– I remembered vividly. I remember it in a way that I don’t remember the rest of the film. I can still recall the basic plot and my mother saying something about how Cameron’s wife stood in for the actress during the last kissing scene, but everything pales in comparison to that particular scene.

I remember the exact way I felt while I watched Cameron’s character scream at his wife. I remember seeing the expression on the wife’s face, I remember forcing myself not to shrink away from John*. I remember wanting to stop the movie– right then– and go do something so I could eliminate the anxious, twisted feeling that felt like a horrible presence in my head, taunting me.

But I also remember the way I felt after the movie ended. I remember what I believed about my relationship with John* after it was over. I adopted what the scriptwriters and producers had just spent the last 90 minutes trying to convince me of– that all relationships, even ones that are emotionally and verbally abusive– need work, that both people have to participate, that you should never, ever give up no matter how bad it gets. They put an abusive relationship on that screen and got me to believe that lie that if I just worked, if I just dared, that I could fix my relationship. Leaving him wasn’t an option– that was only what the “world” (and, apparently, in Fireproof-land, the “world” is exclusively made up of black women) would try to get me to abandon my relationship. But that was not loving. That was not what a Christian would do. No, a Christian woman who is being emotionally and verbally abused by her partner will stick by him and give him one more chance . . . and then another . . . and then another . . .

John*, as a highly skilled manipulator and abuser, didn’t really need that much help in making sure I remained submissive and compliant. He didn’t need help– but he got it anyway. He got it from dating books and purity manuals and the Twilight series and Sherwood Baptist Church. And I’m realizing that one of the answers to the question “why don’t you just leave your abusive husband/boyfriend?” is to point at all the things in American culture that scream at women don’t leave him, it’s not that bad, if you just work and do what he says things will get better. It’s in our most popular books, it’s in our movies . . . and it is a deeply held belief in Christian culture, too.

In all of the dating and relationship advice books that I’ve read, in all the sermons I’ve listened to about marriage, it is extraordinarily rare to hear anything that could help a man or woman in an abusive relationship. Abusive husbands and the wives they hurt are invisible. No one wants to talk about them. It’s a hard, desperate reality. And so, a pastor gets up on Sunday morning, delivers a message for married couples, and ignores the fact that if his church has 50 married couples, 10 of them are physically abusive— and half of these people are being raped, usually in a degrading way purposefully intended to humiliate them.

I know this isn’t a reality we want to talk about. I desperately wish I could live in a world where none of these things happen.

But, the reality is that one of the biggest reasons why women are abused and raped is that we never say anything. And if we do say something, it’s to create a movie about an abusive husband and tell the wife that leaving him would be wrong.

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  • I didn’t like the Twilight series enough to continue reading the first book, but you’ve convinced me maybe I ought to take another look at them. That’s really scary, what you said about Fireproof. I never would have thought of it that way.

  • Stacey

    Perhaps I am just not understanding, so please explain to me how Edward in the Twilight books was “abusive” to Bella? I could certainly see Kirk Camerons character in Fireproof as abusive… that seemed like a no brainer. But Edward???? Controlling, perhaps. Over protective, for sure, but I don’t see “abusive.” I have been in an emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive relationship with a man I was married to for three years, so I feel like I should be able to detect that behavior in a book. Apparently, I missed something??

    • The article Stephanie linked to is a really good summation, and it directly pulls from the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s “warning signs.”

      For me, it was that Edward controlled all of her decisions. When she acted as an independent agent and did what she wanted to, he would verbally abuse her every single time– “for her own protection,” of course, which is exactly what abusers say to manipulate their victims. It was exactly what John* did to me.

      He told her that she wasn’t allowed to be with her friends, because they were “dangerous.” This is called isolation, it’s a very common abusive tactic, and it exactly what my abuser did, too.

      I could go on, but this is getting triggering.

  • Wow. I have an article waiting, talking about how Twilight reflected my abusive relationship, too. Good to know I’m not the only one who sees that darkness. I never saw Fireproof … and now I’m even more thankful I didn’t watch it. X didn’t want to see it … *laugh* … probably because the church thought he might behave better after watching it? Hmm…

  • My ex husband just loved the Twilight books. He would often say that he learned how to treat a girlfriend from Edward. I wish I had realized this wasn’t a good thing, but oh well.

  • Alice

    It’s been a long time since I watched the movie, and I wasn’t educated about abuse at the time, but I remember Kirk’s character had a lot of anger issues. Even in the first scene, he was screaming at his wife because she didn’t treat him like a king and forgot to buy something from the store. Seriously?!

    Also, I think the repeated “gag” where he would go outside, hit the trash can violently, and be embarrassed when the neighbor noticed, bothered me even before learning more about abuse. I shuddered, “Wow, is he doing that because he can barely restrain himself from hitting his wife?” I know now that people who are violent with objects or animals can escalate to hurting people as well, especially if they use that indirect violence to intimidate their partner. Some people never do, but it is a warning sign.

    The scene that drove me the craziest when I watched it the first time was the scene where he destroys the computer, and that’s supposed to magically cure everything. *rolls eyes*

    • Anon

      Wow, never saw the movie (thankfully) but major flashbacks about the trash can description. That was how my dad vented his frustration and controlled my household as a child, even though he never laid a hand on us. We lived with the “threat”.

      I’ve had numerous boyfriends that had that type of method for ‘venting anger and have done it myself (even though I don’t hurt people or animals). What does that say about me? πŸ™ Where is the line between “possible warning sign” and “Definitely and abuser”?

      • Alice

        I don’t know, it is a tough question. I too have been violent with inanimate objects, but always when I was alone, never to hurt/intimidate a person or animal. In fact, I tend to get a lot more angry at stuff not working properly than at people, for whatever reason.

        I think a lot of it depends on interaction with people. I think the character’s behavior wouldn’t have bothered me as much if he hadn’t screamed and physically intimidated his wife. And maybe vigorous exercise would be better than simulating violence. I don’t know. On a similar note, I don’t think playing violent video games is a warning sign unless it is accompanied by other red flags.

        Also, there seems to be mixed opinions in the psychology world on how productive physical venting is. From my experience, even though venting feels good at the time, it just makes me angrier, and I don’t start cooling down until I stop. YMMV. Also, if I had been managing the anger instead of ignoring it until I exploded, maybe I wouldn’t have needed to vent.

        Anger is a complicated topic.:)

  • L

    Every few months I like to go reread some of the Twilight takedowns out there. There are SOOO many good ones, and they significantly contributed to my awareness and understanding of abusive relationship dynamics. they are also funny as hell. Here is one I enjoyed a great deal http://markreads.net/reviews/2010/11/complete-mark-reads-twilight-archive/

    Sad truth: At the time Fireproof came out, I was still SOOO sheltered that I thought it was a high quality movie with good acting.

  • Tracy W.

    Edward was a stalker and control freak. If some guy admits be has sneaked into your bedroom to watch you sleep, you call the cops and get a restraining order, you don’t date the creep! If someone disables your vehicle, you file charges. End of story.

  • I wonder how did you manage to break the “courtship?” I thought that in your world, once that trains starts, there is no going back. I am glad you are safe now.

    • I didn’t– he ended our engagement two months before the wedding, because, and I quote: “I wasn’t submissive enough and he was concerned that I would never be a biblical submissive wife.”

      • Thanks for clarification. Where there any consequences for him at all for breaking the engagement? Sorry if I am digging too deep, I am just trying to figure out how the whole sordid system works.

      • KellyD

        Do you think, knowing what you know now that you would’ve eventually ended things if he hadn’t?

        • It’s possible. I think I was moving in that direction.

          In the end, though, I think it was a good thing he did it. It stopped me from “taking him back”.

  • Reblogged this on Lana Hobbs the Brave and commented:
    another excellent and open post from Defeating Dragons

  • I’ve been forced to see all those movies from Sherwood, like the Left Behind crap they are fantasies treated like reality and people drink the Kool-aide.

  • Margaret Halpin

    My mom told me that a man might hit her once. Just once, and he’d never have the chance to do it twice.
    That doesn’t begin to convey the passion, controlled fury, and conviction with which she said it.

    • sunnyside

      My mom would tell a story about her great aunt, who was married to a man who beat her. One day he came home, raised a fist, and she took a bullwhip to him. My mom told this story with feeling – you don’t mess with the women in our family.

  • Just to note: a submissive wife is not a slave; she is equal to her husband, a help meet in all things. That is the way God intended!!

    • K

      Sounds like a great life. I can’t wait to be some guy’s help meet. Clearly, since I have a vagina, that’s what I was born to do. *rolls eyes*

    • Just a note, a submissive wife is a shadow. She is not even equal to what she was intended to be as a woman let alone to her husband. That is not what any God intended. Certainly no loving God intended for any of his creatures to be ground down. No loving God intended for any of his creatures to fail to thrive, certainly not because another of his creatures held them back.

    • Rose

      If that’s what God intended than either he is not worthy of worship or just doesn’t exist.
      Don’t you realise that sexism drives people away from Christianity? If Christianity means being a submissive wife than I want no part of it.

  • I am a recovering Catholic for one reason, a priest told me to return to the husband who regularly beat me. This priest told me this while I lay in the hospital after one of those beatings, I was unrecognizable and recoverying from surgery where I lost my ability to have children in the future and the child I was carrying. I was 16 at the time. A man who emotionally or verbally abuses, will always escalate; always.

    • Tracy W.

      Oh, Valentine, I am sorry beyond words to hear this. I hope you are in a safe place now – relationship wise, and emotionally. You have my deepest sympathy.

      • I am alright now, I speak out and speak up. I speak in prisons to adults and youth. It was 40 years ago, just over in fact. It was many years of recovery though. Many years of bitterness. Many years of blaming myself and wondering what I could have done to make it better. Many years before I understood, I didn’t deserve that.

    • Angela

      Oh my, there are no words. I very much hope that you ignored his advice.

      • No, not that time. I believed him that time. I believed him when he told me I had to go back. I believed him when he told me I must have done something to incite his anger. I believed him when he told me I had to forgive him. Worse, I didn’t forgive myself for many years. There are plenty of words. None of them polite.

  • Pingback: What “Love and Respect” and “Fireproof” Teach Abusers and their Victims()

  • You are an amazing blogger. I’m thankful that I left the religion long before either of those cancers-upon-the-world got unleashed; it was still very hard for me as an abuse victim, but at least I didn’t have anything like Bella Swan or Kirk Cameron movies to glorify abuse.

  • Pingback: What “Fireproof” and “Twilight” Have in Common()

  • Reblogged this on christianagnostic and commented:
    Great post….

  • I hadn’t read the Twilight books, but my friend wanted to see the last one at the cinema. So, not really knowing that much about it, I went. I relived my entire marriage. Fireproof came out not long before I went through my divorce. My husband didn’t want to watch it and having since seen it I’m glad he didn’t. Having watched it since I feel that all that film would have done was guilt me into staying and armed him with even more manipulative ways to coerce me. These kinds of “programs”, like The Love Dare, only work for couples who are actually trying and when neither of them are abusive.

  • Ruth

    Warning DUB CON TRIGGER re: Twilight:

    I can’t let the Twilight thing go by without a comment. Fundamentalist/Evangelical etc etc isn’t my culture at all. I’ve come at it through the spiritual survivors I’ve met through fandom interactions. Twilight enrages me because it doesn’t merely show an abusive relationship but glorifies it and further because they are “pure” until their wedding night, all manner of other abuse is excused. Virginity is the sole barometer of the morality of their relationship. Twilight feeds purity culture in the worst possible way. Interestingly there’s a lot of Twilight fan fiction that similarly glorifies dubious consent — all is excused because it ends up being great sex. It’s horrible.

  • Emz

    I don’t think that the message of Fireproof was necessarily about resurrecting an abusive relationship. I agree that the male protagonist was verbally and emotionally abusive in the beginning. I think the message was more aimed at husbands. It was meant to teach men how to treat a woman and that’s what the Love Dare was about, teaching a man how to love his wife from a Christian stand point (i.e Ephesians 5:25) that he be willing to lay his life down for her. And through out the movie you see the protagonist grown from a self-centered and arrogant angry jerk to a very loving and sensitive man who loves the Lord and his wife and is remorseful for his previous actions.