Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Romanticised Abuse: The Phantom of the Opera

Our goal is to raise awareness and draw attention to romanticised abuse in films, book, etc, in order to fight it
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- This is not only about romanticised abusive relationships. It is about romanticised sexual assault and harassment, as well.
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(FYI: This post will make a LOT more sense if you've watched the movie, musical, or read the book of The Phantom of the Opera).

A few years ago I was an absolute Phanatic. I adored the musical, although not so much the movie, and was obsessed with the songs, characters, and story. I still adore the musical, but until recently the story hadn't raised any red flags for me.  
Until recently. And I've began to see the story's disturbing - and frankly blatant - romanisation of an abusive relationship. 

To give some background to the story, here's the story blurb from IMDB, and a note on Erik's - the Phantom's - past: 

"A young soprano becomes the obsession of a disfigured musical genius who lives beneath the Paris Opéra House".

Erik's past - Without a doubt, Erik suffered as a child. He was horrifically abused, and since then has been emotionally unstable and physically as well as psychologically scarred. Sure, I feel for him. He needs help. But having a past like that does not excuse his behaviour towards Christine. And yet that's what this story essentially does. 

Stalking / Erik frequently invades Christine's privacy by coming into her bedroom and preying on her there. He also follows her almost everywhere she goes: when she and Raoul are on the rooftop of the Opera House, he tails them and hides from sight so he can observe and hear them (even though Christine has explicitly brought them there so Erik can't follow them; the idea terrifies her).
Another example of Erik's stalking would be when Christine goes to visit her father's grave. In the movie, Erik disguises as her carriage driver so he can secretly accompany her, and in the musical and book he hides in the graveyard while she pays her respects to her father's grave. That is a graphic intrusion of her explicit desire for privacy.
Manipulation / Erik plays with Christine's mind. To make things worse, he uses her love for her fiancée and takes advantage of her gentle nature by threatening to harm her fiancée and members of the Opera company if she doesn't go to him or do his bidding. Towards the end of the story, he demands she play the title role in the darkly sexual play he's written, or else he'll hurt those she loves. At the end of the story, Erik even threatens to murder Christine's fiancée unless she agrees to marry him instead.
Physical abuse / Erik is constantly violent with Christine. When she's overcome with curiosity and rips off his mask, he grabs her and throws her to the ground in a fit of rage. Towards the end of the story when he takes her to his lair, he relentlessly shakes her and throws her around. In the climax of the musical, he violently drags her to the cellars and then - in one version I watched - he actually flings her to the ground, falls on top of her, and pins her down as he screams in her face. It's horrific.
Psychological abuse / This goes with the Manipulation and Takes Advantage Of Her points. Erik frequently threatens Christine, draws exquisite delight from making her afraid of him, and enjoys the naked horror she feels when she sees his deformed face.
Erik never stops causing Christine emotional distress. In one scene, she becomes absolutely hysterical at the thought of having to face him again, and throughout the story she is driven to the brink of madness trying to determine whether Erik is only in her head or if he's real, and drives herself over the edge trying to guess what he's going to do to her next. It is Erik who is pushing these buttons, and he revels in it. By the end of the story, Christine is scarred for life. Her mental state is severely damaged as a result of his control.
Takes away her freedom of choice / In the book, Christine actually agrees to go with Erik the first few times (although only because he's threatened to kill people if she doesn't: "What compels you to go back, Christine?" - "If I do not go back to him, terrible misfortunes may happen!...I know I ought to feel sorry for people who live underground, but he is too horrible!......and if I do not go {back to him} he will come and fetch me with his voice. And he will drag me with him.....And go on his knees before me.... And he will tell me that he loves me!..." -pages 152-153). But in the movie and musical, Erik hypnotises her with his music and lures her away in a form of dazed subconscious. Throughout the musical and movie, he's hypnotising her to get her to go with him.
It's absolutely vile. He's using her for his own perverse gratification.
Takes advantage of her / When Christine visits her father's grave, she is extremely vulnerable and her emotional state unstable. Erik knows this, and uses weak moments like this to exploit her fears and feed on her vulnerabilities and/or superstitions - Christine's father told her of this guardian angel, this "Angel of Music", and Erik plays on that for all it's worth. In the movie, Erik even pretends to be her father!
Jealousy & possessiveness / Erik is obsessed with Christine and wants her to belong to him. He cannot accept that she loves and plans to marry another man, and he takes her engagement as a direct attack on what he believes she and him have together. During one of the first scenes of the musical, he hurls abuse at her fiancé when he's out of earshot, and reprimands Christine for indulging the obviously love-striken young suitor. Erik simply cannot allow Christine to "belong" to anyone but him.
Sexual assault / More than once, Erik touches Christine without her permission. In one of the final scenes where Christine is playing the part he wrote for her, Erik takes the place of the male who's singing opposite her (he kills the original singer, just btw). In that scene, the male character touches the woman's chest, but considering that Erik's wrote it and Christine doesn't know it's actually him touching her, the scene is revolting. If she knew it was him touching her, I doubt she'd be compliant. And back to Erik having wrote that scene and him taking on the male role unknownst to anyone else - it's basically like he's purposefully using the chance of having his play performed to fulfill his perverted fantasy with Christine.

But in the final scene of the musical, there is some hope of Erik's actions getting the critical attention they deserve. Seeing Erik violently threaten to kill her fiancée, Christine's anger is palpable. Finally, she is seeing everything clearly and without the hypnotis. She screams at him, calls him out for what he's doing, and her fury, desperation, and grief are incredible. It is good to see her that outraged. But the writers still paint Erik as the tragic hero we're supposed to ship with Christine. And that's disturbing!
I also don't like how everyone seems to praise Erik for "letting Christine go" in that climactic final scene, when actually he had no right to her in the first place! She was never his.

I still love The Phantom of the Opera because I think it's a beautiful musical and a well written story. But there needs to be more emphasis on the unhealthiness of Erik's relationship with Christine. It's an abusive relationship. As broken as Erik is, to call him a hero and call his connection with Christine romance, is going too far. I'm not denying that they connected through music, but to call that connection a romance? Uh uh.  What kind of twisted message is that sending? 

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