Globally, 1 in 3 women experiences sexual or physical violence. The Shadow Pandemic ran alongside the Covid-19 pandemic. More women have endured domestic violence in the last two years. Data by the United Nations shows an increase in the number of calls made worldwide to domestic violence helplines.

Toxic Motivations

What motivates women to stay with toxic partners? Could limited options handed down by a patriarchal system be to blame? This is where we consider the concepts of choice and free will. Specifically, can we say we have exercised our free will when the choices available to us have been engineered?

‘The personal is political; the political is personal’.

Socialisation and gender politics largely determine the options women get. This also means that the choices we make usually stem from a political, public place.

The concept of choice is of course pivotal to feminism. Choice Feminism is the belief that a woman’s personal choices and actions are valid because she is making them.

Then again, we tell ourselves we are making choices, but are they in fact helping sustain sexist narratives? This would make Choice Feminism counterproductive. After all, misogyny is misogyny even when we think we have exercised ‘choice and agency’ based on the options presented to us.

One of the various contexts in which we can examine Choice Feminism relates to how women stay in abusive situations while holding on to the illusion of power.

The Damsel and the Beast

There are several tropes in literature and on-screen from which we can draw out examples of toxicity. The Naïve Woman is one recurring trope in the romance genre. It starts like this: a young woman meets an older or more experienced man who seems aloof. She conquers his heart, thereby finding herself in a romantic relationship with him. Naïve Woman thinks she has ‘won’ because this unapproachable man has deemed her worthy of his affection.

This happens with Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), Bella (Twilight, 2008), and Anastasia (Fifty Shades of Grey, 2015). We would not be straying too far from the truth if we said that Anastasia’s character is a homage to Bella’s character, which in turn is a homage to Belle’s character. Ironically, Bella and Belle are practically the same names. Maybe E. L. James should have named her lead character Belli — some sort of vowel progression of a, e, and i to mark the continuity. What matters, however, is that all three women delude themselves in thinking they hold power by virtue of having chosen their toxic lovers.

As for the male protagonists, I like to think they are subtle reincarnations of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard (1697). The eponymous Bluebeard is a wealthy nobleman who has a habit of killing his wives. His wives’ disobedience is the reason for his murder rampage. Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run With the Wolves explains this story in a way that fits in with the feminist discourse. She begins her analysis by establishing a fact: the naïve woman is prey. Bella, Belle, and Anastasia are prey. Estés writes of the naïve woman: ‘She persuades herself that Bluebeard is not dangerous, but only idiosyncratic and eccentric’. Exactly the case of Anastasia, Bella, and Belle.

Shedding more light on Bluebeard’s character, she writes: ‘In fairy tales, the animal groom character is a common motif that can be understood to represent a malevolent thing disguised as a benevolent thing’. The prince is cursed to be a beast because of his cruel vanity; Edward is a vampire; Christian’s sexual proclivities are what some of us would call beastly.

The male protagonists in these stories dole out different shades of abuse, just like old Bluebeard. The Beast isolates Belle from her loved ones. Edward does the same with Bella, and this manifests itself when she does not have time for anyone or anything Edward-unrelated. Christian stalks Anastasia and inserts himself into her life without her consent. The symbolism in the latter is glaring, I dare say.

Stockholm Women

In real life, we see enough women in abusive romantic spaces — regardless of the sex of their partner. We wonder what makes them stay. But abuse is not always physical, as is the case with Anastasia, Bella, and Belle. In fact, each of these women sympathises with her captor; a classic example of Stockholm Syndrome.

We can find some of the reasoning behind this from South Park’s Heidi Turner. She has a similar situation with Eric Cartman when he takes her through a series of emotional gymnastics. Cartman is manipulative to the point of making himself the victim, which he clearly is not. South Park Fandom throws more light on the Heidi-Cartman situation. ‘Heidi tolerates Cartman’s abuse towards her because she does not want to admit she made a mistake when she became his girlfriend’.

So basically, Heidi chose a toxic relationship just like Anastasia, Bella, and Belle. But this hardly makes it a power choice. Quite the opposite, actually.

When women decide to allow themselves to linger in unwholesome situations, when we choose to ‘stay stuck in Stockholm’, it would seem as though we are exerting some kind of power over the situation. We tell ourselves it is still our choice and this imbues us with a false sense of power.

Moving away from fiction, we can easily see other scenarios where women are compelled to make choices where the options are abysmally poor. Men arguably face fewer restrictions on the choice front. To take just one example, consider how they do not find themselves having to choose between having a career and being stay-at-home dads.

Feminism is about choice, but if our choices abet toxic and sexist narratives it makes sense for us to question them.

We need to reevaluate our choice options so that they no longer stem from pre-existing norms and agendas that seek to reinforce women’s subjugation.

As well as equal opportunities, feminism should give equal choice options that truly empower women.

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