How is abuse portrayed in the media?

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. An interview with Shadi Karamroudi

“It Turns Blue” by Shadi Karamroudi, 2023

Abuse can have very different forms, and it is not always easy to recognize. When it comes to understanding the effects it has on someone, it is also a very complex conversation. But how is abuse portrayed in cinema? What can we learn about it through a camera? Can media, with its limited time and all characteristics that define its different genres make justice to such a complicated topic? What can its history teach us?

Problematics in the representation of abuse in media:

Nowadays it is more acceptable (although not by any means uncriticized) to create art, and in this specific case, cinema, about before-censored or frowned-upon topics. The truth is, for the better or the worst, our collective conscience as a society is very much affected by the content we consume. In the case of cinema, we get inspiration, knowledge, and we get to explore new perspectives through it, shaping our perception of the world in a more powerful manner than we are able to recognize. This is why, one could argue, that it is important to be attentive to how something is portrayed in the media: why is it being portrayed? By who? And more important, with what intention?

If media shapes our perception and actions, then it becomes an everlasting reflection of its times, and we can look through it to have an idea of the ideas disseminated at the moment it was created, and unfortunately, what we come across regarding this topic is, most of the time, very flawed. Sticking with stigmatizing stereotypes relating to the survivors of abuse, while lots of times excusing the abuser and lacking, on the other side, of authentic representation, some of the more prevalent problems in representations of abuse in films, tv-shows and books (amongst other forms of media) is the propagation of myths, victim-shaming behavior, focus on the victims actions and not the abuser, portrayal of the abusers in a positive light/offering excuses for their actions, not approaching the wider societal problem, instead treating it as individual and isolated case, and sometimes, even sexualing or romanticizing said abuse.

A bit of history of abuse portrayal in cinema:

Ida Lupino, a former actress turned director, directed a very revolutionary movie in 1950 named “Outrage”, that tackled the theme of rape, a forbidden topic in cinema at the time. Lupino was not only avant-garde due to the themes she chose to explore, such as unwed motherhood, abuse, rape and disability for example, Lupino, by being a woman, was also revolutionary, being described by the historian Dan Georgakas as “virtually the only woman filmmaker working in Hollywood during the fifties”.

“Outrage”, although not being as famous as one would hope for, stays in history as the first movie directed by a woman to portray rape after the Hays code. Nevertheless, this type of censorship was not a problem only in this industry, since for example the word “rape” could not be used in newspapers (journalists opting most of the time for the expression “victim of a criminal attack”). The shame around this topic, which intensified the guilt of survivors of this type of abuse, was a widespread issue, and this code was a reflexion of it’s time, becoming an obstacle to directors (such as Lupino) who wanted to explore social issues and couldn’t freely express their ideas, leading them to find alternative ways of exploring these topics without mentioning them directly, which is the case in “Outrage”, where the word “rape”, although being the main plot point, is not mentioned once.

In January 18 of 2018, The New Yorker publishes a small article regarding the movie “Outrage”, where Richard Brody makes a connection between how both Lupino and her character Ann were silenced: “(…) just as the word “rape” is never spoken in the movie, Ann is prevented from talking about her experience, and, spurred by the torment of her enforced silence and the trauma that shatters her sense of identity, she runs away from home.”

This movie’s greatness comes from the fact it portrays the traumatic moment of abuse, but also dives deeper into the psychological aftermath of that moment for the main character, showing how certain events, even if the abuse happened a long time ago, can be equally horrifying and bring up trauma responses. Psychologically, traumatized people can “relive the event as though it were continually recurring in the present”, and what may seem to the outsider like an insignificant reminder can bring these memories to the surface, often with the same emotional force of the original moment (Judith L. Herman). This is the case of Ann, where some moments throughout the movie, like being unable to recognize her abuser in a line-up of men with the same physical description given by her to the police, or a man pressuring her to give him a kiss, trigger her trauma, overwhelming her nervous system and activating her “fight or flight” response, making her take impulsive decisions.

From Espace Sorano | TDM – Outrage – Espace Sorano acessed at 28/05/24 at 11:29

Shaming of the survivors and the importance of speaking about abuse

On the celebrated book “King Kong Theory”, by french filmmaker and writer Virginie Despentes, after being a survivor of sexual assault and wanting to find books written by woman who survived rape themselves, she could hardly find any. She contrasted it with a moment when she needed psychological treatment and was admitted in a hospital, something that helped soothe her pain and cope with that experience was reading a book about someone who had a similar experience, and understanding, as well as relating to them. On the contrary, when it came to sexual abuse, the lack of people speaking about it made Despentes theorize about the blamming and negative portrayal of the survivors, as well as the societal shamming of these survivors, (that can become both external and internal), that prevented people from talking about it, which she expresses as damaging for the recovery process. Thus, in her book, she goes on to share her own experience, as well as her thoughts and feelings about it, with the belief that speaking about the subject not only raises awareness on this societal issue, but it also helps break the stigmas that are attached to survivors. 

While doing research on this topic, I came across a book named “Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror” by Judith L. Herman, which supports Despentes’ thinking, not only in what comes to sexual abuse, but to any kind of abuse. In this book, she states: “In the second stage of recovery, the survivor tells the story of the trauma. She tells it completely, in depth and detail. This work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story.” 

She also speaks about the importance of sharing the traumatic event with trusted individuals (therapist, group supports, loved ones) in order for the survivor to regain power over the narrative.

What are the consequences of the negative portrayals?

Besides the myths and victim blaming propagated by the media that internally and externally affects survivors and simultaneously exonerates perpetrators, there are lots of studies dedicated to find out the direct and indirect consequences of the way abuse is portrayed in the media. For instance, it is stated in the abstract of the 2017 study Rape Culture, Victim Blaming, and the Role of Media in the Criminal Justice System”, by Lily K. Thacker: “In particular, the media’s methods of discussing and portraying rape are examined as primary sources for the perpetuation of rape culture, and the effects of these media representations of rape on the outcomes of real rape trials are also examined. The problematic links between rape culture, victim blaming, media, and criminal justice practices are reviewed, and potential solutions are discussed.”

This goes hand in hand with the 2009 study Rape myth acceptance: Cognitive, affective, and behavioural effects of beliefs that blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator” from Bohner, G., Eyssel, F., Pina, A., Siebler, F., & Viki, G. T., which states rape myths, which are beliefs that undermine victims or exonerate abusers (example: ‘Short clothes cause rape’): “affect subjective definitions of  what constitutes a ‘typical rape’, contain problematic  assumptions about  the  likely  behaviour  of  perpetrators  and  victims, and paint a distorted  picture  of  the  antecedents and consequences of rape. They are widely held by the general public (e.g.  Gerger  et  al.  2007) and by those in  the criminal justice  system”. Also stating that:  “Rape  myths  are  propagated  by the media  (e.g. Franiuk  et  al. 2008), affecting the  offending behaviour of perpetrators, the reporting behaviour of  victims, the decision-making  behaviour of investigators and prosecutors and the assessment of guilt or  innocence by jurors (…)”

 “It Turns Blue”

Nonetheless, media can also have a positive effect, bringing to light these real-life issues and raising awareness, opening up discussions as well as serving as representation to someone who went through the same experience, helping them navigate and better understand it. Media often has a crucial role in educating its audience, specially in what comes to social-issues that are normally not easily accessed or discussed by a major part of society, often only being available in more depth in social-political spaces of discussion or for those with an academic background.

This year, I came across a very powerful movie named “It Turns Blue”, which I consider an example of cinema that makes great use of storytelling. Written and directed by Shadi Karamroudi, this film received the award  “Best Non-European Dramatic Short 2024” at ÉCU 2024 for the Non-European Dramatic Short category.

This short-movie follows the story of a little girl named Raha, who is physically abused by her father Morteza, played by Mansour Nasiri. The word “blue”, referred to in the title, is simultaneously the color of paint Morteza uses to paint the walls of his house, the moment he attacks his daughter, and also the color that untreated bruises can take on the skin.

The twist of this story comes when Morteza’s sister, Pari, played by the renowned Leili Rashidi, starts an intricate process of covering-up her brother’s violence in order to hide it from the mother of Raha, taking advantage of the child young age to more easily gaslight and manipulate her into thinking the abuse was just a game.

Pari treats her niece’s bruises so they don’t become visible, calling Raha’s mother and asking her to come pick her daughter later, in order for the wounds to have time to disappear. She starts the manipulation by telling Raha how much her dad loves and takes care of her, despite the child’s words of contradiction (“No he doesn’t love me” / “He hit me”), and tries to convince her that the violence he committed was actually just “a game”, going as far as reenacting it and calling it “the painting game”.

“It Turns Blue” is a film that nails the intricacies of abuse, specifically in showing how it is not an isolated act only between abuser and victim, but how it is intrinsically related and dependent on our hierarchy-patriarchal society. If it’s said that for a survivor to heal is needed a safenet of people, for the abuser to thrive, gathering power and impunity, he also is equipped with both societal and individual support. Sometimes this support is direct, as is the case of Pari in this movie, but sexist attitudes and beliefs, as well as the tolerance of said behavior, help uphold our patriarchal society, perpetuating and normalizing violence towards women. 

What immediately comes to mind when watching this film, is the sentence by Simone de Beauvoir in her renowned book “The Ethics of Ambiguity”: “The oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed.”

This sentence is directly related to the film, since it is shown to us that Pari is also victim of violence, in a scene where she treats Raha’s bruises and we see that Pari herself has wounds that she mentions are too old to heal, making a comment on the generational cycle of abuse.

“It Turns Blue”, by Shadi Karamroudi, 2023

Interview with Shadi Karamroudi 

In preparation for this article, I had the opportunity to interview Shadi Karamroudi regarding her movie, unveiling a bit of the filming process and some behind-the-scenes facts, as well as the importance of protecting actors from trauma, especially when filming a story that portrays abuse.

Karamroudi explains how some of the inspiration behind her movie is related to a news piece she read, regarding a little boy who was beaten by his school teacher, and the principle of the school, instead of taking direct action against the teacher, conceals the bruises and uses the time he has before the boy’s mom arrival to manipulate the child into thinking it was not an act of violence, but a game they were playing with their teachers. Karamroudi says: “I placed it inside of a house, as a subject of domestic violence.”

Regarding the coordination of the physical closeness, also known as “intimacy coordination”, Karamroudi explains: “I had to do all the job by myself, I had to search and I had to make sure what to do and what not to do. And this is very sensitive, my child was not even 4 years old (…) she wasn’t actually even familiar with the concept of acting, she doesn’t know why we are calling her by another name, and even this was weird for her.” Adding: “I had to be the intimacy coordinator of my film by myself. I had to (…) study all the aspects of working with a child and try to avoid anything that could, you know, eventually harm her or could (…) have a bad effect on her mind.”

She explains how important it was for her to protect her child actor and to ensure her wellbeing: “I made sure that she is not aware of the concept of the film.” (…) “For example, there was a scene where the girl is talking to the aunt about what he has done with her, what her father has done, we didn’t use the word in that scene, we shot it in two different sections. (…) When the aunt is saying – your dad loves you, your dad is trying to protect you – the girl wasn’t there, so she couldn’t relate the beating with the concept of father, because I didn’t want to make a picture of a father beating her daughter in her head.” She also shares another example: “There is a scene in my film that we see (…) a red handprint on her back, and I managed it in a way that the child doesn’t even know there is something on her back.”

She states: “There have actually been movies that the actor actually hits the child actor, which I really, really disapprove. But in my film I was trying my best to not harm any child during the shooting and, well, based on the very good relationship that I have with the child at the moment, I think I succeeded, because we are in a very good relationship.”

Shadi Karamroudi

To conclude, if cinema has often failed to produce an accurate depiction of abuse, we can still find pieces of media that manage to convey the complexity of this topic, creating rightful and more important, respectful portrayals. We can only hope that with the growing awareness regarding social issues by the wider public, we will become more mindful and critical with the content we consume, both in the content itself but also in how it is produced, giving place to more accuracy and less stigma surrounding this subject, as well as ensuring the safety and well-being of the actors and other workers present in the project.

Written by Léa Castro Neves

2 responses to “How is abuse portrayed in the media?”

  1. Alejandro Ramirez G Avatar
    Alejandro Ramirez G

    This is such an important subject to talk about. While reading it I remembered all the times I sadly read news about abuse and rape that were portrayed to rest importance to the perpetrator and put the victim in a guilty position. This is one of those sides of cinema as art that actively transforms society and changes the narratives that a patriarchal society keeps indulging. I learned a lot and even took movies and book recommendations home with me. Thanks!

  2. Eva Avatar

    Thank you for shedding light on a delicate subject that needs to be brought out of the shadows. Giving a voice to the unheard is one of the missions of cinema.

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