Toxic: Slipping Under On-Screen Narratives

By: Harsheen Sethi
Picture source: Pinterest

I found myself having a knee jerk reaction while watching Chemical Hearts. The precise moment was during the scene when Lili Reinhart’s Grace ‘lashed out’ at Henry for trying to get her to open up. She berated him, saying that she isn’t something he can ‘fix’ or help with. She didn’t ask him to. My immediate reaction to this scene was the realization of how toxic that was for Henry. Grace deals with anxiety and PTSD after a traumatic car accident. Her character lost her childhood best friend and love of her life, Dom. It is understandable (maybe even expected) for her to not be ready to open up to anybody so easily. But for some reason, my immediate reaction was of how unfair this is to Henry. Even though I have nothing but dislike for his measly character.

It was then that I called myself out on this. I wouldn’t have paused if the roles were reversed. Had Henry been the gorgeous, messed-up character in need of fixing. With Grace as the meek-but-cute character ready with superglue. If anything, I would’ve found Henry to have a deeper character at that moment. So what about the “broken and gorgeous” characters we’ve been exposed to repeatedly, that unfailingly push the same narrative?

From Damon Salvatore (The Vampire Diaries), Dean Winchester (Supernatural), to Chuck Bass (Gossip Girl) and Jace Wayland (The Mortal Instruments). They have their own fair share of ‘trauma’ and ‘brokenness’ in addition to being reserved and built like a fort (literally and figuratively). It’s enough for you to know they need to go to therapy, for the sake of their own mental health and of those around them. Their lack of doing so makes them the centre of some innumerable toxic relationships which are mostly glossed over by their ‘good intentions’ character arc.

If anything, we even ship them with the girl, whose contribution to the relationship is centred around ‘fixing’ him. She becomes the rehabilitation center more than an equal partner, making it toxic in the first place. I love Elena and Damon as much as the next person, and there’s no denying there was a love deeper than the ocean between them. But love isn’t the antidote to toxicity. In fact, it is sometimes its facilitator.

We have been so exposed to romanticised ‘broken boys’ that they sometimes end up being our soft spots after years of cinematic and televised brainwashing. It is almost normal to watch and read about characters, even more normal to love them (guilty as charged). This would be completely alright with me had I not had the reaction that I did with Grace. She behaved exactly the way Dean Winchester would in that scenario, and I wouldn’t have found that to be wrong or toxic. That’s when I realized why I found it so wrong. It’s because I have rarely seen a woman portrayed as such a character. I have barely watched a woman, as broken and beautiful as she is blunt and rude.

It then hit me even harder that almost every time I have watched a woman on screen with any sort of Mental Health issue, she has either been crazy, a bitch, or both. It’s either the rusty trauma trope or the trope of an eating disorder. Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder) for example. She has issues too long to even name and she was everything but branded as a crazy, gold-digging ‘bitch’. The only thing that makes this better is Annalise calling out other characters for this labelling. She confronts them head-on, saying none of this would be said if this was her husband.

I have never witnessed a broken woman’s character as normalised as Damon and Chuck’s is. I have rarely seen a woman’s character suffering from any trauma. The ones that do are made with the sole purpose of being admired. That is a separate issue altogether. Like Katniss, in The Hunger Games. We see that the one distinguishing trait was for her to be patched up. As though her identity was a riddle to be solved, and simpler without the baggage.

I do not know what I wish for you to make of this. I am not asking you to hate these male characters. Nor am I asking you to patronise any female characters.

This was my attempt at acknowledging a realization. Hopefully, maybe it sparks a realization in you as well. Maybe, one day soon, we’ll be able to appreciate the character’s trauma-induced flaws, without their male or female identity getting in the way.

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