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A Qualitative Comparison Between the Representations of Domestic Violence in Hollywood and Bollywood

The Following Essay was written for the Introduction to Sociology II Course which I took as a part of my minor. The essay received a full grade from Prof. Sibel Kalaycıoğlu who was the Instructor of the course and the Chair of the Sociology Department in 2004-2007.

Media has enormous power when it comes to conveying messages to people. In most types of media, the message is not directly conveyed, and it is somehow hidden in the text, image, or sound, so it is important to carefully study different discourses to understand what is the meaning behind them. In this essay, I will investigate the representation of domestic violence in Hollywood and Bollywood cinema. The representation of domestic violence in media is extremely important because the cases of domestic violence/abuse are usually behind closed doors. Meaning that the abuser usually controls the abused and doesn't let her get help or talk to others about the situation so that there is not much public information about the nature of the relationship and the abuse. In a case like this, the media is one of the only sources where people learn and see cases of domestic violence so that media has a large impact on public opinion on domestic violence.

Hollywood cinema the most popular cinema in the world and its movies and series have a high impact on shaping minds. Diane Shoos in her book titled “Domestic Violence in Hollywood Film: Gaslighting” [1] does a discourse analysis on 6 famous movies on the subject of domestic violence. She analysis: Gaslight (1944), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), Dolores Claiborne (1995), Enough (2002), and Safe Haven (2013). She believes that the representation of domestic violence in Hollywood cinema is limited and it is also far from reality. She further suggests that this is an important issue since it conveys the wrong people about the abuser and the abused to society.

For example in the movie enough (2002), [Spoiler Alert] we see the story of the woman who is abused by his husband and towards the end of the movie, she learns martial arts and in the final scene, she kills her husband. Movies similar to this, convey the message that the abused has a purpose of revenge, and killing the abuser is the right thing to do. She later suggests that the field research shows that the abused usually only wants the safety of herself and her children. [2] also in this type of movie, the women usually get away with the killing which is also a misrepresentation. Also, one could suggest that this type of movie glorifies revenge and killing which is an issue.

In most Hollywood movies, the protection and safety institutes (shelters, safe houses, hotlines, etc.) are represented as useless. This could lead to problems in real life, where the abuser may pre-assume that there is no use in getting help from this institution although they could be useful. [1]

In addition, most Hollywood movies, portray the life of middle or upper-middle white women. These women are usually the ones who have the chance to run away from the husband and have either money or family as a safety net. Although these cases are common and representative this is still only a part of the bigger picture. There are few to no famous movies investigating domestic violence towards African-American or poor women.

In Hollywood movies, the abuser is usually portrayed as pure evil and his cruelty is obvious to the public. For example, he has an aggressive personality or he has been accused of a felony. These cases convey the message that the abusers are distinctly different than normal people and a person which is a good father or has an overall good personality towards others cannot be an abuser. This false representation will lead to false decision when it comes to trusting people in real life.

Shoos believe that if the movies continue following these non-realistic and misrepresentative scenarios, they can’t and will not be able to influence the abused women to get help and solve their issues. [1]

The case of Bollywood is completely different than Hollywood. India has a more patriarchal and more religious culture than the Unites States of America which is reflected in the cinema. Because the culture shows more acceptance towards domestic violence or patriarchal acts against women, the examples of it are more common in the movies.

In India the rules about domestic violence are very different from USA, for example, marital rape is not considered a crime so that cases of domestic violence are sometimes portrayed in Bollywood without even being counted as domestic violence or sexual assault/harassment towards women. For example, stalking is glorified in Indian media and it is usually rewarded by the love of the girl. This type of movies led to a real incident in Tasmania; where an Indian guy was restrained with two cases of stalking. His defense was that he had learned from his cultural background (Bollywood movies) that stalking is a positive act. [3]

Bollywood movies have been known for glorifying different aspects of life. They are mostly unrealistic representations of everyday life. This characteristic of the Bollywood media is also reflected in the case of domestic violence. Domestic violence has been glorified in certain cases of Bollywood cinema. Where the abuser shows violence because he is so much in love with the wife and he wants to protect her. This kind of violence is glorified with love. or the abuser has a great personality and is an overall hero. A specific example for this case is the Kabir Singh movie where the violence of the husband towards women adds characteristics to his “hero” personality. [3]

Meghna Bhat in her PhD dissertation titled “Violence Against Women in Bollywood Cinema: Exploring Gender Differences in the Indian Diaspora” [4] investigates the violence against women in more depth. She suggests that women in Bollywood are portrayed in two distinct classes. There is a class of traditional women who usually were sari and are usually married or planning to marry soon. On the other hand, the single modern women are usually portrayed with low morality and western types of clothes. Both types of women are usually sexually objectified in the movies but it is more common in the latter.

In a questionnaire where she asked the participants (participants are Indian people living in the USA) to determine the domestic violence scenes in Bollywood movies, unlike men participants, most of the women participants identified the scenes as domestic violence which is aligned with the definition of domestic violence given by The World Health Organization which is intimate partner violence as behavior that triggers physical, psychological, and sexual harm. It also expands to psychological abuse and controlling behavior. [4]

She further suggests that domestic violence is not fully accepted or fully prohibited in Indian culture and three factors of intensity, justification, and frequency affect the public opinion towards the violence.

Overall, both in the Hollywood and Bollywood media the case of domestic violence is misrepresented but the overall reply to it is drastically different. In the case of Hollywood, the feminist activists are trying to get a more pluralist, accurate, and useful picture portrayed on the screen wherein the case of Bollywood the Indian feminist activists are trying to change the public opinion about what is domestic violence and what is not so that they could correctly identify the violent acts and stop glorifying them. The major difference between the two cinemas is that in the case of Hollywood, the abuser has a fully evil personality while in the case of Bollywood the violence is mostly justified or glorified with different approaches.


[1] Diane L. Shoos, 2017, Domestic Violence in Hollywood Film: Gaslighting

[4] Meghna Bhat, 20017, Violence Against Women in Bollywood Cinema: Exploring Gender Differences in the Indian Diaspora

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