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6 Movies That Got Childhood Emotional Abuse (Mostly) Right

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Editor’s note: If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. In addition, the following contains spoilers for the movies mentioned. 

Childhood emotional abuse is a tricky topic to cover. Especially in movies, it can be hard to balance representing the true impact of emotional abuse without making it a caricature by being “over the top.” Whether we realize it or not, childhood emotional abuse is a fairly common storyline in a lot of movies — and there are some that actually make an effort to “get it right.” With recommendations from our mental health community, we analyzed six movies to see how they portrayed childhood emotional abuse. 

Here are six movies that got childhood emotional abuse (mostly) right:

1. “Matilda”

“Matilda” is a children’s film based on the beloved Roald Dahl novel of the same name. The movie follows Matilda Wormwood (Mara Wilson), an exceptionally bright young girl who grows up with parents who neglect her needs and dismiss her interest in learning. In addition, she attends a school run by the domineering and physically abusive headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris).

As Mighty community member Chanel Y. put it, Matilda “was abused in more ways than one. Left alone to fend for herself at a young age. She was belittled and treated like a straight outcast from birth.”

Bustle blogger Kaitlin Reilly agrees. In her piece “Why ‘Matilda’ Was More Messed up Than Your Childhood Self Realized,” she outlines the specific ways Matilda’s parents neglected her.

Matilda’s parents are literally the worst. They pay so little attention to her that Matilda has to tell them that she’s actually six and a half — and not four, as they believe — because they totally forgot to send her to school. It’s not merely that they’re forgetful or absentminded, which would already be a reason to call Child Protective Services — they simply don’t care. They don’t even seem to bat an eye when they learn that Matilda, a girl who hasn’t even hit the age of seven yet, has been walking alone to the library.

What’s more? This psychological abuse continues at Matilda’s school, where “the Trunchbull” reigns supreme. It’s hard to forget the iconic “cake scene” where Miss Trunchbull forces Bruce Bogtrotter (Jimmy Karz) to eat a whole chocolate cake as a punishment — in front of the entire school.

Matilda learns she can make objects move with her mind when she gets angry enough — perhaps because of her experience of psychological abuse both at home and school. As the abuse escalates at school, she begins to stand up to Trunchbull secretly by using her powers to scare her. And while it’s true most survivors of childhood abuse and neglect don’t develop telekinesis they then use to punish their abusers vigilante-style — or get to leave their abusive family via adoption by a selfless teacher like Miss Honey for that matter — seeing a young girl like Matilda stand for justice in the face of her abusers is still inspiring for many.

2. “Harry Potter”

The “Harry Potter” movie franchise is based on a series of fantasy novels written by J.K. Rowling. The movies follow Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), a young wizard and his struggle against Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the greatest dark wizard of all time.

Though when we think of Harry Potter we tend to think all things magical, in the books (and as a result, the movies), Rowling illustrates childhood emotional abuse in Harry’s upbringing with the Dursleys. In addition to depriving him of food, keeping him locked in a cupboard under the stairs and subjecting him to physical abuse, the Dursleys constantly made Harry feel like an inconvenience and burden. In “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” Professor Dumbledore called them out on it when he said, “You have never treated Harry as a son. He has known nothing but neglect and often cruelty at your hands.”

The childhood abuse component of the books was something Steve Kloves, who adapted the novels into screenplays, made sure to include when writing the script for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” In an interview between Rowling and Kloves, he comments to her, “When you read the book, you make it pretty clear that he’s an abused boy, and so there’s darkness there… so that’s how I wrote it.” Rowling even shared that people have proposed the series could be viewed as Harry dissociating from abuse, rather than his actual reality. “I’ve had it suggested to me more than once that Harry went mad in the cupboard and everything that happens subsequently is some sort of fantasy life he developed to save himself,” she said.

Though some might argue that Harry turned out unrealistically strong-willed, with a clear sense of self despite over 10 years of abuse in his formative years, the books and movies hone in on Harry’s struggle with an emotion many experience after childhood abuse — anger.

Harry’s anger was perhaps most on display in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” where according to some, Harry became “Emo Harry.” But what we miss in dismissing Harry’s anger as “teenage angst” is that it’s a very normal response to trauma — childhood or otherwise. In a study on anger in the trajectory of healing from childhood maltreatment, it was found that a common type of anger is displaced anger, that usually manifests in adolescence or adulthood long after the abuse is over. This is something we see over and over again in “Order of the Phoenix” when Harry blows up at his friends (usually Ron and Hermione) for things out of their control. And while it would be unfair to assert Harry’s upbringing is the only and direct cause of his anger (I mean, he’s seen some dark and traumatic things at Hogwarts too), we would be remiss not to discuss how his childhood may have impacted his life and character development.

3. “Precious”

“Precious,” is a movie based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire, and follows 16-year-old Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) as she navigates her abusive upbringing, which includes both sexual and emotional abuse. While most of the emotional abuse comes from her mother, Precious is given HIV and impregnated twice by her father. In addition to depicting the realities of abuse, we also see Precious struggle with body image and disordered eating behaviors.

The movie has been praised for showing how an abusive upbringing can be a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Not only does Precious’ mother Mary (Mo’Nique) force her to overeat, she also consistently demeans and mocks her body. Of the movie, Psychology Today contributor Susan Albers (PsyD) wrote,

Precious, like others who have been abused, sometimes overeat (or undereat) for protection. Being overweight or underweight can desexualize a body. In Precious’ case, the opposite sex, are more likely to stay away from her body and can’t violate her further if she is overweight. The layers around her protect her from the sexual advances of others.

In an interview with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), Dr. Timothy Brewerton elaborated on how some eating disorder behaviors may be used to self-medicate. “Binge eating and purging appear to be behaviors that facilitate 1) decreasing the anxiety associated with trauma, as well as 2) the numbing, avoidance and even forgetting of traumatic experiences,” he said.

This is something Mighty contributor Emily Ardolf wrote about in her piece, “The 10 Things Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder Gave Me.” “For me, binge eating disorder crept in when I was going through intense trauma from sexual abuse around age 10,” she wrote. “I ate to numb out the feelings of fear, intense sadness and heavy anxiety while I carried this deep secret for five years. ”

Over the course of the movie, Precious begins to open up about her abusive home life, and with the help of her social worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey) and school teacher (Paula Patton), she begins to heal. Though the film ends on a predominately positive note, it doesn’t wrap up “perfectly” like some of the other movies on this list — making it a more genuine portrayal of real life. At the end of the film, she is able to take her child and leave her abusive mother, with plans to get her GED.

4. “Tangled”

“Tangled” is a Disney movie based loosely on the Rapunzel fairy tale, following the long-lost princess Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), who is locked in a tower by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) to keep Rapunzel’s magical hair a secret. Against Gothel’s wishes, Rapunzel leaves the tower secretly with Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a wanted thief in the kingdom.

And while the movie is perhaps best known for the romantic lantern scene (I mean seriously, what a beautiful animated scene), it also paints an important picture about what “hidden” childhood emotional abuse can look like. Mighty contributor Liz P. pointed out she saw the emotional abuse in “the subtle digs Gothel makes towards Rapunzel, which is then [followed by] blaming Rapunzel for taking things too seriously. All in an effort to discourage her from being anything but dependent on Gothel.”

Mother Gothel’s best-known song in the film, “Mother Knows Best,” is a perfect (and cringe-worthy) demonstration of how emotionally abusive parents can manipulate children into doing what they want, under the guise of “love” for the child. Take the following lyrics for example, when Gothel “explains why” Rapunzel can’t leave the tower.

Got ahead, get trampled by a rhino
Go ahead, get mugged and left for dead!
Me, I’m just your mother, what do I know?
I only bathed, and changed, and nursed you
Go ahead and leave me, I deserve it
Let me die alone here, be my guest!
When it’s too late, you’ll see, just wait
Mother knows best

Rather than acknowledging or discussing Rapunzel’s desire to leave the tower, Gothel uses extreme language (“Let me die alone here, be my guest!”) to guilt Rapunzel into feeling responsible for her mother’s emotions. Additionally, she reminds her of “all she’s done for her” (“I only bathed, and changed, and nursed you”), implying Rapunzel “owes” her for just fulfilling a basic parental duty. This kind of emotional trauma can affect a child’s independent development, often leaving them emotionally “stunted” and childlike in adulthood — which is something we actually see via Rapunzel’s initial clueless naiveté in the film.

Though we do see some of the lasting effects of emotional abuse in Rapunzel’s actions (believing she’s a horrible daughter because she left the tower, her seeming lack of agency, etc.), the arc of “overcoming” her abusive upbringing is relatively quick — because after all, it is a Disney movie. Unfortunately in real life, dealing with the effects of an emotionally abusive upbringing can sometimes be a lifelong journey.

By the end of the movie, Rapunzel confronts her mother, and though her voice shakes, she stands up for herself in the face of her abuser — which is something many children of emotional abuse are never able to do. Though not altogether realistic, seeing Rapunzel face her mother can still be encouraging for survivors of childhood emotional abuse, showing them it is possible to be free from an abuser and give them hope for recovery.

5. “I, Tonya”

“I, Tonya” is a biographical comedy based on figure skater Tonya Harding and her connection to the 1994 attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. Though some have criticized the use of dark humor in depicting domestic violence, others have praised the way the film spotlights the cycle of abuse and how physical violence and emotional abuse often go hand in hand. The movie has garnered critical acclaim, earning Oscar nominations for Margot Robbie for her role as Tonya Harding, and Allison Janney as Harding’s abusive mother LaVona Golden.

Arguably the most devastating part of the film was to see how Harding’s abusive upbringing made her believe she deserved to be abused. “I figured my mom hit me, she loves me. It was what I knew,” the fictional Harding explained in one of the movie’s characteristic mockumentary-style interviews, justifying her relationship with her husband, which was also abusive. But it’s not just physical blows Harding’s mother doles out in the film. Throughout the movie, we see LaVona refuse to allow a young Harding to use the bathroom during an ice skating practice (leading her to pee herself on the ice), call her a “graceless bulldyke” and pay someone in the audience to shout insults at her before an important competition.

One of the overarching themes in the film is Harding’s deep desire to be loved — by a husband, by her mother, by America. As the movie suggests, this is why Harding went looking for love in abusive relationships. As Slate writer Inkoo Kang noted in her piece, “‘I, Tonya’s’ Examination of Toxic Masculinity and the Messiness of Victimhood Arrives at Just the Right Moment,”

It’s clear that Mrs. [Golden] primes, then pushes, Tonya into an early marriage with a physically abusive partner. “Maybe he should hit you,” says LaVona one night at the dinner table after a minor disagreement.

This is something Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D, wrote about in the chapter of her book entitled, “The Long Shadow: Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse.” “Some adult survivors recount how their mothers or fathers made them feel responsible for the abuse that was inflicted upon them,” she wrote. “These children often end up in abusive relationships as adults.”

As the film portrays it, because of the overreaching actions of her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) in setting the Nancy Kerrigan attack into motion, Harding is not only abused by her mother and husband, but by America as a whole — the people she desperately wanted to be loved by.

“It was like being abused all over again,” the fictional Harding says of the media firestorm after the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. Looking at the camera, she adds, “You were my attackers too.”

6. “Room”

“Room” is an independent drama based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name. The movie follows 24-year old Joy “Ma” Newsome (Brie Larson), a woman who has been held captive and sexually assaulted for seven years, and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who was born in the squalid shed they are trapped in. Jack has never seen the outside world, except through the shed’s (which they call “Room”) skylight.

Of the movie Mighty community member Chanda C. wrote,

The emotional abuse depicted in this movie consists of isolation through the child’s captivity; having to live in a tiny shed with his mother. The abuser is corrupting the development of the child and stunting emotional growth. Rejection, not meeting the child’s basic needs and abuse all negatively affect emotional stability. So much going on in that movie.

Ma normalizes as much as she can for Jack, but after their eventual escape, they must deal with the mental health ramifications of living in the forced captivity. Though some have commented Jack seems to transition “too” easily to the real world he never knew existed, The Verge’s Bryan Bishop wrote this was because he was meant to provide juxtaposition for the way adults and children heal from trauma.

After the escape, a doctor tells Ma that it’s a good thing she got Jack out while he was still “plastic,” and it’s a key moment… Jack is just a child, so he’s ultimately able to transition to the real world without much issue (it’s a fair criticism of the film to say that it’s perhaps too easy), but he’s also serving as counterpoint. Ma is not plastic in the slightest, yet she doesn’t have the emotional experience to help her process what’s happened to her, so she becomes stuck between worlds.

Because in the movie Ma and Jack’s story is widely publicized, Jack receives medical attention right away after the escape, including psychological care. This detail coupled with the fact Jack seems to transition well out of the traumatic situation could speak to the importance of early intervention. Most survivors of childhood emotional abuse don’t get psychological care (or even realize they were abused) until adulthood, which can unfortunately cement unhealthy thought patterns and view of self informed by an abusive upbringing.

Another reason Jack may have come out of the traumatic situation fairly well adjusted is because of the power of his mother’s love and care.“This is not a horrifying film,” author Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay, said. “The story we’re telling is about the extraordinary power of parent-child love.”

What movie did we miss? Tell us in the comments.

Lead image via “Harry Potter” and “Tangled” Facebook pages

Originally published: February 6, 2018
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