However, the effectiveness of such legislation is often dependent on identifying and recognising abuse, especially so that it can be reported to the police. While a lot of abuse might happen behind closed doors, the recent popularity of reality TV shows like Love Island, The Only Way is Essex (Towie) and Ex on the Beach have heightened our exposure to the intimate relationships of strangers, and the signs which point to abuse.
Domestic abuse in law
Coercive and controlling behaviour has gained traction as the real danger within most domestic abuse cases and it was criminalised in December 2015.
The law makes it illegal to engage in a pattern of abusive behaviour, such as intimidation, control and humiliation used to harm or frighten the victim, and can result in up to five years imprisonment.
Older laws show our evolving understanding of domestic abuse and how to tackle it, starting with the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and progressing through the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and 2003, Criminal Damages Act 1971, and the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Collectively, they penalise violence, damage and sexual offences against another person.
These laws apply to all, including so-called celebrities in reality TV shows, but there have been numerous controversies about the behaviour of people appearing on them. Since most of the shows are about “love” and intimate partnerships, some of the behaviours displayed on them do fall within the realms of domestic abuse.
Gaslighting and physical violence
Love Island has been making waves, in part, for its unhealthy depiction of relationships. In among the usual barrage of “lad” culture and toxic masculinity, the behaviour of gaslighting has come under particular scrutiny.
Gaslighting relates to a tactic whereby an abuser aims to manipulate the victim into doubting his or her own sanity. The term comes from the 1938 play, Gaslight, and was popularised by the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman. The behaviours have become so apparent that it recently resulted in the charity Women’s Aid releasing advice and a statement condemning abusive behaviour within the show.
In the show’s case it was a male contestant who was accused of gaslighting a partner, but there are other examples of violence by women in the show that are glossed over as “normal” behaviour, like drink throwing and face slapping.
Physically abusive behaviour is prohibited by law. However, the dynamics of reality TV shows, where conflict is encouraged by introducing jealousy and intrigue, legitimises defences such as “they deserved it”, which can cause questionable behaviour to spiral on these shows. The charity ManKind has also released statements condemning such violence within shows like Towie and Geordie Shore.
Setting a dangerous standard
Considering the viewership of such shows involves around 175 000 children, some as young as four and five years of age, the behaviours and beliefs expressed on TV may be being normalised by a lack of accountability among those onscreen.
And for what purpose? Entertainment? Watching “ordinary people” engage in physical abuse and psychological manipulation is possibly the 21st-century’s answer to a Roman blood sport. Instead, we could research the behaviours onscreen to understand domestic abuse better and help us answer the following questions.
If the shows so openly appear to tolerate or normalise abusive behaviour in relationships, how is the criminal justice system expected to enforce laws that try to protect vulnerable people? And if these possibly illegal behaviours are so openly displayed and captured on camera as “reality”, why have none of the individuals been investigated for breaking the law?