This past weekend, the current West End (?) production of The Phantom of the Opera streamed for a day or two from London. I watched part of it, and it's been on my mind ever since.
I once read a comment on a Phantom clip in which the commenter said, in effect, "This is the only production in which I've been okay with Christine ending up with Raoul instead of with the Phantom."
I get that people feel sorry for the Phantom and admire his genius. So do I.
But guys. People have to stop romanticizing the Phantom-Christine dynamic. It checks practically every box for an abusive relationship:
The Phantom takes advantage of Christine's grief and vulnerability after her father's death to gain her trust.
The Phantom tries to control when Christine goes out and whom she sees.
Every time the Phantom and Christine are alone, he controls what they do.
The Phantom takes Christine to isolated places with or without her consent.
The presence of the doll in the wedding dress suggests that the Phantom has at least an unhealthy obsession with, possibly even a fetish for, Christine.
When Christine crosses an unspoken line and takes off the Phantom's mask, he reacts with violence and verbal abuse.
Once he's calmed down, the Phantom expresses some vulnerability and takes Christine home. This completes the first round of the cycle of violence in their relationship.
The Phantom repeatedly manipulates Christine, her colleagues, and Raoul with threats, near misses, and actual violence (including two cold-blooded murders) to keep the opera house and especially Christine under his control.
When Christine pledges herself to Raoul, the Phantom considers it a betrayal and destroys the chandelier in retaliation (a classic abusive tactic).
Things go quiet for several months, leading to hopes that the Phantom may have left for good (aligning perfectly with the honeymoon period in abusive relationships).
The Phantom confiscates Christine's engagement ring, a symbol of her commitment to someone else, and insists that she is still his.
Christine expresses some attraction to/admiration of the Phantom but confesses that fear of him massively outweighs her other feelings.
When Raoul helps Christine avoid succumbing to the Phantom at her father's grave, the Phantom physically attacks and promises further violence against both of them.
The Phantom uses murder and deception to get himself onstage with Christine without her knowledge or consent during Don Juan Triumphant.
The Phantom professes his love for Christine, appropriating the words of the man she truly loves, and forces her to accept his ring.
When Christine exposes the Phantom's face, he forcefully kidnaps her.
The Phantom forces Christine to change into the doll's wedding dress, and she asks outright if he intends sexual violence against her. (This should never be a concern in a healthy relationship!)
The Phantom shows vulnerability by mentioning his own past abuse but then abruptly snaps back into the role of abuser, announcing that Christine will be with him forever whether she likes it or not.
When Raoul pleads for Christine, the Phantom mocks him and justifies his own behavior by claiming that no one ever showed him compassion.
The Phantom lets Christine and Raoul reunite briefly and then springs a terrifying trap.
The Phantom gives Christine a classic sadistic choice: stay with him or Raoul will die.
Christine's kiss causes the Phantom to change his mind, with the worrying implication that love can "fix" an abuser.
When Christine returns his ring, the Phantom (perhaps sincerely, perhaps manipulatively) professes his love for her one more time.
Why would anyone think of this as a desirable relationship? Christine could probably echo the words of this woman, whose abusive, estranged husband had her kidnapped from another country and brought back to him:
"What on earth are you doing now? What do you think you'll get from this? Why are you doing this to me? I don't know what planet [you're] living on, and it's really not flattering or nice to be this wanted by anybody."
Unfortunately, we see echoes of this kind of relationship in everything from Twilight to Fifty Shades of Grey (which I haven't read but have heard enough about to know that I wouldn't touch it with a twenty-foot pole). And people think that's love.
This. Is. Not. Healthy.
Of course, we writers can't and shouldn't take responsibility for our readers' choices. At the same time, popular culture has a powerful influence on readers' perceptions of romantic love, especially when so many readers come from broken families and don't have good real-life models. Unfortunately, as we've seen, popular culture tends to romanticize all the wrong kinds of relationships. Therefore, we should use our writing to promote healthy, respectful interactions and romances.
So how do we do that? That's a big question. I'll start tackling it in tomorrow's email.
P.S. What's your favorite fictional example of a healthy romance? Join the discussion in the comments or on Facebook!