Broken Vows:
Domestic Violence in Film

by Liza T. Powers

With the close of the twentieth century and the dawn of a new millennium, people are in a mood for reflection. How will the last fifty years of this century be remembered? What will people of the twenty-first century consider as the triumphs or the failures of American society and culture? Will they deem this the technological era, dominated by Bill Gates, the information superhighway, the IMac era? Will American historians of the future be fascinated with the role sex and scandals played in national politics? Will they focus on the toll AIDS took? Will buy-now-pay later economics be the focus of their studies? Will human rights or international politics or could the school shootings stir continuing dialogue? Or will the threat of world-wide terrorism dominate?

Perhaps they will conclude that the topic needing the most discussion is domestic violence. In the last twenty years of the twentieth century, every twelve seconds a woman in America was battered, and one in three women in America fell victim to an intimate partner attacking them. The level of violence has not abated.  Recent NFL football scandals have served as a reminder that domestic violence is one of the most serious problems America has faced, and will face in the future. Since October is designated nationally as Domestic Violence Awareness, it is appropriate to evaluate how American culture portrays domestic violence.

Movie Jacket for The Burning Bed One of the best examples of a battered woman is portrayed in The Burning Bed, (1985) starring Farrah Fawcett, the star of the hit show Charlie's Angels from the 1970s. The movie is based on the book, The Burning Bed: The True Story of an Abused Wife, by Faith McNulty. The powerful drama earned an Emmy-nomination for Fawcett. The movie opens on March 9, 1977, in Dansville, Michigan, when Francine Hughes tells her children to get in the family car and then proceeds to incinerate the family home with her husband asleep in the bedroom. She is promptly arrested and when she meets with her attorney, he urges her to tell him the history of her husband's abuse. Instead, she says, "I loved him. I did."

The movie proceeds with a series of flashbacks showing her meeting her future husband in the summer of 1963 by introducing herself to him at a party. A friend warns her at the party that he, Billy Hughes, has a reputation for being wild, but that only attracts her to him. He proves to be wild and erratic during their courtship, and persuades her to lose her virginity. He then urges her to marry him, but she thinks she is too young and wants to finish school so she can escape family poverty and the smothering small town atmosphere. Yet, he persuades her to marry him because, as she exultantly declares, "No one ever loved me like that before." Hughes does not have a steady job when they marry. A year later they are still living with his parents. He is verbally abusive and controlling. He does not want her to leave the house or to wear clothes that compliment her figure. Francine and her mother Her mother does not sympathize with her and, in fact, says, "Women, they have to put up with their men. Especially if there are children. . . . You make a hard bed, you have to lay in it." When told he is physically abusive, Francine's mother condones his behavior, "I know he is jealous, but that's only natural. He loves you. It's not really so bad, is it?"

Things improve when Francine becomes pregnant, but right after she gives birth to their first child, he slaps her for going to town. The physical abuse continues to escalate and she calls the police. They will not make an arrest because they did not see him assault her. As his drinking problems and unemployment continue, Francine goes to the Human Resources Department to get on welfare. However, she is told she cannot file for welfare because she is not the head of the household. The welfare officer advises her that the only way to get on welfare is to divorce her husband.

Ultimately, Francine divorces him and moves to another town to escape from her husband. As a result, her life improves tremendously. She enters a business program at the local college and begins to develop some stability in her life. Unfortunately, when her ex-husband is seriously injured in a car wreck, Billy Hughes and Francine she returns to care for him, but he continues to be verbally abusive. When she does respond to his demands, he becomes angry and throws things at her. When he is stronger, he starts to physically abuse her again. The police come repeatedly, but they can not protect her. On the day that she kills her husband, he is extremely violent and tells her that she must quit school; that demand is the breaking point. She tells him she will not quit. He tells her if she does not, he will kill her. He also tells her if she ever tries to leave him again he will kill her. In that decisive moment, she decides to kill him. That night, she burns the house with Hughes drunk and asleep in the bed.

The Burning Bed does something valuable in that it demonstrates the characteristics of an abusive relationship. One characteristic is that an abusive relationship begins like a whirlwind relationship. Francine and her children The couple becomes serious too quickly; such is the case of Francine Hughes. Another characteristic is that a battered woman looks for a relationship that offers what she thinks is unconditional love. She believes no one could possibly love her as much as her abuser does. Francine Hughes exhibits this behavior when she states that she has never experienced love like that of her husband. In an abusive relationship, the violence controls virtually every aspect of the woman's life. Billy Hughes, her husband, dictates when and if she goes somewhere, what she cooks, and even what she wears. Moreover, battered women often cannot find support from those closest to them or from those that should intervene. Family members or friends often condone the abuser's behavior for several different reasons: the woman behaves in a manner that encourages spousal abuse, the man is head of the household and therefore superior, religious reasons conflict with divorce, fear of the woman becoming financially dependent. By the same token, the police will not involve themselves because they claim spousal abuse is a family problem that should be solved in the home. Lack of knowledge about domestic violence causes many people not to sympathize with victims of abusive relationships.

The film, involving such a dramatic issue, is well done. Moreover, it realistically and in detail, delineates many of the characteristics and the progression of violence faced in spousal abuse. Domestic violence does not exempt any group: ethnic, racial, age, national origin, sexual orientation, religious or socio-economic classes. Victims come from such varied backgrounds that Americans believe "It Can't Happen to Me." They fail to realize that they can fall prey to domestic violence.

Yet, the facts are too gruesome for the nation to ignore. It can happen to any woman in America, and it does happen to one out of three women in America. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between ages 15 and 44 in the United States, exceeding car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Traditionally, society maintained that domestic violence represented a problem in the home, a familial problem that precluded outside intervention; however, domestic violence affects all of society. Even a cursory survey of the dockets of many courts, reveals that the numbers involved in domestic violence are enormous. Francine trying to defend herself. Of the women who report their abuse, 15-50% report their partner's interference with education, training, or work. Moreover, an estimated 3.3 million American children are exposed to domestic violence, and, in turn, these children often grow up to perpetuate the violence by being abusers or victims. Despite such statistics, police appear more likely to respond within five minutes if the offender is a stranger than if an offender is known to the victim. When Francine House or her children called the police, they took a long time to arrive on the scene, and even then, rarely did anything to solve the problem.

In recent years, films such as The Burning Bed have created a growing awareness of the problem. Historically, however, recognition of spousal abuse traces back to the colonial era. What Trouble I Have Seen: A History of Violence Against Wives by David Peterson Del Mar, which focuses mainly on the history of domestic violence in Oregon from the first settlers to present-day, provides some generalization of America's experience with domestic violence. Del Mar also adds a new perspective to the record because he is a historian rather than a sociologist or psychologist. In his conclusion, Del Mar writes,"Violence toward women is an extraordinarily prosaic practice. It has been and is practiced by many men and many types of men. Its foundations, moreover, rest firmly in masculinity. The wife beater has been inspired by images of women shaped by novelists, ministers, newspaper reporters, and legislators This is not to say that every husband is a wife beater or wife abuser, or that those who do not hit their wives are just as culpable as those who do. But virtually all men participate in a masculine culture that perpetuates and supports violence against women."

Many other films have covered to some extent successfully, if at times melodramatically, the theme of domestic violence. Some, unfortunately, are consistently labeled as "Women's Films", a number are useful, however, in understanding the issues. These include: Bed of Lies (1992); Silent Victim (1992); Breaking the Silence (1992); Sleeping With the Enemy (1991); Love and Hate: A Marriage Made in Hell, Part 1 (1989); Mesmerized (1988); The Color Purple (1985); A Cry For Help: The Tracey Thurman Story (1989), and Battered (1979). In addition, Retreat- A Music Video on Domestic Violence Awareness directed by Todd Portugal is worthwhile for music and viewing. It deals with relationships within the family between adults and children as well as with methods for healing breaches in family structure.

Francine with a backdrop of protest postersDomestic Violence has emerged in recent decades as a women's issue, and it has done so because society's view of women has evolved. For much of early America, women were considered subservient to their husbands, and it is unknown how many women and children suffered from domestic violence. In the 1970s, as the women's movement developed, domestic violence became an open and debatable issue. Nonetheless, law enforcement officials proved reluctant to protect women from abusive partners. Only in the last few years have Americans seen a change in the way society in general views domestic violence, and in how law enforcement can become actively involved in ending domestic violence. Communities which have taken a strong stance in educating people and reinforcing their policies for handling domestic violence have seen a clear improvement. Sadly, too few communities have pursued similar programs. Until domestic violence is not tolerated by society, education and training- and enforcement of strong laws- must remain a priority.

Recommended Readings:

In addition to Del Mar's book are other books dealing with domestic violence in different time periods.

One reputable book is Domestic Tyranny: The Making of American Social Policy Against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present by Elizabeth Pleck and Linda Gordon.

Linda Gordan also wrote a book entitled Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston, 1880-1960.

For the history of domestic violence in the American Frontier, read Scandal of the West: Domestic Violence on the Frontier by R. E. Mather and Louis Schmittroth.

Another good source on domestic violence is Cruelty and Companionship: Conflict in Nineteenth Century Married Life by A. James Hammerton.

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