The dangers of metaphor

May 8, 2014

The dangers of metaphor

(I wrote this ages ago for Muse Feminist Magazine that has sadly come to an end, so I thought I would publish it here)

You’ve probably heard this phrase before; ‘love will conquer all’. How about this one; ‘love will set you free’? Ever heard these; ‘The power of love’, ‘All you need is love’, ‘How deep is your love’, ‘I believe in a thing called love’ or ‘is your love strong enough’? We frequently hear these messages of how powerful love is, how it can move mountains, save people and that, basically, it’s what the world needs now., NOW.

Love, we are led to believe is all you need in a relationship. Love is often prioritized over loyalty, reason, financial security and friendship. Movies taught us that. But not any love will do. It has to mad, deep, crazy, careless love. Love so strong we just can’t help ourselves, we have to follow our hearts and forsake logic and law in its pursuit. Or so Hollywood would have us believe.

We’ve become so enamored in these unrealistic stories of love and the apparent miracles that it can perform, that we are in danger of confusing Hollywood for real life. I’m sure I’m not the only one who subconsciously comparing my life to Hollywood to the point where I wonder what my soundtrack would be. (Like right now, sitting here, perhaps some Lily Allen?) Books and films lean heavily on metaphors to tell stories, which are entertaining sure, but also unrealistic and unachievable. Now I like to be entertained like most of you probably do as well. I enjoy suspending my belief in reality on a regular basis. Good old escapism, right?


I believe that we are being fed a huge amount of metaphor which dangerously links abusive behaviour to psychological ‘hurdles’, which are to be ‘overcome’ by love. I’ll illustrate with the following example.

I recently dug out my old copy of Phantom of the Opera (1986) and started listening to it again. It brought back many memories of being a kid, listening to my parent’s tapes and reading the full lyrics of the show. When I was 17, I was lucky enough to see the production on Broadway. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. But as I was re-listening to it recently with my own kids, a sense of discomfort settled in my belly. I heard it through different ears. This classic tale, full of metaphor, revealed itself for what it really is; a sinister tale of control and abuse.*

The story is based on the idea that the Phantom has multiple layers to his personality. First, his mask functions as his public face representing the creative genius with a debonair personality. The second layer is his private face, a monster symbolised by his disfiguration, who is capable of horrific acts. The third layer is the internal face, the young boy, the vulnerable child who is lost and alone.

In the story, Christine removes the mask to reveal the ‘monster’ and later she kisses him, symbolically accepting him, despite all the horror, recognising the vulnerable boy underneath the scarred face. The phantom is moved and releases her. Despite the fact that the phantom is a murderer, abusive, controlling, jealous and violent, she ‘accepts him’ which then ultimately ‘saves’ him.

I recall one of my own experiences, a very jealous boyfriend, who got so very angry when I, wait for it, sat next to other boys. He would drive dangerously, putting himself at risk to frighten me. He would take back and destroy gifts he had given me. And I thought this was just because he loved me so much. And I would feel guilty, that it was my fault for him losing his control. Maybe if I accepted this ‘monster’ the vulnerable boy underneath would feel loved and safe and would prevail.

So you seek folks, as long as we love our monsters enough, we can set them free. But this creepy outcome is not how things go in real life. In real life, when women try to leave their abusers, they are more at risk. In real life, when men exhibit such controlling behaviour no amount of ‘accepting them’ and ‘loving them’ will change things.

My experiences were very mild compared to some. I’m still here to tell the tale.

Unfortunately, so very many women are not.


* I’m sure this comes as no surprise to most of you but (surprisingly) it surprised me. I had just absorbed this story and it had become ‘background’. Suddenly listening to it fresh was actually quite chilling.



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