From Westworld to Homeland: pop culture's obsession with gaslighting

Why have stories about men mind-controlling women come to define much of modern pop culture?

It is hard to say where today’s cultural obsession with gaslighting reached its climax: in the exaggerated mind control of Jessica Jones, the murky, shifting terrain of Homeland, the conspiracy-rich Westworld or the old-school domestic violence that has gripped The Archers. It became a pop culture trope so gradually that, by the time it ended up dominating our favourite TV shows, it seemed completely obvious that it should.

For the purist, the definition comes from the play Gaslight, written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938 and made into a film two years later by Thorold Dickinson. It is a mannered but compelling vision of domestic abuse, in which a husband, with lies, verbal aggression and disappointed certainty manipulates his wife into questioning her sanity, whereupon he becomes her only mooring to the real world and his accusations become more potent.

The play, which also became a US film starring Ingrid Bergman in 1944, speaks to a deeper truth: that intimate spaces are vulnerable by definition. There is a softness under the social shell that isn’t sure of itself, that seeks reassurance, that is easily assaulted. The elemental truth of domestic violence is that everyone has an undefended space, and the only defence is to hope that a bad person never gets in there. This explains the persistence of the trope, and its later application in psychoanalysis and child sexual abuse literature. Only those closest to you could make you disbelieve yourself; it is a rare terror, and a daunting challenge, to have to plead your veracity from a place of doubt and solitude.

The Archers’ Rob and Helen.
The Archers’ Rob and Helen. Photograph: BBC/Pete Dadds

Tim Stimpson, scriptwriter on The Archers, recalls how 2016’s volcanic gaslighting plotline developed: Helen, meeting Rob, was initially attracted to his certainty, a dominating manner that quickly became controlling, undermining, malicious, rarely (though occasionally) physically violent but laced throughout with nauseating menace.

Stimpson remembers: “When we heard the actor, and how sinister his voice sounded, we kept going back to Secret Agent and Sabotage; Sean [O’Connor, the show’s editor until last year] loves all these black-and-white movies, and that was the image he always had in his head, that the story would end in the kitchen or dining room. We always knew that it was going to end with Helen stabbing Rob.” What’s interesting is how, in the context of how many domestic abuse storylines in soaps there have been over time, this one happened gradually.

David Tennant as Jessica Jones’s Kilgrave.
David Tennant as Jessica Jones’s Kilgrave. Photograph: Allstar/MARVEL STUDIOS

Jessica Jones is a Netflix original – based on the lesser-spotted feminist Marvel strip Alias – and features a protagonist who has been mind-controlled by Kilgrave (David Tennant at his most repellent) and is free but profoundly damaged. His power, a simple one, is to make anyone do anything, a kind of dystopian Simon Says. He is the ultimate gaslighter, exerting a mind control so consummate it doesn’t need gaslight. He doesn’t have to make the victim doubt herself, since her free will is already shot.

Kilgrave gaslights women with an instruction that doesn’t sound overly dramatic: he tells women to smile, and they do. It is closely observed and leg-crossingly chillingly, the way Rob in The Archers was when he called Helen fat, the way of a brain-eating worm, a violence that can’t be seen, that will only be believed much too late. It had an immediate effect on audiences, sparking its own hashtag, #stoptellingwomentosmile, iterating with Marvel amplification an act of dominance that in a regular, non-superhero context seems so blameless. He just told you to smile, love. What’s the big deal? Except… smiling isn’t nothing. Smiling is an expression of a feeling; you’re being told to feel a feeling, and then, afterwards, that you felt it.

Claire Danes as Carrie in Homeland.
Claire Danes as Carrie in Homeland. Photograph: c.Showtime/Everett / Rex Feature

Gaslighting has become so common a device in culture that its elements start to divide and curdle. In Homeland, the threat to Carrie is that her perceptions genuinely are up for grabs; perhaps her memory is to be wiped as a medical necessity and, with it, her search for truth; or her madness is summoned deliberately by an enemy who substitutes her drugs; or she has to push herself to the brink of psychosis in order to fully perceive. She exists beyond the territory of the intimate space, since her condition makes the world her intimate: anyone can get in there and, in a nefarious world, anyone does. It induces a hideous seasickness for which there is no port but unconditional trust, and that trust never stays, only comes and goes. It is much more textured than, say, The Girl On The Train, a gaslight classic that could have been thought up by Patrick Hamilton: a woman who blacks out when she is drunk is persuaded she did things that she didn’t. A sound mind will only admit one villain at a time; an unsound mind will admit a matrix.

Josh Cohen, professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths and a practising psychoanalyst, makes this fascinating comparison: “If you think of this as a reprise of post-Kennedy conspiracy culture, there’s an interesting difference: in the glut of books about the assassination, or the movies of the early 70s, the thing that is sinisterly controlling us or taking over our lives is an anonymous force, somewhere beyond us, invisible. It turns us into indivisible units, we don’t matter. Gaslighting is massively charged emotionally; there’s an intimacy, there’s a violation. All the cognates you’d find in psychoanalytic language are about claustrophobia. Whereas previously, the paranoia was agoraphobic.”

Thandie Newton in Westworld.
Thandie Newton in Westworld. Photograph: John P. Johnson/AP

Westworld – based on the 1973 film of the same name – pulls off an unsettling melange of agoraphobia and claustrophobia. A theme park is populated by androids who routinely have their memories wiped by higher authority. They exist for the titillation of high net worth – usually malicious, paying human guests – but don’t know they’re not real so, as a viewer, your sympathy is with the android, caught between these two poles of tech (the theme park masters) and capital (the sadistic high-rollers). The act of gaslighting dehumanises the humans, weaving a subtle and complicated confusion around what consciousness and humanity is.

If you apply the term politically, what we call post-truth politics would actually be better classed as gaslighting; that thing you say I said, I didn’t say. You’re mad, you’re hysterical, you’re a snowflake, you’re imagining things. The political parallels are fundamental: arguing for universal human rights is a lot like pleading your own sanity; once you have to do it, you’ve already lost. For example, if you have to say “not all Mexicans are rapists”, you’ve already lost. Cohen notes: “We keep using this language of bubbles and echo chambers, which again are very claustrophobic. In the age of social media, we create quite tight, personalised spaces for ourselves, through which are mediated all the events of the world. So the news, particularly when it’s highly charged emotionally, is happening to us. Somebody who’s good at gaslighting can really infuse that sensation in us, that we’re kind of losing it. I feel that there is a personal experience of conspiracy against us, which is intimate and suffocating.”

Ingrid Begman in 1944’s Gaslight.
Ingrid Begman in 1944’s Gaslight. Photograph: SNAP/REX/Shutterstock

Stimpson, coming from a completely perpendicular perspective, arrives at a similar conclusion about social media, that “so much of our lives are visible now. We put so much of ourselves on Facebook or Twitter, and it’s all the way we want ourselves to be seen. Helen did a lot of that when she was out in public, she put on this front of being in a perfect relationship. We display ourselves so readily in a way that erases the dark moments of intimacy.” Helen’s was a fairly straightforward mirroring of a social trend in drama: an arms race of perfection. As our public selves become more and more idealised, and the circle in which we can give an honest account tightens, the result is a very constrained, oppressive space. Homeland, at the other end of the scale, amplifies to the point of distortion that murky terror of one’s credibility resting entirely on a manipulable social judgment one could never accurately perceive or control.

Gaslighting as metaphor has the resonance of a human truth, but takes its relevance from this particular time: when the cod intimacy of scattergun sharing traps us behind masks, and a new brutality in popular discourse goes straight to “You’re mad” without even pausing at “You’re wrong”. It is salient to consider what the escape is from the gaslit situation: not a white knight or a deus ex machina, but a witness. In this gothic fairytale, solidarity is the hero and, maybe, as unlikely as it sounds, the way out of the political wilderness is through our television sets.

Homeland begins on Channel 4, 9pm, Sunday 22 January


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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