What THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) Tells Us About Gaslighting

If you’re anything like me, seeing the word “gaslighting” makes you want to throw your phone into the nearest body of water.

Over the past few years (chiefly, since the 2016 election), we’ve seen the term continue to pop up in the realm of politics and everyday life. I think this rise in frequency is in large part attributable to that Lauren Duca op-ed for Teen Vogue which used it to in no uncertain terms condemn the President for his resistance to truth. And from there it’s become a ubiquitous term we throw at any sense of untruth. The Trump administration is doing it about COVID-19 (you didn’t think I’d be able to write a whole blog post without mentioning the elephant in the room, did you?). If you have OCD, you might be gaslighting yourself. Victoria F. on The Bachelor was gaslighting Peter. And The Dixie Chicks addressed it on their new single…sort of.

These are all, of course, great conversations to be having. We need to call out the unethical behavior of our government, our exes, and Victoria F. on The Bachelor. That said, we seem to have forgotten what gaslighting means.

Per Encyclopædia Britannica: gaslighting is “an elaborate and insidious technique of deception and psychological manipulation, usually practiced by a single deceiver, or “gaslighter,” on a single victim over an extended period…to gradually undermine the victim’s confidence in his own ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance, thereby rendering him pathologically dependent on the gaslighter in his thinking or feelings.” There’s a lot to unpack in this definition, but essentially — a gaslighter makes their victim question reality, truth, and the extent to which they can trust themself. It’s a very specific phenomenon and one that applies most frequently to abusive relationships (as in its roots in the play Gas Light).

Which brings us to The Invisible Man (2020).

In case it wasn’t clear from the trailer, this loose adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel of the same name centers on an abusive relationship. Without giving too much away (because it’s an excellent film that all of you should see), Cecilia escapes an abusive relationship with Adrian. She goes into hiding and learns that Adrian has committed suicide, rendering her presumably safe. Then weird, unexplainable things begin happening to her. Things that can only be tied back to Adrian. Things that no one else can see or prove.

Part of what makes this adaptation such an effective portrayal of gaslighting is the groundwork it lays before the events really start to unfold. We learn, as heard in the trailer, that during their relationship, Adrian put ideas into her head which would ultimately lead her to question reality. “He said that wherever he went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him,” she reveals at one point. Moreover, some of his specific actions (no spoilers) reveal a personal stake in all of this: things that only he would know about her. It all points to something far more sinister than your average horror movie villain; it’s something gut-wrenchingly personal, visceral, and (unfortunately) topical.

The Dixie Chicks (who I LOVE), on the other hand, don’t have quite the same understanding. Their “gaslighter,” presumably Natalie Maines’ ex-husband Adrian Pasdar, doesn’t do much besides lying and cheating. It sucks, to be sure, and he deserves every bit of this musical evisceration. But at no point do we see anyone question reality. At no point is anyone’s sense of self being deliberately torn apart. In short, gaslighting is not just lying. And that isn’t a fault on the Chicks or producer Jack Antonoff; it’s a much broader cultural misunderstanding that often comes about when we latch onto a buzzword like this.

Hopefully, The Invisible Man helps us as a society to get some perspective on what gaslighting really is. In the meantime, I’ll be blasting the Dixie Chicks from my social isolation.

— Taylor Lomax

8 thoughts on “What THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020) Tells Us About Gaslighting

  1. Hi Taylor,

    I think your piece is especially relevant to what’s going on in the world at present – thank you for this perspective! I was very interested in the videography art the Dixie Chicks incorporated into the beginning of their music video – I think it exemplifies gas lighting well.
    This made me think about freedom of speech and press coming from the government. Should the government be allowed to spew misinformation (as we have seen so often during Trump’s presidency and during this pandemic), or is that some form of freedom of the speech or press? Deliberately false information coming from government officials is questionable.

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  2. Hi Taylor – interesting post! Gaslighting definitely seems to have taken on much broader contexts in our day-to-day use now, and as Lana suggested, elaborate misinformation campaigns definitely seem to more or less pass as gaslighting. As we often find ourselves in echo chambers online, I think people may gradually find themselves unable to “distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or reality from appearance” as the Encyclopædia Britannica definition mentions.

    I think this term raises interesting questions about how much social media companies should get involved and update their own policies for regulating content that is essentially used for manipulative means. Just a few weeks ago, Twitter rolled out a new “Synthetic and manipulated media policy”* and labeled a video of Joe Biden that Trump retweeted as “manipulated media.” Facebook didn’t seem to do anything, though, and I wonder which norm will eventually be adopted (and/or expected) across social media companies.

    -Christina
    *https://help.twitter.com/en/rules-and-policies/manipulated-media (new Twitter policy)

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  3. Hi Taylor,

    Thank you for sharing! It’s such a relevant and interesting post regarding our present-day situation. Your address of the example of gaslighting is particularly representative. I, too, have found gaslighting common in every form of media or entertainments. As Lana has addressed, freedom of speech and the ability to express one’s ideas is certainly a right enjoyed by us living in the United States in the 21st century. However, gaslighting behaviors of certain individuals (especially the government or mainstream media that are influential to the commoners) may be actually misleading and cause unnecessary fears or negative responses. As of the Covid-19 situation, many medias have been writing about it in such a threatening way. I question the use of gaslighting during times like now. It is ambiguous what their intention is: are they trying to warn and remind the public, or are they trying (maybe unintentionally) to arouse fear and anxiety in the already unstable times?

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  4. Here is an additional point about the Dixie Chick video: Many of the archival pictures and period films make the point that American culture has been gaslighting women throughout the twentieth century, selling them a bill of goods about what they could accomplish if they played the game

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  5. Hi Taylor,

    Thank you for this informative and relevant post! I’ve actually rarely heard the term before reading this and never looked it up, so I’m glad I got an accurate definition before buying into the more popular, misinformed usage. It really does sadden me how often misinformation and distorted portrayals become popular, and the truth of different matters – not just definitions of words but a lot of different stories, histories, and policies in life – becomes obscured. And now I’m curious about the etymology of “gaslighting”. I think it’s good that there is a specific term to identify such a psychologically harmful and manipulative behavior, since if we don’t have a term for it, acknowledgement that it exists, we might not be able to stop it. At the same time, how common must such a cruel phenomenon be for it to require a name? And how distrustful must the public be of the government and institutions that are supposed to protect us if this term is being used so frequently?

    – Teresa

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  6. I really appreciate your thoughtful explanation of what gaslighting actually means because I have heard it misused in so many different contexts. I have been excited about this movie and now can’t wait to see it with your analysis in mind. I am very interested in psychology, so I hope to learn more about the psychological mechanisms that contribute to gaslighting. This movie’s close examination of how gaslighting functions between two individuals might prove helpful in understanding how it happens on a larger socio-political scale between a leader and the public.

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  7. Hi Taylor! I think this was a very important piece for you to write. The saddest thing about gaslighting is that the victim is not aware that they are being manipulated. As someone who was gaslit for years, I can say that I never realized it until after I was completely free of the situation and even now have not still completely come to terms with it. It’s problematic that people who are gaslit and become paranoid or have trust issues in the future are seen as crazy when they are anything but. Very powerful writing and message and now I really want to watch The Invisible Man.
    -Hope

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  8. Hi Taylor

    Thanks for a great post! I think this tackles a couple of really pressing topics for today’s world. Your point about political discourse seems particularly valid to me. I’ve been in many political discussions over the past few years where people toss the term around regularly – as in many of the contexts you pointed out in this blog.

    The harm this does to healthy political discourse seems very real to me. People no longer want to investigate mistruths, misunderstandings, or different interpretations of research as part of political debate. Instead, we toss the other person’s opinion aside as gaslighting and just not worth our time. This seems to occur on all sides of the political spectrum.

    I really appreciate the way you tackle the topic of gaslighting from so many different perspectives in this post and I look forward to checking out Invisible Man.
    pressing topics for today’s world. Your point about political discourse seems particularly valid to me. I’ve been in many political discussions over the past few years where people toss the term around regularly – as in many of the contexts you pointed out in this blog.

    The harm this does to healthy political discourse seems very real to me. People no longer want to investigate mistruths, misunderstandings, or different interpretations of research as part of political debate. Instead, we toss the other person’s opinion aside as gaslighting and just not worth our time. This seems to occur on all sides of the political spectrum.

    I really appreciate the way you tackle the topic of gaslighting from so many different perspectives in this post and I look forward to checking out Invisible Man.

    – Oliver

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