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