The term “gaslighting” gets thrown around a lot these days. But where did it come from, and how did it become such a buzzword of our times? Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where someone tries to control you by convincing you to doubt your experience of reality or even your sanity. The idea’s roots in an intimate, domestic setting make it a frequent reference in modern relationship conflicts. But another part of its recent explosion in the public consciousness has been its use as a method of political control. From our Fake-News-culture to our Me-Too-era revelations of emotional gaslighting, this term that existed in our culture for decades is now used routinely, to describe chillingly recognizable behavior in both the personal and global spheres. Here’s our Take on how the Gaslighting Trope has always been lurking right under the surface.
The term “gaslighting” gets thrown around a lot these days. But, where did it come from, and how did it become such a buzzword of our times?
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where someone tries to control you by convincing you to doubt your experience of reality or even your sanity. Its popularity may seem recent, but the actual term ‘gaslighting’ dates all the way back to 1938, and a play by Patrick Hamilton called ‘Gas Light,’ which was made into two movies in the early 1940s (the second one starring Ingrid Bergman). In the story, a woman becomes wracked with anxiety when her husband mysteriously leaves every night, his departure always marked by the gaslights in their Victorian home dimming. Her husband tells her the dimming lights are all in her head, causing her to doubt her perception of reality...until she worries she’s going insane.
Paula: “You think I’m insane?”
Gregory: “That’s what I’m trying not to tell myself.”
Paula: “But that’s what you think isn’t it, that’s what you’ve been hinting and suggesting for months now.” — Gaslight
The idea’s roots in an intimate, domestic setting make it a frequent reference in modern relationship conflicts. But another part of its recent explosion in the public consciousness has been its use as a method of political control.
Here’s our Take on how the gaslighting trope has always been lurking right under the surface.
Gaslighting Hysterical Women
Gaslight followed in a longer tradition of equating femininity with madness. As far back as the Victorian age, the concept of hysteria was thought to be a madness specific to women. The word itself originates from the Greek word hystera, meaning ‘uterus’. The mad, emotionally excessive, and unstable women appeared in literature, too, in characters like Jane Eyre’s Bertha, the original “madwoman in the attic,” or Great Expectations’ reclusive jilted bride, Miss Havisham. Meanwhile, more sympathetic works like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House explored how simply being a wife in an oppressively sexist society could threaten a woman’s selfhood and her sanity.
Charlotte: “Hysteria seems to cover everything from insomnia to toothache.”
Mortimer: “It is not my—”
Charlotte: “It’s nothing more than a catch-all for dissatisfied women, women forced to spend their lives on domestic chores.” — Hysteria
In Gaslight, what’s striking is the incremental way in which the husband gets his wife to question her own mind. One minute, he’s angry, and the next, he’s fawning and romantic, thus cultivating an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion. Equally central are how intimate the husband’s tactics are. This establishes gaslighting as something that often takes place away from prying eyes, literally creating two worlds — the minds of two people — that are in opposition to each other. And what’s so devastatingly effective about this private form of mental assault is there’s no third party to help the victim confirm their own reality.
The way Hollywood continued to feature this trope post-Gaslight affirmed gaslighting as a particularly intimate form of abuse. In 1964’s Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Olivia De Havilland’s Miriam conspires to drive her cousin Charlotte out of their house so she can take her place as the heir to their family fortune. Once again the home becomes a space for psychological manipulation, as Miriam stokes Charlotte’s anxieties over the death of her lover, as well as the fact Charlotte was implicated in his murder. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s own theories - which happen to be correct - are instantly written off.
The 1953 film Dangerous Crossing takes gaslighting out of the domestic sphere, but keeps it in the similarly claustrophobic environment of an ocean liner cruise ship: after newlywed Ruth’s husband mysteriously goes missing on their honeymoon, she’s convinced by the ship’s crew that her marriage is non-existent and that she’s mentally unwell. In both of these cases, there is a financial motive, just as in Gaslight. The husband’s behavior is arguably a reaction to being emasculated by the fact that his wife’s money paid for their home. The women in all three stories hold a great deal of wealth, and by extension, independence; the gaslighting trope is all about trying to curtail that.
Charlotte: “It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Jewel Mayhew was behind all this.” Drew: “Charlotte that is ridiculous.” — Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte
The Intimate, Invisible Abuse
As we become more aware of gaslighting, we notice it in more places — even in beloved stories about characters who weren’t intended to be villainous. Birth.Movies.Death calls Overboard — a film about a man kidnapping a woman and convincing her she’s the mother of his four kids — “the most heartwarming rom-com about gaslighting ever made.” In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Andie’s humorous attempts to drive Ben away for her magazine article might now strike us as unsettling, as she first establishes a genuine personality with him and then gradually undermines that by putting on a fake persona.
Kat: “Why are you pushing this? What’s in it for you?”
Patrick: “Oh. S-So now I need to have a motive to want to be with you?”
Kat: “You tell me.”
Patrick: “You need therapy, you know that?” — 10 Things I Hate About You
And even when there’s no conscious, evil intent or outright abuse going on, it can be common to feel like a romantic partner is denying your reality.
But in its true, extreme form, gaslighting is violent.
Because its subtlety makes it hard to identify, depictions of gaslighting in fiction can help educate the public about domestic abuse. Two of the longest-running British soap operas — Coronation Street and BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers — both recently incorporated gaslighting into their storylines, prompting fans to raise money for domestic abuse hotlines and charities.
In the 2016 thriller The Girl on the Train, spoiler alert, Rachel’s ex-husband Tom exploits that she’s plagued by alcoholism and blackouts and can’t trust her own memory. The film makes an explicit link between Tom’s psychological and physical abuse, through the reveal that he’s been hitting Rachel during her blackouts.
In Jessica Jones, Jessica’s ex, Kilgrave — the supervillain version of a gaslighter — deploys all the classic tricks in the gaslighter’s handbook, like painting himself as the victim and twisting facts to his advantage. But he also has the superpower of controlling people’s minds, exaggerating the gaslighter’s skill for both manipulating their victims and presenting as charming and helpful to others.
Jessica Jones: “The beauty of what he does is no-one knows how he does it. It can’t be explained so it can’t be believed.” — Jessica Jones 01x06
Even in the more political thrillers that use the trope, the intimacy of gaslighting’s abuse remains. In Homeland, Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder makes her a target for gaslighting from enemy operatives, who take advantage of her already vulnerable mental state with tactics like swapping out her medication for a hallucinogen stronger than LSD. Carrie is literally trying to protect not just her country, but also her own consciousness from nefarious forces.
Carrie Mathison: “I was there. I saw you. You were dead.”
Nicholas Brody: “Your mind’s playing tricks on you, you’ve had a rough night—”
Carrie: “A rough night? Are you f***king kidding me?” — Homeland, 04x07
Similarly, Westworld makes the themes of gaslighting explicit through the science-fiction premise of androids who routinely have their memories wiped. As artificially created hosts Dolores and Maeve strive for self-determination and freedom from their human overlords, this manifests as their developing consciousness fighting against being reset. Preceding both of these, The Matrix gives us a whole world that’s being gaslit into believing a simulation is real life. And the Agents, with their brainwashing techniques, demonstrate how effectively gaslighting can be used by government forces in order to control a population. In these high-concept examples, the perpetrators are incorporating overt weaponry into their gaslighting. Yet there is still an invisibility to their tactics, as their tools of oppression are created from things that we typically trust in. It’s in this atmosphere of uncertainty that gaslighting thrives.
Gaslighting And Today
According to Google Trends, search activity for the term rose sharply around the time of Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, when many commentators described his assertions about the crowd size as gaslighting, and its popularity has continued to shoot up since then. Mike Mariani argues that Trump’s continuing insistence on narratives that have proven false takes after the tactics of Russian politician and adviser to Vladimir Putin, Vladislaw Surkow, who deliberately bombarded the press with contradictory information as a way to maintain a state of confusion and chaos.
Meanwhile, as the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017, it came with an abundance of stories of emotional gaslighting, and a re-examination of the tactics some men have long used to control women. And as Black Lives Matter took center stage in 2020, people increasingly began to tear down the false narrative that we’re living in a “post-racial society.”
Increasingly, stories today look at how institutions gaslight vulnerable members of our society. In Netflix’s Unbelievable, gaslighting is seen as a symptom of rape culture. Kaitlyn Dever’s Marie Adler is a victim of rape who is repeatedly gaslit by the police, to the point where she begins to doubt whether it ever happened to her in the first place. Unbelievable illustrates how easy it can be to successfully gaslight someone if you are in a position of power over them. It is only when Marie gains new allies with power — Detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall — that she is able to reconstruct her memory and challenge her gaslighters.
Karen Duvall: “You don’t sound crazy to me. You sound like someone who’s been through a trauma and is looking for a way to feel safe again and in control. And there is nothing crazy about that.” — Unbelievable, 1x05
Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters similarly shows how large, ostensibly trustworthy institutions can use their reputation to get away with gaslighting an entire community. Just as gaslighting characters like Kilgrave have their public face and their private face, the DuPont Chemical Company gets away with this behavior in part because they are seen as honorable by the majority in the town, who can’t believe such an important employer might be doing something bad. In the Oscar-winning Spotlight, the Catholic Church uses similar tactics to obfuscate and hush up accusations of pedophilia and sexual assault. And Steve McQueen’s Small Axe sheds light on how gaslighting by police and courts has long played a role in institutional racism.
Another reason gaslighting may be a more recognizable trope in the 21st century is how it intersects with this era’s chosen form of communication: social media.
The images we see and cultivate on social media very rarely match the full picture in reality. Tim Stimpson, a writer who worked on the gaslighting arc in The Archers, says “We put so much of ourselves on Facebook or Twitter, and it’s all the way we want ourselves to be seen.”
So this leads us to the question: does it really matter if you believe in an alternate reality if that alternate is arguably better or makes you happier? In The Matrix, Cypher prefers to be gaslit, because the lie leads to a more comfortable existence. Likewise, in The Truman Show, Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank — the world’s biggest unwitting reality TV star — is undeniably being gaslit by the actors purporting to be his friends, family, even his wife, in an artificial world created just for him. But most of these people — and the show’s many adoring fans — don’t see a problem with this, because they view Truman’s fake life in Seahaven as a kind of utopia.
Still, when Natasha McElhone’s Sylvia plants a seed of doubt in Truman’s mind, he won’t stop fixating on the cracks in his perfect life until he’s fully uncovered the truth. And as if in a secret nod to the origins of the Gaslighting term, the moment he begins to really question his reality is triggered by a light falling from the sky. The story sends the message that human beings can’t be truly contented by lies forever. We will instinctively chase the truth, and once we find it, the truth shall set us free.
Jessica Jones similarly moves the gaslighting trope forward through Jessica’s response to Kilgrave’s behavior. She is able to recognize it for what it is, and we see her trying to put strategies in place to combat it, and foreground her own version of reality. Emmet Asher-Perrin writes, “One of the most potent things a victim of gaslighting can do (if they are able) is to consistently challenge their abusers’ lies. And that is precisely what Jessica does, over and over. Every time Kilgrave insists they were happy together, she tells him nothing could be further from the truth. Every time he tells her that she was sexually attracted to him, she counters with the fact that he raped her.
Jessica Jones: “Getting you out of my head was like prying fungus from a window.” — Jessica Jones 01x10
The victory of the gaslighter is to muddy the waters so much that it’s hard to know if there even is a verifiable truth. Facts give way to a plethora of voices and opinions, and there’s a sense that all stories are equal. But while in our lives gaslighting may make it hard to decipher what’s real and what’s not, in storytelling, the audience gets to be that nonexistent third party in the privileged position of knowing what the reality is. And stories like Jessica Jones, Truman Show, and The Girl On The Train reaffirm the existence and importance of an objective truth.
The Post sends the same message in the realm of politics and journalism. Director Steven Spielberg talked about how Trump’s gaslighting tactics harked back to the Nixon administration doing the same thing in 1971, which made the film urgent for him: “It distorts the truth, it makes the truth kind of interpretive, and the truth should be objective, it shouldn’t have any wiggle room for interpretation.”
The gaslighting trope is evidence of how our culture can provide a language for something we know is happening, but don’t accurately know how to describe. When you name and recognize something like gaslighting, you’re able to challenge it. Early iterations of the gaslighting trope were more about victims being saved by someone else — an outside party who can see what’s happening and intervene. Now, we see more victims becoming aware of the abuse and taking steps to stop it themselves. When you know what your enemy is, it’s easier to fight — to stand up for yourself and reclaim your reality.
Marie Adler: “My whole life has been like, ‘take what you get and be glad it’s not worse.’ Maybe that’s not good enough this time.” — Unbelievable 1x08
Gould, Wendy Rose. “Are You in a Social Media Bubble? Here’s How to Tell.” NBC News, October 21, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/problem-social-media-reinforcement-bubbles-what-you-can-do-about-ncna1063896
Lindsay, Jessica. “Cloutlighting is the Obnoxious and Abusive Social Media Trend That You’ve Probably Retweeted.” Metro, November 27, 2018. https://metro.co.uk/2018/11/27/cloutlighting-is-the-obnoxious-and-abusive-social-media-trend-that-youve-probably-retweeted-8181469/
Williams, Zoe. “From Westworld to Homeland: Pop Culture’s Obsession with Gaslighting.” The Guardian, January 21, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/jan/21/gaslighting-westworld-archers-jessica-jones-homeland
Freedland, Jonathan. “Steven Spielberg: The Urgency to Make ‘The Post’ was Because of the Trump Administration.” The Guardian, January 19, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/19/steven-spielberg-the-urgency-to-make-the-post-was-because-of-this-administration
Asher-Perrin, Emmet. “Jessica Jones is a Primer on Gaslighting, and How to Protect Yourself Against It.” Tor, November 25, 2015. https://www.tor.com/2015/11/25/jessica-jones-gaslighting
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Mariani, Mike. “Is Trump’s Chaos Tornado a Move From the Kremlin’s Playbook?” Vanity Fair, April 2017.