A few days ago I was watching a 1940s suspense thriller called Gaslight, in which a manipulative husband tries to make his wife think that she was losing her mind. He makes subtle changes in her environment, including slowly and steadily dimming the flame on a gas lamp. He also abuses and controls her, cutting her off from family and friends. Consequently, the wife starts second-guessing herself, her feelings, her perceptions, and her memories. And it is only by the end of the film that I realised what I was watching was actually the source from where the word ‘gaslighting’ originates. And if you don’t believe me, google it for yourselves. So, what exactly is gaslighting?
The term ‘to gaslight’ refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Toxic people often gaslight others to exert their power over them. It is basically an insidious and sometimes covert, form of manipulation where the aim is to make the victim question their judgment and perception. Ultimately, a victim of gaslighting starts to question their own thoughts and beliefs. In the film Gaslight, the wife begins feeling neurotic, hypersensitive, and out-of-control, which is basically the goal of gaslighting—to leave the targets feeling off-kilter and unsure of what is true and what isn’t. A lot of people may associate gaslighting with love relationships and marriage. However, it is not uncommon to encounter gaslighting in office settings, friendships or among family members as well. But what we need to talk about more is the issue of gaslighting of women in our patriarchal society.
Sexism And Gaslighting Behaviours
It is very important to look for signs of gaslighting and be aware of those red flags, be it in any kind of relationship. As women, it becomes all the way more necessary to look out for such manipulative behaviours, because we all know how prone women are to internalising guilt. Although gaslighting might not always be gendered, but in most cases, it is used as a form of emotional abuse against women. Gaslighters are fuelled by sexism and it works, in part, because the very idea of gaslighting feeds off sexist stereotypes of women as crazy, jealous, emotional, weak, or incapable. A famous real-life example was when a US politician, in an attempt to turn the conversation away from his history with sexual assault, called female news anchors “obsessed with sex” while repeatedly dismissing the term ‘sexual predator’ as inflammatory.
Other Examples Of Gaslighting Behaviour Against Women
In another excellent example given by the philosopher Kate Abramson, she details the story of a female graduate student who discovered that her male colleagues had made a list ranking their female peers by attractiveness. When she expressed her concerns regarding the inappropriateness of such a list, she was told that she was being overly sensitive and that she was merely insecure about her low ranking in the list. Now, this is gaslighting at its best. If a woman rings the alarm on sexist behaviour, gaslighters use sexist stereotypes to undermine her complaints. Instead of taking her seriously, each of her complaints might be refuted as a silly misinterpretation or dismissed as her being too sensitive and insecure. In this manner, an uninterrupted pattern of circular logic is used to undermine women: “See, she’s just another insecure, sensitive and overly emotional woman we don’t have to listen to.”
From being their real concerns attributed to PMS to being shamed for standing up for themselves, women are gaslighted at every point in their lives, by people who sometimes don’t even realise the weight of their comments. After all, for the longest time in history women have been the ones labelled as hysteric. And even today, it’s always the woman who is over-reacting. Who can forget those infamous tweets and comments which labelled Serena William as crazy during her face-off with umpire Carlos Ramos a year ago? Of course, that’s not to deny that within a relationship, even men can be victims of gaslighting. But the issue of the gaslighting of women remains a larger problem in every society. And honestly, as one might already infer from the above examples, this issue is not going to go away until we get rid of internalised misogyny from its very roots.
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.