Facing the music: How dating violence is normalized in the media

Leanna Smith/THE REVIEW
Melissa Fabello explores how messages in pop lyrics and other media can normalize and romanticize aspects of unhealthy relationships.


When Melissa Fabello was in the sixth grade, she used to sing Lovefool (Say You Love Me) by The Cardigans with her best friend on the car ride to school. In the middle of their jam session, her friend’s mom, who worked at a domestic violence agency, turned down the radio to ask the girls what they thought the song was about.

The girls replied that the song was about loving someone who doesn’t love you back, but still wanting them to stay with you. Before turning the music back up, the mother then asked if that situation sounded like a good thing and, after a moment of thought, the girls replied ‘no.’

Fabello cites this as one of the first moments of media literacy in her life and it is one of the reasons why she has become passionate about the intersection between the media and issues like domestic violence, sexual assault and body image, among others.

On April 17, the the Wellness Speaker Series by Promoters of Wellness Peer Education Program hosted an event led by Fabello, a doctoral candidate in Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University, a sexuality and relationship educator and the former managing editor of Everyday Feminism, which is one of the largest independent social justice platforms in the world, according to Fabello.

The interactive presentation, titled “Nightmare Dressed Like a Daydream: Romanticizing Dating Violence in Pop Music,” began with Fabello providing definitions and examples of what sexual assault and intimate partner violence look like and how relationships with an abusive partner work. In this case, Fabello uses the term “relationships with an abusive partner” instead of “abusive relationship,” because it is the partner’s actions that are abusive, not the relationship.

“The two most important things about intimate partner violence are one, it is a cycle, and two is that it’s about power and control,” Fabello says. “If you don’t take anything away from this talk at all except one thing, I want it to be power and control. It is the most important thing that you need to know.”

After discussing these topics, Fabello applied the concepts to analyze popular songs from artists ranging from Maroon 5 to Taylor Swift to The Band Perry.

In one example, the audience watched the Blank Space music video by Taylor Swift, Fabello’s self-proclaimed “problematic fave.” As the video played, audience members were asked to raise their hands every time the lyrics or visuals in the video were indicative of an abuse or an otherwise unhealthy relationship. According to Fabello, there were over 30 of these instances by the end of the song.

This exercise impacted how one audience member, Stephanie Oldano, views media.

“What stood out the most to me was when we looked at the different warning signs in music videos that I have watched numerous times but never fully saw its impact until after analyzing the video,” Oldano, a senior marketing major, says. “Now, I will keep an eye out for these warning signs in different aspects of social media and relationships around me.”

Fabello emphasized that it is important to be aware of the effects of the media we consume, especially since we consume over 10 hours and 45 minutes of media every day, according to Fabello.

“What we’re really talking about here are the ideas of romanticization and normalization. Pop music — all music — romanticizes and normalizes dating violence. Romanticizing is making something seem romantic. Even in movies, stalking is seen as this romantic thing to do,” Fabello says. “And normalization means making something seem normal. Like this is fine, this is how people behave in relationships. This is not how people should behave in relationships.”

Fabello’s aim to make heavy topics as “fun” and engaging as possible helped audience members learn crucial information about intimate partner violence and abuse.

“I wasn’t expecting to get much out of the event but I actually really loved it,” junior marketing major Emily St. Pierre says. “I thought it was extremely educational and is a topic that everyone should have some sort of general knowledge on to sort of recognize these patterns in a relationship that you’re in or that your friends are in or just have that education.”

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