Gaslighting is more powerful and insidious than most of us realize. It’s been lobbed at everyone from politicians to ex-girlfriends and boyfriends. But it’s important to remember that words mean things and the term ‘gaslighting’ has a very specific definition. To gaslight, someone is to engage in a form of psychological manipulation in which the manipulator covertly sows seeds of doubt in another person. The intention is to make them question their own perception, memory, or judgment. The end goal is to create cognitive dissonance in the target as well as low self-esteem.
While researching the topic of gaslighting, two of my favorite passions and activities collided; film and reading. The term ‘gaslighting’ originated from the British play called unsurprisingly, ‘Gas Light’ (1938). However, it really took off after the 1944 film adaptation of the same name. In the film and play, a husband attempts to convince his wife and other people that his wife is insane by manipulating small aspects of their environment and insisting she’s incorrect, mistaken, and worst of all delusional. Ingrid Bergman who plays the wife in the 1944 adaptation is a revelation, a woman who is slowly being pushed into the deep end by the very person who’s supposed to love and protect her. Even worse, her friends, family, and general support system affirm her alleged madness. The film is really, really good.
There is a reason why it’s been inducted into the United States National Film Registry for being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’. It’s not the acting as wonderful as it is. It’s not the costume design as well done and beautiful as they are. The reason this film has had such a lasting legacy is because of how relatable and common the story is. Maybe not all of us have jewels to steal or have partners who intend to lock us up in a mental institution. But many people, especially women, can relate to being told that our experiences or our opinions are invalid in some way.
Certain modes of invalidating our existence have become ‘unfashionable’. Slut-shaming is addressed swiftly and mercilessly. Domestic violence has rightfully been pushed to the spotlight as a serious issue that disproportionately affects and kills women. Pay equity has become more transparent in recent years than it ever has been since restrictions concerning certain jobs for women were lifted. Yet here we are, in the year 2020 discussing gaslighting; a term and idea that many people do not believe is real. Why is there so much doubt around this term? Misogyny like other forms of bigotry is adept at rebuilding and redefining itself as long as it can maintain its primary goal of disenfranchising and marginalizing a certain group. Gaslighting continues to rear its ugly head because it’s an insidious way to push women to the side or make us feel as though we are making a big deal out of nothing.
I remember having a conversation with someone far older than me about sexism in Nigeria. Knowing that I had gone to law school, he then listed all the female judges, the female name partners for large law firms in Nigeria, and so on and so forth. I left that conversation feeling as though I had made ants out of molehills. If the industry I had just joined has such a storied history of so many industrious women, surely it can’t be that bad. Of course, what was left out of the conversation were the women’s experiences. There was no mention of the double shift burden (to be the primary caretaker of the children while having a full-time career), of rampant sexual harassment which spans every industry in this country or the unrealistic expectations they had to deal with.
Because gaslighting is often seen as either lighthearted or not real, we often do not see it for the frighteningly effective weapon that it is. It is not normal to leave a conversation with your partner asking if you’re crazy, overreacting, or seeing things constantly. It’s not normal to feel as though you are being pushed to the edge of your sanity. The end goal is to make you smaller than you really are, to live in a state of apprehension, and to second guess yourself. No, you’re not crazy and do not ever let people tell you that you are.
By: Yoruba Mermaid
See also: The Myth of The Yoruba Demon