What exactly is charisma? People use the word all the time to describe film stars, musicians, political leaders and revolutionaries. It’s a ‘compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.’ It can be someone who holds your attention with a smile or a few carefully chosen words. I once had the good fortune to meet Irish author Roddy Doyle, the perfect exponent of it. He speaks to you like you are the only person in the room, eyes sparkling, quiet humour bouncing off his tongue. Just for you. That’s the best of it.
But what of the other side of charisma? When charm is part of a sociopathic character set that allows someone to reel devotees in, unwittingly, into their web of abuse and keep them coming back for more? What of those charismatic dictators in history who’ve managed to convince entire countries to carry out evil deeds in their name?
I thought a lot about this subject after going to see the movie Whiplash at the cinema, and having a profound response to the bullying in the movie. Quite rightly, JK Simmons won an Oscar for brilliantly playing a charismatic music teacher whose idea of nurturing his students is to take them to breaking point. ‘Good job’ are the worst two words you can say to anyone, he says in the movie. But for me, they are the best.
What really struck me about this movie was the divide in audience reaction to it. It took me a while to process what I’d just experienced: that the astonishing levels of bullying in the movie were entertaining to the audience I was sitting with, who laughed when the sociopathic teacher began yet another hideous round of cruelty with his student. When the treatment forces the young drummer, played by Miles Teller, to raise his game, I was surprised that people found it empowering and cheered him on. I simply saw someone who was falling under the spell of so-called ‘charisma’, who was so desperate for validation that he kept going back for more. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Stockholm Syndrome.
When I came out of the movie I felt angry that I had appeared to watch a glorification of bullying that had audiences laughing and feeling inspired at the end. I railed against it on social media and found reviews that had it billed as a ‘dark comedy’. I couldn’t, and still don’t, see the funny side. Then I found a review that billed it as “Stockholm Syndrome set to a killer beat.” Yes – that’s it, I thought. The movie is about that very dynamic – the way that a person, especially a young, impressionable one, can be captivated by the charisma of an older, allegedly wiser one. Once I saw it through that lens, I felt much more able to appreciate the brilliance of the movie and the acting in it.
But what of those who disagreed with me? Largely these were men, used to a culture based on levels of abuse. It didn’t surprise me that some of them were public schoolboys, whose entire lives had been built on structures of abusive relationships. To some, that lives on in the form of ‘banter’ – I used to try and defend my ex-husband against the taunts of his friends until he took me to one side and told me it’s just how things are between them. They had horrible nicknames for each other, and took the piss out of each other relentlessly. I felt aggrieved on his behalf, but it was all part of the nature of straight male relationships, apparently. Lads and bantz.
After Whiplash, a number of guys asked me if it was really bullying if the music student wanted the abuse in order to make him a better drummer? Of course it bloody is, guys. Open your eyes. The student was going back for more because he was under the thrall of his abuser, not objectively seeking out a teacher who would take him to the very edge of existence.
It really does disturb me, the fact that a number of my acquaintances found the movie inspiring and empowering. It inspired nothing but loathing for the abuser in my mind, and pity for the victim, however great he became at drumming. Surely this isn’t the only way to achieve creative greatness – are we saying we can only achieve it if someone else is pushing us beyond our boundaries? I’d rather achieve it on my own, thanks.
I know that in this situation that I would just get my things and walk away. I wouldn’t try and go back to impress my abuser, I’d simply never look in his ‘charismatic’ eyes ever again. Why would you want to impress someone like that? These are simply deeply insecure people who have mastered a way of exacting revenge for that on others. I see it for what it is and I’m very glad I do.
I’ve watched people look into the eyes of would-be dictators and crave their attention and it makes me very sad. What’s inspiring and empowering is watching someone extract themselves from that situation, if they can. So I didn’t cheer at the end of Whiplash, I simply felt loathing and pity. I am genuinely interested in other people’s reactions to it, so do comment away.