Lifetime’s Disturbing Obsession With Kidnapped Women

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This month, Lifetime is airing three different movies about women who get kidnapped. Last week was Cleveland Abduction, tomorrow night is the premiere of Stockholm, Pennsylvania, and later this month (May 23) the network will air Kidnapped: The Hannah Anderson Story. The movies vary in quality — though none are especially memorable, as is Lifetime’s way — but each remarks on Lifetime’s ongoing and increasingly unsettling obsession with kidnapped women.

Lifetime has a long history with kidnap-centric movies. In 2009, James Van Der Beek kidnapped a young girl in Taken in Broad Daylight, only to be caught by LeVar Burton. A pre-Empire Taraji P. Henson starred in 2011’s Taken From Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story, while Moira Kelly became obsessed with her daughter’s abduction in Taken Back: Finding Haley. 2012’s Abducted: The Carlina White Story will re-air on Saturday night.

It isn’t hard to figure out why Lifetime insists on unleashing a new kidnapping movie every once in a while. For one thing, it’s a network that prides itself on sensationalized “based on a true story” movies, and especially ones that feature some sort of damsel in distress — provided that she remains alive in the end. Eighty-five minutes of low-budget violence, child abuse, rape, and kidnapping are OK if they’re followed by five minutes of a triumphant (but occasionally bloody and bruised) woman lifting her hands to the sky, or whatever. (Bonus points if we get a little epilogue of her in a snazzy power suit, testifying against her captor in court.) This is a network that simultaneously knocks down and empowers women, often in a disgusting but engrossing way. The addictiveness is the worst part about Lifetime: knowing that each movie is worse than last but being unable to stop watching them anyway.

That’s the other reason: As long as Lifetime keeps airing captive-women movies, we’ll keep watching them. We have come to accept this flaw in our own and others’ pop-cultural tastes; we all know Lifetime is terrible, but we rarely discourage anyone from watching because we’ve all fallen prey to some hyperbolically titled movie on a Saturday night. It’s uncomfortable, the curious way that we find entertainment in what were surely the worst days of someone’s life — but, again, it’s OK because we already know the outcome. We know that the woman was rescued eventually. Kidnapping narratives are popular — as are, unfortunately, narratives in which men inflict unspeakable suffering upon women. Take Lifetime’s first entrant this month: Cleveland Abduction.

Easily the most sensational and disturbing of the three films, Cleveland Abduction (which, tellingly, is the only one that’s a true Lifetime Original Movie) is based on Ariel Castro’s kidnapping of three women, one of whom he impregnated; that daughter was raised in captivity, too. The movie is purposely horrifying, starting with Castro (Raymond Cruz, Breaking Bad) kidnapping Michelle Knight (Taryn Manning, Orange Is the New Black), painfully tying her up and leaving her dangling from the ceiling. We watch her get tossed around, piss herself, get raped — numerous times — before he does the same to two other women. It’s unflinching and, at times, it seems likely that its creators wanted to go even further but were stifled by network regulations.

As if the physical horror weren’t enough, the movie makes sure to remark on the heartbreak Michelle suffers over knowing, or rather not knowing, her young son — and to repeatedly remind us that no one is looking for her. The other captives (who are younger teens) have their families on alert and hold candlelight vigils; Knight was assumed to have gone on the run to avoid a child custody hearing, and her existence, it seems, quickly forgotten about. When the women are rescued, the story continues to follow Knight’s rocky recovery, and particularly the fact that her son’s adoptive parents won’t let Knight meet him or even tell her what his name is now.

Stockholm, Pennsylvania, the only movie not based on a true story, is somewhat better; it actually premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It succeeds by focusing more on the period of readjustment after a kidnapping, rather than the horrors of the actual time spent in captivity. Captured at age four, Leanne/Leia (Saoirse Ronan) returns to her old life in her early 20s, after spending nearly two decades in a basement with no idea how the outside world works. Her parents don’t feel like her parents (“Is it OK if we stop hugging?” she asks them at one point, as if she’s being hugged by a stranger), and she has no recollection of the world outside of her abductor’s (Jason Isaacs) basement. In fact, she wants to reunite with him because he’s closer to a father than her father is.

It’s an interesting story: Ronan’s character moves from one prison to another, as her mother (Cynthia Nixon) struggles with reconnecting and eventually confines her to her room. But it loses strength as it progresses. Though it starts off compelling, the movie eventually flips into a tone-deaf mess of ideas about parenting, therapy, familial relationships, and psychological trauma (particularly the titular Stockholm Syndrome), all of which get muted to allow for a “thriller” atmosphere that ruins any integrity the film once had.

Finally, later this month, there’s Kidnapped: The Hannah Anderson Story (the most Lifetime-y title of the bunch). Based on a real case, Kidnapped features the most inventive storytelling. It begins in medias res, with Hannah (Jessica Amlee) and her abductor, old family friend James (Scott Patterson), in the woods during a shootout with FBI agents. From there, the movie follows Hannah’s return to her father (James killed her mother, little brother, and a dog) and her readjustment. It’s nowhere near as intense as Leanne’s in Stockholm — Hannah spent only a few days in captivity — but she faces entirely different problems. Because she knew her captor, and because of their strange relationship, the media had begun speculating that perhaps Hannah wasn’t a victim; she was a “Lolita,” or an accomplice in the murder of her family.

In multiple flashbacks, we get both the past and the present, as Hannah tells her story on television in order to clear the air and we see her abduction from the beginning, when James confesses his love for her on a vacation. Unfortunately, all of these stylistic choices are entirely ineffective, because the writing is so shoddy. The movie goes unnecessarily heavy on the social media references (“You’ve gotta knock it off with the selfies,” her dad informs her at one point after her return) and has a poorly directed flair for the dramatic (Hannah drowsily crawls out the car door and toward two incredibly oblivious police officers as James watches from inside a store, racing against the clock when — oh no! — the cashier’s register jams and it takes forever to get his change). It is trying so hard to be suspenseful that it swings wildly to the other side, making a true — and, to be fair, ultimately uplifting story about a strong teenage girl — well, boring to watch. This is Lifetime’s biggest problem with these captivity narratives: The network either goes too far and sensationalizes a story to the point of insensitivity or it falls back on lackluster writing and overdone “thrilling” scenes that aren’t thrilling at all.

But then again, should watching the kidnapping and suffering of a woman in captivity be a “thrilling” experience? Lifetime’s inherent conflict will always be that it actively tries to tell women’s stories (which television needs!) but does so in a way that often strips the stories of their power in order to make them perversely entertaining. There’s certainly something to be said about kidnapping victims reclaiming their voices and telling their stories on their own terms (just browse the memoir section of any bookstore). It’s too bad Lifetime’s “based on a true story” model seems to strip these voices away in an attempt to mimic sensational television tabloid journalism.