Set in the 1980s, a 2009 American drama film Precious follows the life of a 16-year-old Black girl, Precious. She lives in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City with her tyrannical mother, Mary, who is physically and psychologically violent with her daughter. Since early childhood, Precious is subjected to sexual abuse by her now-absent father, Carl, who fathers both of her children. The family is given Section 8 accommodation and lives off Mary’s unemployment welfare. The mother pretends that Precious’s first child, who has Down syndrome, lives with them to receive more benefits. After discovering her second pregnancy, Precious is transferred to an alternative school where she makes progress in basic literacy skills and has new hope of passing GEDs. Eventually, the main character opens up to a social worker about the abuse she endured, separates from her mother, and sets out on a path to a happier life. The movie received positive critical acclaim due to its psychological genius and astute representation of social malaise. This paper discusses the sexual, ethical, and clinical themes and issues found in the movie Precious.
Parenting and Child Development
From the very beginning of the movie, it becomes clear that Mary is not just an extremely flawed parent but actually downright abusive. She fails her daughter precious in many regards, from neglecting her education to not protecting her from the sexual advances from her father. When it comes to making a judgment about someone’s parenting adequacy and success, one needs to take a closer look at a child’s age-appropriate needs. A theory that may be useful for understanding this aspect is Erikson’s theory of developmental stages. According to the American-German psychologist, as a person matures, he or she goes through stages each of which is characterized by the primary conflict (Scheck, 2014). If the said conflict is resolved, a person is ready to evolve to the next stage.
In the movie, Precious is 16 years old, which, according to Erikson, puts her in the fifth stage of human development named “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” The major question that a person aged 12-18 is trying to answer during this time is “Who am I?”, and the main source of information is social relationships (Crain, 2015). It is common for young people starting puberty to be confused about themselves and how they fit in society. While parents and family members still exert influence over teenagers, the latter turn more to peers and popular culture for support in their pursuit of identity (Crain, 2015). Erikson argued that the desired outcome of the fifth stage is a strong sense of identity and fidelity that the psychologist defined as the ability to relate to others and form genuine relationships.
In the first few stages of development, it is parents’ responsibility to gently guide their children and help them evolve into their best version of themselves. Lacković-Grgin (2015) writes that at the “Identity vs. Role Confusion” stage, parents need to accept that their control is being pushed back. They should not try to impose themselves on children. Instead what is favorable is encouraging teenagers to explore, creating a safe bay at home that they can come back to at any time.
Unfortunately, Precious does not enjoy a nurturing environment at home that could help her form her identity. The mother’s attitude toward her daughter is a mix of intrusion and neglect. On the one hand, Mary controls who Precious is communicating with and does not let her make decisions independently. On the other hand, when the girl needs moral support, the mother rejects her or even blames her for her misfortunes. It is readily imaginable how such toxic behavior patterns may have set back Precious’ development. The assumption is confirmed by recent research: for instance, Waldman-Levi et al. (2015) report that children exposed to domestic violence are less likely to be playful and, hence, explorative. It is remarkable that Precious’s life only starts to change when she leaves her bubble and connects with others – peers, teachers, and social workers.
Continuing the theme of parenting, one may notice that Mary is not just an imperfect mother: she is pathological in her abuse. To better understand her personality, it could be compelling to turn to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, and specifically, his concept of narcissism. According to Freud, all people are born narcissistic: as their ego is being formed, it requires vast amounts of libidinal energy directed at itself (Freud, 1957). Children are naturally selfish and prioritize their own needs because they are vulnerable and seek others’ affection and involvement to survive. With time, individuals come to the realization that the world is not obliged to serve their every need. As they grow, they learn how to direct libidinal energy outwards, relate to others, and be altruistic, even if it means preserving less energy for their own selves. However, for some, such a redirection does not happen, and they develop what Freud refers to as secondary narcissism – unhealthy adult self-absorption (Freud, 1957).
In recent years, narcissism has gained a lot of traction in regards to its manifestation in interpersonal relationships and, especially, parent-child relationships. Fjelstad and McBride (2020) state that narcissistic parents lack many qualities required for healthy parenting: empathy, flexibility, and altruism. Instead, a parent with a narcissistic personality disorder conceals their self-loathe with grandiosity and seeks to remain in control for fear of losing others’ affection. Such a mother or a father fails to see their children as the independent human beings that they are and only treats them as extensions of themselves (Fjelstad & McBride, 2020). The viewer can notice narcissistic traits in Mary as she deprives Precious of compassion and reassurance. Because the mother cannot form a healthy relationship with her daughter, she turns to excessive control and violence.
Precious’s experiences growing up in a toxic household are consistent with those reported in modern psychological literature. Määttä and Uusiautti (2020) and Patrick et al. (2019) provide personal narratives of women growing up with narcissistic mothers and expose some common traits. For instance, the participants reported suffering from nullification when their mothers communicated that nothing the daughters did was important or sufficient. In Precious, Mary does not hesitate to tell Precious that “[she] should’ve aborted [her] motherf***ing a** ’cause [she] ain’t s***.” Another common experience was being seen as the mother’s continuum. The movie shows Precious standing up to Mary for the first time in her, and the latter is scandalized with the daughter trying to “look down at [her] like [she’s] a motherf***ing woman.” It is apparent that a mother like Mary denies her child self-agency, autonomy, and, ultimately, humanity.
Childhood Sexual Abuse
In Precious, Mary’s and Carl’s mistreatment of precious takes many forms, one of the most heinous of which is sexual abuse. The father has been raping Precious since she was a young teenager and impregnates her twice. In turn, the mother uses her daughter for sexual gratification by forcing her to perform oral sex. Later in the movie, as Precious is trying to pull her life together, she learns that she is HIV positive, which she likely contracted from her mother. The movie represents a problem that has been found to be more prevalent than expected. According to Rainn (2019) between 28 and 33% of women and 12 and 18% of men were sexually abused as children. The scholars note that sexual abuse takes many forms, but the most general definition may be formulated as “sexual abuse occurs whenever one person dominates and exploits another by means of sexual activity or suggestion (Maltz, 2002, p. 321).” Contrary to popular belief, the majority of sexually violent acts are committed not by strangers but by people who the child knows and loves – his or her own family members.
Childhood sexual abuse is disruptive to normal development and can hinder a child’s growth. Hall and Hall (2011) provide evidence from an ample body of recent literature suggesting that the consequences of such adverse childhood experiences persist into adulthood. In particular, it has been discovered that childhood sexual abuse puts victims at higher risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, sexual problems, and relationship problems. Precious is obviously morbidly obese, and her mother is enabling her to consume more food than her body needs. The girl’s unhealthy eating patterns may as well be qualified as a full-fledged eating disorder. Khazan (2015) explains that obesity may as well be a defense mechanism in rape victims. Some of them resort to binge-eating as the only available emotional outlet. For others, gaining weight takes on an additional symbolic meaning because by losing their shape, they hope to repel the abusers.
Another risk for childhood sexual abuse victims is the inability to form healthy relationships because they never had a good example at home. According to Barrios et al. (2015), any type of childhood abuse leads to an almost 220% increase in the probability of experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) later in life. Women are an especially vulnerable demographic because for them, surviving childhood abuse means 3.3-fold odds of suffering from IPV. Barrios et al. (2015) argue that such a correlation is not coincidental. When maltreated since childhood, individuals form an often subconscious belief of their unworthiness, which makes them avoid partners who would truly care about them. There is another interpretation that explains that the constant exposure to abusive behaviors in the family may normalize them for the victim. Hence, if they notice the same patterns in how their intimate partners treat them, they perceive it as something that is normal in close relationships.
In the movie, the viewer does not get to see Precious starting adult life and forming relationships with others. Though, what is already noticeable within the timeframe of the film is the girl’s distorted image of love and affection. For example, when Precious’s teacher tries to convince the student that other people love her, she becomes uneasy, if not scared. She responds with “Love ain’t done nothing for me – but beat me – rape me – call me an animal. Make me feel worthless. Make me sick.” Later, in the conversation with the social worker, Mary says that she always loved Precious and calls her names in the same breath. It is very likely that Precious has already drawn a parallel between being loved and being abused, which can affect her future romantic and sexual life.
Race and Sexuality
The experience of existing in a Black female body is shaped by the racial and gender dynamics of society. According to Threadcraft (2016), a body is a powerful cultural symbol that is loaded with cumulative meaning stemming from historical events. For Black women, this meaning was particularly formed in the era of American colonialism when the Transatlantic slave trade led to the establishment of two distinct “castes” in American society. Black women suffered from the same discrimination as Black men; however, there was an extra dimension to their diminished position. Benard (2016) explains that US racial politics led to a further distinction between Black and White women: the former was only good for “bedding” while the latter deserved to be “wedded.” Black women were seen as more biological, primitive, and corporeal, and, consequently, they were not just sexually seductive but dirty and evil. Juxtaposed is the image of a “passionless” White lady who is chaste and free from sexual urges.
Admittedly, today in Western countries, there is a greater awareness of female sexuality – it is no longer policed or pathologized to the same degree as it used to in the times of colonialism. However, as argued by Benard (2016), racial and sexual disbalance did not disappear but evolved to take on new forms. In particular, Benard (2016) points out that White women are given space to explore their sexuality as a subset of their personality. In contrast, Black women are defined “by their sexuality and their sexuality,” thus, ignoring their humanity. Rosenthal and Lobel (2017) state that such interpretation of Black womanhood falls under the stereotype of “jezebel,” a promiscuous sexual siren who is denied any other roles.
This phenomenon can be observed in the movie Precious: the main character is objectified by both her mother and father. They do not take her personal wishes or aspirations into account but exploit her body. What is more, Precious ends up being shamed for the sexual acts she did not consent to. For instance, Mary accuses her of being an evil seductress who was responsible for Carl leaving the family. This reaction is consistent with findings made by Rosenthal and Lobel (2017). They show that individuals who believe in stereotypes about particular groups of people are less capable of empathy and altruism toward them. These instances illustrate the point that Precious’s existence in a Black female body is accompanied by labeling, objectification, and victim-blaming.
The 2009 Precious is a film that raises plenty of sexual and ethical topics. It allows the viewer to gain an insight into the world of a young Black girl whose environment is disruptive to her psychological and physical development. At the stage when Precious is supposed to be enjoying the exploration and looking for her identity, she is controlled and abused by her mother. Mary, the mother, shows symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder due to her lack of sympathy, flexibility, sense of grandiosity, and self-absorption. As a victim of child sexual abuse, Precious develops a wrong image of love and soothes herself with binge-eating. Her race adds an extra dimension to the complexity of her situation as Black women in the United States have been historically objectified and sexualized in a disempowering way.
Surviving child sexual abuse has a host of psychological, neurobiological, and clinical consequences. The complexity of the trauma makes it extremely difficult to settle on a single course of therapy that would be the most beneficial for the client (Lalor & McElvaney, 2010). Nemeroff (2016) reports that early life stress (ELS) makes individuals less responsive to both pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy or, at the very least, results in a longer time to remission. The unresponsiveness to medication is supported by the evidence from the study by Klein et al. (2009) who found antidepressants such as sertraline, escitalopram, bupropion, venlafaxine, or mirtazapine ineffective in helping child sexual abuse survivors. In addition, Barbe et al. (2004) showed that this category of psychotherapy clients reacts poorly to cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) that focuses on habits and actions rather than internal mental processes.
In Precious’s case, it would make sense to start with Gestalt (from German “organized whole”) therapy that helps clients to become grounded in reality, gain more self-awareness, and give expression to long-repressed feelings (Brownell, 2019). From the movie, it is unclear what kind of sexual problems Precious might have developed or will develop in the future. However, based on the girl’s perception of human relationships, she is likely to fear intimacy because, for her, love may equal violence and abuse. In child sexual abuse survivors, fear of intimacy often manifests itself in seeing sex as an obligation and not shared pleasure as well as feelings of anger, disgust, and guilt when becoming physically close with someone (Rohner et al., 2019). From the standpoint of Gestalt therapy, Precious has an open “gestalt” because her desire to be loved and appreciated in her home environment was not fulfilled. Without therapy, the client will either feel the compulsion to repeat or abstain altogether, never forming genuine relationships with others.
When working with a client such as Precious, it is important not to put excessive emphasis on her past. While venting may be helpful in the short term, reminiscing past events is unlikely to solve the client’s problems that are very much present and affecting her life right now. In Gestalt therapy, the past is only important insofar as it affects the present (Brownell, 2019). With the help of a therapist, Precious needs to focus on her existing resources and connection and understand how she could improve her life. The therapist might want to work through the definitions of love and intimacy with the client to expose contradictions and limiting beliefs stemming from childhood abuse. Precious’s success in finding friends and a support network may only ground her in her conviction that she is loved.
The efficiency of gestalt therapy largely depends on the quality of the client-therapist relationship. For this reason, the therapist needs to be extremely careful in approaching sensitive topics and listen closely rather than impose. He or she needs to be trained in multicultural communication and have a clear understanding of race and sex as contributing factors to understand Precious. Lastly, there are aspects of Precious’s life such as her obesity, HIV status, and body image that cannot be left out of therapeutic communication.
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