We love romances for their fateful meet-cutes, awkward family situations, and epic confessions of love. The more implausible a plot, the more we adore it. We, too, wonder if we could find true love at a coffee shop or unlock our true selves in a relationship.
And yet, romances, especially romantic comedies, rely upon conventions and archetypes that reflect a very harmful ideal. Consider, for example, the classic romantic moments of cinema:
- In The Princess Bride, Wesley has been away from Buttercup for years, and when he sees her again, makes her fear for her safety before finally uttering the words “as you wish” as he tumbles down the hill.
- In Notting Hill, Anna strings William along for months before finally telling him she’s just a girl asking him to love her.
- In Forrest Gump, Jenny swings from one extreme to the other in how she treats Forrest.
- In Bridget Jones’ Diary, Mark regularly mocks and ignores Bridget before coming to her house, finding her diary, and storming out, only to let on after she panics that he simply walked out without a word to buy her a new diary. Rude.
- Meanwhile, teen vampire dramas such as Buffy and Twilight feature relationships that are portrayed as cosmically ordained and “true” between creatures that have lived for decades, even centuries, and underage girls.
- And in Love Actually, most of the romance occurs outside of conversation and within a workplace or academic relationship. Ew.
Of course, not all romantic comedies normalize such relationships. There’s Something About Mary pretty clearly condemns the men obsessed with Mary. (All the same, enjoy this thriller version in the mini-documentary here.) The Break-Up highlights the real problems in the main characters’ relationship and shows Vince Vaughn’s character making a change in his life for the better — without getting the girl.
But overall, romantic movies, especially romcoms, portray unhealthy behaviors and relationship dynamics in a positive light. Now before you go and say, “It’s just a movie,” consider that we are socialized by the movies (read more here) even if we later comprehend them to be “fake.” For example, princess ideals are internalized by young female viewers. And in fact, media effects research shows that media consumption has a measurable effect on attitudes and behaviors even if the consumer is aware that it’s fictional or fake. The ability to distinguish between the manufactured and reality begins at a young age, and so does our tendency to use media to enforce or contextualize what we’re observing in our society. In the case of romantic movies or romcoms, viewing them can enforce social myths held by the viewer.
Stalking. The word “stalking” may be casually tossed around by misogynistic men or with the prefix “Facebook,” but it’s a seriously, sometimes deadly behavior that’s hugely illegal. And yet it’s romanticized in movies such as Major League, Sleepless in Seattle, and Love Actually (here is a list of examples) A lot of listicles and research studies have been done on this topic and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel by rehashing why these romantic scenes are problematic. Instead, I’d like to ask why we find them romantic. Here are some “romantic” gestures that can be indicative of dangerous stalking:
- Finding out where the target lives and works in order to check up on him or her or arrange a “chance encounter” (Sleepless in Seattle)
- Sending messages to her coworkers, boss, friends, etc to cause a change in her schedule or activities that suits the pursuer (27 Dresses)
- Leaving gifts at his or her door or desk so that she “thinks of you”
These same behaviors are portrayed in thriller films without romanticization. But there is a deeper distinction, beyond differences in music and cinematography. First of all, note the genders of the stalking characters in the films listed in the links above. The romantic stalkers are largely men, while the stalkers in The Crush and Fatal Attraction are women. In the few films with female stalkers, the behavior is clearly identified as such and the films tend to be directed as thrillers; the very few comedic films featuring female stalkers are so off-putting to viewers that they win Razzies.
Stalking is considered romantic because it’s supposedly the extreme end of obsession with and devotion to a woman, so much so that the man is risking social embarrassment or, you know, arrest, in order to be with his love. And yet for the stakes to be that high, the woman usually has to be completely unavailable, whether dating or engaged to someone else or in hyper sleep. Romanticizing a man’s obsession with a woman enforces societal ideas that a man is entitled to the chase, while if a woman relentlessly purses a man, she’s portrayed as sick or desperate, presumably because she should merely open her heart to a pursuer rather than taking matters into her own hands.
Persistence. “No” means “maybe later,” according to pop culture. Whether it’s through slaying evil exes or emailing all the greatest love poems, it’s apparently enough to turn the coldest of female hearts warm toward the persistent gentleman. Naturally, these stories feed into “nice guy mythology,” that treating a woman well, giving her gifts and thoughtful gestures, and defending her honor will make her fall in love with you. This mythology is so powerful that the flower, chocolate, and diamond industry have all capitalized on it. Love, apparently, can be bought.
Unfortunately, it’s not true. By sheer logic alone, it’s unfathomable. People are nice to each other all the time, and a woman might receive hundreds of thoughtful gestures from hundreds of men. She can’t love all of them. To resolve this dissonance, some men believe that persistence is key. And in movies like Say Anything, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Titanic, persistence eventually wears down a woman’s defenses. And apparently, those defenses are the antidote to automatic love toward the pursuer.
Deception. In some jurisdictions, sexual contact under fraudulent circumstances or deception is considered rape. By extension, any romantic entanglement could be considered morally questionable and legally problematic. And yet countless romances feature the male protagonist assuming a false identity (Revenge of the Nerds, Down with Love), planting false memories (Overboard), or pursuing a woman based on a bet (10 Things I Hate About You, My Fair Lady, She’s All That). Often, this construction involves the man initially regarding the woman with disgust, then slowly falling in love with her. This is the inversion effect: when a character’s attitude toward something does a 180, the viewer is able to resolve their own negative feelings. It also enforces powerful ideals in our culture that encourage us to “see the best in people” and “think positive.”
Unfortunately, this plot construction also relies upon a false essentialism, which is also demonstrated by romantic comedies’ tendency to have people fall in love while barely speaking to each other: that people are essentially one way, and that there is a “one” or “soulmate” for them, conversation and trust be damned. According to this philosophy, people are fundamentally X or Y, and so their relationships to each other are based on these fundamentals. But stripping relationships of their context doesn’t work. As soon as any of these women realized that they didn’t actually know the person they were “falling for,” they would have dissolved their feelings and taken off. So the real message here is that women are superficial and don’t care about genuine connection.
Manipulation. This is the most common toxic behavior romanticized in film, and it often appears among so-called star-crossed lovers (which aren’t real — see my note above regarding essentialism). From Grease to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Notebook, romantic leads play games with their love interests, arrange people and things to make them fall for them, and outright lie to them. The notion that romance involves lying to one’s love, making them feel bad about themselves, sharing secrets or spreading rumors among friends, and other manipulative actions is so deeply embedded in pop culture, it makes people feel that their relationship isn’t good without these low-key “crimes of passion.”
Many people mistake mutual abuse, also called situational couple violence, for passion. Often, in both movies and real life, the conflict is resolved through sex, and so the couple becomes somewhat addicted to that dynamic (see Buffy and Spike as an example). Raised tempers, aggravation, and even physical assault are portrayed as love so strong that it cannot be contained.
Not to worry — not all romantic movies are like this. In fact, quite a few portray relationships, even complicated ones, in a healthy way. Unfortunately, they’re receiving neither the mantle of “romcom” nor the enormous marketing effort that parallels that of the aforementioned Valentine’s Day industries. What does it say about our society that we pump so much energy and focus into unrealistic, sometimes toxic ideals about romance? Why is it not enough to be loved without the grand gestures? But that’s a topic for another essay.
Rachel Wayne is a writer based in Gainesville, Florida, USA. She received her Master’s in Visual Anthropology and Film Studies; her thesis was on the relationship between the media and interpersonal violence. She writes about society, culture, film, politics, feminism, and entrepreneurship.