I wrote a couple of posts about this a long time ago…how romance in fiction often glamorizes abusive behavior from one or both partners in a relationship, and reinforces a set of expectations about what will earn a person a relationship (particularly women). But today, I thought I’d try and get back to writing more of what I started the blog to write about in the first place. So here I go.
A lot of ‘romantic’ story lines in popular films depict behavior that’s not romance.
Like a lot of us, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year at home, watching media on streaming services and old DVDs. And I haven’t watched a lot of romantic comedies, but I’ve seen a few, obviously (we’ve all been stuck inside a long time, amirite?). But there are often ‘romance’ subplots even in action movies, or action comedies, and certainly in dramas that do this same type of stuff. One repeated trope that’s always bothered me is The Makeover.
Starting with what I’m going to call the ‘original’ makeover story, Pygmalion (popularized and edited a bit to become the musical My Fair Lady), this story is basically changing a woman’s appearance (and sometimes also personality) to make her more universally accepted as attractive and/or ‘respectable.’ Women with glasses always have to go to contact lenses. Women who dress modestly always need to show more form/skin. Women who DON’T dress modestly need to clean up their act. Women who don’t put a lot of ‘effort’ into their appearance had better start. If you’re a bright, sunny type of gal, you need to be darker and more sophisticated. If you’re a ‘dark’ sort of lady to begin with, cheer up and smile for Pete’s sake. It’s almost like…whatever you are…change it for that guy (or girl…the makeovers in Clueless and The Princess Diaries are to please other women). And then…only AFTER the overhaul…that’s when you find happiness with a partner. Because even in the films where the makeover was for another woman, or not for a specific guy, no guy liked her ‘as is,’ pre-makeover. She was a nerd/tomboy/prostitute/goth girl/goody-two-shoes/some weird combination of this shit…which was clearly unappealing. But after the makeover? Happily Ever After.
But that’s not romance.
Romance would be when someone falls for that girl/woman as WHO SHE NATURALLY IS.
I know, I know. The whole point of The Makeover is that She Was Always The Pretty/Respectable Leading Lady…we just had to edit out all the parts that weren’t Really Her; you know…The Real Her; Who Happens To Be Exactly What the Male Lead Wants Now That She’s Been Properly Edited.
There’s nothing wrong with self improvement. We all need it. We could all be working on empathy or learning how to speak another language or play an instrument or chess or reading more books or getting stronger or something. And changing one’s appearance, even for the sole purpose of aesthetics, is totally fine. Get some contacts and heels and a form fitting red dress if you wanna! Color your hair and learn how to do a pouty lip and winged liner! Shit, we’re all still trapped in the house…might be fun to experiment with your look! But if a person doesn’t want to do that kind of thing (Guys? You too. Seriously. Don’t dehydrate yourself and lift weights 5 hours a day and give up sugar for the rest of your life for the abs if that’s not what YOU want.)? They shouldn’t have to. A person who really loves you? Is going to love the real you. The REAL real you. No makeover needed.
(featured stills from The Breakfast Club, Grease, She’s All That, Miss Congeniality, The Princess Diaries, Pretty Woman, and Clueless…but there are SO many more examples of this, it’s kind of depressing.)
And then there’s the even more disturbing trend, particularly in movies from my youth: perpetuating the narrative that men can use emotional and situational manipulation, deception, and even extortion to get women they desire, and that taking what they desire from women is fine without her informed consent. That harassment and assault and even rape are such normal and accepted tools of ‘romance,’ they’re used regularly in lighthearted comedies. Here…some examples.
In Revenge of the Nerds, Lewis is a rapist. When he hooks up with Betty? She thinks she’s consenting to someone else. Just because he’s a nerd and supposed to be the hero of the piece doesn’t make that okay. That’s not romance. That’s rape. No matter how much the audience is supposed to want the nerd to get the girl, or the girl to see the romantic potential in the unconventional hero…it’s still *rape.*
In Back to the Future, Marty plans to assault Lorraine so George (who is a voyeur! which is also a consent violation and not ever okay!) can save the day. Now, Biff actually DOES assault Lorraine and George DOES save the day, and Lorraine and George end up together like we’re all supposed to want and all, but…I mean…Marty still planned an assault to manipulate a woman’s affections. SHE wouldn’t know Marty’s assault, if it went as planned, was not ‘real.’ Again…that’s not romance. That’s assault; whether it’s Marty’s well-intended ‘pretending’ to save his parents’ future marriage and his own ass, or it’s Biff just being a shitbag. We (rightfully) see Biff as the bad guy. But…he’s not the only consent violator in the story. BOTH McFly’s are too.
In Sixteen Candles, Jake Ryan is our hero…and Farmer Ted is supposed to sort of be a secondary hero…we’re rooting for these guys, right? They both seem to care for and respect Samantha (our heroine). But they are both pretty callous about Caroline, who I guess we’re supposed to see as a villain? She is pretty selfish and wrecks Jake’s house with a huge party, but that still doesn’t justify date rape. Jake actually says he could, ‘violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.’ And we are supposed to find him extra heroic and dreamy because he DOESN’T rape his girlfriend (this time). But he DOES ‘give her’ to Farmer Ted and tells him to ‘have fun.’ Gross. That’s not romance. That’s rape. Romantic heroes (or secondary heroes) shouldn’t be rapists. I can’t believe that’s even a sentence I’m typing, but there you go.
And then entire premise of the film Can’t Buy Me Love is Ronald paying off a debt and covering up a secret to get Cindy to be his girlfriend for a period of time, at the end of which, she falls in actual love with him, of course. She sees what a ‘nice guy’ he is. But that’s not romance. That’s deception and manipulation and blackmail and quid pro quo harassment. ‘I did this for you; now you have to do this for me…you OWE me (your affection and commitment and access to your time and body).’
I enjoyed watching some of these films. I love John Hughes films, despite their faults, and I love Back to the Future. But I think it’s important to point out that they still forward these harmful constructs of what constitutes ‘romance.’ When I write, I make purposed effort to make sure my heroes don’t require a makeover of a woman’s natural appearance or personality/interests to pursue or care for her, and I make a purposed effort to show my heroes revering informed consent.
If you’d like to try reading some of my romances, my short work can be found here, and my published novels can be purchased/read here. And if you want to try some romance in film that I can love wholeheartedly without picking out these elements…
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- Return to Me
- My Big Fat Greek Wedding
- Always Be My Maybe
- Coming to America
- Ghostbusters (yes, really)
- Bull Durham
- Pride and Prejudice
- Benny & Joon
- Better Off Dead
- Love and Basketball
- Four Weddings and a Funeral
- Say Anything
- Groundhog Day
- The Princess Bride
- Love, Simon
- The Last Holiday
Thanks to everyone who still reads the things I write.