I’m not really a regular viewer of romantic movies as a genre (for arguments sake, a movie that sells itself as a love story, be it dramatic or comic); I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in theatres alone (which is typically how I see movies) and I don’t think I’ve seen more than maybe four or five in theatres in my life. I do, however, somehow wind up seeing a lot of them at home. Draw your own conclusions about why that is, but I generally find that they do have a certain escapist appeal. When they’re done right, you’ll witness clever dialogue and exceptional on-screen chemistry. When done wrong, however, you’ll realize how little Hollywood appears to know about romance. And when you spend a good amount of time mulling it over, it becomes clear that these tropes seem to be sending out some rather bizarre (and maybe even alarming) messages about true love.
1. Not being killed by bad guys gets you chicks
One thing about action movies that’s always bugged me is the way they try to tack on a love story. I’m not really an expert on counter-terrorism, and while I’m sure it’s impressive to a lot of women, but it seems like most people involved in fighting off bad guys of any stripe should really only be concerned with the task at hand. Logistically and realistically, there’s a lot about “save the day, get the girl” that doesn’t really work, make sense or even seem practical. But in the world of action movies, suspension of disbelief is key. What annoys me about this one is that it’s usually just bad writing; sometimes distractingly bad. In Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock fall in love by facing and surviving danger and little else. It’s a fairly ridiculous (but enjoyable) action movie that probably deserves some credit for both making Reeves and Bullock’s eventual romance somewhat believable (when not talking about how awful it is to be on a bus with a bomb, they do banter and flirt a fair bit), but for addressing this issue head-on by declaring that “relationships based on intense experiences never work” many times.
So this has been a known ridiculous plot device for over 15 years, yet it persists. In Transformers (sort of my go-to example for most types of silliness in film), by virtue of not being killed by giant fighting robots (from outer space!), Shia LeBeouf is transformed from the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox tolerates to the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox loves without much happening in between aside from the aforementioned averted death-by-robot. My understanding of the fairer sex is by no means encyclopedic, but if not dying from explosions was all it took to have women fall in love with you, I would have had a very different social life in college.
2. Men never have to settle
Actors and actresses are, at least as far as Hollywood goes, a pretty good-looking bunch. So naturally, complaints about “only pretty people fall in love in the movies!” are a little misguided. However, there’s a fairly high number of “everyman” actors, such as Tom Hanks, Jack Black, Seth Rogen and Vince Vaughn. While these men are by no means “ugly”, they aren’t, to the best of my knowledge, sex symbols. And when they appear in romantic roles, they’re generally romancing women who could be considered as such. An obvious example of this is Knocked Up, where Rogen romances the statuesque Katherine Heigl despite it being against the odds. Couples Retreat features this in spades; Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Faizon Love and Jon Favreau are all married or attached to women significantly younger and more attractive than they are.
Since most filmmakers are male and not conventionally attractive, I suppose there’s a certain degree of wish fulfillment going on, but there’s virtually no female equivalent to this. I had difficulty naming unconventionally attractive actresses who appear in romantic roles, and I honestly can’t think of any movie where a woman romances a man who is clearly out of her league. I suppose Bridget Jones would qualify (thanks to the normally attractive Renee Zelwegger gaining weight for the part), but that’s one example against the countless examples of chubby guys with inexplicably attractive spouses. So with those numbers in mind, and if Hollywood is to be believed, men can always land the perfect ten if they’re lucky and play their cards right, but women really only have the option of slumming it.
3. Lonely people need extraordinary partners to make them believe in love again
Nathan Rabin of the AV Club famously coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe the sort of woman who appears as the leading lady in romantic films with a male protagonist. She’s impulsive, quirky, probably a little unstable, quirky, intellectual, quirky, and just what the lovelorn male lead needs to believe in love (or anything at all) again. While it seems like only yesterday that Natalie Portman stole our hearts with her vintage motorcycles and Shins mixtapes in Garden State, in film, this is almost as old as technicolor. Remember when an impulsive Austrian nun stole the heart of a widowed father with assorted types of song and dance? The problem called Maria would later be diagnosed as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
I feel that there’s a male equivalent, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on a name. The Sensitive Cowboy Dream Boy? The Heartfelt Rebel Dream Boy? The Matthew McConaughey? In any case, if your protagonist is a woman, odds are, it’s not a sensible man with sterling character and a nice wardrobe who wins the day. It’s an unshaven rogue with abs of steel who consistently rubs you the wrong way but is inexplicably charming and worth falling in love with. He’s usually played by Matthew McConaughey, but he showed up in The Ugly Truth, Leap Year, and countless others just in the last year played by someone else. Since again most writers and filmmakers are male (and probably look more like me than Gerard Butler), this might not be wish fulfillment and might just be lazy writing (or a complete misunderstanding of the opposite sex). But I digress…
In both the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and (until a better name comes to me) the Matthew McConaughey archetype, the message is clear: you don’t need someone who shares your views and values or provides mutual support and affection, you need someone who is unpredictable and zany to show you how to feel again by driving you crazy by virtue of being obnoxious (though oddly charming) or acting out domestic fantasies in Ikea because life is too short not to, gosh darn it.
It seems like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at least is now ripe for deconstruction, however. (500) Days of Summer took a perverse pleasure in pinpointing both the potential downfalls of romance with the charmingly impulsive and the lack of emotional maturity that plagues the men who stop thinking rationally once they realize that Zooey Deschanel loves The Smiths as much as they do.
4. Fate excuses anything
A common theme in romantic movies is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Be it a career, an ocean or two between them, a language barrier, or most commonly, a pre-existing relationship, there’s always something stopping our hero and heroine from living happily ever after. Sometimes this is portrayed as a test of the strength of their bond. Sometimes it’s a means of proving how truly in love they are. And sometimes it’s a test of character that they fail miserably. And when it is, the movie won’t recognize that.
This is most common when the obstacle is a pre-existing relationship. In the world of the romantic comedy, true love is true love and following your heart means you’re always right. It’s a little odd that nobody in romantic comedies ever thinks that someone willing to drop everything, cancel a wedding or two, break the heart of their current partner and potentially alienate friends and family might not be entirely trustworthy. Sure, these films might show characters agonizing over the decisions, but they always choose the path of most destruction and it never raises a red flag.
Perhaps someday there will be a film following Bill Pullman, Dermott Mulroney, Dylan McDermott and all the other straw-fiances from the last 20 years of romantic comedies as they commiserate about being left with the burden of telling 300+ wedding guests that their brides to be left them for Matthew McConaughey at the last minute, slowly pay off the non-refundable deposits made at those exclusive reception halls, and play wingman to each other, slowly rebuilding their collective self confidence one depressing night on the town at a time. But until then, it seems as though true love means never having to say you’re sorry.
5. Opposites attract. Always.
They don’t. I’ve tried. Too many times.
I will concede that a certain degree of tension and spark can be healthy in a relationship, but the usual song and dance is that the protagonists in a romantic comedy are often adversaries who treat the other with ambivalence more than affection. This is not the behaviour of adults who seek companionship, it’s the behaviour of an eight-year old boy who thinks Sally has cute pigtails but doesn’t quite understand why.
At worst, this cliche is dumb but harmless. And honestly, with the right pairing of actors, it can be a lot of fun to watch. But all the same, I keep hoping a background character will call them out on this and tell them that if they have to cover their feelings this way, they’re probably not ready for a relationship with smooching and other grown-up things like mutual funds and deciding to get a tankless water heater.
Or better yet, the recognition that sometimes people act like they don’t like each other because they actually don’t like each other.