The Dark Side of Romance in Movies
The climate for romantic movies is undergoing a huge shift. With the #MeToo movement in full swing, and with many examples of abuse coming from the movie industry itself, people are starting to re-evaluate the ways male and female characters have been portrayed in romantic situations.
For example, Molly Ringwald recently wrote an article in the New Yorker titled “What About the Breakfast Club?: Revisiting the movies of my youth in the age of #MeToo.” In this article, she recounts watching 1985’s The Breakfast Club with her daughter. In one scene, there is an implied sexual assault by the teenage character John Bender against Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire. John is hiding from the teacher under the table at which she is sitting. He sticks his head between her legs, and she angrily squeezes her legs shut. After the teacher leaves and John emerges, she angrily hits him and swears at him. Ringwald’s daughter, too young to get the reference, does not explore this detail, but Ringwald found she could not forget it. She notes in the article, “If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic, and I believe that they are, it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes.” As she discusses the films of her time and how the director Hughes was successful largely due to his unique portrayal of teenagers, even focusing on female characters, she can’t help but observe how Bender’s character acted towards Claire. She states, “When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt, calling her “pathetic,” mocking her as “Queenie.” Despite this behavior and his glaring lack of apology, “he gets the girl in the end.”
With this in mind, reviewing many romantic comedies over the years highlights a pattern of behavior that is deemed romantic, but, in reality, would be considered abusive and obsessive. This is extremely evident in the immensely popular Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequel, about a man pursuing a younger woman and interacts with her in very unsettling ways. In fact, Caitlin Roper, who campaigns against sexual exploitation of women and girls, states in a Huffington Post article that “using the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions, researchers found that emotional abuse and sexual violence were pervasive throughout [the movie], noting that emotional abuse was present ‘in nearly every interaction.’” Despite the very unhealthy relationship between the two protagonists, this movie has been wildly successful. Roper is a part of a campaign to boycott this movie and its sequels noting that “it is our hope that people will make a connection between a culture that sexualizes, excuses, tolerates and glorifies men’s violence against women and real-life violence against women.” In this movie, the exploitation is overt, and, surprisingly, dismissed. What about other films where it is not so obvious?
In many romantic movies, men consistently make comments about a woman’s appearance, whether she appears to appreciate it or not. In fact, the height of romantic sincerity is for a man to not give up even when the woman has made it clear that she is not interested (50 First Dates). Even more confusing is that many of these movies have protagonists who appear to dislike each other until put in sexually compromising situations (Dan in Real Life, The Proposal) or men making forceful sexual advances to reveal “true” love. You see this with Hans Solo forcefully kissing Princess Leia in Star Wars, in any James Bond movie, in Gone With the Wind when Rhett essentially rapes Scarlett, and even in Disney’s Ratatouille where Alfredo kisses Colette against her will but holds the kiss until she lowers the pepper spray and decides she likes it.
Then you’ve got the film adaptation of the popular musical Grease (regularly performed on high school campuses) where the main storyline is a boy trying to get a girl to loosen up and sleep with him. She is mocked by him and his friends throughout the film for being too “prim” until she finally changes to please him. Recently, there is the extremely popular Twilight. While not sexually predatory, Edward, the protagonist, is creepily controlling, watching her at night and stalking her without her knowledge. While the obvious intent of films like these and many others is not to encourage sexual harassment or abuse, it cannot be ignored that these displays of romantic love have consequences.
These types of messages are dangerous for both men and women. David Wong wrote an article called “7 Reasons So Many Guys Don’t Understand Sexual Consent” where he outlines the various movies he watched as a kid with these confusing and, often, demeaning interactions between males and females that he explains helped form the way he viewed women. He knows better now, but only after he worked to “deprogram” himself. He goes on to say,
In the meantime, to act like it’s crazy that a particular guy doesn’t see the clear line between consent and assault is misguided. The culture has intentionally blurred those lines and trained that man to feel shame for erring on either side. You have to start teaching kids that consent matters from Day One.
Consent is about communication and not making assumptions based on a prior understanding of romance, often fueled by these movies. While this does not make for exciting movie interactions, it can, at least, stop propagating ideas that can lead to abuse.
If we are serious about changing a culture that has resulted in the abuse of so many women, we have to deal with the negative messages of many romantic movies. Fortunately, superhero movies like Wonder Woman and Black Panther are leading the way with healthier female characters who are respected and essential. In films like these, women are not just side notes, flat characters, or simply eye candy. The romantic movie industry should learn from these examples. Romantic interactions can and should stem from mutual respect rather than just sexual attraction. If our films determine to show men and women as individuals who have voices and thoughts and rights, we can change the campaign from #MeToo to #NeverAgain.
What do you think? Leave a comment.