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.

The Breakfast Club poster released in 1985.

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.”

Popularizing Abuse

Fifty Shades of Grey depicts scenes of abuse while being popularized as a romance film.

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?

Alfredo and Collette’s first kiss in Ratatouille, which he does without her consent, kissing her until she decides she likes it.

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.

Dangerous Messages

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.

Wonder Woman displays a smart, powerful woman which resonated with many female viewers.

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.

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  1. What I dislike most about these is they they are totally devoid of realistic dialogue, it’s like the last 50 years of cinema never happened.

  2. Penelope

    I think the worst thing about romantic movies/rom-coms (other than being forced to actually watch them) is the way they’ve made dating and relationships so complicated. I used to be a bit of a cougar because I thought younger men had less baggage. They do generally lack real life baggage but they seem terribly burdened with movie baggage and have some really weird rules, norms and expectations that I just don’t understand. Eventually it all got too confusing so I went out with someone my own age. I’m much happier!

    • tclaytor

      I agree that they can create unrealistic relationship expectations on both sides. Women can tend to view relationships with the hope of big, dramatic romantic events while men create unrealistic, sexual expectations.

  3. How about The Notebook where the guy wrote her 365 letters after they broke up. Of course she did not mind and everyone thought it was romantic. I write someone a couple emails afterwards and everyone thinks I am stalking.

    • tclaytor

      So true! There’s a fine line between a persistence that is seen as romantic or creepy! It always comes across sweet in movies, but it might not appreciated in real life.

  4. Hopssie

    I love romantic movies. A lot of it is enjoying both the famiarity of the genre and the occasions when the genre is subverted – same as westerns, etc.

    • tclaytor

      I will admit that I also enjoy romantic movies, but I am very aware of how these movies handle consent too. What might seem like a romantic moment in a movie, in real life could be terrifying!

  5. Interesting how the same energy and strength of emotion will in one context appear to be an act of madness, and in another an outstanding act of heroism.

    • tclaytor

      You’re right! I guess in real life we have to develop the social awareness to read situations. Movies are so two-dimensional in this regard, so it can’t accurately portray the many levels there are to interactions.

  6. I actually like the romantic films. Silly plots, over dramatised acting, some laughs, some sobs.

    • tclaytor

      Yes, as a genre, they can be satisfying in their predictability. Most romantic movies don’t usually cross the line into abuse, but you can see these types of situations in other movies that aren’t primarily about the romance (like Star Wars or James Bond). Since these are the movies that guys are more likely to watch, it’s important that these movies display a high regard for a woman’s consent.

  7. This is something I think about quite a lot when thinking about the history of the history of narrative art in general. In some ways, its comforting that we can look back on these films like Grease and be able to identify what parts of these films go against today’s standards and separate these points from the central idea of the film. However, seeing as though there are still movies like 50 Shades of Gray being released, exhibiting these same problems that we (so we assume) have moved past, it definitely seems to be a persistent problem.

    This could also be used to argue why film as an art medium should be taken more seriously. A lot of times behavior like this is excused, and in a comedy’s sake, laughed at, because it follows a sort of “logic” that’s expected in these sorts of films. This is probably most prevalent in romantic comedies, where its expected for the two love interests to come together and fall in love without much thought to the consequences or paths that each character takes to get there.

    • tclaytor

      Excellent point! I am less concerned with films of the past as much as current ones I guess because I am raising kids. I want them to know the difference between consent and Hollywood setups.

  8. I think that, if any media warps people’s ideals when it comes to romance, it’s the media we consume when we’re children, during our most formative years. The rom-coms of adulthood are probably either a hangover from that period, or an attempt to bring those same concepts into an adult sphere.

    I think children’s media is where the root of the worst ideals really are: for men, the hero always gets the girl. For women, they always get their prince charming. Both are ideals which don’t exist and never will and so pursuing them is at best a waste of time, and at worst a detachment from reality.

    But the truth is that most people can, and do have relatively healthy relationships. As with all media, it’s not healthy to only gain a comprehension of the world from fiction. Rom-coms are just films – they can’t hurt anyone. But people who rely on them too much can harm themselves mentally and socially.

  9. I am an absolute sucker for them and to me, like many other movie genres, they are all about wish fulfilment. In our dreams things go better than in reality, we get the chance to put right what we cocked up and we get to be the person who stands up to having sand kicked in our face by the muscle-bound bully who is shocked and surprised by our ninja fighting skills.

  10. The classic rom genre, like the spoof movie, are genres that have a great history but are now in disrepair.

  11. An interesting read. I think the thing that bothers me the most about romantic movies is that they focus so much on the formative stage of a relationship, not on the difficult bit that comes after (the years spent living together attempting to adapt to each others idiosyncrasies when relationships actually mature and develop).

    They also leave little room for doubt that you are in love, thus creating the illusion that being in love is a state you are only fully aware of after the fact. The idea of a slow burn relationship, one where you gradually adapt to the idea isn’t a very prevalent one in Hollywood. However, some romcoms are enjoyable. I particularly liked that one about the woman who trapped her favourite author in her house and broke his legs so he wouldn’t leave.

  12. The problem with Hollywood style romance is the need to build and sustain narrative tension by interfering with the satisfaction of lovers’ desires for one another. So you have the eternal triangle, and the Beatrice and Benedick who pretend to hate each other because they really love each other too much, and the farcical misunderstandings, and the unwilling partner who has to be overcome by having his or her resistance worn down.

    What you can’t have under any circumstances is a healthy relationship featuring people who treat each other well and aren’t under threat from some third party. Even when the relationship isn’t the focus of the story there has to be at least one scene of the happy couple on the outs, because that’s the formula, silly.

    • tclaytor

      Well said! I must admit, as an adolescent, I was caught up in the idea of dramatic tension looking for some big aha moment when true love was revealed. I wish that the slow, gradual love built upon friendship could have been more of the norm.

  13. All my childhood movies are now under a new lens.

  14. It’s Hollywood! It’s not real life; for entertainment purposes only!

  15. Romantic literature has been accused of warping our ideas of love and relationships long before there was a film industry churning out romantic films.

    • It’s not an accusation. It’s true. Literature (and film, and many other cultural expressions) shapes more than relationships and love.

  16. These movies are unrealistic. The problem with love is, it has two stages. The first stage is like the movies. The second stage comes around in a year or so, and that is where everything you and or your partner do kind of slowly starts to repel the other. You argue about, expenses and who paid more. His flirting. Your jealousy. Who cleans more. His constant little nit picking insults, the fact that you were not overly nice to his friends that one time.

    Funny they don’t make many movies about this second stage. After you’ve had a few relationships, these rom movies don’t seem quite as interesting to you anymore. You know what’s coming later.

    • Maybe if “he” didn’t flirt, “she” wouldn’t get jealous. Easy.

    • tclaytor

      Yes, I don’t think the second stage (disillusionment) is blockbuster material. Though Ed Norton’s Painted Veil dealt with this in one of the most beautiful movies about broken relationships. Ironically, he changed the ending from the actual book which had a much more negative outcome.

  17. I think that Rom-Coms, or just the basic romantic films, are great at living up to the fantasies that we dream about — but they’re only great for entertaining and satisfying our need to fantasise about overdramatic or idealistic romantic scenarios. Though overall, I agree that they do some harm in embedding unrealistic ideals that do not help the general society in having high expectations that only fictional dreamboats can live up to.

  18. Pamela Maria

    Although this is a commentary on movies and rom-coms, I think this opens up a very interesting dialogue when it comes to consent. Beyond it slowly being popularized in classrooms, consent is virtually non-existent in cult classics and pop culture.

    • tclaytor

      I agree! The issue with these movies is that consent was ignored or coerced which, in light of years of abuse coming to light, reveals that this is an issue that needs to be discussed.

  19. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    A very timely discussion on an issue that is very much on everyone’s mind. It is becoming much more part of the general zeitgeist to begin to consider what the “hidden” or normative messages a film/show is presenting to the audience. Sadly it has come off the back of so much abuse and is really happening at such a late stage socially, but better now than never. Thank you for sharing.

  20. I definitely agree with everything you said in your article! I think that for a lot of younger people (not all but some) who watch Rom-coms don’t realize that life does not work in that way at all! For myself I love watching rom-coms simply for the fact that for an hour or so I can forget about my nonexistent love life and get caught up in the love life of another character. However, I know that so many of these “love” stories are over complicated and over dramatized just to sell it, which is sad because I would be one of those people who would go and see a rom-com with actual real life qualities. A lot of the time I like to stick to Historical Romance movies because while these are also dramatized for Hollywood feel more real because of the times in which they were set, where many of the ways both the men and women are treated (still NOT right by any means no matter the century) seem to feel much more accurate. I am a hopeless romantic but that definitely doesn’t mean that I cannot separate real life love and Hollywood styled love its just nice to get away sometimes. Don’t even get me started on the terrible travesty that Fifty Shades of Grey was….. I have friends who are involved and therefore very knowledgeable when it comes to the world of BSDM and they were actually really upset and angry with the movie and after they explained everything about that I could see why, plus working in the field of Justice Studies so many issues within this movie arise and it makes me angry. I will look forward to the day that we get an actual or semi-realistic portrayal of romance in movies.

    • tclaytor

      I really cannot understand why so many women liked that movie or the books and why it’s sold as a romance. To me, it is scary and repulsive!

      • Oh I agree 100% with you!! EVERYTHING about that movie can be considered abuse in one way or another and with it comes along so many problems! I am actually repulsed by the idea that women out there think that it was a form of romance…..

  21. Legitimately good article

  22. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good article but I can think of a number of films from the 1940s and 1950s, for example, with strong women such as Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, or Katharine Hepburn where the virtues of romance as seen maybe changing for the better with more recent films, Wonder Woman, point the way back. In other words, was something lost and is now being rediscovered? It may take awhile, through a number of films, to see if what is addressed in this article does lead to a significant change.

  23. I agree that depictions of women, relationships, and issues surrounding consent etc. could be represented in a ‘healthier’ way in the media. However, I also think schools/parents could be teaching children critical thinking skills early, so that even if questionable films/media (and the news for that matter) etc. are still produced and consumed (as they most likely will be), people will be better equipped to question such examples etc.

    • tclaytor

      Very true! It is in this way that I handle it with my own children. However, we cannot minimize the impact that stories have on the mind (they have been teaching cultural norms and ideals for thousands of years). As an English teacher, I have had students resistant to the idea that the stories they cherish have actually influenced them, yet the evidence of it is in their lives. Even children who have the benefit of parents/caregivers who will help them process conflicting messages are susceptible if we don’t take into consideration that their brains (and critical thinking abilities) are still developing. In fact, they don’t adequately develop critical thinking skills until they are almost in their twenties. Until then, emotions reign. While most of the movies listed above would not be viewed by kids, many are.

      • Yes I agree with you. I guess the point I was trying to make is that we could simultaneously pressure the industry to change as well as create a shield/weapon against such ideas in young minds. I myself feel that ideas re questioning media etc. could have been worked into my education earlier. In English class for instance, we would spend hours analysing literary techniques, but nobody mentioned questioning what the story itself was trying to sell! But that could have just been my education experience.

  24. kmaxx125

    Good points to ponder…the question came to mind is, what does the fact that this type of romance makes so much money say about us as a culture? Sure, for many these types of films will be harmless entertainment and remain as such…however considering the vast amount of #metoo comments coming out these days, could it be that many people actually believe that it is okay to abuse and even healthy to abuse others…in the name of love. Perhaps this type of thinking has become a cultural problem… Perhaps it is time to reconsider the ideals of people like Katherine Hepburn…

    • tclaytor

      I agree! I think we need to consider both the messages that are being conveyed and why they are popular. I would never have thought a movie like 50 Shades of Gray would be remotely appealing to a woman.

  25. This is a fantastic article. It’s written well, has a perfect length, and is informative. It makes us think on a level that goes beyond sex and so – called pleasure; it makes us think of the messages conveyed in the media. Just the kind of articles I enjoy! On behalf of all people, thank you!

    • tclaytor

      Thanks! I love movies (and particularly movies from my childhood in the 80’s), but we must consider some of the messages being proclaimed. This isn’t about stopping those movies but about combatting the message and providing alternative messages, so no one message is dominant.

  26. Sarah Bish


    I love your article, but do wish you would have touched on the “abduction as romance” trope. Found in a lot of Hitchcock movies and even in Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast, it plays with the Stockholm syndrome concept in which a captive falls in love with their captor.

    Good writing, and keep it up!

  27. This is so important. People learn so much through osmosis that they are never consciously aware of. Children see men forcefully kissing women and think that it is the most romantic. Little girls get the idea that boys will chase after you if they really “love” you and little boys learn that a girl saying no could still mean yes as long as you are persistent and show her she is wrong.

  28. The Breakfast Club example becomes more unsettling when you consider the actor bullied his co-star in real life too as a way of staying “in character”. The Han Solo example has always bugged me too. Just about every romantic movie seems to portray continuous harassment of the disinterested as romantic and admirable. The revelation that sketchy things have been going on behind the scenes of our entertainment really makes one wonder,

    • tclaytor

      Yes! It makes me hesitate to show these films to my daughters or at the very least prompts a discussion on what is appropriate and not appropriate.

  29. I feel like it’s such context base-thing? Like, so many of films I enjoyed when I was younger, I look back and cringe. I just watched Two Weeks Notice and the scene where Hugh Grant’s character sabotages Sandy Bullock getting another job so she’ll be forced to stay with him really sent shivers up my spine.

  30. I think that the genre of romantic movies needs to be perceived as a residue of literary theory from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and that it is due for an overhaul with respect to concepts of gender, sexuality and “romance”. Much of the time these ideas are simply propped up in a manner that reinforces heteronormative ideals and tacitly excludes any subordinate narrative about sex and gender. Even this article could be guilty of that tendency

  31. This is such an important topic that needs more attention! As a film student, I do not think this is acknowledged enough and the next generation of filmmakers cannot continue to write romance this way. Firstly because it’s morally wrong, and secondly because audience are increasingly more aware and less tolerate of sexism in film. It is starting to be seen as a “make or break” element to all media, the way something is considered socially “unwatchable” to an increasingly large population if there are racist under/overtones. It is a new world out there and everyone needs to get with the times. Thank you writing this article and brining awareness to this issue!

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