Today – today, it is Valentine’s Day, Saint optional, for most of you out there. February 14th has slowly been creeping into your life since just after Christmas, when your local mass merchandiser/supermarket/drugstore hastily marked down all the bags of green and red M&Ms by 50% and replaced them with near indistinguishable bags of white and red M&Ms and then doused an entire store aisle in varying shades of pink, red, and white. Hallmark has blown 95% of its creative load (the other 5% being saved for Mother’s Day), all in the name of love.
If I hadn’t cared about supporting myself financially, then I probably would have declared myself as a history major, and when I grew up, I could write a well-researched, in-depth piece about the evolution of Valentine’s Day as a holiday, beginning with its early roots in Christian martyrdom and its eventual sinking into the pit of commercialization and materialism that it is today.
But I cared about my future.
And you don’t come here for history lessons.
To paraphrase Tom Cruise’s brilliantly-portrayed Lestat in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire (the book is so much better), I assume this piece needs no introduction. Today, on the Holiest of Holy Love days (followed closely by, in no particular order, your wedding anniversary, your dating anniversary, your first date anniversary, and your first-time-we-met anniversary), I’m going to take a look at how the formulaic, but oh-so-beloved romantic comedy is slowly, surely, and systematically destroying romance.
But first things first: being of the female persuasion, this piece is written primarily for and addressed (unless specified otherwise) to women. We are the target audience for romcoms, as they’re affectionately known, and I’ve yet to meet a man who pulls his romantic inspiration from them. And in the interest of full disclosure: I’m far from a feminist. I left an all-female college after a year because I couldn’t stand the estrogen.
So let’s get to it.
Success is a Man
The most glaringly offensive message perpetuated by romcoms is that women can only be successful with a man in their lives. Most of our romcom heroines live fantastically successful lives – they are usually highly educated, and fall into one of the following categories: high-ranking, no-nonsense business/management professional, business owner, pursuing her life’s passion without financial regard (this includes those heroines in the “free spirit” category). They are forceful without being bitches; they are respected without being condescending. Men, women, young, old – basically everyone loves them. These women should be inspirational. They should serve as role models for women.
But instead, our romcom heroine is lonely. It’s insulting to continually portray women as somehow devoid of happiness because they have yet to find a man to mate with for the remainder of their natural lives – and yet this is at the heart of every romcom, and even worse, we as females not only eat this up, but completely buy into it.
I’m not here to tell you that you don’t need men – that’s a decision you need to make on your own – maybe you do, and maybe you don’t. I’m the first person to admit that I need men in my life – mainly, because I’m a complete spaz in real life, and my calm, rationale, and logical male friends balance me out – but I made that decision on my own, not because Hollywood told me that I’d be unhappy without them.
Mean Boys Love You
Our romcom hero is all about the Swagger. He’s typically confident verging on arrogant, full of life, vim, vigor, and all the rest. He is contractually bound to be attractive, and is typically on par with or more successful than our heroine. And in many cases, our hero and heroine have a frosty relationship from the start.
Perhaps romcom writers are women who were teased a little too often on the playground when they were children, because romcom screenwriters clearly buy too much into your mother’s old adage that a boy who teases you secretly loves you. I’ve never really found this to be true, and less so the older I’ve become. While this vehicle is used to create the required sexual tension between our hero and heroine, the message remains the same: boys who are mean to you are secretly in love with you.
This is false.
When you get to a certain age, we have names for these types of people, which I will not repeat in polite conversation. If a guy is rude to you and treats you badly, it’s not because he’s all torn up inside because he doesn’t know how to express his emotions. If he doesn’t do the things he says he will, it’s not because he’s been hurt before and is afraid of his feelings. If he blows you off repeatedly, it’s not because he loves you SO MUCH and he’s scared of what comes next.
No – it’s for one of two reasons: he’s a jerk or he doesn’t like you (or both).
In the case of the former, he’s not worth it. In the case of the latter, who cares? There are plenty of other people out there who do.
The Only Man Worth Your Time is the Man Who Will Pursue You, Creepily
When I was at (co-ed) university, I worked at the customer service desk at a retail outlet. A friend of mine who also worked at the service desk was everyone’s favorite girl to crush on, and she found herself with an admirer – a guy by the name of Walker who used to come in to the store every single day around the same time in the hopes that she’d be working and he could chat her up for 2 minutes or so.
At the time, it was somewhat endearing. Looking back on it now? A little creepy. Umm, Walker, wherever you are now, I have some questions for you: were you planning on buying lottery tickets every day or were you ever actually going to ask my friend out? Did you come to the store with a predetermined item to purchase, or did you wander aimlessly around the store thinking of something to buy? Did you ever know that we called you Walker the Stalker?
Some people would argue that this is flattering, and to a certain level, I’d agree. It’s a nice feeling knowing that someone is attracted to you, even if you don’t necessarily reciprocate.
But romcom principals take it a bit too far. Behavior that might normally set off red alerts (I told you I was a TNG fan) now brings on the awwwwws, because romcoms have trained us to think that it’s just so romantic. If a guy happens to bump into you at Starbucks and comes back around the same time the next day or maybe another day – that’s cute. But if a guy is coming to Starbucks every day with the hope of bumping into you – that’s kind of creepy. If a guy you just met starts having overly romantic gifts delivered to your office? Also creepy.
Ladies, it’s time to step back and take a look at a guy’s behavior in the context of reality. There is such a thing as too much attention. To review: if a guy is mean to you, he doesn’t like you. If a guy is too into you, it might be time to back away (slowly), no matter how flattering it is. Besides, buying into overly (creepily) romantic gestures at the beginning of your courtship will only lead to disappointment later on down the road, which leads us to our next romcom offense.
Only Grandiose Romantic Gestures Count
I love The Grandiose Gesture. It typically makes its appearance near the beginning of the film (a first date) or near the end (The Great Reconciliation). In the Grandiose Gesture, our hero or heroine pulls off an amazing feat in the name of Love, putting any Nice Thought you might have to utter shame, and expertly setting the stage for despair and disappointment.
Why didn’t you rent out the movie theatre where we had our first date for our first anniversary?
Why didn’t you burst through security at the airport to get me to stay?
Why didn’t you meet me on the Brooklyn Bridge/at the top of the Empire State Building?
Why didn’t you chase me on your bike through traffic just to tell me that you love me?
One of my all-time favorites is the over-the-top date Will Smith plans for Eva Mendes in Hitch, which includes a trip to Ellis Island where he’s amazingly managed to have the under-the-glass book opened to her great-grand-uncle-father. What I love about this date is it’s one of the first ones (if not the first) that they go on. How is he possibly going to top that? It was probably all downhill from there.
These kinds of things work well in Fantasy Land, where everyone knows someone who can help you pull these kinds of things off. Unfortunately for those of us whose lives are firmly grounded in reality, The Grandiose Gesture sets unrealistic expectations that are practically impossible to meet. A man should not have to go to great lengths – logistically, financially, or otherwise – to impress a woman. Planning a nice date should not require a degree in event planning and outlandish connections.
Romantic comedies have set women up to expect a surprise for almost every little thing – for Valentine’s Day, for Christmas, for her birthday, for your anniversary, and just for any other old time, including no reason at all. It doesn’t matter if you say you don’t want to do anything special – deep down, romcoms have taught you to expect a surprise, which really begs the question: is it actually a surprise anymore?
Most women probably enjoy a nice surprise, but romcoms have raised the bar so high that men are bound to fail to measure up, and so they just don’t try. This leads to disappointment in women, which leads to watching more romcoms, which leads to even more unrealistic expectations. Reset your expectations. Break the cycle.
If He Loves You, He Will Change
So now our heroine has a man, somewhat in her life. He’s into her, perhaps a bit too much. He’s pulled out all the stops to show her how much he cares. She adores him…mostly.
I think this is my favorite of all romcom themes, perhaps tied with The Grandiose Gesture (above). Now, I’m not saying that men – and women – don’t both change when they start dating or enter into a serious relationship, but that type of change is hopefully gradual, mutual, and most importantly, for the better.
Romcoms have instilled in women a belief that a man is just a pile of raw clay – ready to be molded into whatever she desires. Remember: anything is possible in the name of love.
A very typical romcom plot device is The Man Who Won’t Settle Down. I know men like this in real life – they’re enjoying their unattached lives the way they are. They date, sometimes they even have a girlfriend, but all in all, they’re happy being bachelors, and they have no qualms staying this way. In fact, God forbid, they prefer life this way. Perhaps you know guys like this.
Girls who buy into the romcom fantasy believe that these guys simply don’t know what they’re missing, and that once they’ve met The One, they’ll abandon their wayward lifestyle and be sprinting towards the altar in a matter of months.
The real issue here though is the fallout that results from buying into this theory (and this is a theory that women, in my experience, buy into way too much). When a man fails to/refuses to/chooses not to change himself into whatever the woman wants him to be, the woman takes this to mean that the man simply doesn’t love her enough – because after all, if he loved her, he would change (and gladly). The woman then internalizes this, which only makes things worse.
This message is a disservice to men and women alike. It subtly sets men up for failure if they choose to live their own lives and not bend to a woman’s every demand. It not only inherently ties a woman’s perceived self-worth to a man, but also provides unnecessary conflicts for women to cling to and obsess over.
Serious Relationships and Marriage Are the Only Valid Forms of Attachment
Because romcoms try to reduce relationships down and constrain them to a two hour formula, women believe that connections are instantaneous (there is some truth to this), commitment is immediate, and marriage is imminent – to say nothing of the many romcoms that revolve around marriage itself.
In the matter of a couple of weeks (at most) we watch our hero and heroine going from being unable to stand each other to practically saying “I do”. Now I’m not saying this never happens, and I’m not saying that these types of relationships don’t work out.
But romcoms really enforce the belief that serious, monogamous relationships (and marriage) are the only valid forms of attachment. After all, it’s not enough to have a man in your life who is smart, funny, attractive, and enjoys your company. It’s not enough to have someone to rely on whom you can have a nice time with. No – the man must immediately commit to you, in the form of a boyfriend or a fiancée.
When I was at university, I was dating a guy, and I was so concerned with whether we were officially dating or not that I broke up with him on the same day that I found out he considered us boyfriend/girlfriend. Instead of just enjoying the ride, I self-sabotaged and ended things with a really nice guy because the label itself was more important.
Romcom and Facebook have banded together to place undue emphasis on the status of a relationship. Are you dating? Are you seeing each other? Are you in a relationship? Are you boyfriend/girlfriend? Are you exclusive? Rather than focus on what’s important – the person and the time you spend together – women now obsess about labels, working themselves into a tizzy over the smallest things. In the end, does it really matter? Does the label really give you anything extra? (The answer is No.)
When All Else Fails, Turn To Your (Best) Friend
This romcom theme has a very special place in my heart. It plays upon another famous old adage – namely, that men and women cannot be just friends. There are plenty of people out there who steadfastly believe that there is no such thing as a platonic friendship between a man and a woman, and you will never convince them otherwise. They believe that deep down, at least one of the parties must be attracted to the other.
In romcom world, it’s only a matter of time before those repressed feelings come bubbling up to the surface. Maybe there’s some truth to this, but I haven’t found it to be the case in 10+ years with exclusively male best and close friends.
But how is this hurting women? After all, the typical romcom depicts a forlorn male, secretly in love, for all these years, with our heroine. Here, let me tell you.
I was, we’ll say, involved, with a guy once. We IMed every day. I saw him almost every weekend. More importantly, it was implied that we would hang out every weekend. I met his friends and his family. Everyone thought we were together, but we weren’t. He told me I was a cool chick and all, but that he wasn’t “ready” to date yet, having recently ended things with a crazy girl. So I settled for being best friends, hoping and waiting for the day that he’d decide he was ready to date again and maybe our really amazing friendship could turn into something more. That day came all right – 5 months later – except he’d decided to date a girl whom he described as “dumb” and with a name that reminded him of a “dinosaur”.
In other words, not me.
Don’t be me.
Valentine’s Day: What to Watch
The movie Valentine’s Day was absolutely horrible – sweet, cheesy, cliché from beginning to end. It was a destitute man’s Love Actually (one of the greatest romantic comedies ever). Spare yourself the atrocity, and if you find yourself alone tonight, do not watch that movie. Instead, check out some of these less-offensive romcoms:
- Sleepless in Seattle
- The American President
- My Best Friend’s Wedding
- She’s the Man (yes, the teen movie)
- Definitely, Maybe
If you feel like indulging in some actual on-screen romance tonight, whether it’s by yourself, with your dog, or with your favorite bottle of wine, here’s some that are worth checking out:
- Beauty and the Beast (Disney)
- Jane Eyre (with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg)
- Pride and Prejudice (with Matthew MacFayden and Keira Knightley)
♥ Happy Valentine’s Day! ♥