The Rotten Core of The Rom Com

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ART & MUSIC MAGAZINE NO. 40 – SPRING 2018

Write something about Love they said. Ok I’ll write something wry and amusing about what I learnt about love through watching teen movies and rom coms I said.

It started harmlessly enough, by thinking about what I had seen as a young impressionable idiot that had left a lasting impression on my view of sex and love. As always when thinking of my teens my thoughts turned to John Hughes and the bratpack. It was all teen angst and unrequited love for Molly Ringwald round my way – the crazy dash across campus to tell the girl I loved her or standing on my car outside her house with ghetto blaster held high above my head. Her dad wouldn’t like me but her mum would see the diamond in the rough I really was. She might not know it to begin with but through my relentless pursuit she’d learn she loved me really. She might say no but she really means yes.

Hang on, I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before and I don’t remember thinking it was a particularly good one. With the recent #metoo revelations I’ve already found myself looking at my own romantic history and checking my behaviour to make sure it matched up to my perceived standards of gentlemanliness. Now I’m looking through a newly cleaned lens at these cinematic examples of romantic ‘shenanigans’ I’m not so sure the lessons I learned are quite as benign as I thought they were. Teen movies like Pretty in Pink or Say Anything actually imply that some low-grade stalking is a good way to go; and, if I cast my net further afield than ‘80s teen flicks, things only get worse.

Take the oft repeated movie scenario in which the female protagonist tries to leave her man, usually during some kind of argument, only to be forcibly stopped by the bigger, stronger male. Typically after an initial struggle the woman melts into the mans arms – the implication being: she said no, but she meant yes. The John Wayne pulling a fleeing Maureen O’Hara back and kissing her in the Quiet Man (as watched by ET then re-enacted by Elliot), Richard Gere stopping Debra Winger leaving the motel room in Officer and a Gentleman. Even in the cosily sentimental, It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart, as the heroic George Bailey, gets weirdly forceful and aggressive with Mary, played by Donna Reed,  resulting in their first kiss. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to romantic cine-depictions of what is, essentially, assault.

Take another look at Richard Curtis’s pirate radio set The Boat that Rocked. In one scene, we find Nick Frost’s character, under the cover of a darkened room, amusingly allowing the naive wannabe DJ to take his place in a prearranged love tryst, so the younger virginal man can “get his end away” This is, effectively, a depiction of rape as a ‘hilarious’ right of passage. Over and over again this kind of tableau is played out in mainstream films and I’ve never really questioned it before. Now, just talking about it can be pretty difficult.

A wry look at rom-com tropes is probably not what anyone wants or needs right now, and I’m definitely not trying to make a case for excusing male behaviour with a treatise on the influence of popular culture; but having started the process I thought I should finish it. That is more involved though than knocking out a quick essay, paying lip service to a movement with a discreet pin badge, or deciding that you can no longer watch such-and-such’s films. I think all I’ve got right now is the ability to call out inappropriate male behaviour when I see it. 

Looking again at the melting in his arms cliché, what I see now is a decision to yield rather than fight, because fighting could be so much worse than the result of the yielding. And there is nothing romantic about that.

(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 40 – Spring 2018)

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