CW: Sexual Assault
The cultural obsession with love is prevalent in almost all forms of media. Even in action films, there’s usually a romantic subplot. However, the film industry isn’t known for its nuanced and accurate portrayals of love. Romantic comedies, in particular, are guilty of employing harmful tropes that contribute to rape culture and create harmful delusions about relationships.
The first trope will be referred to as the “He’s Mean to You Because He Likes You” trope. Here, we usually get a jaded and sarcastic love interest who has been paired with an optimistic and often bubbly protagonist. These two have been forced to spend time together through a work obligation in the case of the 2009 Katherine Heigl film “The Ugly Truth.” Abby (Katherine Heigl) is single and optimistic about being able to find a good man who will treat her well. The love interest Mike Chadway is less optimistic about her chances and insults her on national television and uses sexist language. In fact, he’s just generally misogynistic. What a dreamboat. By the end of the movie, through some fluke on the universe’s part, we find that Mike is only sexist because a woman broke his heart years ago and he’s never recovered. That is, until he met Abby who melted his heart while he was disparaging her and embarrassing her in front of her colleagues. Of course, they end up together because she for some reason realizes that she wants someone who will accept her for the way she is even though he’s gonna be a dick about it the whole time. It goes without saying that showing a man’s verbal abuse as affection is problematic. It normalizes toxicity in relationships and sends the message that a partner’s disrespect of one’s feelings is a sign of love.
Another Katherine Heigl movie, “27 Dresses” shows the “Unfortunate Soulmate” trope at work. This film also features a heavily sarcastic man who doesn’t believe in love anymore because he’s been hurt in the past, but in this film there’s a dash less sexism. Here, Jane (Katherine Heigl), is also pursuing a man who is not the love interest. Her boss George shares many of Jane’s values and the two are compatible and respect each other. Unfortunately for them, the marriage-hating journalist Kevin Doyle (James Marsden) is Jane’s soulmate. The fact that they frequently butt heads, once hydroplaned because they were busy screaming at each other, and the first time they were intimate was a result of “hate sex,” in this universe, just means that they’re passionate about each other. This is almost a continuation of the “He’s Mean To You Because He Likes You” trope that allows both people involved to be mean in the name of love.This trope is probably the most justifiable of the three as a healthy relationship based on trust and mutual respect isn’t super interesting or dramatic to see on screen.
These negative Rom Com tropes also transcend genre into romantic fantasy. Ricky Gervais’s “The Invention of Lying” has Anna (Jennifer Garner) repeatedly reject Mark (Ricky Gervais). Mark, in her eyes, is chubby, unsuccessful, and has a snub nose. She wants someone with better genes and more financial stability to be the father to her future children. Mark, however, is very persistent. The unfortunate hurdle which is his appearance is circumvented by convincing Anna that she doesn’t actually want her children to be attractive. By having Anna leave Rob Lowe’s character at the altar, the audience learns that if you look like Ricky Gervais, you can gaslight someone who looks like Jennifer Garner into loving you. All it takes to be with a beautiful woman is repeatedly telling her that she doesn’t know what she really wants. By showing Anna as indecisive and unaware of her own desires, the film removes her agency. It sends the message that a man can ignore a woman saying “no” repeatedly because she doesn’t really mean it and only needs to be convinced into saying yes.
In order to fully describe the effects romantic comedies can have, I’m gonna have to step outside the bounds of pure analysis and tell you a story. It’s romantic at points and has a lot of the best tropes, but bear with me. The camera pans in on downtown Brooklyn, a young woman sits at the front desk of a hotel. She’s just moved to New York. She’s just gotten hired. This woman is the protagonist character: Uptight, tense, generally needs to relax. Enter the love interest, the Everyman character: Short, unconventionally attractive, crude, but funny so the audience can trick itself into believing his heart is good. He’s an elevator technician and the elevators in the building aren’t the best, so the two main characters find themselves together often. However, this is not the man the protagonist wants. The protagonist wants someone a little more intellectual, taller, kinder. Cue the comedic portions of the romantic comedy in which the protagonist keeps insisting on only a professional sort of friendship and the love interest insists on making a move on her. Boys will be boys, right? He teases her about the men she dates and tells her that he’s what she really needs. In any other context, this behavior would warrant a trip to HR, but since the love interest is goofy and nonthreatening, the protagonist only laughs at him. That is, until she starts to fall in love with him. Here, the power dynamic shifts and we see the love interest’s cruelty start to show. He doesn’t want a relationship because he’s been hurt in the past - he describes his ex as “crazy” - and he mocks her for still believing in love. He quits his job at the hotel and it looks like all might be lost as the protagonist is distraught by his rejection and the two might never see each other again. But! Through some twist of fate the love interest appears to see his mistake. Cue the big romantic gesture: He catches a cab at three in the morning to her apartment and… and… and… and he sexually assaults her that night. The audience saw all the red flags, not taking “no” for an answer, mocking her for her feelings, blatant misogyny. The protagonist, however, only saw the plot to a romantic comedy, the same ones she watched with her mother as a child.
Of course, this isn’t to say that romantic comedies are the reason behind my assault. This isn’t even to say that romantic comedies are inherently evil and that everyone who watches them will be abused. On the contrary, quite a few romantic comedies in the post-MeToo era are more self aware, such as Last Christmas and Set It Up.This is just to say that popular media affects cultural attitudes and the media one consumes affects the way a person sees the world. All artists and creators have a certain responsibility towards their audience because art exists in a very special space that has the power to make changes on both an individual and societal level. Many creators of early 2000s Rom Coms abused this responsibility and sold films that were simultaneously fun, charming, shallow, and deeply problematic.