From Stalking to Unrealistic Ideals of Beauty: The Toxicity of Rom-Coms

Cora-Laine Moynihan

Romantic comedies have been an age-old cure for broken and yearning hearts, setting the standard for love across the world.  That’s something you will never hear anyone say. While rom-coms are occasionally used by broken-hearted and lonely singles to escape into these stories of laughter and romance – and sometimes those already coupled up do too – the relationships presented are far from the reality of love.

Rom-coms have drilled the desire for perfection into the minds of their audience

To give you a quick crash course in the narratives of a rom-com, here is a summary of the thousands of them that exist in films and literature:

  1. Introduction to the lovers.
  2. The ‘Meet Cute.’
  3. Falling in Love.
  4. Conflict
  5. Separation
  6. Happily Ever After.

That’s it! That is the skeleton of a rom-com. The only thing that separates each film from the other is the skeleton being wrapped in a different context for skin, and different characters for clothing. Your two lovers could meet at a club, or in the library, bumping into each or offering a cringy pick-up-line that makes the other laugh. It could be anything. Anything as long as it’s cute and oozes chemistry. The conflict can also be anything, but it’s purpose remains the same: drive a wedge in the couple so that they resolve their issues in a dramatic, humorous, and romantic way.

Over the years as more rom-coms visit cinemas, streaming sites, and books stores, this skeleton has become the foundational expectation for real-life relationships. From expecting giant gestures of affection to ignoring extremely toxic behaviour, rom-coms have drilled the desire for perfection into the minds of their audience.

Deceiving one another becomes a plot device for the major conflict and ‘funny’ moments

Touching upon the latter, toxic behaviours like stalking and gas-lighting are romanticised in the world of rom-coms. This Means War (2012) sees Tom Hardy’s and Chris Pine’s characters battling it out to win Reese Witherspoon’s Lauren Scott through placing cameras around her house, microphones in her place of work, and observing her social medias 24/7 with a special ops team. Although directed to be a comedic montage of the men falling in love and Lauren unsure of who to pick, it is also a very terrifying scene to watch if considered more realistically. Her every move and word is being watched. Other films such as There’s Something About Mary (1998) and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) mimic this behaviour in similar or lesser fashions.

Then, in many others, deceiving one another becomes a plot device for the major conflict and ‘funny’ moments. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing relies on tricking the characters that Hero is impure to create discord in her relationship as part of a greater revenge plan, the plan repeatedly being presented through comedic moments.

John Tucker Must Die (2006) then snaps up this revenge idea, being entirely a revenge plot against a high school’s biggest ‘player’, tricking him to fall in love with the new girl so that she could crush his heart. It pretty much plays into the revenge fantasy of many heartbroken young girls. 2014’s The Other Woman follows the same trope: a group of women being cheated on seek vengeance on the horrible man by deceiving and ‘pranking him’, which in real-life would be assault and harassment. Although this behaviour is for comedy, it still glamorises this deception and unhealthy actions to the audience.

They suggest that love is only for women that fit the criteria of the idealised beauty, succumbing to the male gaze

People start to assume that this behaviour is normal when seeing persistent pursuit (stalking) and deception as a manner of securing relationships, but in reality, it is far from it. A study conducted by Julia R. Lippman on the effects of media portrayals of stalking, found that participants that watched a film that showed persistent pursuit as romantic over scary, endorsed statements like “many alleged stalking victims are actually people who played hard to get and changed their minds afterwards” and “an individual who goes to the extremes of stalking must really feel passionately for his/her love interest” more than those that saw the scary version.

The crimes presented as romantic in rom-coms are not the only concerns raised in terms of toxicity.

A long-revered trope within the genre was that of the smart, lonely girl dating the popular guy. Something, again, that clutches on the need for perfection in relationships. More often than not, the smart girl has to change her appearance to be acknowledged romantically by their crush, which promotes unhealthy ideals around body-image.

The Princess Diaries (books and film), Mean Girls, and Miss Congeniality all have the smart girl cake herself in make-up and dress more provocatively to garner the attentions of other men, something greatly emphasised that they could not before. To be considered beautiful and feminine they had to abandon their intelligence and look pretty instead. They suggest that love is only for women that fit the criteria of the idealised beauty, succumbing to the male gaze.

A similar issue of body image is repeated for male characters. It is very rare for a male lead in a rom-com to divert from the traditional muscular, tanned and very handsome image. Even though rom-coms are traditionally targeted towards women, this one image of a male partner is still harmful both to a male viewer’s self-image and in women’s expectations of a partner.

There is such a large variety of appearances and preferences for a partner in this world; it’s shameful and demeaning that this genre has conformed to singular ideals for so long. Yet, there is hope for the future of these representations. Recent films have slowly diverged from this male image, offering characters that are a fit, not bulky, build and more dishevelled and relaxed, with Amanda Roskelley stating in her study that “while Hollywood still employs attractive actors, the new standard for beauty isn’t bulk, but fit. This style is seen in men today with the ubiquity of the hipster movement and the acclaim garnered by nerd culture.”

Rom-coms can be a great option for light-hearted watching, but we must be weary of the toxic ideals and behaviours we observe in them.

Cora-Laine Moynihan

Featured Image courtesy of Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.

In article trailer courtesy of  Movieclips Trailers via YouTube.

In article image courtesy of  goodoldmovies via Instagram. No changes made to these images.

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