What could be scarier to watch than the insidious romantic comedy?
No, not a new installment of the horror flick. I’m talking about the movies that play on minor variations of the old boy-meets-girl story and are presented as feel-good diversions that can inject optimism into our lovelorn lives.
But behind the rom-coms’ façade of pastel posters and relentlessly upbeat trailers are shady powers of persuasion that skewer the way we look at love and inflate our expectations about relationships. It’s more than just the correlation these movies make between a person’s physical beauty and their chances of being loved, usually highlighted by makeover montages that involve little more than a girl swapping eyeglasses for contact lenses, then bowling a guy over with her looks and compelling him to fall in love with her. Their spell runs even deeper, immortalized in the ridiculous ideas they perpetuate about romance that make for entertaining plotlines, but are disastrous when applied to real life.
Bridget Jones’s Diary holds the status of mandatory Christmas viewing in my household, but only for cinematic reasons. It’s funny, Renee Zellweger is delightful in it, it featured Hugh Grant when he still looked dreamy, and it introduced me to Colin Firth. The movie certainly gave me hope the first time I watched it, because if a 32-year-old woman grappling with adulting and occasionally suffering from verbal diarrhea could find love, then so would a socially awkward 18-year-old. Hope isn’t a bad thing in itself, except that the movie also floated the idea that men hide their true intent and emotions—in essence, if a guy is being rude or aloof to a woman, it’s just self-preservation in the face of his intense feelings for her. Mark Darcy was certainly disdainful toward Bridget at every turn for the first half of the movie, but he “redeemed” himself later by admitting to her, “Perhaps, despite appearances, I like you. Very much. Just as you are.” Who wouldn’t want to be told that, delivered with Firth’s signature sexy English dignity?
But it’s a very dangerous idea to fall for. Women are already susceptible to believing that they can help “reform” a bad boy through love (nope), or that the guy they’ve fallen for is the exception rather than the rule (double nope), but it’s straight-up a case of cognitive dissonance to take someone’s dickish behavior as a sign that they’ll reveal their emotional vulnerability in the near future. Maya Angelou had already warned us: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Dickish behavior now won’t translate to true love later; the guy’s just an asshole, period. The “thin line” between love and hate exists only in kindergarten, when five-year-old boys would mercilessly pick on the girls they like. If someone treats you with less than basic respect the first time you meet them, take it as a major red flag and escape their clutches with your self-esteem still intact.
Speaking of basic respect, rom-coms also present garden variety niceness as a sign of real love. It happens too often in these movies that a girl is with a douchebag who treats her like garbage, but then gets “saved” by that one dude who treats her like an actual human being. Like, I love The Wedding Singer because of Alexis Arquette and Spandau Ballet’s “True,” but Adam Sandler’s Robbie didn’t do anything exceptional other than be a pal to Drew Barrymore’s Julia who was, yes, engaged to a total dick. Anyone would look good beside an abusive cheater, so Robbie cleared a very low bar here—like a couple of inches above the ground. It teaches the crux of the Nice Guy Syndrome, which is that a guy doing the bare minimum can expect a girl to fall all over him.
Oh, and Julia was so confused about her growing feelings for Robbie that at a sign of conflict, she runs back to her ex and suggests eloping to Vegas. Because a woman has to get married at any cost, even when some alone time would be the best thing for her, right? Ugh.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, behavior that would be criminal in real life often masks an intense love. Every Valentine’s Day, without fail, GIFs of a scene from the highly overrated Love Actually make the rounds on Facebook and Instagram, and it makes my right eye twitch in anger. You know that scene: Andrew Lincoln’s Mark flashes signs that speak of his impossible love for his best friend’s wife, Keira Knightley’s Juliet. Sure, sometimes, we want someone we can’t have. But prior to admitting his feelings, Mark had been a total dickwad to Juliet (red flag) and he had been filming her secretly. Upon discovering this, though, Juliet, bless her heart, found his obsession with her endearing enough to give him a chaste kiss.
By the way, female characters are not immune to doing horrible, unhinged stuff in the name of “love”: While You Were Sleeping, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Sleepless in Seattle, All About Steve… Imagine being on the receiving end of their obsession, lies, and manipulation and tell me you don’t feel absolutely loved. Aren’t they just the perfect life partner material?
If we distill the deviant behavior of so many terrible rom-com characters into a comprehensive guide on how to find love, we’d be constantly sabotaging the people we like, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days style. But is falling in love as convoluted as an undercover journalism assignment? Is it even as exciting as these flicks claim it is? Let’s be real: other than to those involved, details of a couple’s meet-cute and the will-we-or-won’t-we tension they felt in the beginning are pretty boring stuff to everybody else.
That goes double for a non-starter love story that involves little more than a person pining after someone from afar. Ethan Embry in Can’t Hardly Wait and Oscar Isaac in Ten Years may have made this look sweet, but really, it’s just stalking dialed down a half-notch. Be upfront about your feelings and hope for the best, or shut up and accept the fact that the object of your obsession would consider filing a restraining order against you if they only knew.
You know a rom-com is about to end when you get to the big declaration or big gesture scene. The public singing and dancing in these movies indicate the depth and sincerity of a character’s feelings, and they’re the filmic prelude to “and they lived happily ever after.” But we only have to watch YouTube videos of public wedding proposals gone awry to see how these contrived acts offer no real-life guarantee of a restraining order against you if they only knew.
Attraction is easy but love takes work, and rom-coms end too soon and too flashily to show that crucial part of a relationship. As fun as movies are, they should never be conflated with reality. By watching them, we already give up some of our time and money; we don’t have to surrender our logic to them either. To borrow Erich Gonzales’ words, “Kailangan magtira naman tayo para sa mga sarili natin.” (We need to leave something for ourselves.)