A good romance: unpicking the romance norms of pop culture

Everyone loves a good romance, and fortunately we as consumers have a lot to choose from in terms of fantasy fodder.

Here’s one. A shy girl moves to a small country town and happens to be seated next to a dreamy, brooding boy in her science class. One moment he hates her, seemingly disgusted to be in her presence, and the next he’s all smiles, warning her away with dark secrets and loneliness even as he continues to watch her, from across parking lots, in class, from the other side of busy streets. She finds herself thinking about him constantly, her skin prickling at the very mention of him. Until one night, she awakens to find him standing at the foot of her bed, watching her from the dark.

Not to your taste? Let’s try another.

How about a space opera? In Passengers, Jim, one passenger among thousands in stasis on a voyage to a new planet, awakens ninety years early when his life pod is damaged. Faced with the prospect of aging and dying alone on a silent ship, he awakens another passenger, Aurora – a sweet, vivacious young writer – to keep him company… but only after reading all her personnel logs, talking to her sleeping body for weeks on end and agonising about the morality of condemning another living person to the same hell as him for an emotional montage lasting all of five minutes. After Jim tells Aurora that her early awakening was the result of a similar malfunction, the two embark on a delightfully steamy love affair, only for Aurora to find out his lie and realise that her new boyfriend has effectively murdered her. Fortunately, however, the ship runs into trouble and the two are reconciled as they band together to repair it. Aurora stays with Jim on the ship until they grow old and die, even though they both knew of a way she could have gone back to sleep and continued on with her personal journey. After all, falling in love with your murderer and spending eight decades alone with him on a ship is more important than having any kind of life. Nothing’s more romantic than Stockholm syndrome and sexual assault by fraud, right?

See, I thought romance was about communication, respect and consent, perhaps with some lust thrown in if that’s the way you swing. But if we believe Hollywood or the Dymocks bestseller list, nothing is more likely to get a girl to fall for you than persistently shadowing her on street corners and picking the locks on her windows. In Twilight, as described in my introduction (in case you missed it), sparkly vampire Edward Cullen routinely watches heroine Bella Swan while she sleeps and disables her car when she tries to visit friends he considers ‘dangerous.’ Its spiritual successor, Fifty Shades of Grey, has brooding billionaire Christian Grey tracking Anastasia using her cell phone, amongst other things. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World not only has Scott stalk Ramona Flowers through a party (which is played for laughs,) but revolves around a group of Ramona’s superpowered ex-partners who are determined to ruin any future relationships she might have.

And what do the heroines of these stories all have in common? They all end up with the hero in the end. Nothing the hero does, no matter how creepy or invasive, is enough to make the heroine think that perhaps she should reach for the capsicum spray. In fact, the heroes’ rabid attentions only seem to make them even more attractive, as if being pursued with such psychotic obsession is something to be longed for rather than avoided.

I never thought to question this. As much as the worst of these stories turned my stomach, I accepted them for what they were. As readers, we don’t just put up with ‘love’ stories centred around psychotic obsession: we laud them. Since Daphne and Apollo, abuse as romance has been upheld as one of the sexiest tropes in literary history, and it’s been repeated ad nauseam across genres and in movie theatres with such vehemence that romances without some grand act to win back the girl and prove one’s love are few and far between. It’s hammered into us from the moment we first pick up Grimm’s or Andersen: boys are taught to emulate Prince Charming and his forceful kisses, girls to lie passively and accept them. The rhetoric is persuasive: no matter how creepy I found the latest hunk with boundary issues I was meant to drool over (certainly any man who snuck into my bedroom uninvited would find himself clobbered with a bedside lamp no matter how cute he was,) the literary voice inside me always soothed away my troubles. ‘This is just how these stories are meant to go,’ it whispered. ‘They’ll be happy together. Isn’t that what matters?’

Then Passengers hit cinemas, and all bets were off.

At first, Passengers looked as if it was going to confront Jim’s lie with the scrutiny it demands. During the first half, the audience is never allowed to forget that Jim is tricking Aurora into a relationship under false pretences: the playful romantic is rendered creepy and uncomfortable by Aurora’s ignorance, and when she finally catches Jim in his lie her reaction is the gut-wrenching disbelief of an assault victim; numb, all-consuming horror followed by rage and despair. However, the audience has been shown the terrible loneliness that drove Jim to make his decision. While it in no way absolves him of his actions, we know that Jim is nevertheless a good person who may be able to atone, possibly by helping Aurora reclaim her life.

Instead, the second half of the narrative is devoted to making Aurora and the audience forgive Jim without consequence, from using a secondary character to apologise indirectly for his actions (Lawrence Fishburne essentially telling Aurora it’s her duty to look after Jim in one of the most cringe worthy scenes in the whole movie,) to a recorded message from Aurora’s best friends telling her that ‘she doesn’t have to do something amazing’ to live a happy life, and that the key to happiness is finding someone to love and ‘opening her heart’ to him. By the end of the movie, Aurora has been reduced to a simpering pawn who forgets Jim’s rape-by-fraud the instant he saves the ship by manually purging a nuclear reactor (an act he apparently survives through sheer manly valour,) and forsakes the chance to re-enter suspended animation and her dreams of travel to live out the rest of her life in a little house he builds for her in the ship’s shopping mall. The message is pretty clear: a happily ever after surrounded by pretty things is more important than any sort of autonomy. It doesn’t matter that Jim essentially violated Aurora and cut her off from everything she knew, loved and wanted: all Passengers cares about is that Jim gets laid, gets forgiven, and gets the girl.

It’s sexist. It’s borderline psychotic. It blatantly uses a woman’s pain and suffering as a plot device to create drama, and then brushes it aside when it’s no longer necessary.

If this is what passes as the cream of the romantic crop, then we need to start telling better stories.

Let’s start with tales that portray healthy relationships. Problems between loving partners can still be tense, but, for example, in the anime Yuri on Ice, misunderstandings between the protagonists are resolved through mutual understanding and communication rather than nuclear meltdowns. If either lead does something horrible, they should be held accountable for their actions, not rewarded with sex in a zero-gravity pool. It should be okay for a heroine to move on with her life, understanding that just because a prince woke her with a kiss doesn’t mean he’s her one and only, or at the very least be allowed to feel more than one thing for her love interest at a time. Imagine what Passengers might have been like if Aurora had considered going back to Jim not because she loved him, but because being alone for decades would have driven her insane. What a twisted, heartbreaking story that would have been. What a perfect incentive for Aurora to save herself, rather than agreeing to be a trophy in a house-on-the-prairie fantasy.

But more than anything else, we need stories with empathy, where women aren’t treated like objects to be won or damsels to be saved. We need to recognise that stories like Passengers normalise abuse as romance. We expect the male lead to pursue the female. We root for Colin Firth in Love Actually as he chases Lucia Moniz from England to Portugal and corners her at work in front of her family and friends to propose marriage. We expect to see the boy woo the girl, win her back, wear her down, by any means necessary.

In these stories, we expect the heroine not to have a choice. And I refuse to be complicit in that any longer.

Image: Naveen Kumar

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Callie HeadshotCallie Doyle-Scott was born in Tasmania in 1990, but has since travelled around Australia: she currently resides in Canberra. A graduate of RMIT University’s Creative Writing program in 2013, she never quite lost the study bug: her speciality is culinary history, specifically that of Victorian England and Japan throughout the ages, though she loves to research old folktales in her spare time. Callie started writing stories when she was ten (her first being about a cave that could turn people into animals,) and was first published in Dickson College’s CLIO History Journal with two articles on Renaissance heroines Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia. While studying, she went on to found and edit Verity La’s Out of Limbo project (an online archive devoted to the coming-out stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex individuals,) and participate in Bryce Courtney’s final writing masterclass in 2012. Since then, she has written articles for the Verity La and Writer’s Bloc webjournals, and hopes to establish a wider portfolio over the coming months. She is currently working to finish the draft of her first novel, a gastronomic fantasy entitled Soup for the Moon, in the hopes of approaching a publisher by the end of the year.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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