To all the rom-coms I've loved before: Your leading men are trash
All your fave film crushes are problematic, so in the words of Roxane Gay, 'let's raise the bar for men'
Earlier this week, I had the immense pleasure of interviewing writer, cultural commentator and badass feminist Roxane Gay live on stage at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The event was tied to a screening of her favourite film, Pretty Woman.
Watching the 1990 rom-com, the audience audibly groaned at Vivian's (Julia Roberts) terrible math skills and cheered when she got her revenge on the shop-girl snobs of Rodeo Drive. We laughed at every comical facial expression provided by the staff and patrons of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
After the screening, Roxane and I talked about the romantic comedy as a genre, and why Pretty Woman endures 30 years after its release.
She dropped numerous gems, and I encourage you to check out the full video of our discussion.
Watch it below.
But in the days since our talk, I've mostly been thinking about what she had to say about male love interests in the movies.
I asked Roxane to imagine a role reversal in Pretty Woman. If Edward (Richard Gere) needed a makeover to deserve Vivian's love, what would that entail?
Aside from better suits and better timing (don't ask Vivian for a blowjob when she's watching I Love Lucy!), Roxane noted that, overall, Edward is the least interesting part of the movie.
"So bland. Like when you look at it, it's like, 'Girl, I know why he's attracted to you, but why are you attracted to him? All he does is talk on his phone and say condescending things.'"
She went on to wish for a version of Edward that had more character development. "There are so many questions that deserve to have answers that are never answered because the premise is, 'Oh, he's a billionaire and he sort of doesn't treat you poorly.' Let's raise the bar for men."
That challenge led me down a rabbit hole.
I began thinking about the leading men in some of my favourite romantic comedies, and came to the painful conclusion that very few deserve a Happily Ever After.
This is (an incomplete) list of some of the most egregious cases that came to mind.
All of the Men in Love Actually
Confession: I watch Love Actually every year during the holidays and I get so much joy from what I know is a highly problematic movie. It's filled with men in power falling in love with women they've employed. There's David (Hugh Grant), the Prime Minister of England, who is attracted to his secretary/housekeeper/assistant (what does she do, exactly?). Eventually, his desire affects his foreign policy decisions so much that he transfers her from his office. Harry (Alan Rickman) gets carried away on a wave of lust for his secretary, despite having a wife and two children at home (cue Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now"). Jamie (Colin Firth) is a heartbroken writer who falls for his housekeeper — and they don't even speak the same language. (Don't worry, a few night school classes change all of that!) And in the one case of a romance that does not involve a gross power imbalance, we have Mark (Andrew Lincoln), the stalker harbouring an obsession for his best friend's new wife. No cue cards could stop that from being creepy.
Blane, Pretty in Pink
"Blane? His name is Blane? That's a major appliance! That's not a name!"
Nothing will ever make me forgive John Hughes for making Andie (Molly Ringwald) choose Blane (Andrew McCarthy) over Duckie (Jon Cryer), the true hero of the film. Sure, he might have called her a little too often, but his style was unmatched and he had exceptional taste in music. Blane, on other hand, perpetually looked like he'd seen a ghost, plus he dropped Andie after five seconds of peer pressure, only growing a backbone when she came to prom without a date, but her best friend Duckie by her side. Blane definitely did not deserve Andie. #TeamDuckieForever
Lance and Harper, The Best Man
When Lance (Morris Chestnut) first appeared on screen, every woman in the movie theatre swooned over that million dollar smile. But re-watching this romantic classic, I had to acknowledge that Lance was all kinds of problematic.
An admitted philanderer who cheated on his fiancee Mia (Monica Calhoun) more times than he could count, Lance transforms into a caveman when he realizes that she stepped out on him once years earlier. Sure, it was with his best friend Harper (Taye Diggs), but seriously, dude, you have no right to anger.
And Harper is no better. He writes a novel that betrays Mia's trust and lays all their dirty laundry out for the world — and Lance — to see. And then he tries to rekindle the flames with his old college love despite having a girlfriend waiting at home. Lance is a troglodyte and Harper is just messy.
Joe Fox, You've Got Mail
It feels like sacrilege to say anything against the rom-com magic that is Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan together on screen. But no matter how much I adore the brilliance that is a Nora Ephron rom-com, I've never been able to quite wrap my head around the idea that you could fall in love with a man who not only took you out of business but closed down the store that your mother built. Seriously? Joe Fox's (Tom Hanks) guilt over destroying Kathleen's (Meg Ryan) life is as useless as the flowers he brings to her apartment when she's sick with the flu. But, you know, yay to true love found over AOL dial-up modems.
Noah, The Kissing Booth
Netflix declared 2018 the summer of the rom-com, and among a string of apparently successful releases was this truly terrible film. Noah (Jacob Elordi) is the bad boy off-bounds love interest Elle (Joey King) has been crushing on most of her life. Noah's controlling and jealous antics feel like they came straight out of a pamphlet on warning signs of an abusive partner. Possessiveness becomes synonymous with romance, and physical violence is equated with annoying but endearing heroics. All of this adds up to a crappy movie — but also a truly scary message when you realize that the audience is teenage girls.
Michael, My Best Friend's Wedding
You don't go to rom-coms for realism. You go for the fairy tale, and that's why we accept the absurd obstacles and never-in-a-million-years meet-cutes. But this movie took things too far. Are you really telling me that boring bland Michael (Dermot Mulroney) could really have both Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz chasing him? Never mind the fact that he's a consummate flirt whose friendship with Julianne (Roberts) would leave even the most level-headed woman confused. I propose a remake where Julianne and Kimberly (Diaz) leave Michael, get together and sail away on a yacht, while George (Rupert Everett) serenades them with Dionne Warwick tunes.
Sam, Never Been Kissed
I used to watch this movie every time it came on TV — until I suddenly realized it was romanticizing a relationship between a teacher and his student. Sam (Michael Vartan) gives Josie (Drew Barrymore) numerous meaningful looks long before he learns that she's actually of a legally consenting age. Seen as the handsome, charming, well-read alternative to the popular boys who tormented her teen years, Sam's deeply troubling attraction to his student is given a rosy glow thanks to a cheerful Beach Boys soundtrack.
When Hitch came out in 2005 I thought it was charming and hilarious. Re-watching it in 2018 is a whole new ball game. Listening to a dating coach (Will Smith) tell men not to believe women when they state what they want is more than cringe-worthy. He spends much of the movie encouraging men to ignore boundaries, push past the no's and act like stalkers. In the end (spoiler alert), none of his tactics truly work. To "woo" a woman, you just need to be yourself. But this movie about a dating doctor still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Linus (Harrison Ford) is the actual worst. He purposefully manipulates Sabrina (Julia Ormond) to keep her away from his brother. He kisses her without consent. He propositions her with money and plane tickets. He wears ugly bow ties and his condescension is repulsive. Linus has zero redeeming qualities and yet...with one apology and a quick Concorde flight to Paris, Sabrina is back in his arms. It's been years since I watched the original, but I really hope that Humphrey Bogart was bringing more to the table when Audrey Hepburn fell for him.
Gary, The Break-Up
Remember when Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn dated? It feels like an alternate reality — one where this terrible movie probably belongs. After breaking up with Gary (Vaughn), Brooke (Aniston) is left regretting the decision and resorts to various measures to win him back and make him realize that he has always taken her for granted. The question that is never resolved, though, is...why? Why would a successful curator who can still rock a body-con dress want to win back a selfish, video game-playing slob who is rude to her family, hosts strip poker in her house, refuses to wash dishes and can't shut up for 30 seconds? I don't know the answer to that question and neither will you after you watch this movie.
Jake Ryan, Sixteen Candles
The highly celebrated John Hughes film Sixteen Candles has not aged well. Racism, misogyny and homophobia abound. This list isn't ranked, but if it were, Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) would be a strong contender for the most trash love interest ever written. Yes, he's undeniably good looking, but he also has the personality of a wet blanket — a mean wet blanket. He's rude to his girlfriend Caroline (Haviland Morris), and he pursues Sam (Molly Ringwald) while he's still with her. He shuts the door on Caroline's hair and, most disturbingly, encourages another student to take advantage of her when she's passed out drunk — trading her for Sam's underwear. I'd say at least we've learned in the years since, but then The Kissing Booth came out this year, so...
Nick, Crazy Rich Asians
Don't get me wrong here, I was swooning along with the rest of the audience when Nick Young (Henry Golding) appeared on screen — but let's be real: no matter how many millions he has in his back pocket, I don't know if Nick really deserved Rachel (Constance Wu). He lies to her for most of their relationship, doesn't prepare her for what it would be like meeting her family, remains foolishly naive regarding the bullying she faces and never really stands up and defends her the way she truly should have been. Hopefully in the sequel Nick finally learns how to step up.