The Lois Lane Effect

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That’s why Lois Lane is so perfect for him. She’s the perfect blend of firebrand, intelligent opponent and total doormat. And she’s hot.– Lois Lane as defined by “Jimmy Olsen”

Writing is hard. One of the hardest aspects of writing is evoking drama in a made-up story. Who really gives a shit if Mark Hamill has to sit in a fake plane in order to make a toy ball explode? This is where emotion comes into play: if the audience can relate to a conflict, even if it is contrived, they will be invested in that toy ball exploding. And of course, the easiest way to go about doing this is to shove into plots the greatest of all contrived conflicts: the quest for sweet, sweet nookie.

Fred Durst approves

Fred Durst approves

As i mentioned in another post of mine, modern Romantic fiction (and not just guy meets girl stories) was codified during the Middle Ages of Europe, with much of the coda coming from the Chivalric code. A man fights through everything from other men to Hell itself in order to prove himself worthy of his lady. It was supposedly as true for real life knights as it was for Lancelot himself. As such, this basic tenet of manliness passed on till modern times, where pretty much any “real man” in fiction has to kick ass and get laid (in either order). This sequence is especially important in the superhero genre.

           Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

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The golden standard for superhero love interests is Superman’s longtime girlfriend Lois Lane. Debuting in the very first issue of Action Comics, (where Superman first appeared) Lois is as old as the hero himself. Given that these were stories meant for children, their relationship was no more complex than ” Clark wants Lois. Lois wants Superman. Conflict. Ironically, she was actually more progressive than the characters she inspired in her Golden Age 1930’s-40’s appearances, being assertive and only occasionally used for “save the girl” plots.

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The Fleischer Superman cartoons even had her fighting in World War 2 as a covert agent.

And the ” Baddest Bitch ” award goes to…

This characterization ceased during the “Get Back In The Kitchen!” 50’s and the rise of the Comics Code Authority, which literally had doctrines such as “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage“. This led to the Lois Lane who became a bane upon Superman and comics and general. She was reduced to an annoying hanger-on who’s only concern was marrying Superman.

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The biggest loss for the franchise was that she ceased to even have a reason to be around anymore. Golden Age Lois served as a challenge for Clark since he had to win her over without being Superman. She was a badass character in her own right which justified her astronomical standards. Reducing her to a satellite love interest nullified that romantic conflict and replaced it with a series of ” zany ” marriage schemes. You’d think she needed a green card or something. What was even worse is that as she became more arbitrary, her prevalence in media increased, to the point where she got a whole series dedicated to her desire to bone Superman.

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Lois was never good with linear reasoning

Batman #157 (August 1963)

Vicki Vale CompetitionGiven that Superman is the quintessential superhero, several other franchises had a Lois Lane equivalent just to keep up with the Joneses. Batman had Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger in the film) who was a reporter who wrote about Batman, intending to find out his identity and bone him (in either order). Oh, and she didn’t like Bruce Wayne that much. Sounds familiar? Barry Allen aka The Flash got his own model in Iris West, yet another “intrepid reporter” who couldn’t figure out his secret identity until they were already married. “Intrepid” must be old timey slang for “idiot”.

Marvel Comics dealt with this trope better in the 60’s, but still with a few Lois Lane influences. Before the arrival of plot tumor Mary Jane, Peter Parker started off with Betty Brant, who was sort of like a deconstruction of 50’s Lois Lane. She was also clingy and jealous, but instead of being played entirely for laughs, it was actually a serious relationship problem which caused him quite some grief.

The Amazing Spider-Man #15 (August 1964)

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He then went on to court Gwen Stacy, who began as actually quite vain, being interested in Peter literally because he had the nerve to not try boning her.

The Amazing Spider-Man #31 ( December 1965 )

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Once their relationship became settled, however, she started to become yet another satellite love interest. So much so that Marvel editors thought the most interesting thing they could do with the character is kill her off.

      Journey Into Mystery

Nurse Jane Foster Dreaming of Thor

Marvel’s other flagship hero, Thor, had a love interest in Jane Foster (who was carried over into the films but more on that later) back in his ” secret identity ” days. A doctor’s assistant in his mortal form’s (Donald Blake) practice, Foster and Blake were mutually attracted, but he thought she only pitied him due to his handicap (he couldn’t walk without a cane). This was exacerbated by the fact that she was (you guessed it) also attracted to Thor, but they couldn’t consummate due to Odin’s plot-drama doctrine of “don’t let mortals know about your secret identity”. To be fair, this dynamic was interesting at times because it injected a bit of classical myth: human/god coupling is an issue in almost every religion. Nevertheless, it was dropped once Thor stopped being a part-time human all-together and rationally decided to have sex with hot god babes instead.

Following suit with Thor, most superhero franchises drifted away from the generic love interest formula moving into the next few decades. Dimensions were added to pre-existing and new love interests. Many became (with varying levels of quality) “tougher” to compensate for previous portrayals. Lois Lane, the progenitor herself, was one of the first to get her metaphorical balls back.

                                                      Man of Steel

Maybe a little too much balls...

Or maybe her literal balls…

Some ladies went the Jane Foster route and were just phased out of focus; Hal Jordan/Green Lantern’s first love Carol Ferris became more important for becoming a hero/villain (it’s complicated) in her own right. Their love affair became just one of many flings for the bachelor hero. On the darker side of the spectrum, some were used as macabre drama fodder, such the aforementioned death of Gwen Stacy. Comic writer Gail Simone dubbed this trope “Women In Refrigerators“, referencing a controversial Green Lantern story where the hero’s girlfriend was brutally murdered and…well you could probably guess…

Green Lantern #54 (1994)

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“WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!?”

Obviously a fucked up trope it is in it’s own right, many writers consider this equally terrible (if not worse) as just having a living shallow love interest.

For the most part, the role of superhero girlfriend had a decent reinvention in mainstream comics. The days where love interests bogged down superhero tales were going away…until fucking Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002).

Keep in mind this is the official poster

Keep in mind this was the official poster

What Richard Donner’s Superman films were in the 70’s, Spider-Man was to the current generation. It reinvigorated the comic film and also set the stage for how these films will be adapted. This included how love interests would be integrated. And boy was it an awful model for it, since Mary Jane pretty much eclipses EVERYTHING in the film series. The film’s events unfold as such:

1. Peter takes a picture of MJ and gets bitten while he’s distracted

2. Peter becomes a wrestler with his new powers because he wants to buy a car to impress MJ (leading to his life-defining negligence)

3. Peter incorporates red into his costume because it’s her hair color (fuck patriotism, I guess)

4. Peter’s relationship with Harry is strained due to a love triangle with MJ

5. Norman Osborn goes on a homicidal rampage because Peter hooked up with MJ

And that’s not counting all of the damsel-in-distress nonsense. Fuck Norman Osborn; SHE’S clearly the antagonist of the film. The second film takes this even further by beginning with Peter’s voice over stating that ” She looks at me everyday. Mary Jane Watson. Oh boy! If she only knew how I felt about her “. The film basically establishes it’s premise as ” It’s all about MJ! “. Forget nuclear armageddon guys; how’s Petey going to go to MJ’s play? Is MJ going to marry that astronaut guy who we’ve never seen before? Pressing issues indeed.

While i wouldn’t say that these films necessarily caused an insistence on superhero love interests, it wouldn’t be too wild to assume that film producers, always eager to emulate the success of hit movies, saw this as an affirmation of the Lois Lane formula. This meant that every hero who had some canonical squeeze had a love story shoehorned into his film.

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

As mentioned before, Thor and Jane Foster’s coupling was an artifact of his secret identity days when his human persona already had a longstanding relationship with her. Yet, she’s placed in the film (albeit with a different job) as the woman he falls in love with in about three days.  Once again: Asgard. Hot god babes. C’mon.

Ditto

Seriously guys?

For the Iron Man films, they took Pepper Potts who he only occasionally fucks when he’s not fucking super-models or super-heroes or anything with a hole in it, and turned her a convenient satellite love interest. In contrast, in the comics she eventually married Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau’s character) until he died, so it wasn’t even like her and Tony had that serious of a relationship. And as for Nolan’s Batman films, I had no issues with the character of Rachel Dawes (who was a pretty good moral compass)…buuut then he forced in a last minute hookup with Selina Kyle that was as plausible as the end of John Hughes’ Career Opportunities (and no, I don’t expect you to get that reference).

Good thing he isn't world-famous or anything...

Good thing he isn’t world-famous or anything…

As much as i’ve grown to be wary of love interests in comics, i’d be bereft to call them necessarily a bad thing. As i mentioned in the beginning, this trope’s defining nature is its relatability. Love is the most ubiquitious real-life concern; it’s something most people want and desire. And not everyone is necessarily smart about it. People do get obsessed with relationships and often put aside other important things in order to focus on them. And in the hands of a good writer, a love story can elevate a hero. With that being said, it’s a trope that needs moderation. If there’s a narrative point in a relationship, so be it, but it shouldn’t be a necessity for every hero. Those unfortunate stories with Lois Lane were made during a time when the country was trying to avoid certain truths. No one wanted to admit women could be independent. No one wanted to admit marriage wasn’t as great as we all believed. To some extent, we’re still thinking that way. But things are changing. And as we change, our heroes (and heroines) should too.

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For more posts on Superman and DC Comics:

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Bat In The Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption In Gotham City

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

For more posts on Marvel Comics:

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As A Classic Anti-Hero

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

For more posts on Romance in fiction:

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: The Implication Of Romance In Hollywood

Don Jon Review

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Don Jon Review

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Don Jon is a great example why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The promos of the film build it up to be a shallow sex comedy capitalizing on the social punching bag that is “Guido” culture ( the protagonist is from Staten Island by the way, so fuck you Jersey haters ). Once it opens, it’s obvious that despite the marketing campaign, it’s actually an affectionate satire on American media that includes the types of films it appears to be.

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Joseph Gordon Levitt  plays the titular Jon, who’s prowess with the ladies leads his friends to call him “Don Jon”. His nickname is a pun on real life 16th century “libertine” ( i.e.  manwhore ) Don Juan. But despite his luck with ladies, Jon is bored with promiscuity. Things seem to turn around when during one of his regular club outings he meets Barbara Sugarman ( Scarlett Johansson ) who stands out from the rest ( i.e. doesn’t put out on the first night ). He then proceeds  to and succeeds in wooing her, but ends up in a relationship that isn’t entirely perfect.

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The first element of Jon’s characterization we are given is his obsession with internet porn. He’s not much into ACTUAL sex, despite having lots of it. This is very novel for a mainstream film: most films that acknowledge pornography do so to establish that those who watch it can’t get laid ( Superbad, Kick-Ass ). Having a character who gets laid A LOT and still watches pornography opens up a conversation about its mainstream appeal. Jon doesn’t just watch porn, he ritualizes it. The film’s portrayal of porn addiction is both hilarious and troubling. Jon’s laptop is on a mostly barren black table with candles surrounding it, turning it into a more romantic object than his actual sex partners. Rather than his porn-watching occurring in the absence of sex, he follows up sexual encounters with porn, which he finds superior to the “real thing”. Needless to say, the film is pretty hard on watching pornography ( porn-I mean pun unintended ).

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The film is critical of not only porn, but media as a whole. The opening scene shows an intense, “ hypercut ”, mishmash of cartoons ( primarily ” Red Hot Riding Hood ” ) , music videos ( primarily Sisqo’s “ Thong Song ” ), and pornography. This segways into Jon’s commentary on sex and his love of porn, communicating the film’s primary “antagonist”. As Jon himself alludes to, part of his porn routine isn’t just watching porn, it’s watching anything that can gratify him. American media IS porn. And that doesn’t just mean rappers sliding credit cards through strippers’ asses in music videos ( yes, that really happened ). It means sports that allow Jon’s father a reprieve from the drudgery of family meals. It means social platforms that allow Jon’s sister a reprieve from interacting at all. It means romantic comedies that-wait a minute, this film IS  a romantic comedy!

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Yes, the film focuses it’s critical eye own genre. During a scene at a movie theater, we see a character view a romantic film in the same way Jon views his porn: through a intense mishmash of familiar scenes  that seem to have an orgasmic effect on the viewer. The film presents the American romance genre as being vapid and indulgent ( like porn ). The cinematography supports this through Michael Bay style focus on the act of sex itself. Sex scenes are quick and given a “stylish” blue tint. The always have an angle that emphasizes the visceral nature of sex rather than anything intimate. Scarlett Johansson’s hotness also serves the porn nature of the film-it gives a great excuse for several longing shots of her body in tight, revealing outfits. Y’know, for plot reasons.

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The beauty of this concept is that it allows for the film to cater to the demographic it pokes fun at (at least initially). College bros and working class joes will eat up the film’s raunchy comedy. The film’s sexual humor is pretty immediate without much innuendo, as reflective of the lowbrow nature of the protagonist. Jon himself is a lovable lech who manages to stay relatable. In addition, dat Scarlett Johansson. If taken as just a sex comedy, it works fairly well. If taken as a satire, it still works well, but has many issues.

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I’m 700 words into a review and I haven’t touched upon the Armani Exchange wearing elephant in the room: is this a film about guidos? In a word: no. Let me elaborate through comparison: in 1977 a seminal American film debuted which centered on a young Italian in his late teens with no sense of the future. He engages in mindless debauchery with his friends while hitting up the most popular night spots with a steady supply of drugs and sex. It serves as a deconstruction of popular youth culture by painting it as often destructive and hollow ( One of the main characters commits suicide because he got his girl pregnant ). What’s the name of this film?

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That’s right, “ that film about John Travolta dancing “ is actually a harsh criticism of the very culture it seems to glamorize. The characters of the film are all working class white kids in the 70’s, so of course their socializing is going to reflect that demographic (hence the disco). However, one could transpose that narrative into any vapid youth culture of the moment like say, 90’s gangsta rap. But unfortunately, since most people take only a glance at any film, it became a film about disco culture instead of commentary on that generation of youth. Don Jon has already suffered similar pigeonholing; the Italian American One Voice Coalition has commented that Don Jon is another work painting Italian American culture in a negative light. Because lord knows Jersey Shore hasn’t already done that.

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While Don Jon is clearly drawing from “ guido ” culture ( hairstyle, excessive exercise, etc ), to dismiss it as only that is incorrect. Not only is Jon portrayed and written humanely by Levitt, most of the film’s critical eye seems to be more towards the way he interacts with culture and not so much his culture itself. Like Saturday Night Fever, Jon is swept up in the culture of the day, in his case; Jersey Shore. His mannerisms, family, and friends all manage to get enough nuance to save the character from being a negative caricature. What is “wrong” with Jon is the shallow routine in which these elements are contained. The majority of the film is taken up by Jon going through the same events over and over: masturbation-gym-road rage-church-family dinner-club-dance-sex-masturbation. It’s the ” Gym-Tan-Laundry ” lifestyle taken too far. He does all these things without much consideration for why he’s doing them or if he should modify them somewhat. This lends to the overall vapid nature of his life.

If I had to say what aspect of the film hurts Don Jon the most, it’s the fact that its concept might be too daring for its methods. This is a romantic comedy that is deconstructive of both mainstream media and romance. That’s like being an anti-semitic rabbi. Friction occurs when the film’s novel narrative goals are carried by fairly stock devices. For example, Johansson’s character and relationship with Jon becomes a bit less compelling  once I “ got ” what the film’s major thematic conflict was. Rather than being interested in her character, she became all to familiar. There were still laughs and some nice acting moments, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where things are heading. In addition, it’s obvious Levitt didn’t really trust in the film’s legibility, and thus we have a few scenes verbally expositing the film’s themes, a big no-no in visual media. A character almost literally points to the “media is pornography”  argument by the end of the second act, when it had already been quite overt. Finally, we can see the “ Hollywood ” influence in its ending, which could be viewed as a bit hypocritical given the film’s major themes. As Levitt’s first film effort, I can imagine that his ambitions outstripped what could be done in a marketable film. Don Jon has few surprises beyond the first act, and I remember going through the 2nd act and part of the 3rd  knowing what to expect.

Final Verdict

All in all, despite a few issues, I enjoyed Don Jon thoroughly. As a first film effort, it’s quite good. Watch it if you like sex jokes, are aware and skeptical of romantic comedy, and want to support original ideas. Don’t watch if you’re a bit prudish or are in a bad relationship (this will make you question some shit).

For more thoughts on Romance:

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: Implications of Romance In Hollywood

The Lois Lane Effect

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: Implications of Romance in Hollywood

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Romantic comedies are the bread and butter of the film industry. Probably because Romance is the most “classical” of narratives, therefore highly familiar. The narrative concept of Romance was refined in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

Tristan & Isolde

Tristan & Isolde

Probably the most famous tale of Romance during this period was the love between Knight Sir Lancelot and King Arthur’s Queen, Lady Guinevere in The Death of King Arthur. While this might sound pretty fucked up by modern bro standards, this was actually quite common. If a knight loved a lady that was taken, he could still express his affection through prose and gifts. This is one of the aspects of “chivalry”, which encouraged knights to be this bold in their feelings. One would think that such actions would inspire many angry beatdowns from husbands (which it probably did), but chivalry had the added bonus of motivating knights to be badasses. Being a knight wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, especially in the sex department. How many women can be tupped with impunity in a theocracy? Not a lot, in fact.

Those in power recognized a useful outlet for this sexual frustration was the chivalric code, which forced men to demonstrate their value to women, which in turn forced them to perform several other tasks that would allow for said value to be observable. Here lies the real “point” of Romance: women serve as object to be worked for, which forces a man to actify himself. While this is fine and dandy in theory, the lengths men went through in order to prove this value could be fucking ridiculous, and often had horrible outcomes.

Excalibur-Lancelot-Guinevere-Forbidden

Excalibur (1981)

In the aforementioned The Death of King Arthur, Lancelot’s love of Guinevere culminated in an affair. When Arthur finds out, his distressed state causes the fall of Camelot to the evil sorceress Morgana Le Fey. Mind you, Guinevere serves NO purpose in myth other than causing this calamity, so Lancelot’s romantic striving is entirely destructive. Whereas The Death of King Arthur is cognizant of the downfalls that Romance often brings, most romantic films are not nearly as savvy. Most romantic films portray chivalry as not only necessary for being in a meaningful relationship, but also for having a meaningful life at all. In addition, they encourage gendered ideologies with very unfortunate consequences.

Knocked-Up-Poster-seth-rogen-3914957-1100-825One of the most disconcerting aspects of romantic films is that they often support the idea that disparities in relationships are always obstacles to be overcome and not red flags. What’s so bad about that? I’ll illustrate: in the film Knocked Up (2007) an overweight unemployed stoner gets an attractive E! correspondent pregnant, which leads them to forge a relationship. Hilarity ensues and they get married because love conquers all social barriers. Except no not really. Sure, they are shown to have a similar sense of humor, (loosely) but the fact is that their lifestyles are woefully incompatible. Katherine Heigl’s character interacts with celebrities on a daily basis, meaning that she’s exposed to the elite of masculinity. Is Seth Rogen’s man boobs always going to do it for her? Probably not. In addition, Rogen JUST gets a job at the end of the film, after spending most of his adult life unemployed. Mind you, he probably wouldn’t have even gotten a job if it wasn’t for his relationship, meaning if things go south, guess who he’s going to blame. In addition, Heigl’s character claimed to not even WANT kids; is that something that she will just get over as a mother? Will she resent Rogen for getting her pregnant against her wishes?

To be fair, most fictional stories contrive in order to achieve a happy ending. They’re not supposed to be ‘real’. The issue with romance in films is that the aesthetic remove between artifice and actuality is rarely acknowledged. Many people still rely upon the traditional dynamics between men and women: men ask women out on dates, women are less interested in sex, etc. We accept the narrative of Romance more readily than most other fiction (most wouldn’t accept a real life ‘cowboy cop’ for instance).

Many people actually hold the belief that significant others should change drastically in order to be part of a relationship, sometimes including job, residence, even religion. In essence, the role of significant other becomes more important than the actual person; the parties involved become players rather than partners. Rationally, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl have no business being together, but their union affirms the “power of love” (as Huey Lewis and the News would say). While i actually enjoy Knocked Up as a comedy, (and as a fat guy) I recognize that it is part of a culture of Romance that doesn’t really exist. “Love conquering all” works well as a tagline, but not in a practical world where 50% of marriages end and almost 50% of children are unplanned for. I’m not saying we’re less romantic, i’m just saying that the seams of Romance are beginning to show.

                   Officer and A Gentleman (1982)

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, Richard Gere, Debra Winger, 1982, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

If both parties are meant to make a change in order to maintain a relationship, it would make sense that the party often charged with being more proactive (men) would have to provide the most in the initial transaction. Most films center on male leads, therefore men are always meant to actify before they can obtain a significant other, just like the knights of old. Without dragons to slay. men have to find a different show of assertiveness. In an action film, that isn’t hard to do. James Bond has enough demonstrable value to make women yield immediately to his charms. If a hero doesn’t have that kind of cred, by film’s end he’ll have accomplished enough to earn some sex. In a romantic comedy, there aren’t as many avenues to demonstrate such value, so the only way to truly actify are INSANE ACTS OF LOVE!!!

INSANE!!!

INSANE!!!

No matter how ridiculous, rude, or lethal, a man who shows his love in a drastic manner will always come out on top. In 1967’s The Graduate (featured above), Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) realizes that he’s been in love with Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) throughout the film (despite fucking her mother). Of course, she’s getting married to Carl Smiths, the stereotypical douchebag who’s meant to finish the love triangle. So how does he resolve the situation? He breaks up the wedding, and starts a brawl with EVERYONE IN THE ROOM!!! WITH A CROSS!!! Of all the crazy last ditch love maneuvers, rushing the altar is probably right up there with airplane chasing in terms of ubiquity. Given the fact that courtship is by definition a competition, there’s no better checkmate than stealing another man’s bride. In reality, marriage is generally a mutual contract between two adults, and the idea that a dude just shows up and basically rips it up is pretty subversive. Mind you, that’s not what is concerning about the cliche (tropes are necessary for any story); what IS bothersome is the implied amount of confidence a man is supposed to have in order to make this a justified action.

One of the most famous American photographs is V-J Day In Times Square, taken in 1945 after the American victory against Japan. To elaborate, a sailor, feeling randy after killing several men, decided to grab a lady and smooch the hell out of her.

Probably while shouting "YOLO"

Probably while shouting “YOLO” into her throat

The facts of this event have caused much controversy recently. At first held up as a captured moment of romance, it turns out the two didn’t even know each other. The sailor was drunk and basically forced her to kiss him with his “vice grip” (as stated by the woman, Greta Friedman). What looks to be a romantic gesture was actually non-consensual. Some have even gone as far as to compare this to rape! What would ever give this young man the impression that such a thing would be acceptable?

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Oh yeah,that’s right…

The fact is most women WANT the man to make the first move in regards to kissing. I once heard a female coworker weigh in emphatically that “I don’t want a man to ask me, just kiss me!” to the approval of many others. Arguably the most famous cinematic kiss in Gone With The Wind (1939) features Clark Gable grasping Vivien Leigh around the waste and pulling her close, which she yields to happily. He doesn’t inquire, he acts. A man who hesitates loses the girl, so there isn’t much room for second guessing .

While I definitely wouldn’t hold what the sailor did as romantic, one could argue that it fell in line with already accepted ideas of romance, specifically that men have to take control of women in order to win them over. If the methods resemble an “assault”, it’s more of a logical consequence of expected male assertiveness. Men pursue and women are pursued. Men, as the pursuers, are supposed to make the bulk of the decisions in courtship. Who initiates the date? Men. Who makes the first move on the date? Men. Who sets up subsequent dates? I think the pattern is obvious. This dynamic is a bit of a double-edged sword: men are always to blame for terrible relationships, and women are impotent in relationships.

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In the film The Wedding Singer (1998) Adam Sandler is the titular hero who eventually pursues his engaged client. The groom in the film is hilariously awful at every given turn: in his first scene he calls his fiancee’s best friend slutty, muses on his desire to have sex with as many women as possible while married, and when the protagonist confronts him on his philandering, he BEATS HIM UP IN FRONT OF SEVERAL WITNESSES!!! I’m surprised he didn’t eat a baby as well. Of course, Sandler woos her at the end, and she wises up and dumps her fiancee, who she realizes is a douche.

He looked like such a nice guy

He looked like such a nice guy

This trope is disturbingly common in mainstream romance films; the douchebag boyfriend, as seen in Wedding Crashers (2005) and Can’t Hardly Wait (1998). This archetype is probably the closest thing to a dragon of myth, as they stand in the way between a hero and his reward. Almost none of these films seem to ask the obvious question of WHY the love interest chooses these terrible men in the first place. In The Wedding Singer, Sandler implies that she likes her fiancee because he’s wealthy, which she angrily objects to. The film paints the question as more a symptom of his bitterness rather than a logical conclusion; why WOULD she go out with a man so brazenly unsavory unless it was money? Doesn’t that call into question her standards, or at least her competency when it comes to judging others? The implication is that women have no ability to make decisions such as these, and are in essence at the whim of whatever man controls them. Within the same film, Sandler’s character is dumped at the altar by his fiancee who, while clearly meant to be awful, is used as a foil to reflect what’s wrong with Sandler himself. If he wasn’t so immature, he wouldn’t have been in a relationship with an immature woman. Of course, is never applied to his love interest.

A much darker version of this dynamic occurs in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger where James convinces the titular Goldfinger’s henchwoman (subtly named “Pussy Galore”) to defect to his side. Does he accomplish this through rational persuasion?

Naw,he fucks that girl

Naw, he fucks that girl

As in The Wedding Singer, James actually does attempt to ask why she works for Goldfinger in the first place, to which she responds “for the money”. Mind you, Goldfinger is a guy who once killed his girlfriend for making him lose at a card game. The film doesn’t portray Pussy (tee hee) as being evil at all; she just hadn’t found the “right” man to guide her in the right direction. Women can’t be evil because being evil requires autonomy. While one could look at the Goldfinger example as a product of “less enlightened time” this trope appears in modern films such as 2011’s Immortals, where the virginal heroine, blessed with the gift of prophecy, at first lectures the hero about how retaining her visions justifies her abstinence. His response?

You already know this,maaan

You already know this, maaan

Once again, the guy doesn’t even convince her of anything, it’s his dominance that actually brings her around.

Just from these these examples we can see an argument being made with mainstream film, women are unable to make decisions when it comes to who they date and men have to make all decisions in regards to their interactions with women. Women are objects adrift in the wind who need an assertive man to anchor them.

As one could note, these are all films marketed mostly towards a male demographic, meaning that they do cater to masculine outlook, just like the chivalric tales from the Romantic Era. Despite the target audience, it’s important to remember that Romance is always about indoctrinating both sexes. Men need to actify in order to gain each others respect, which includes having sex with women. These women “benefit” by only having sex with the cream of the crop and thus perpetuating a strong patriarchal society. In essence, a woman is a passive observer whereas a man is an active performer. One could say this dynamic is an odd twist on the theories of Laura Mulvey, famed film theorist known for her landmark essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). While I can’t quickly describe her seminal essay, in short: film is inherently “phallocentric” with a proposed viewer who is male.

Peeping Tom ( 1969 )

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Women contradictorily exist as “flat” images meant to service as grabbers of male gaze. As such, the audience, no matter their gender, only identify with the male characters. I would personally add that the identification with the male has a more lasting effect on actual men, who appropriate the narrative journey that the protagonist embarks upon, which is supposed to result in money, power, and women (as Tony Montana would say).

This journey is necessary because men don’t as often share the same inherent narrative value women do. For example, in the film Machete (2010), the killing of the hero’s wife (who doesn’t even have a name) is enough to fuel our hatred towards the antagonist. In comparison, a man has to be accomplished in order to garner the same level of impact upon death (Obi Wan, for example). Or a baby. This is why theories on narrative overwhelmingly suggest a boy has to journey to manhood,  since otherwise he would be worthless. Women, on the other hand, occupy more intrinsically valuable roles in classical narrative that remain static (The Goddess, The Muse, Mystical Aid, etc).

Anger-Management-adam-sandler

Probably one of best unintentional commentaries on the performance dynamic is the film Anger Management (2003) (Yes, another Sandler film. I guess he just has a thing for this). In the film Sandler plays a shy man named Dave Buznik who, after an unintentional show of aggression on an airplane, ends up in anger management courses with Buddy Riedel (Jack Nicholson).

During the course of his treatment, Riedel attempts to drive out the wimpiness that is central to the character. At the midpoint of the film Dave, not yet unwimpified, fails to summon the courage to propose to his girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei), who immediately afterwards requests taking a break from their relationship in the same scene. After he consents, she immediately starts dating Riedel. This breaks the last levee in his mind and he begins a roaring rampage of manliness, beating up his romantic rival, insulting his domineering boss, and of course, going after his girl. As in The Graduate, it’s insufficient for him to just propose to her normally, so he actually shows up at a Yankees game (where Riedel plans to propose to her) runs onto the field (knocking over several players) and proposes in front of an entire stadium. What makes this scene so important is that Dave planned to propose to her at Yankee stadium in the first place, which for a man as shy as him would have been quite terrifying. Proposing to her in front of the entire stadium shows just how far he’s willing to go for her. She of course, accepts his proposal, sticking it to Buddy Riedel. Except that, Riedel planned the whole thing. Why? At the behest of LINDA.

You bitch.

You bitch.

The film plays this revelation as quite minor, she exposits the entire charade during a casual barbecue epilogue with Riedel himself. Everything that he’s gone through, which includes fighting a monk, assaulting a coworker, and having the threat of arrest looming over him, was an elaborate plan by his girlfriend to get him to nut up.

anger

This gives new light to many of the film’s events. In the beginning of the film, Dave is quickly coded as an impotent man in all respects. The film’s prologue shows him getting his pants pulled down while talking to a crush, while everyone in his neighborhood laughed at his small penis. This is never mentioned again, but is implied to be the impetus for his later sexual shyness. Despite being in a relationship with his girlfriend for years, he is still uncomfortable with PDA, much to her chagrin. Assuming that she began her plan a little before the film opens, one could extrapolate that said shyness was the driving factor for such drastic measures. This is ‘warranted’ because, lets be honest, a shy man is an oxymoron to most people. Given Riedel’s stealing of his proposal idea, she even knew that he planned to propose and decided to basically needle him into giving as grand a proposal as possible.

This brings us back to “performance”, it’s not important how much Dave actually cares for her (which could arguably be discerned through the length and intimacy of their relationship), it’s important that he performs his love in the way that best suits gender roles. It doesn’t matter how great their relationship is, what’s important is that HE proposes to HER, especially in as spectacular a manner as possible.

Untitled

After grudgingly agreeing to the break, a scene follows where Dave is talking to her on the phone, his emotions barely restrained. He does his best to affect an accepting tone and even says he’s ok with her going out on a date (he then launches a calculator at a coworker). While many argue on the effectiveness of “breaks” in relationships, it’s clear that Dave desperately wants to respect her wishes, despite his feelings. The scene portrays this as another example of wimpiness; “If he was a REAL man he’d take her back” “A REAL man wouldn’t stand for that”. So even though he puts what he thinks are her desires over his own, he still hasn’t “earned” the right to be her husband.

What makes his proposal so important isn’t that he communicates his affection for her (he already does that), it’s that he has literally cowed himself as much as possible in the process. He became the “masculine” man she wanted, he succumbed to her desire for PDA, and he put himself in personal and physical danger for her.

He also saw a transvestite's penis

He also saw a transvestite’s penis

Despite the outlandishness of its premise, Anger Management literalizes the performance of Romance beautifully (albeit unintentionally). Romantic striving is often the impetus for creating gender roles; for example, if a woman is unattractive to men, she ceases to be object to quest after and thus would not be considered feminine. On the other end, if a man fails to please a woman, he isn’t a man. While many would claim the problem here is that it causes inequality, I would actually say the problem is that it undercuts most intimacy. Masculinity as an ideal, while still important to other men, becomes even more important when around women, who need it as a necessary counterbalance to femininity. As such, roles become more important than people, as both parties care more about performance than players. It could be asserted that attitudes like this, while useful in short term scenarios, become an issue in the larger world of gender dynamics, where women are constantly relegated to object and men constantly forced to perform. Mainstream romantic fiction perpetuates and affirms these roles more than any other medium.

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For most posts on Romance;

Don Jon Review

The Lois Lane Effect

For more insights into gender dynamics:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GenderDynamicsIndex

Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema