Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happy Valentines Day!--and the evils of the established relationship

As is normally the case with my seasonal blogs, I should absolutely not be writing this right now. I cannot even tell you how many anti establishment compositions I need to be working on right now. My little town is in crisis, and I also picked this week (for some reason?) to create major projects criticizing FIRST Robotics and CollegeBoard.

But you can't be an activist all the time...

I've been planning on writing this since November but saved it specially for today...

Ah well, here it goes!

I can watch slasher movie after slasher movie, watch group after stereotypical group of teenaged characters snuffed off in the prime of their lives, and never does it bother me emotionally. I am able enough, I suppose, to separate myself from them that I don't associate them with myself or my friends at all. It simply doesn't get to me, the characters are too fake and too annoying, the special effects in the deaths are just too interesting for me to be preoccupied with who is actually getting killed and how it will affect the plot.

But sit me down in front of a romantic comedy, and I'm a mess. I constantly vicariously fall for the quirky friend, the inevitable formulaic fight or break up always has me in tears. You can have the most stereotypical characters in the world; if that boyfriend dies, I'm sobbing and sending unnecessarily sappy text messages to my own. 

I've psychoanalyzed myself a lot over this one, because I think it's wicked stupid, but I can't figure it out--I'm in a wonderful relationship. Perhaps it is because relationships are like squirrels, and though I've only been in approximately one and a half relationships, I've basically been in all relationships, so I can't help relate to the characters in romantic movies....? No, that's nonsense. Maybe because I have so many guy friends, they cover all the archetypes, so any character I subconsciously relate to one of them, and their sadness makes me sad? Also stupid. 

Regardless, for this reason, I don't watch a ton of movies with a ton of romance. But I have noticed a serious trend. I could be wrong...but I'm not. No I'm not. 
(Name that anti-love song!)
The trend is, to be in a relationship, you must face each other and form a diagonal line across the screen from left to right.

The established relationship is never good. The established boyfriend, or girlfriend, is always, always the bad guy, whether they are bad or not.

Innumerable movies have used this trick. When Harry Met Sally is the prime example of this, with Harry's girlfriend being kind of trashy in the beginning, his wife (?) leaving him unfairly, Sally's fiancee leaving her...all very tragic. Enchanted is the second movie that comes to mind, since I watched it last week--Patrick Demsey's fiancee at the beginning of this movie is played as an antagonist throughout the film. Legally Blonde--same situation, or should I say "sitch," while I'm talking about painfully sororitorial (made up that word) movies. Reese Witherspoon's fiancee at the beginning of the movie is, again, played as a bad guy. The Exploding Girl (which I've only watched the first fifteen minutes of, the friends becoming romantically inclined situation was so overwhelming,) is based around it entirely. They use it in Over Her Dead Body, which, I have, shamefully watched. Life Without Dick, a fantastic comedy that I highly recommend, has the fiancĂ©e-to-be as a less moral character than the mobster who Sarah Jessica Parker falls in love with. Mean Girls does it. Last week I watched The Postman Always Rings Twice (bonus points to whoever can explain that movie to me,) where the husband is controlling and repressive, the only thing keeping the gorgouses Lara Turner and John Garfield apart. You Can Count On Me uses it as a sub plot. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World uses it. Even my very favorite movie besides Behind the Mask, But I'm a Cheerleader, uses it by having the main character's boyfriends be one of the things holding her back from discovering her sexuality (but that one's a little different.) Horror movies use it a lot, but mainly to different ends and lesser degrees: House of Wax, Grace, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010,) and, most notably, Scream. "There's always some stupid bullsh*t reason to kill your girlfriend."
The diagonal line can start at any point on the screen, as long as it moves down and to the right

Books do it too--last week I read The Great Gatsby, with the villian as the main girl's husband. They use it on TV, in horribly written and painfully acted sitcoms and soap operas  like Full House (DJ/Nelson/Viper love triangle,) Saved By the Bell (the costume party episode that I've only seen the last fifteen minutes of,) Secret Life of the American Teenager, (every season, every episode,) Greek, Eight Simple Rules, One Tree Hill, Family Matters, as well as fantastic, stand out shows like The Office, Gilmore Girls, Soap, Party Down, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, Dexter, That 70's Show House, Scrubs...the list goes on. I haven't got around to watching every sitcom. There are probably, at the very least, over a hundred examples. There are also a lot of movies I haven't seen that I know use it--Leap Day, Sex and the City Two, Made of Honor, The Truth About Love....

It's pretty obvious as to why this is such a common formula. Change is sexy. Your life is boring. People are going to want to watch two people overcome a stifling relationship to get together than just get together. People don't want to see a happy couple stay happy, or overcome some challenges then get happy again. Boooooring. Stuff like that  happens in real life, why should we care if it happens in movies? It's not like fiction reflects life, or anything like that...
If the relationship is more light, you may stand a maximum of four feet apart, providing you still form the diagonal line
I think it's pretty detrimental to our society's perception of relationships in a lot of ways. First, look at the descriptions of those movies up there--and look at how many of them have the established significant other engaged to the main character. Engagement is no small potatoes. When you're engaged, it's not a good thing, it's not romantic to suddenly re-meet your high school fling or flirt with your co-workers to the point that you're madly in love with them instead. 
To make this acceptable, movies have to turn the established fiancee into a bad guy, usually by taking normal traits that come from a personality in a long term relationship and blowing them out of proportion or putting them in a negative light. They are practical and safe, (boring, unadventurous, dull,) they are protective (controlling, jealous, overprotective,) they are relaxed and comfortable in the relationship, (they no longer care enough to shave their legs or give constant compliments.) They are normal. You are used to them. They are easy and accessible--we only want what we can't have. And, of course, they're usually perfect for your best friend.
Alternatively, standing far apart could add more dramatic sexual tension
By doing this, I believe that movies and other media give people the idea that when they see these traits in their significant others, they are bad. I don't think that's true at all, even though I fall for their trickery myself all the time. I've recognized that it is, indeed, trickery, so I can see it coming and not fight with my boyfriend when he wants more attention from me than the random hot girl in one of my classes who I don't know, or he tries less hard to impress me than someone who I'm not dating who may think I'm cute. But do those of us who don't analyze the effects of media on society and societal expectations avoid this successfully? The world may never know. 
Unless it listens to me. I don't think they do. 

Not to mention, the time that movies usually aim at--the engagement--is, (source needed,) usually the most vulnerable part of a long term relationship, I'd imagine. People get doubts and cold feet, and it's kind of terrible for this plot formula to reinforce it. Heck, I'd be willing to say that people get doubts and cold feet at least in part because of stories like this. Romantic comedy says that by proposing, your boyfriend forced you into marriage before you were ready; they say the fact that your fiancee is a little neurotic about wedding planning means she's too up tight for you; they say that it is okay to kiss that guy in the coffee shop, because your evil fiancee exists to keep you away from his pretty eyes.
If the colors on opposite sides of the screen contrast, you get bonus points
That is the next way I think these movies negatively impact our perception of relationships--it emphasizes our societal expectation that men and women can't be friends. I'm not making this up, even--I just read an article from Psychology Today not an two hours ago saying that When Harry Met Sally was one of the major setbacks in the societal acceptance of cross-sex relationships in our society. Movies that use this formula really emphasize the fact that men and women can only have sexual relationships, and that is something I just don't agree with at all. Harry met Sally is obviously the most important example of this, (I think it's just the most important romantic comedy,) but almost everybody does it--Legally Blonde, Life Without Dick, You Can Count On Me, Secret Life of the American Teenager, The Office, Party Down, Parks and Recreation, Scrubs, House, and That 70's Show (Eric is in a long term relationship--Jackie Berkheart dates every single male main character by the end of the series. [yes I do watch that much 70's show don't judge me.]) In the movieverse, attractive men and attractive women must always have sex, always. Also in the movieverse, you cannot date someone, break up, and then "Just be friends." Which makes you wonder what happens after the movie ends--once the girl breaks things off with her husband-to-be and settles in to a relationship with new pretty eyes...does the original long term relationship just end entirely? Is a friendship that lasted, presumably, months or years simply over forever and ever? Or does the movie simply replay it self in reverse once pretty eyes starts leaving the cap off the toothpaste and original established relationship starts trying to woo again? 

These are some of my favorite movies and tv shows, but come on guys--really? Have you never had a friend of the opposite gender?
In rare situations, if you are in a clever indie movie, the girl may be on the higher end of the diagonal line

In my very limited relationship experience, which I don't entirely want to explain, I have proved and disproved many of these movieverse concepts.The fact that I know that says a lot about how much these formulas reflect our perceptions of relationship. As I mentioned, I often fall victim to seeing good, normal traits in my long-term boyfriend as negative traits. However, I also have a plethora of good looking and sensitive male friends who I have no desire to have any sort of romantic relationship with. 

On the other hand, my first boyfriend or...whatever was a close friend of mine who I swore, from as early as first grade (that is how far down in age these concepts permeate,) that I would never date or like like because not all girls and boys had to like like each other just to normally like each other. Just to prove another movieverse concept, in our short relationship I managed to coincidentally meet another guy who I started dating immediately after my first boyfriend or...whatever and I broke up. 

However, I have now managed to escape the wiliness of the romantic comedy concept. My friend and I have recovered from our small, weird stint as boyfriend and girlfriend, and now have a lovely, non awkward relationship that would probably make for a really terrible movie. My current boyfriend and I are celebrating our third valentines day together (except we don't ever celebrate valentines day because it's stupid, like formulaic plots,) and our only place in mass media would be as Donna and Eric on 70's Show. Except without pot and with more legos. But I do have to consciously avoid thinking I'm in a romantic comedy: no, just because that girl asked you for help on her math homework doesn't mean she likes you; no, your boyfriend is not preventing you from doing whatever you want to, you just made up that entire conversation; no, you are not falling in love at minute seven of the movie you aren't in just because that guy has some quirky thing in common with you.
If you REALLY want to be out there, the line may go THE OTHER DIRECTION!

 The screenwriter of some terrible romcom is in my brain, and if you're a seventeen-year-old eighteen-year-old girl who's been exposed to any pop culture, I bet there's one in your brain, too.

Gracious, with this and the Twilight principle, our generation is pretty ruined on relationships.....

Happy Valentines Day!


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