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We need to look elsewhere for real romance as pop-culture in general and movies in particular reinforce irrational ideas, and myths about love and relationships.
During a causal conversation with a friend recently, we started talking about the movie Love Actually and how the kid played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster was only five years younger in real life than the 18 year old Keira Knightley, who played a married adult in the movie – an overt sexualization of a teenage girl! And that certainly is not the only creepy thing in this movie which I think is about ‘men being creepy and being rewarded for how creepy they are’.
It wasn’t news to me that movies distort our ideas about love, but it was this conversation that truly set me exploring the various irrational and sexist beliefs about love we see portrayed on the silver screen.
Many of us know about the Indian man accused of stalking two women in Australia who escaped conviction after arguing he was influenced by Bollywood movies. This may sound like an extreme case, but as Kirthi Jayakumar points out, “The most common skewed idea kids derive from movies is, ‘If she says no, she means yes. She wants you to pursue her and win her over.’” And this problem with consent is a problem with pop culture outside India too.
There are some who say that we are killing the romance and spontaneity with all this talk of consent. But maybe, it’s time to reevaluate our ideas about what is romantic? After all, there is nothing unromantic about being sensitive and accepting of the desires of the person one claims to love.
“yeh chandsa roshan chehra
zulfon ka rang sunehra
yeh jheel si neeli ankhen”
I think most Indian women would struggle with having a face as bright and (white!) as the moon, naturally blonde hair and blue eyes, no?
Most movies show that love (and sex) are for young, able, heterosexual and conventionally beautiful people. Physical attractiveness is elevated above all else (shared values, likes and dislikes), and the boundaries of what is considered attractive are drawn restrictively. The ultra- feminine, ‘new girl’ Rani Mukherjee was who Shah Rukh Khan fell for in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, ignoring the tomboyish Kajol, who knew him for years. Of course, as soon as Kajol swapped the dungarees for the saree, and short hair for flowing tresses, she was instantly the perfect love interest.
These limited ideas about who is capable of love and being loved have an effect on real people. Which is why is heartening to see movies like Badhaai Ho or Margarita With a Straw, which show that love is not just for the young or abled. However, in terms of representing non-heterosexual relationships on screen, we have a long way to go. Homosexuality is still played for laughs on the screen in India, and well-written, sensitive films portraying such relationships are few and far between.
This is a corollary of the above idea that there is a particular kind of person that deserves love. In many movies, women are shown as realizing that the ‘bad guy’ they love isn’t right for them, and they run back to the ‘nice guy’ who has been patiently waiting for them (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, I’m looking at you). Or men realize that they are in fact in love with the traditional, homely girl next door, instead of the westernized, ‘modern’ girl that they thought they were in love with (Cocktail is one example).
However, this reeks of entitlement. In the case of men, it brings up the sexist idea that because a man is nice to a woman, she owes him love/sex and by just remaining friends (friendzoning) with him, she is being unfair to him. It ignores the woman’s own desires and agency.
In case of women, it sets up the goddess-whore dichotomy, which greatly harms women in general, and reduces the quality of relationships for men.
The fairy-tale proposal, the mad dash to the airport to stop a loved from leaving, and choreographed serenade, all work to convince us that if someone loves us, they will go the extra mile to do something amazing for us.
Recently, a man in New York proposed to his girlfriend who was in the middle of running a marathon. The girlfriend was happy to accept the proposal, but people were quick to point out that it was a very selfish act. Soraya Chemaly, the author of Rage Becomes Her, tweeted about the incident, asking “Why didn’t he wait, let her focus and finish without interruption and refocus?”
While such grand gestures are nice, what a romantic partner/ spouse would really appreciate are the little initiatives taken to help them with their work/chores, words of support when they are feeling down, encouragement, the celebration of small successes, willingness to keep the lines of communication open even if they disagree. As Michelle Obama’s recent revelation about seeking marriage counselling with Barack Obama shows us, couples who are #relationship goals, are inspiring precisely because they have taken the trouble to put in the hard work that requires.
This is fact, in one of the things that I really appreciated about the recent movie, Sui Dhaaga, in which the husbands are shown doing household chores without any fuss, and the wife stands by her husband as he sets out to achieve a dream.
I have written in detail in this article about the Devdas story, how in a romantic relationship, the women are expected to reform the men and do all the work required to maintain the relationship, singlehandedly. And while women do bear this unfair burden, this idea that love can “change” a person is also used in pop-culture, to ‘tame the shrew’, as in the movie Laadla.
In reality however, attempting to act as a romantic partner’s therapist, can only have disastrous consequences. Especially if the person is suffering from serious mental health issues.
Movies set us up for disappointment by peddling the idea that love equals compatibility. This is the idea of the ‘happily ever after’. That once the couple has fought off the villains and dissenters, and have married, they live a perfectly conflict free life. They are made for each other, simply because they love one another.
However, as this article discusses in detail, “You must be in love with your life partner, but you also must be in like.”
The biggest lie that movies and pop culture sell us is that everyone wants romance and/or sex in their lives. In doing so it ignores people who identify as aromantic or asexual.
As our understanding of sexuality has evolved, we have come to realize that there are people who do not experience or desire romantic attraction (aromantics) or sexual attraction (asexuals) or both (aromantic asexuals). This does not mean that people who identify as aromantic or asexual are cold or heartless. They simply find satisfaction and joy in other relationships.
This article explains the aromantic spectrum well.
It may be argued that art reflects life, and these ideas about love and relationships are not seeded by movies, but are in fact a portrayal of what people really experience and believe. However, I believe that the explanation is not so simple.
Yes, movies draw from life, but they also inform people’s opinions and behaviours, as we have seen in some examples above. As such, film makers, who have access to such an influential platform have a responsibility to tell stories about love that encourage healthy, fulfilling relationships, rather than stories that create false expectations that lead to dissatisfaction.
Image source: a still from the movie 2 States
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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a
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