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What love actually looks like

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Valentine’s Day may have originated to commemorate St. Valentine or “Christianize” the Roman celebration Lupercalia, but capitalism has taken the idea and run with it. Hallmark christens February “Lovuary,” and they release a barrage of loved-up movie fluff, as well as plush stuffed animals, cards, and books every year; products ranging from Lego to fidget spinners get a heart-themed makeover come February; and novelty chocolates fly off the shelves faster than rapid tests at your local pharmacy.

But the way we view love and the emphasis we put on Valentine’s Day is heavily influenced by the way love is portrayed in the media. While there are some healthy depictions of love in movies and television, take Patrick and David’s relationship in Schitt’s Creek, for example, and the honesty and confusion that
the relationships in Sex Education are depicted with, it is still much easier to find unhealthy relationships onscreen.

Hayley Dicks, Janet Guenter, and Aimee Kilgore are MacEwan University students who volunteer with the MacEwan Anti-Violence Education Network (MAVEN) in the Peer Education Program. They are fully aware of the harmful relationship tropes that exist in the media.

In particular, the three students have found an overwhelming number of movies that feature the trope “stalking for love,” a name that was popularized by a short documentary by the same name. It’s present in anything from Groundhog Day to The Notebook, and You’ve Got Mail. This trope usually involves a heterosexual relationship where the woman is initially romantically uninterested in the man. Instead of listening to her refusal, the man relentlessly pursues her until she finally gives in.

“The woman’s ‘no’ is an excuse to convince her (to be in a relationship) or to really emphasize the whole chase thing,” says Dicks. “But the chase (isn’t) a healthy, mutual, exciting start to a relationship. It’s one person (who) is not interested, and the other is trying to convince them to be interested.”

Kilgore notes that the trope emphasizes that all is fair in love and war. “If it’s in the name of love (the trope makes it seem like) it’s okay if he showed up with a grand romantic gesture that made her uncomfortable, or it’s okay that he took her ‘no’ as ‘I need to convince her, I need to find out more about her, or I need to find out things from her friends so I can manipulate her into liking me back.’”

“But if it’s an unwanted behaviour,” Kilgore continues, “then it’s just hugely problematic.”

Kilgore notes that this trope directly translates into rape culture and the idea of consent only being a “no” until you hear a “yes.” This parallel to rape culture is very concerning, especially considering how widespread the stalking for love trope is.

There are hundreds of other relationship tropes (according to tvtropes.org), most of which are harmful. They usually lean heavily on stereotypical gender norms and play into widespread fantasies. Some of these include “Abduction is Love,” which guarantees that the love interest will fall in love with their kidnapper (Beauty and the Beast, for example); “Beautiful Dreamer,” where someone watches their love interest sleep (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Her, and most notably, Edward in Twilight); “Lady and Knight,” where a hero saves a fair lady and falls in love with her in the process (A Knight’s
Tale, Indiana Jones, pretty much any Bond film); and “Always Save the Girl,” where a character always saves their love interest before anyone else (Shrek, many superhero movies, and most Disney movies as well).

But relationship tropes can also be more subtle. Depending on the context, they can either be positive or negative. The “Grand Romantic Gesture” trope can often be embarrassing, unwanted, or both. Just take John Cusack’s boombox gesture in Say Anything, Andrew Lincoln’s creepy, cardheavy declaration of love to Keira Knightley in Love Actually, and Ted Mosby’s attempts to win Robin over with a blue string quartet in How I Met Your Mother, which involves breaking into her apartment. But the trope can also be endearing, if not a little eye-roll-inducing if the intentions are right. Just look at the scene where Max sends Lorelai 1,000 yellow daisies in Gilmore Girls to meet her standards for a “proper proposal.”

The problem with relationship tropes is that they can be pedagogical. Roxanne Runyon, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Education Coordinator at the Office of Sexual Violence Prevention, Education, and Response at MacEwan, says, “It’s important not to underestimate the role that media has in teaching us what it might look like to be in a relationship. When harmful behaviour is role modelled to us through characters that we often identify (with) and maybe see ourselves in, I think that this kind of gives us a road map of what to follow in our own lives, which isn’t always the best thing to be following.”

Runyon adds that the relationship between harmful tropes in the media and real-life behaviour isn’t causal, but the media does play a big role in teaching us about love, life, and sex.

But even though some films and TV shows have unsavoury portrayals of love and relationships, Runyon says that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them. “It’s okay to take pleasure in what we take pleasure in … (but) I think it’s important, as we do so, to also be able to be critical and to kind of put on that critical thinking cap,” she adds.

Dezi DeHaan, the vice president of the MacEwan University Film Club, echoes this sentiment: “When a (behaviour) is established as a trope, when you see it repeated through various works of media, that’s where it can become kind of dangerous. So, it’s good for people to sort of look for these tendencies and think through whether that action is actually helpful for us when we’re conducting our relationships in real life.”

DeHaan adds, “The nature of a 90-minute film itself is to condense these (relationship milestones) that we experience over a period of months or years. So, there’s a lot that gets lost there.” While relationship tropes onscreen can definitely impact our behaviour, it’s also important to remember that movies and TV shows are just works of fiction, idealized versions of reality, and not prescriptive manuals for how to conduct a relationship.

There is certainly a lot of negativity that stems from relationship tropes, but we can still poke fun at them and even use them in healthy ways. Guenter notes that “in a relationship that is built on consent and communication, these (tropelike behaviours) can be fun and not shameful and unhealthy. But you have to have that ability to communicate, and you have to have trust in your partner.”

Most importantly, you have to trust and love yourself. “Learning to love ourselves is a lifelong journey, but one of the most important ones,” says Runyon. Yes, Hollywood champions romantic love, but self-love and platonic relationships with friends and family are equally important. “It’s important to celebrate these (other relationships) and see these as (just) as important as romantic relationships,” adds Runyon.

“Intimacy of different forms shouldn’t be reserved just for the couple form, and I think it’s important… always to be putting time and energy and effort and gratitude into the other relationships that sustain us.”

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