Throughout our lives, women and girls are spoon-fed the genre of romance in books, movies, and television. We are told through a host of stories that our princes are out there waiting for us, and that we will all have cute love stories—with some ups and downs—but that eventually, he’ll make a grand gesture, and then we’ll walk off into the sunset together. While romance is in fact real, the romance women are led to believe will be performed by men in our society is a fabrication.
‘Chick flicks,’ or romantic movies, are at the forefront of this misleading narrative. Whether it be The Notebook, which has long been hailed as an epic love story, or a more comedic film such as Friends With Benefits, in the end, the female protagonist always falls happily in love, while the man at her side loves her intensely, and vows to be faithful to her. This is seen also in romantic novels, especially romantic Young Adult novels, catered towards girls as young as 12 and 13 years old. These stories specifically indicate that the man falls in love as well. Even if sex is at the forefront of the narrative (as it is in Friends With Benefits) said man will never be able to resist the main character’s personality, and he will end up falling for her no matter what. Even if he only views her as a possible sexual partner at first, in the end he wants her as a life partner. This narrative can lead to a lot of false hope, and not because ‘men are trash,’ and all they care about is sex.
‘Girly,’ a Boy’s Worst Nightmare?
While women are taught to watch chick-flicks, read romance novels, and have ‘girls nights’ where they talk about boys and paint their nails, boys are shown hyper-sexualized and objectified portrayals of women from an extremely young age. They are discouraged from watching ‘chick-flicks,’ ushered away from all-things romance, and instead pushed towards all-things sexual and carnal. The word ‘chick-flick,’ or ‘chick-lit,’ is in and of itself problematic, as it carries negative connotations of ‘girliness’ and femininity, which are demonized in a misogynistic society such as ours. Our society has made romance out to be girly, as if it isn’t a completely universal human experience that carries no specific gender or sexuality. Also, anything that is deemed ‘girly’ is then seen as weak, frilly, and lacking in intelligence and depth, and it is automatically written off.
There is also a sense of shame and embarrassment associated with enjoying romantic comedies, even as a woman. And god forbid that a man enjoys one, or else he’s seen as ‘feminine’ or even ‘gay.’ This idea makes obvious the homophobia inherent in demonizing all things ‘girly.’ I have a vivid memory of walking into the living room while my brother watched The Proposal—but once he saw that I was in the room, he quickly switched the channel. Why should there be shame associated with enjoying a funny movie? And why is it that the only appropriate time for a man to watch a romance film is when his ‘girlfriend forces him to?’ Even if it were true that all men everywhere hate romance, why are women punished for liking it? Images of love and romance are constantly thrown in our faces, and when we accept it, enjoy it, or reclaim it as our own with more empowering narratives, we are ridiculed for it. This is just one example of many showing that women will be criticized for accepting society’s rules, and for rejecting them. We can’t win—being a woman in and of itself is the problem, and femininity is looked down upon.
Oh, to be The Chosen One
When it came to literature, my middle school and high school years were defined by YA fantasy novels, where the female heroines were fierce warriors possessing some form of magic, or otherwise empowered, strong figures for young girls to look up to. The fact that these heroines enacted typically masculine forms of strength, such as wearing armor and battling in a noble war against evil (and that their power came directly from their distance from typical femininity) is an issue on its own. But, the common theme in almost all these novels is that the heroine will end the story with a boyfriend whom she has had a slow burn romance with throughout the series. And of course, he’s her true love, and naturally, she’s 17 years old. It always struck me as odd that in the books that are supposed to empower young girls, this narrative that love should be part of the equation was always present. Why couldn’t there be a story of a girl who was powerful, fighting battles, but had no love interest at all? And to that point, why couldn’t there be a story of a girl who fell in love with another girl directed at YA audiences, or a story about a non-binary or trans hero (with or without a love interest)?
Reading these books made it seem like falling in love at the age of 17 was a normal occurrence. It also pushed the idea that 17 year old boys were tall, mysterious but devoted, really hot, and mature enough to be in a relationship. It doesn’t help that most film or TV adaptations of such YA stories casted a man in his mid-twenties to play said 17 year old. It is also common in these series that the heroine has sex by the end. And the sex scene in question is always very romantic, loving, and pleasurable, where the guy takes his time, and the heroine is satisfied and feels closer to her love interest. How realistic is this? As we know, boys are shown an objectified image of women from the get-go, with instant sexual gratification at the heart of the ‘love stories’ in films written, directed by, and catered towards boys and men. In Transformers, Megan Fox might be the love interest, but it’s filmed as if she were the woman in a porn, as she is reduced to her body and her character is undeveloped beyond her role as a damsel in distress and an object for the male gaze.
Sexy, or Sexist?
This oversexualization of women starts with cartoon characters. Take Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit for example. She’s not even a human woman, and yet she’s a sultry, sexual animal with a perfect hourglass figure. She is a character explicitly aimed at young boys watching the film. This movie is aimed at kids, and while one could argue that the sexiness of Jessica is more for the adult viewers, that doesn’t mean that young boys and girls won’t internalize her image. Girls will think: I should look like that, and boys will think the same thing, but they will also think that women are simply bodies that exist for the pleasure of men (even if they don’t realize it yet). It is also important to point out that this hyper sexualization shouldn’t be normalized for adult viewership either. A woman can be sexual without being an object. There can, and has been, sex scenes in movies that don’t serve to degrade any of the characters involved.
It’s important to point out that this hyper sexualization is a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that romance movies began to imbue a very sexual thematic element. This shift may have been the result of the sexual liberation movement. If this is true, then it seems that it was capitalized upon by male writers (and men in general) in order to oversexualize women and to simultaneously blame them for being sexual—as with slut-shaming. With women pronouncing their agency and autonomy through wearing whatever they want and having as little or as much sex as they want, the media took that and ran with it to fit the narrative of women as submissive and unintelligent. When before, movies and books served to paint women as unintelligent and flighty because of their nature, the added objectification depicted women in this way because their only purpose was to serve the sexual gratification of men and because they need a man to guide them and give them security.
Taking off the Rose-Coloured Glasses
In recent years, romantic movies have tended away from the simplified story of boy meets girl, and a grittier approach to the genre is becoming more common. Someone Great (on Netflix) examines the breakup of a long-term relationship, and all the complicated emotions and grief that brings up. Now, a romance movie no longer has to end with the woman marrying her soulmate. And even in movies like Love, Rosie, a classic best-friends-to-lovers story, there are several real-life situations—such as an unplanned pregnancy, and money troubles—which are examined through the filter of the protagonists’ relationship. These films give the story a sense of reality, without abandoning the romantic aspects entirely. It’s no coincidence that these movies are written and directed by women, who often approach this genre with a more feminist touch.
As far as novels go, romance stories of the1970’s created an even more complicated dynamic between sex and love, especially with the prevalence of a rapist-turned-true-love character. Many of these novels were written by women, which shows the prevalence of internalized misogyny at play. And, the normalized view of sex as violent and subjugating of women. As time went on, this trope disappeared, and was replaced with its opposite—the lover as unrealistically uber-romantic, tender, and loving, while also being hyper-masculine and protective. This larger-than-life quality is damaging because it disempowers women, making them believe they need a strong man to prop them up.
The key to novels that empower women and give them agency, while keeping romance front and center, are ones that explore a woman’s sexuality in an honest way. There can be a romance where the male character is a realistically flawed person who isn’t always showing up with flowers and chocolates. On the other hand, too many depictions of toxic, manipulative, sex-driven men can be disheartening as well as disempowering because it implies that women should just accept that men are horrible and give up on finding someone worthy of her. So, it’s complicated. Forever by Judy Blume attempts to find a happy medium. Blume creates an honest, raw image of falling in love and becoming sexually active (where the woman enjoys it just as much as her partner). It also tackles topics like STD scares, which most ‘chick-flicks’ tend to avoid. While Forever pushes the false narrative that you will fall in love in high school, it still examines the realities of a romantic relationship—the good and the bad.
Romance Knows no Gender
This is all very heteronormative. There is still a lack of stories about and for LGBTQ women. And there is a lack of stories about non-binary folks. Romance has operated not only under an idealized view of men and the exploitation of women, but under a limiting gender binary and without consideration of same-sex love. This kind of representation threatens the established concept of romance as strictly feminine, or as strictly for women. A love story about two women would necessarily threaten the notion of women as a sexual object for the male gaze and for male pleasure, because there are no men involved. A woman’s sexuality can and sometimes does exist separately from men altogether. A love story between two men threatens the idea of romance being feminine, assuming femininity and womanhood are associated with one another, subsequently threatening notions of masculinity that are tied to attraction to women. Typical romance tropes are also present in the LGBT love stories we do have, but the struggle of coming out and facing discrimination is always the underlying theme of the story. It’s romance in the face of adversity and oppression, rather than just romance for the sake of romance, which straight couples have the luxury of viewing. And what little LGBT representation we do have still is highly whitewashed (as are the straight stories) and almost always excludes trans and non-binary people.
Why can’t we let romance just be romance—why is it so gendered? The standard ‘chick-flick’ adheres strictly to male and female gender stereotypes, and by association, to the gender binary. It’s almost always boy meets girl. Sometimes boy meets boy, and even less often, girl meets girl. But what about love stories for and about non-binary people? I can’t think of a single example of a romance where non-binary characters are the protagonists falling in love. And since love stories tend to follow these antiquated, sexist ideas of masculinity and femininity, there would be no room for non-binary stories to exist within their model. Everything would be about trying to fit them into the suffocating boxes of ‘girly, feminine, frilly’ and ‘manly, brusque, protective’ which are not only heteronormative, but extremely toxic and oversimplifying. These boxes aren’t representative even of the average cis straight person, much less non-binary or trans people. In order to let these stories come to the forefront of the mainstream media, we need to rearrange our entire conception of romance as we have been taught.
The Power of Stories
Of course, there are thousands of romance novels out there, and a lot of them are going to get it right, and a lot of them aren’t. It’s the false narrative of romance being perfect, and the idea that all young men will know how to treat women and will be a prince-like figures who make grand romantic gestures—that is troubling. We’ve all seen that that isn’t true most of the time, and how could it be? Boys, from a young and impressionable age, are socialized into tamping down their emotions, focus only on sex and told to view a woman’s body and existence as purely sexual. In other words, they’re taught toxic masculinity. Unlearning these ideas must be a conscious choice on the part of everyone.
Because when women are taught that men are supposed to be romantic, and men are taught that women are supposed to be purely sexual, we hit a wall. In order to break down this wall we need more media, more stories, more books and novels and films to show us differently. The impact of art and media on our opinions—of others and ourselves—is immeasurable. These false, sexist narratives have been shaping our worldviews and our decisions. And as we’ve seen, new narratives which are more honest, more respectful to women and women’s bodies, are already having a positive impact, and creating conversations. The more we push forward female screenwriters and feminist writers and artists, the more we will deviate away from the traditional exploitation and oversimplifying of women and romance itself.
The more we deviate from that, the more comfortable we get with the idea of a ‘chick-flick,’ because romance doesn’t have to be attached to a gender, or an idea of femininity or masculinity. Romance can be masculine. The heroine in a YA novel fighting against evil can be feminine. And to go even further, romance can be both feminine, masculine, or neither. It can be queer. It can be non-binary. It can be all of the above at the same time. But by demonizing women and femininity, and putting romance under these categories, we begin to demonize love, tenderness, kindness, emotional intelligence, and vulnerability. These things aren’t exclusively ‘woman’ or ‘feminine.’ They are human. To say that femininity is inherently ‘womanly’ is wrong, because femininity and masculinity exist separately from the gender binary, despite how severely it has been drilled into our brains.
All this being said, romance movies and romantic novels can still be enjoyed on a surface level. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve watched Pride and Prejudice several times, and I’m still not bored of it. The same goes for Love, Rosie, and newer, grittier iterations, like Normal People. There’s a reason why these stories are still so popular—we love love. And it can’t just be one portion of the population that’s enjoying this type of literature and film.
Romance can be masculine. The heroine in a YA novel fighting against evil can be feminine. And to go even further, romance can be both feminine, masculine, or neither. It can be queer. It can be non-binary. It can be all of the above at the same time.