Like my friend Catherine, I have a lot of problems with the underlying messages about love embedded in the schmaltzy Christmas romcom Love, Actually, which for whatever reason lots of people seem to be writing about lately. I won’t rehearse my objections, because Catherine captures them pretty well. “Confessing your stalker crush on your best friend’s wife is sweet” and “They can’t speak a word to each other, but they’re in love—how romantic!” are the top two, and she lists quite a few more.
As Catherine notes, however, one of the overarching problems with the movie—the almost total lack of agency and general underdevelopment of the female characters—is sort of endemic to the genre rather than a specific sin of this film. One might object that it’s endemic to Hollywood films generally, but it does seem to call out for special explanation in a genre that’s traditionally aimed primarily at a female audience. Shouldn’t those movies, at least, give us more dynamic and fleshed-out women characters?
One hypothesis that occurred to me—and I’m probably recapitulating a well-worn idea from a critical literature I don’t know here*—is that the anti-feminist elements may, perversely, actually be part of the appeal, though for mainly formal reasons. Like many popular genres, the attraction of romcoms typically involves entering a fantasy space where you identify with one or more of the characters and share in their triumph—whether that involves beating the Nazis or finding true love. When the scenario itself is fantastic, the hero can be a bit more fleshed out, because we can imaginatively translate ourselves into a persona appropriate to the context. The viewers, in other words, can sort of delude themselves and think: “Ah yes, I’d behave just like James Bond in that counterfactual.”
When the character’s struggle is closer to home—the familiar search for a lasting romantic connection, most often set in the present day—the differences between the viewer and the character tend to be thrown into sharper relief, which means the characters need to be a bit more generic to enable the widest possible audience identification. And the lack of female agency is, in itself, part of the fantasy element: “I’m so desirable that I’ll be showered with love just for existing.” In a way this mirrors the way many fantasy heroes discover extraordinary powers that are part of an identity that had been obscured even from themelves (Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, the X-Men) rather than setting out deliberately to acquire them. The ultimate wish-fulfillment is not imagining that you can become special through sustained effort, but to have it confirmed that you were special all along, as you always secretly suspected.
A romcom in which two characters find love because they are both interesting, clever, funny, accomplished, kind, confident, attractive—insert your favorite adjective here—and play equal parts in winning of the affection of the other would not only fail to scratch this itch, it would be depressing. We don’t go to movies to watch people more interesting, clever, funny etc etc than ourselves achieve love and happiness in a context very much like that of our real lives—that’s what we are watching in our real lives. We go to movies to be reassured that we can have those things without being transformed ourselves. The viewer-identification characters here, then, need to seem basically good and genial—we’re not going to project ourselves onto someone actively unlikable—but also bland and passive enough that they don’t leave us feeling like true love is for people with desirable characteristics we conspicuously lack.
If there’s something to this hypothesis, then, the women in movies like Love, Actually are just as underdeveloped and lacking in agency as women in (say) macho action movies, but for completely different reasons. In the male-targeted fantasy, women are essentially prizes to be won by the hero the male viewer identifies with. In the female-targeted fantasy, they’re equally ciphers because these are fundamentally not fantasies of self-transformation, which means the viewer-identification figure needs to be a vacuum anyone can step into as they already are. In movies about external goals, we can accept needing to become better in some way (through our onscreen surrogates) over the course of the film in order to achieve them. But people want to be loved for who they already are—to find the person who wants just what we already have, rather than becoming what the other person needs. That, in a way, is the most fantastical element: It is the external trappings of love without (at least for the character the viewer identifies with) the selflessness or transformative process that real love and real relationships—even more than Jedi training or a semester at Hogwarts—always entail.
Maybe. Or maybe—often the simple and obvious explanations are the right ones—it’s just that Hollywood screenwriters and directors are overwhelmingly male, and not very good at writing developed women with complex inner lives even when they’re making movies marketed to women. But it’s a theory.
*Update: OK, apparently the idea is sufficiently commonplace that I don’t need to go digging in the film crit literature; a comic at The Oatmeal will do.
Also, I should be clear that I don’t remotely mean to suggest by phrases like “female fantasy” or “male fantasy” that either type of film is somehow just responding to some kind of wholly independent demand that springs from the Essential Nature of either gender. To shamelessly paraphrase Zizek, before movies can give us what we desire, they need to teach us how to desire. But the process is self-replicating once it’s in place.