Alastair Roberts on why most romantic movies don’t reach the bar set by Jane Austen.
In a recent piece on this site, Allan Mott shared his appreciation of romantic comedies and his suspicions about the real reasons why many guys dismiss them.
There is much that I agree with or relate to in Allan’s piece. As he rightly observes, formulaic narratives are not without their value: our knowledge of where things are going can allow us to open up to stories to a greater degree, permitting them to have their effect upon us. It is in our trusting surrender to the emotional movement of a familiar or predictable story that we can be ‘transported’ by it, undergoing an affective journey that can restore us to a deep, enriching, and comforting apprehension of how things could or ought to be. In a society where, perhaps especially as men, we are so often tempted to affect a cynical detachment, a childlike willingness to be captivated, moved, and transformed by a joyful and positive vision is a virtue that we need to celebrate.
I also share Allan’s appreciation for many films that encourage us to identify with female protagonists. There is no reason why such female characters should not be profoundly relatable for men—we are far more alike than we are different. It can be deeply educational to see universal themes of human existence and nature through the eyes of the other sex. Two of my three favourite films, Babette’s Feast and Spirited Away (the third is Tree of Life), are centred on female protagonists.
Finally, while it may not be my favourite genre, I can find considerable enjoyment in watching a good romance. I will take any excuse to watch the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—I must have seen it at least ten times.
Despite all this, however, I have strongly disliked perhaps the majority of romantic comedies and dramas that I have seen.
My problem with far too many romantic comedies and dramas is that they are grossly indulgent escapist fantasies, manipulating shallow and unworthy emotions, while failing to elicit healthy passions, affections, and moral sentiments in us. Emotion is indulged purely for its own sake. We are moved, but not by anything praiseworthy. We are addicted to the thrill of the movement of sentiment itself, rather than carefully directing the movement of our emotions to those things that are noble and good.
The protagonists in such films are all too often self-absorbed individuals, lacking the sort of sober perspective upon themselves that arises from genuine self-knowledge. They indulge the viewer’s desire to be desired by someone with a remarkable level of passion, money, power, brilliance, or devotion, without questioning our entitlement to this.
As Allan recognizes, the male lead is typically merely a convenient two dimensional screen for the projection of female fantasies, not a figure who could represent a genuine irruption of otherness into a woman’s world, enabling her to come to the potentially troubling awareness of how she might appear through the eyes of another. The men of romance films can be just as flat in their own ways as the women of porn.
The Notebook—the epitome of the romantic film according to certain of my female friends—is a perfect example of what I am referring to. Noah is creepy, obsessive, mentally unbalanced, and cruel, getting in Allie’s space, trying to shove in on another guy, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, threatening to kill himself so that he can get a date, sending hundreds of unanswered letters, becoming crazy and potentially violent after failing to move on after a summer romance, hooking up with a war widow in an unfeeling affair, and being prepared to break up Allie’s engagement. Allie is a petulant, emotionally unstable, and shallow brat, who hits people when she doesn’t get her way, who leaves her longsuffering fiancé for no fault of his own, who is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t really seem to be aware of how her selfish actions might affect the people who care about her. However, amidst the passion, the romantic set-pieces, the emotional force of the film, and Ryan Gosling in the rain, these troubling features hardly register. We may genuinely have been moved, but not by a truly noble vision or admirable characters.
Infidelity is a recurring theme in many romance movies, not just of the lightweight Nicholas Sparks-style, but also the critically acclaimed and big Oscar winners: Titanic, The English Patient, Brokeback Mountain, The Bridges of Madison County, etc. The moral severity of the selfish and irresponsible actions of the romantic protagonists is largely ignored because lust, passion, and infatuation eclipse everything else. Those poor individuals unfortunate enough to be caught in the blast radius of the lovers’ actions are mere collateral damage, often being portrayed in a conveniently negative light in order to salve any lingering qualms of conscience that the viewer might have.
The movement of emotion is a powerful and important thing, but our pliable emotions are profoundly vulnerable to misdirection. Our attachments to compelling characters or emotions can blind us to the objective moral realities of action. A topical illustration of this can be seen in the moral myopia occasioned by some viewers’ sympathies with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman as the series of Breaking Bad grimly progresses to its conclusion. Viewers of romantic drama and comedy are especially at risk of developing unhealthy sympathies and emotional attachments: they are less inclined to be watching with their critical faculties engaged and, for that matter, few writers of romantic fiction display as acute a sense of responsibility to educate our emotions as Vince Gilligan.
There are noteworthy exceptions to these faults. Earlier I mentioned Jane Austen, who I believe is illustrative of what romantic drama, whether on the page or on the screen, can be at its best. While the following description of her work may serve as an indictment on many contemporary romantic films, I also think that it exposes the possibilities of the genre.
Any narcissistic self-regard in Austen’s characters is constantly disrupted by the authorial voice, the perspectives of other characters, and the norms of the rich social world in which they are situated, challenging characters to arrive at a deeper level of self-knowledge and self-judgment. Most heroines of contemporary romantic comedies and dramas would receive devastating dismissals, with a few caustic but perceptive swipes of Austen’s pen. In Austen’s hands we are never allowed to get trapped into the perspective of the beloved seeing their reflection in their lover’s eyes, because that narcissistic gaze is incessantly disrupted.
Austen engages in constant probing examination of the internal life. Austen and her characters typically display a keen self-reflective capacity, sifting and discerning the character and value of their feelings (for instance, Elizabeth’s recognition of the importance of gratitude, respect, and honour in her affections for Darcy).
Austen is concerned for character over personality or emotion. Any author can evoke passion and emotional heat with Byronic heroes and steamy sexual encounters. However, our judgments of characters such as Darcy are made to hinge, less upon their appearance, their strength of passion, or the piquancy of their personalities, but upon the gradual revelation of real world actions that demonstrate the quality and nature of their character.
In contrast to our focus upon sexual attraction and physical relationships, Austen focuses upon committed and virtuous marital attachments that are morally beneficial and considered and have the potential to be enduring and enriching. Her relationships are outward and forward-looking, marriage and involvement with a broader society being given great importance.
Even within relationships, the characters’ subjectivity is typically unsettled by that of their partner. Subjectivities do not fuse into shared narcissistic gazes, but as characters see themselves through others’ eyes they have opportunities for the change and growth that follows deeper self-knowledge.
Austen admires things in men that are truly admirable. It is hard not to want to be the sort of man who could be a hero in an Austen novel, a man of character, honour, good judgment, measured self-assessment, and noble action, rather than just wealth, passion, and attractive appearance. Likewise, a character such as Elizabeth Bennet is worthy of the reader’s affections, a character with wit, vivacity, moral seriousness, insight, and growing self-knowledge. She is the kind of woman that it would be to your moral advantage to marry. Unlike the ill-advised romantic marriage of her parents, which over time fed the ungracious irony and cynicism of her father, one can imagine Elizabeth and Darcy bringing out the best in each other as they grew old together.
In evoking our emotions, Austen is constantly seeking to order and to educate them, to form us into people who are moved by noble and praiseworthy things, who recognize the danger of untamed passions and the power of a well-matched marriage to elicit lively and joyful virtues in us. As those who seek to be good men I submit that this is an education with much to offer us.