If you know me at all (or if you’ve read my blog) then you'll know I love a good romantic comedy. And I enjoy a mediocre romantic comedy. Let's face it, if it's a largely inoffensive, not entirely moronic film about two people having ridiculous meet cutes and eventually walking off into the sunset, I'm in. They're like comfort food and pyjamas (and incidentally pair perfectly with both): they wrap you up all warm and fuzzy and ask nothing of you.
So it isn't really surprising that I've watched two romantic comedies in the last week. One was an older film I hadn't seen in years (Chasing Liberty) and the other was a new Netflix film recommended by a friend (The Kissing Booth). While I did find moments to enjoy in both films, I found myself distracted from the by-the-numbers cute moments by some much more sinister moments which were dressed up as romance.
Full disclosure: many, many spoilers ahead.
Chasing Liberty is a sweet enough film that is often overlooked by its twin, First Daughter. Both films centre on a college-aged American girl who just happens to be the daughter of the current President of the USA (or 'first daughter'). Both feature a meet cute with a dashing love interest who turns out to be an undercover secret service agent. Both films also came out in 2004, just to add insult to injury. Like minds?
When you've got two roughly identical films coming out in the same year, one is bound to eclipse the other and for some reason First Daughter emerged victorious, at least amongst my friends. It has an arguably better script and I don't think I'm the only person who quite likes the idea of Michael Keaton as President. I'm a little more partial to Chasing Liberty, but that could largely be due to the presence of Matthew Goode, who is perfectly named and makes everything he appears in better (see: Leap Year).
You might think that I'm here today to talk about the relationship between the leads in Chasing Liberty and I can understand why you would think that. The deception narrative is one that is a stalwart of romantic comedies as it provides ample drama while still allowing us to warm to generally charming characters. It also proves problematic, as one or more characters are generally in the dark about the others' intentions, which can lead to some questionable issues of consent.
This is certainly the case with Chasing Liberty - the look on Mandy Moore's face when she discovers the truth is heartbreaking and you can't help but feel for her. She's just found out that the man she's been falling in love with, has in fact lost her virginity to, has been lying to her. It's a betrayal that is hard to overlook but genuine chemistry between the leads distracts you from the underlying themes, as is of course the intention.
Strangely, that's not the relationship that inspired this blog post, perhaps because it's so well documented. The 'romance' that stood out for me in my recent rewatch was that of a pair of secret service agents assigned to protect the heroine, played by Jeremy Piven and Annabella Sciorra. Playing Weiss and Morales, respectively, these two side characters are supposed to represent the 'will they/won't they' side of romantic comedies. They flirt, they bicker, they have a fight and finally realise they are meant to be together. I don't really remember them from previous watches (probably distracted by Matthew Goode) but I couldn't take my eyes away from them this time around. What had previously seemed like playful banter and hurt feelings was revealed to be something far more sinister.
The basic story for these two is that Weiss fancies Morales, Morales wants to focus on her job and thinks Weiss is a bit of a player, she rejects him, he gets offended, they eventually apologise to each other and walk off into the sunset together. So far, so fine. Having characters who are attracted to each other, make those feelings known to the other and have a peaceful relationship is apparently very very boring because we seem to see them on screen so rarely. Gomez and Morticia Addams are a rare example of a screen couple who never suspect the other of cheating or do anything to hurt the other. They just enjoy their life together and are happily in love. Well, they are kooky.
Weiss and Morales are not the Addams. Weiss is a whining 'not all men' type who spends the first 30 minutes of screentime making inappropriate comments about Morales' appearance while working. He says her blouse looks good on her and tells her to wear it more often. She tells him it's a sweater so he orders her to take the compliment. Later, he asks if she gets jet lag. When Morales tells him she takes 'herbs' to reset her clock, he tells her "I'd like to reset your clock. Just saying."
These exchanges are clearly meant to come across as romantic banter between two people who know each other well, which might be explainable if it didn't come across as so incredibly creepy. Morales makes it clear that she doesn't appreicate these comments and asks Weiss to stop making them and focus on work. Weiss slimily acts as if she is being unfriendly. Any girl who has ever been wolf whistled or told to 'take a compliment!' by a stranger on the street who just told her to smile will understand how unsettling these sorts of acts can be, whether you know the other person well or not.
Clearly not content with just making her uncomfortable, Weiss decides to step it up and moves into sexual harassment territory with this sweet little exchange.
Weiss: This is a Mickey Mouse assignment. I resent it. Do you?
Weiss: I do.
Morales: I just do what I'm told.
Weiss: Oh yeah? Strip naked.
There isn't a single thing about this conversation that doesn't scream 'inappropriate'. Up until this point, Morales has given no indication that she finds Weiss remotely charming or sexually appealing. He, on the other hand, has made it abundantly clear that he not only desires her but also simply expects that to be enough reason for Morales to fall into his arms. When she calls him on his conduct following this exchange, demanding to know if these sort of tactics ever actually get him anywhere with women, Weiss tries to elicit sympathy by telling her that he hasn't had any success with women since his hairline began receding.
The worst part of this is that it works. He successfully guilt trips Morales into telling him that he is good-looking and doesn't need to worry about his hair, as some women consider baldness sexy.
This is a perfect example of emotional blackmail. Weiss makes Morales, his co-worker and object of his affections, feel like the bad guy because she hurt his delicate feelings. Never mind that he made her uncomfortable and took her mind off her job. The truth is that he truly does seem to want her to be an object - a programmable entity that responds to stimuli in a chosen way. He doesn't want a living, breathing human woman who will call him out on his behaviour or, god forbid, not want to sleep with a man who harasses her. What a dreamboat.
By the end of the film the two characters have had a few more interactions very similar to the one above and have inexplicably fallen in love. Weiss tells Morales to kiss him and she does. Her autonomy is seemingly gone but then again, it had always seemed irrelevant. Had they been the principle characters in this film they might have received their fare share of flack from audiences. As side characters, they go largely unnoticed.
Morales & Weiss. I hate you both and everything you stand for.
More's the pity, then, that Weiss and Morales were not the most unsettling quasi-romantic pairing I encountered recently.
The Kissing Booth is a recent addition to the swathe of original content popping up on Netflix. It's a teen romantic comedy-drama that utilises many of the usual tropes and isn't constrained by the sorts of restrictions this film might have encountered on American TV. The characters drink, swear, get drunk and have sex, and even the characters we are supposed to mock have perfect skin and teeth. (There's actually an unnamed peripheral character sporting some old fashioned, wrap-around-the-head orthodontia but rather than being played for laughs she is frequently shown to be included in all school activities and parties.)
The film stars Joey King as Elle, whose main storyline concerns her struggle to have it all: namely, she wants to stay close to her BFF Lee (Joel Courtney) while conducting a secret relationship with his older brother Noah (Jacob Elordi). Lee and Elle have promised to never date each other's relatives, so therein lies the conflict. So far, so standard teen drama.
Lee and Elle are established as besties, Elle and Noah flirt, they start a secret relationship, Lee finds out and drops Elle as a friend, Elle dumps Noah as a result, Noah leaves but not really and Elle apologises to Lee just in time for Noah to make a final surprise appearance so they can declare their love for one another.
Wrong. Oh so, so wrong.
On the first day back at school after holidays, Elle experiences some classic movie pratfalls that lead to her having to wear an old and therefore far too small skirt to school. She immediately attracts attention, particularly from fellow student Tuppen, who wastes no time in groping her. Elle is visibly upset, which leads to Noah attacking Tuppen and almost beating him to a bloody pulp.
This is not first sign we've seen of Noah's quick anger and violent tendencies. The opening montage, intended to be humorous, chronicles the first 16 years of Elle and Lee's lives and features frequent incidences where Noah floors his peers with a punch or six. Again, this is played for laughs.
Tuppen is made to apologise to Elle by the principal, who also reprimands her for her choice of uniform. Following his apology, Tuppen passes Elle a note asking what he needs to do to get her number. While some people (me) would see this as beyond creepy and would tell him where to stick it, Elle, like so many screen girls before her, is flattered and rewards him with her phone number. Lee thinks she's crazy, which is refreshing, but Elle still gets all gussied up and heads out for her date with Tuppen.
He doesn't show, so she goes to meet Lee and he tells her that she is better than the sort of guy who clearly doesn't appreciate her. Thanks, Supportive Best Friend Lee! Shame we won't be seeing you again.
Tuppen eventually makes an appearance and apologises for standing her up. He tells Elle that Noah told him not to go out with her and has in fact been intimidating other students to stop them following suit. Elle is understandably furious and calls Noah to tell him off. He finds the situation amusing and tells her that he's just trying to protect her because she's "like his little sister". Another classic teen drama trope. The older guy makes the younger girl feel like she has to prove herself to get out of the 'sister-zone', so she starts dressing more provocatively and acting more mature. It's a power play.
I happened to be live-texting this film with my friend, who had already watched it and recommended it to me. When I expressed my opinion that Noah seemed controlling, she countered that he was only controlling because he was jealous. We joked that it seemed very 'Edward Cullen' of him. (Yes, I know my age is showing. I was the Twilight generation, so sue me.)
Maybe, MAYBE, I could have let this one slide. Ok sure, you want to date someone, you don't want other people sniffing around them. I get that. Happens to all of us. Intimidating other people so they don't go after a girl who you aren't dating and are in fact actively rejecting? NOT OK.
It's made pretty clear that Elle has been useless at hiding her feelings for Noah from the age of 14. Lee knows it and mocks her for it, their respective parents know it and think it's cute and everyone else at school knows it but since they all apparently think Noah is some sort of god among men, she doesn't exactly stand out.
But Elle respects her friendship with Lee too much to pursue a relationship, plus there's the aforementioned 'sister-zoning'. So she happily plods along planning a Kissing Booth with Lee for the school's carnival. (Don't even get me STARTED on how inappropriate I think it is for a high school to authorise such a concept, and for a school event no less! Just ick.)
The booth is a hit, Lee is initially considered underwhelming by the school's female population as a kissing candidate but manages to get a kiss and a girlfriend out of it to boot. Elle is sticking firm to her plan to stay firmly away from the main action and just handle admin until the obligatory mean girls convince her that she has to work the other side of the booth. Still ick.
Of course, Noah rocks up and plants her first kiss on her. The camera spins, twinkly lights appear and it's all pretty cute. Young love! Star-crossed romance! It's meant to be!
Don't get comfortable.
Elle spends a few seconds as the heart eye emoji before remembering her bestie Lee (who I'd actually already begun to despise due to an incident at a party earlier in the film where Elle gets spectacularly drunk and embarrasses herself while Lee just stands nearby looking uncomfortable. If your friend is clearly out of it and starts to remove their clothes in a public space while others cheer her on, you SHUT THAT SHIT DOWN. Poor form, Lee.)
Noah walks off to charm some other girl out of her knickers and Elle interrupts Lee's impromptu date to tell him about the kiss. He's caught off guard, she reassures him it was a stunt for charity money and he decides that it's all fine as long as she doesn't break their rule about dating relatives.
As could only be expected, Lee heads off with his new girl and Elle is left to find her own way home. Wow, thanks Lee. It starts to rain, Noah turns up on his motorcycle in a rough approximation of the knight in shining armour and offers her a lift until the rain gets too heavy and they have to run for cover.
There just *happens* to be a Sound Of Music-esque gazebo in easy reach, so they flee to it and promptly commence snogging. It's vaguely cute, though the huge height difference did put me off a little (she looks like a child next to him, which at her age, I guess she is). Then they're surprised by a groundskeeper (are they on private property?) who drops some helpful exposition about all the other girls he's caught Noah making out with there.
Elle is humiliated, she yells at Noah for treating her like any other cheap floozy and demands he take her home, which he does. She clearly doesn't stay mad for long though because she is soon making a pro-con list about dating Noah.
No really. It’s colour-coded.
Until this point, even with the fighting scenes, the inevitable relationship between Elle and Noah comes across as pretty standard teen cute. They've both clearly had feelings for the other for some time but haven't felt able to act on them. Don't worry, you won't be a fan for long.
With their relationship still unresolved, Elle attends a party with other students and, of course, Noah. Another guy propositions Elle, she makes it clear she doesn't appreciate the attention and Noah, again, jumps in. Literally. He jumps the guy. The other boy goes down, everyone looks horrified, Elle runs off and Noah goes after her.
He yells her name multiple times before slamming his fist on the hood of the car to get her to turn around. He then orders her into the same car. And...she does.
Am I the only one who sees the problem with this? It would seem that I am in a minority, at least on tumblr, where all the posts I've found so far talk about how 'cute' the central romance is. My friend is firmly in this camp and told me to 'stop poking holes in a cute plot' when I voiced my concerns. One reviewer on IMDb seems to be on the same page as me, so I'm not completely alone.
Let me make this abundantly clear: getting into a confined space with a guy who beats someone up, yells at you, attacks a vehicle and then orders you to get into that same vehicle with them behind the wheel is a TERRIBLE idea. Noah is controlling and violent and in a different film he would likely be a serial killer in the making. Instead, once he gets Elle into the car he starts spouting romance movie cliches about how he 'just wants to keep her safe' and 'can't stop thinking about her'. And because the writers clearly have no concept of how dangerous this all is, they make Elle melt into Noah's arms. Throwing caution (and her friendship with Lee) to the wind, Elle ends up staying out all night with Noah and losing her virginity under the Hollywood sign. For once, the fact that movie characters got that close to the famous landmark isn't the most unbelievable plot point.
Just because everyone has problems doesn’t mean violence is ok, Noah!!
The next few scenes are played for laughs as Elle and Noah attempt to hide their relationship from their family and friends. Though, considering they hang out and canoodle in highly populated areas I'm not sure how they manage to keep it a secret for so long. They even go so far as to have sex on a school desk (bloody hell that's confidence), which leads to yet another
unsettling hilarious scene where Elle realises the classroom has a
security camera and has to get herself sent to the principal's office so that
she can steal the incriminating tape. Ah, such fun.
At one point, Elle muses "If you can't tell your best friend what you're doing, you probably shouldn't be doing it." Amen sister. Shame you don't take your own advice.
Elle and Noah's relationship is revealed to Lee when he comes home and catches the two together. They're not in a compromising position, at least not in the traditional sense. Elle has slipped, fallen and cut her face, so Noah is helping to clean the wound.
Lee's first thought upon seeing this? That Noah has roughed her up.
RED FRICKING FLAG. When your boyfriend's brother, who has lived with him all his life, immediately believes that your boyfriend has caused you physical harm, that is a sign that your boyfriend is not safe to be around!
Lee is shouted down and storms off, Elle mollifies Noah, he asks her to prom, she melts yet again and Lee returns just in time to see them. Things escalate as it's revealed Noah has received counselling for his outbursts, which doesn't seem to have been particularly effective as it isn't long before he gets angry with Lee and jumps at him. Elle is standing to the side, crying and screaming for him to stop, but it still takes Noah a moment to stop holding Lee down.
When he does, Lee tells Elle their friendship is over and storms off for good, so she breaks things off with Noah who leaves in a strop. Elle later takes pains to apologise to Lee but he's still hurt and wants nothing to do with her. Noah, continuing to show that he is not remotely stable, starts missing school and is apparently in danger of not graduating. No biggie.
All of this leads up to the obligatory prom. Elle and Lee reconcile shortly before and return to their original plan to go together, with Lee's girlfriend in tow. The theme is memories, the kissing booth has been recreated and Noah turns up to publicly declare his love for Elle (because a private declaration without a room full of your peers watching would be far too discreet).
Because there are still 15 minutes of film left, Elle rejects Noah as she doesn't want to continue hurting people she loves with their relationship (in addition to Lee, Elle's sole surviving parent disapproves). Noah leaves again, this time 'for good', as he has somehow managed to get into Harvard and is inexplicably leaving early.
Lee and Elle throw a joint birthday party at his house and everyone has to wear a costume. The moment this was announced I groaned because I knew something stupid with masks would have to come up. I've been here before.
Elle watches Lee with his girlfriend and realises she wants love too so she tells Lee she needs to tell Noah she feels the same way. Lee tells her to go for it (what??) and says he'll help her 'find' Noah before running off in his Batman-style costume. Elle meets Lee in his car, which she is for some reason driving, and monologues about how she has to find Noah and tell him how she feels, which is helpful because, while Lee is already aware of all this, Noah is not and he is revealed to be the passenger in the car having swapped costumes with Lee. She almost crashes the car, they make out and live happily ever after.
Well, not really, because the film ends with Elle dropping Noah off at the airport before leaving on his motorcycle. She rides off thinking that maybe things really will work out with Noah, or maybe they won't, and that's ok.
Huh? I mean, I know I don't want this couple to succeed, but judging by social media there are a lot of people who do, so why would set up your characters with a big romantic moment and then suggest a breakup mere minutes later? I just can't with this film.
But back to that 'big romantic gesture'. We are supposed to believe that Elle tells Lee she loves Noah and Lee immediately runs to Noah (who is hiding in his dark room like all
serial killers moody
teenagers broken love interests), swaps costumes with him and tells
him where to find Elle. Are you really trying to tell me that Lee, who knows
how violent his brother is and took less than a second to jump to a domestic
violence conclusion earlier (before he even knew they were a couple no less!),
would set things up so that Noah and Elle would be trapped together in confined
space and moving at speed? What if she'd changed her mind? Would Noah have
attacked her or caused an accident some other way? Previous scenes would
suggest so. But they're the central couple, so of course that doesn't
happen. And Lee has already shown that he fiercely protects Elle...sometimes.
And nothing truly terrible happens to the main characters, so I guess we're
supposed to see it all as a win.
So what do these two films tell young people, particularly young women, about relationships?
From the central couple in Chasing Liberty, we learn that deception is fine if her dad is paying you and sleeping with her when she doesn't know who you are is fine if you say you're in love. If a guy lies to you, you can totally be unhappy about it, for a while. But as long as he says he loves you and has a cute British accent (damn you Matthew Goode!) it is perfectly reasonable to chase him around the world at the end of the film and fall into each other's arms.
We also learn that bullying and harassing a woman into falling for you is totally fine if you’re a peripheral character who hasn't had a shag in a while, poor baby. And just because she says no doesn't mean in any way that she actually means no. Ladies, keep your eye out for the next guy who hassles you on the street. He could be your soulmate!
And The Kissing Booth? Well, from this little gem we learn that abandoning your drunk friend at a party is A-OK; that going behind your friend's back and doing something they specifically asked you not to do is fine if they eventually forgive you, even if it clearly upsets them greatly; that kissing booths are a completely appropriate way to fundraise for a secondary school. And most of all, we learnt that it is totally fine for a guy to be angry, violent and potentially abusive as long as he's tall, attractive, and speaks in rom-com cliches.
It's worth noting that The Kissing Booth began as a serial on Wattpad, an online writing community, when the author, Beth Reekles, was just 15 years old. I haven't read it, so who knows if the less savoury character traits were included in the original or if they were added for the film. If it's the former, that worries me even more. If a teenage girl considers this a wonderful love story then we have a serious problem with the way relationships are portrayed in popular media.
Congrats everybody. We've clearly achieved so much.