Everyone enjoys a good love story. Hollywood is aware of this, and is constantly churning out adventures in love. We’ve seen the indescribably nerdy kid wearing the cartoonish ’80s pocket protector in like 1997 get to second base with the hot cheerleader. We’ve seen the main character’s misogynist jerk dude-bud end up abruptly falling for the lead female’s insane total freak roommate. We’ve seen every possible combination of opposites attracting. Even in Freaks and Geeks, the most utterly believable portrayal of high school outcasts, two of the three “geeks” make out with attractive popular girls. But there’s one message that every Hollywood movie involving romance is shockingly consistent about reinforcing. One personality type will doom you to a life of Solitaire, tables for one, and getting jilted at the altar, and everyone will cheering when you are isolated in this way. If you’re not “spontaneous,” you don’t deserve to be loved.
Let me explain.
My wife is an incredibly reliable person. She’s constantly thinking about the needs of everyone around her, she’s incredibly thoughtful, she’s pragmatic, she’s organized, she’s respectful, and she’s never late to stuff. But if someone asked me why I love my wife and I answered, “she’s very reliable,” people would immediately wonder what the hell was wrong with our relationship and whether or not we were ever truly in love. They’d all sit there silently sipping their drinks, making faces at each other while I pretend not to notice. Calling your love “reliable” without immediately surrounding it with explosive romantic fireworks-ey stuff would make people think you really hated each other but are staying together for the kids or some other reason that has absolutely nothing to do with love.
Now imagine if a character in a movie were asked why they love someone, and they answered, “She’s very reliable.” Even worse. INSTANT red flag. That’s the film directly telling us that this character is in the wrong relationship, and that they’re not actually in love with the person they’re describing. If you find your partner to be “reliable,” you need to break off this faux engagement ASAP (or at the altar, or in an airport) so they can end up with their proper soulmate – the spontaneous free spirit from earlier in the movie. Because everyone’s soulmate is the spontaneous free spirit from earlier in the movie.
Hollywood’s overwhelming message is clear: Reliable, stable individuals who plan things in advance and think things through are inherently unromantic. Carefree rule-breaking screw-abouts, on the other hand, are POWDER KEGS of passion – shimmering rare diamonds in a charcoal-and-navy world of boring default people who MUST be pursued and married. Otherwise you’ll get stuck with that boring reliable doofus you got engaged to in the opening scene. You know, the worthless bore who never even baited you into stealing a bulldozer or whatever.
The examples are endless. Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is hung up on a ruthlessly manipulative ex (who’s also so thoughtful that she bought him Tupperware for the cereal he loves, but then they make her unambiguously suck so BOO HER). But he learns to love again when free-spirited Mila Kunis forces him to sing at a bar for strangers, then ridicules him into jumping off a cliff and almost killing himself. THAT’S soulmate material: someone who can’t read basic facial cues, doesn’t give a damn when you’re humiliated, and doesn’t mind paralyzing you for the sake of brief YOLO.
Rachel McAdams’ shrewish character in Midnight In Paris doesn’t like walking in the rain.
Wait, she doesn’t like getting soaking wet at inopportune times? What an un-spontaneous jerk! No one who’s mildly reserved about one very reasonable thing could possibly be passionate in other areas of life. Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses is everyone’s “most reliable friend” – a terrible character flaw! – who only starts living when laidback James Marsden gets her hammered and they shout-sing at a crowded bar. Good thing, because no one who’s superhumanly organized and thoughtful could ever be good at sex, the most basic human impulse.
There’s a million more examples, to varying degrees – Along Came Polly, The Proposal, The Wedding Planner, Knocked Up, Morning Glory, like seven of the plots in Love Actually, any movie where one of the characters doesn’t want to dance (BOOOOO!) but another does (INSTA-SOUL-MATE!). Being “wild” and “spontaneous” is the only way Hollywood knows how to portray characters falling in love.
But here’s the catch
In real life, making snap romantic decisions is the EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD. ANYONE can do it. It doesn’t take some magical, transcendentally-alive character to suggest getting hammered on vacation and having sex in your Airbnb kitchen. That’s the easiest part of life. And guess what? People who are organized and thoughtful in their day-to-day lives are also legally capable of making fun, snap decisions. Real humans don’t exist on a sliding scale from “stable and unromantic” to “unhinged and ROMANTIC.” Being a hard-working non-screwup doesn’t preclude someone from understanding the concept of “fun” and pursuing it.
Being a reliable partner takes WAY more work than deciding to do an occasional fun thing. And by “reliable,” I obviously don’t mean “perfect” – we all have our issues and suck at things from time to time. But striving to be stable by doing the dishes when the other person’s had a hard day, entertaining each other’s families, not being constantly late to meet the other person, letting the other person vent without judgment, refilling the gas tank when you know the other person has to be somewhere early in the morning, or even remembering to buy paper towels, is NOT antithetical to “being romantic.” It all requires more thought and demonstrates a deeper level of kinship than, say, pushing someone down a zipline and screaming “LOOSEN UP, PANSY!”
Does anyone even want to put up with constant free-spirited garbage for more than an hour and 35 minutes? What happens after these movies end? Do these characters come home on a Tuesday night, exhausted from work, then ridicule each other into jumping off a cliff or running naked in the snow? Every weeknight for the rest of their lives? Breaking into museums after hours and saying “Just trust me” a lot is fun, but don’t these people sometimes want to get drunk at home and yell at Top Chef?
Granted, movies only have two hours to make everything happen, so they need to use shorthand for characters (“free spirit,” “the overthinker,” etc.). Plus they need conflict, which requires blatant opposites to clash, and they ultimately want to see the characters change, and nothing’s easier than seeing the “no time for love” person finding time for love. So on one level, I get it. It’d be viscerally strange to watch a full movie about two flawed but reasonable people remembering to buy coffee filters after work on Friday so they can chill at home Saturday morning. (On that note, I’d totally watch The Coffee Filter Remember-er, but I fully concede that I don’t speak for the majority of the ticket-purchasing public.) And you do have the occasional train-wreck, in which someone is TOO free-spirit-ey and a reasonable person calms them down, even if the relationship clearly won’t even last the duration of the credits.
But in the end, this bombardment causes us to arbitrarily devalue obviously valuable qualities because we’re afraid they sound “unromantic.” I’m sitting here questioning whether to even publish this thing in which I call my wife “reliable,” even though it’s clearly a compliment, and I spend 80 subsequent paragraphs explaining why it’s a better compliment than the stock romantic answers we’re required to give. That’s how deeply movies have ground this garbage into our brains.
It’s time we got over it. Being reliable and thoughtful and organized and helping your partner on a small-scale day-to-day basis IS romantic. Being a spontaneous free spirit is great too, but you can be that on top of being the other things, and it’s a way easier and way smaller part of any long-term relationship that we’d ever like to admit in movie form.