Do Romantic Comedies Perpetuate Rape Culture?

Here is the scene: Girl is vending at the farmer’s market as she does every weekend. Also as happens every weekend and for the 3rd time that month, customer in front of table asks girl out on a date, referring to her as, “Beautiful” instead of by name (which she wears on a name tag). For the 3rd time girl politely says “no, thank you.” To this, customer replies, “Well, I will just keep asking you until you say yes.” Girl replies, as forcefully as one can when dealing with a customer, “No, I’m really not interested.” Customer replies, “You will be.”…

As this particular scene was happening to me the other day (hashtag Real Life), it got me thinking about my ever-present, arch-nemesis: Rape Culture.

If this scene were portrayed in a romantic comedy, my character would be cast as the hackneyed female trope of the Hard-to-Get Shrew who just needs some coaxing to break through her emotional wall of distrust towards men. Maybe even throw in some Manic Pixie Dream Girl status for good measure and “character complexity.”

The CUSTOMER, on the other hand, would be cast as the charmingly-persistent, adorably-romantic tamer of said shrew. The audience would swoon because he is, of course, only fighting for “true love” and of course he would be played by none other than a sensitive, Hollywood hunk, with an irresistable boy-next-door sexiness factor (think: Joseph Gordon Levitt or Ryan Gosling).


…swoon… ❤

But let’s switch back to real life. In real life NO MEANS NO! In real life, the persistence is creepy. And in real life, this fantasy-driven, romantic comedy cliché translates into something that seems a lot more to me like rape culture…

Rape culture is unfortunately everywhere. Often it describes behaviors like victim blaming in sexual assault cases, widespread denial of the existence of rape, and sexual objectification, mainly of women. Thankfully, feminist academia disseminates discussions of rape culture into the public domain. I’ll even go as far as saying Viral Content sites like Upworthy may be bolstering awareness of rape culture even further to a point of, dare I say it, the mainstream. There is, however, an even subtler side of rape culture that rears its ugly head BEHIND masks of subjugation. It often flys under the radar and is overlooked as harmless. In reality “harmless” behaviors are the best at rooting themselves unnoticed in the status quo, creating a dangerous foundation. Unfortunately, this not-so-harmless face of rape culture is deeply entrenched in that oh-so-innocent Hollywood genre: the romantic comedy.

…In reality “harmless” behaviors are the best at rooting themselves unnoticed in the status quo.

Let us refer back to the opening scene above. I have watched many romantic comedies where the male lead has demonstrated, explicitly, that he will not take no for an answer. When the male customer above stated, “I will just keep asking until you say yes,” he was essentially channeling the harassing and stalking behavior of all those rom.-com. male leads. Also, what he was really saying was, “You ARE interested in me. YOU just don’t know it, yet. And it is my duty, as a man, to force you to see that.” An all-too-familiar power dynamic is at play here. If we dissect the actual statement and its translation, we find that the woman’s assertions and claims to her time, her thoughts and her body, are deemed invalid and unworthy. It is implied that women don’t really know how they truly feel and they must be shown what is good for them. Now, what can be implied by the customer’s comment, “You will be…”? I mean, really? Did he just listen to himself. Was that a threat!?! Taken at face value, I would label it as a verbal act of violence and aggression since the woman’s agency was stolen from her in those words. If the first statement was not forceful enough, the second one broke through the boundaries. Not deviating from the topic of movies, that remark could be uttered equally by the Gosling-esque stud in a romantic comedy OR the psychopathic murderer in a horror film. Not a line one should really seek to blur.

I understand that romantic comedies are FOUNDED on posing an obstacle to love: distance, class struggle, family; but when the obstacle to love is a woman’s agency, romantic comedies transgress into a realm of misogyny, oppression and rape culture. The behaviors they display as “normal” become threatening. And when those behaviors are transferred from the screen to real life, they can become deadly. Romantic Comedies and many pop genres in music, literature and film, teach men that this behavior is not only okay, it is beneficial in attaining the desired outcome. They teach women that this behavior is not only okay, women should expect it, accept it and actually WANT it as it proves their worth. Time after time, romantic comedies from any era assert that a woman’s rejection is not something that should be respected and humbly accepted, but rather a necessary obstacle that only makes it sweeter when the man claims his prize. Essentially, the male lead becomes an aggressor who demonstrates that he is entitled to whomever he wants or finds attractive, no matter what she actually wants.

Entitlement to women and their bodies? Unable to handle rejection? Women are too dumb to know a good thing when it hits them? Follow this “logic” to its extreme conclusion and it starts to sound awfully similar to a fairly recent tragedy in the news in which a dejected young adult declares a war on women for their refusal to sleep with him… cue Elliot Rodgers. I admit it is an extreme parallelization and Elliot Rodgers was mentally ill, but it goes back to my earlier point that the seemingly-harmless behaviors going unnoticed are the ones that entrench their roots in our culture. These seemingly-harmless behaviors form the solid foundation from which a culture of rape can and has steadily grow(n). If we are to tear down patriarchy and institutionalized oppression, we must address it in all its forms: simultaneously at its pinnacle AND at its roots. Otherwise, it will only reappear as the invasive species it has proven itself to be.

Romantic comedies are FOUNDED on posing some obstacle to love: distance, class struggle, family. But when the obstacle to love is a woman’s agency, romantic comedies cross a very real line into the realm of misogyny, oppression and rape culture.

So, what else do romantic comedies teach us? Well, perhaps the most dangerous aspect of romantic comedies is that they are synonymous with, “Chick Flicks.” They are movies whose target audience is young, single, women potentially in search of love.  They not only model unhealthy behaviors for men, but they also wrongfully teach women that these unhealthy behaviors are just the way things ought to be. Women are brainwashed to seek out these traits in men and thereby the expression of these traits in men is perpetuated. A social Darwinism of sorts. Romantic comedies inform us that “by-any-means-necessary” attitudes to “get the girl” are admirable. They justify harassment, stalking and incessant invalidation of women’s convictions. They model unhealthy ideals that true happiness is found only from another person instead of through oneself. They teach us that violations of consent are okay and to be expected. The “Love at First Sight” mantra reduces women to objects who only establish their value through physical appearance and shallow etiquette. They demonstrate that it is unacceptable when a woman puts a man, “in the friend zone,” and that the best reaction to this is to manipulate the woman into believing a partnership is inevitable. When the man finally wins her love by demonstrating she was “only playing hard to get,” it wrongly reinforces that he must have been right and really did know what was best for her all along.

The “Love at First Sight” mantra reduces women to objects who only establish their value through physical appearance and shallow etiquette.

Rape culture mentality in popular culture is not a new concept. Shakespeare’s classic(-ly misogynistic) romantic comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, has been performed since the late 1500s. It has been made and remade into modern day romantic comedies from Audrey Hepburn in, “My Fair Lady,” to Julia Stiles in, “10 Things I Hate About You.” And the list goes on to include even more current features, like this month’s, “What If…”. What makes romantic comedies so easily undetected as the venomous vessels of oppression they are, is that they are so good at making you WANT the man to “win” the woman. They pull at our heart strings and manipulate our devotions to the underdog. They are not so obvious as the sexual objectification or victim blaming normally considered in discussions of rape culture. Romantic comedies rap subjugation in this neat, adorably irresistable, little package that makes it difficult to see the inception of sexual aggression that is taking place.

In my UN-romantic comedy of follies, my customer’s, “You will be…” statement was my final straw. I explained much of what I outline above to him. Unfortunately, it backfired. He became even more infatuated and I became an even bigger prize in his eyes. Or he thought I must be a lesbian — because, you know, the ONLY reason I wouldn’t accept his charming advances could ONLY be because I MUST ONLY be interested in women — which sickly made me an even GREATER prize to be won. Sometimes, oppression and rape culture are so entrenched in a person’s psyche that there is no reasoning with him or her. And sometimes, men are just sexist creeps. In this case, the harassment escalated to the point where I told him to leave me the fuck alone or else I would seriously taser his ass before getting a restraining order against him.  True story. He eventually got the point and left me alone, but shit!  Did it have to be that difficult?  Perhaps the most frightening thought is that I can consider myself lucky.  He didn’t become physically violent.  Others have experienced worse… But, media perpetuates these standards, right? So what can we, as a society, do to fix this?

Well, we can start by transforming the media that nurtures virulent attitudes about relationships, sexuality and women. We can provide young men with compelling models of how to treat women that do not involve subjugating, objectifying or stalking them. We can eradicate tropes that diminish women to prizes, backdrops or damsels in distress. Media can portray stronger, intelligent and INDEPENDENT female role models that empower young women instead of disenfranchise them. It is 2014, we are creative enough to get over the hackneyed boy wins girl-object motif in romantic comedies and instead replace it with complex, entertaining, sexy and romantic storylines. We CAN break free from these media shackles. I know I am not alone in longing to see a romance and a comedy that is equally creative and entertaining; in which a man gracefully accepts the word, “no,” in which a woman learns to truly love herself, in which heterosexuality is not the end-all-be-all of romance, in which best friends can mutually agree to be intimate and exclusive. So let’s get it done!

Now, let us take a moment to bring it back and swoon over and absorb the words of one of my favorite quintessential, romantic comedy dreamboats who has become a meme all to himself, feminist Ryan Gosling:


Okay, okay… I’ll admit it… Swoon. ❤

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