Ever run full pelt at an airport security guard with a bunch of flowers instead of a ticket, shouting: “Out of my way, I have to stop her moving to Paris!”? Believe me, you’re on a one-way trip to headlock city. Tried playing Peter Gabriel at full volume outside your sweetheart’s window in a built-up area? Welcome to this rake through your neck, pal. Considered turning to sex work to meet the romantic millionaire of your dreams? I mean, you’ve marginally better odds than on Hinge, I guess…
As we approach the first Nando’s-free Valentine’s Day in living memory, you might be thinking that a night in a twosie in front of a selection of Richard Curtis’s most socially cleansed moments might make for the perfect lockdown Valentine date, and even re-spark the sex life that died a tedious is-it-Thursday-again? death last September. But do not be fooled.
Romcoms are a cinematic Tinder scam. A seething, Coldplay-soundtracked mass of fantasy, lies and bad decisions populated by stalkers, game-players, power freaks and perverts – some of these weirdos would literally shag a shop window mannequin if it came to life. Worse still, they’re designed to make your life feel unutterably mundane in order to better sell you their impossible dream. Emulating their gestures of impulsive ardour is more likely to get you dumped, sectioned or tasered than blissfully married, and using them to set your standards of romantic idealism will condemn you to a life of frustration and unrealised perfection. People fart. They just do. Get used to it.
Much of the insidious messaging of the average romcon is an unavoidable by-product of its medium. No-one ever spent 15 quid to watch an online date go quite well, a solid bond form, everyone get on with everyone else’s friends and, bar a few touch-and-go offers on a flat, everything wrap up nicely over Aldi Cava at a bog-standard 20 grand wedding near Basingstoke. No, romcoms require the central couple to overcome relationship-threatening drama – torrid flings, tempestuous rows, break-ups, meltdowns, one of them’s a mermaid – in order to finally realise their love is forever.
Now the last time one of your friends told you their relationship was “dramatic”, you instinctively knew that they meant “he’s on crack”, right? And did that relationship eventually click into place on a Central Park ice rink to the tune of Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’, his errant ways entirely behind him? Or did you last spot him in a Crimewatch photo-fit while she spent the past six months trying to buy all her clothes back on eBay?
Yet the happy ending is an irrefutable truth of the romcom (otherwise, it’s classed as a ‘weepie’), so the warped ideal has been set over generations that the path to true love has to be turbulent. That opposites attract, people fundamentally change for love and cold hearts can be swayed by grand romantic statements. It’s what keeps us forgiving the unforgivable, clinging on to the last frayed threads of hopeless relationships and singing to people in public. It’s what forces us to back carefully out of engagements explaining that you had to say yes at the time, you were onstage with The Killers.
You don’t have to dig too deep to find torrents of inappropriate behaviour gushing through the average romcom either. 1995’s Clueless involves Alicia Silverstone hooking up with her stepbrother, while romantic obsession, almost always sympathetically portrayed as long as the character is male (obsessed women are more likely to be portrayed as crazy or dangerous), regularly veers way over the line into all-out stalking. Cameron in 10 Things I Hate About You learns French so that he can pretend to be a tutor just to get close to the object of his affections, and with a darker soundtrack There’s Something About Mary would basically have been Sleeping With The Enemy: The Bloopers.
Let’s not forget the frankly terrifying Mark from Love Actually. Not only has this guy made obsessive films about his best friend’s wife, he turns up at her door on Christmas Eve with a bunch of placards expressing his love for her. Not just dangerous, but dumb too. Surely the normal reaction to being told there are carol singers at the door is to say: “Oh, that’s lovely, I must go and have a listen, they sound so well-rehearsed they could professionally release this on cassette, I mean they’ve even brought a string section…”
A 2016 study found that heroic portrayals of “persistent pursuit” do affect real-life behaviour. “We’re going to be more likely to adopt whatever behaviours or values are communicated if they seem to lead to a positive outcome,” its author Julia Lippman told The Atlantic. “And what could be a more positive outcome than getting to be with the woman of your dreams?” The article also cites the case of an Indian man escaping a stalking conviction in Australia with a legal defence based on the fact that men in Bollywood films often win over indifferent women by “determinedly pursuing” them. Not quite so innocent-looking now, eh 50 First Dates?
Romcoms are in the business of making fairy tales look believable, using their escapist nature to make unlikely scenarios seem entirely reasonable – there’s nothing a 21-year-old New York philosophy student finds more romantically appealing than a short-sighted neurotic wise-cracker on the wrong side of 50, right Woody? But it’s vital they’re considered as fantastical as any un-killable psychopath or cockney-accented Hugh Grant. It’s not a good idea to send all your savings to a debt-saddled online suitor with a Nigerian bank account because it worked out great in You’ve Got Mail. It’s not okay for truant juniors to fly unaccompanied across America to meet an adult they’ve never even seen before because, well officer, Sleepless In Seattle.
It is okay, however, for the course of true love to run uneventfully smooth. Your love life isn’t inadequate or unworthy because you’re not battling mental health issues, no-one’s engaged to the wrong person or in a coma, you haven’t fallen for the Prime Minister and at no point has anyone inexplicably bawled an out-of-tune ABBA song in your face. Don’t allow Hollywood to set you impossible romantic standards and make your great life feel incomplete. Snuggle up in front of Requiem For A Dream this Sunday instead, and count your blessings.