The most toxic romantic comedy storylines of all time, from Love Actually to While You Were Sleeping

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Stalking, catfishing and not understanding that no means no: from My Best Friend’s Wedding and Love Actually to While You Were Sleeping, these are the movies that prove problematic upon second viewing.

Netflix’s You is about to return to the streaming platform, which means that Penn Badgley’s Joe is about to inspire, again, the kind of heated debate usually reserved for whether or not coriander is a good herb, or if Marie Kondo is forcing you to throw out all your books like some “tiny Japanese Gaston.” 

Is Joe, who spends most of You stalking women, breaking into their homes, monitoring their social media and cutting them off from their friends, creepy? Or is his behaviour romantic? The answer is, of course, the latter, but it’s not difficult to see how the discourse has become warped. Because almost everything that Joe does in You - with the exception of murdering people - has been used in a romantic comedy before for an entirely different effect.

This is, in some way, the point of You, which ranked as one of Netflix’s most popular series after it was watched by more than 40 million Americans in January 2019 alone. 

You is expressly concerned with exposing just how the romantic comedy genre has warped our interpretations and understanding of love and relationships. So much so, that a 2016 study from the University of Michigan confirmed that watching romantic comedies normalises stalking.  

So, so creepy. And yet some don’t seem to agree

But just how prevalent are these toxic, problematic storylines? You’d be surprised. Some of them are even in your romantic comedy faves. 

Love Actually

The beloved Christmas classic has become something of a gold standard when it comes to discussing problematic romantic comedies. If you were playing toxic storyline bingo, Love Actually is an instant winner: it features a storyline of a man filming a woman without her consent and keeping the footage for purposes unknown and multiple instances of potential sexual harassment in the workforce.

But it is the story of Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and Juliet (Keira Knightley) that proves the most toxic. Mark is the best friend of Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has recently married Juliet. Both Peter and Juliet think that Mark despises her when the reality is that he loves her, actually, an emotion that he expresses by ignoring her at all times and secretly filming her.

He is rewarded for this truly creepy behaviour with a kiss on the cheek from Juliet after he turns up at her house, tells her to lie to her husband, and confesses his love for her. 

“He is a stalker,” Lincoln has said about his character. No question about it. “That was my question to [director and writer] Richard Curtis, ‘Do you think we’re sort of borderline stalker territory here?’ And he said ‘No, no. Not with you playing it, darling. You’ll be alright.’” 

You’ve Got Mail

Full disclosure: You’ve Got Mail is one of the most universally beloved films in the offices and in the offices of my own heart. 20 years young, watching the Nora Ephron movie is like wearing your comfiest, cosiest outfit or slipping into a warm bath. It’s a big, best friend hug to your soul.

But it also features one of the most egregious moments of catfishing in the romantic comedy canon. Catfishing, or pretending to be someone online that you are not, is a staple of the genre, as seen in everything from Netflix’s recent Sierra Burgess is a Loser to the teen classic A Cinderella Story

The stakes in You’ve Got Mail might seem low, but the second Joe ‘F.O.X’ Fox (Tom Hanks) works out that he’s been anonymously messaging Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and continues to deceive her online, all while manipulating her in real life too, his character slips from romantic hero to problematic man. 

Fox redeems himself at the end, but it casts an unsettling pall over the rest of the film.

While You Were Sleeping

Think of this as catfishing in the pre-internet era: Lucy (Sandra Bullock) saves the life of Peter (Peter Gallagher) and, while he lies in a coma at the hospital recovering his family assume that she is his fiancee, with Lucy doing nothing to disavow them of this belief. (She also finds herself falling for Bill Pullman’s Jack, Peter’s brother.) 

Lying about who you really are rarely forms the basis of a healthy relationship, and yet it’s a plot device used over and over again in romantic comedies without any actual consequences. You can file 10 Things I Hate About You, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Never Been Kissed and many, many more movies in this troubling category.

In this way, romantic comedies have proven a very toxic form of gaslighting, teaching many women that it’s OK to accept falsehoods and straight-up lies from their romantic partners. 

Sleepless in Seattle

In real life, hiring a private investigator to track down someone you think is cute is an enormous red flag. But in romantic comedies? It’s sweet, endearing and a sign of eternal passion and devotion. 

This troubling plotline is employed in movies like There’s Something about Mary, when Ted (Ben Stiller) employs the services of a PI in order to reconnect with Mary (Cameron Diaz), his high school crush. There’s also the slightly adjacent move that involves hiring dating coaches who will help reverse engineer you into the kind of person your crush might be interested in, such as Will Smith in Hitch or Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love

But we thought we’d mention Sleepless in Seattle to prove that we’re not above criticising the work of our favourite directors and writers. Another Ephron film, this romantic comedy charts the blossoming romance between Annie (Meg Ryan) and Sam (Tom Hanks) after she hears his voice on the radio. That’s it. They don’t actually meet until the very end of the film. Annie, a reporter in Baltimore, uses her journalistic credentials to search for information on Sam in police databases and has an investigator track down his address so that she can turn up at his house, entirely unannounced.

“Is this crazy?” Annie asks Becky (Rosie O’Donnell), her editor and friend. “No,” Becky replies. “That’s the weirdest part about it.”

We’re sorry, Nora, but this is crazy. It’s certifiably insane! And this one little scene brushing off Annie’s actions as normal is seriously problematic. 

My Best Friend’s Wedding

To be fair, almost everyone is united in the belief that Julianne (Julia Roberts) in My Best Friend’s Wedding is a major villain. But it doesn’t change the fact that almost everything she does to ruin her best friend’s, um, wedding, is seriously toxic.

She lies to her buddy Michael (Dermot Mulroney) about his new partner Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) and she lies to Kimmy about Michael. She deliberately undermines both of them. She invents a fake relationship to make Michael jealous. 

And then, the piece de problematic resistance, she breaks into his offices in order to fabricate an email. Though she ultimately decides not to send it, she does leave it on the computer for someone else to find. She’s not exactly Mother Theresa, here. 

Again, most people watching My Best Friend’s Wedding recognise that Julianne is a truly reprehensible character. But nowhere in the movie does she receive anything beginning to approach a comeuppance, which teaches the lesson that toxic behaviour like this won’t lead to any consequences. 

Say Anything

What would a romantic comedy be without a grand gesture? Without an ending, presumably, considering that so many rom coms reach their climax not with a whimper but a bang. The grand gesture is how movies like Notting Hill, The Notebook, Made of Honour, Jerry Maguire tie everything up in a neat little bow.

But on second reflection, just how romantic are those gestures? Notting Hill sees Will force Anna’s hand, in her place of work no less, in front of the assembled world media. The Notebook is an example of someone not taking no for an answer. Made of Honour (and, for that matter, 27 Dresses) involves crashing a wedding and ruining someone else’s big day with a grand display of emotion. 

And that quotable speech at the end of Jerry Maguire? “You complete me,” and all that? It’s another example of a man using a public display of devotion, after repeatedly letting her down, to guilt a woman into taking him back.

The most egregious grand gesture, though, is John Cusack turning up with the boombox in Say Anything after stalking Diane for most of the movie. 

This is a very public, very manipulative display of emotion that is displayed as the height of romanticism in the movie. It’s this kind of normalisation of stalking that helped to create the conditions in which, in 2017, a Bath man believed that it was a good idea to play the piano outside his ex girlfriend’s flat until she agreed to take him back.

It’s time for the problematic grand gesture to end. And it’s time for romantic comedies to be less toxic. 

Images: Rex Features


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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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