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Love to hate it: Romance in literature, film, music

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Senior Staff

NOVEMBER 12, 2022

A simple Google search reveals the complexity of the way we view romance in literature and in the arts more broadly: While we love it, we also love to hate it. There exists, for some nebulous reason, a sense of disdain when it comes to depictions of love in the art we consume.

Even as it enduringly draws the attention, adoration and acclaim of the general public, love portrayed in art has continually had critics in various spheres turn their noses up at it, especially throughout popular media. Perhaps the earliest example is the romance novel. It has, from its earliest days, been treated as inferior to other genres. “This sort of marginalization of love stories — that, for one thing, they don’t qualify as ‘legitimate’ novels — threads through the 125 years of The New York Times Book Review,” wrote New York Times editor Dan Saltzstein.

Indeed, plenty of romance novels, especially those written by female writers, have been dubbed “trash.” Historically, this scorn has often been a product of fear: Romantic novels have often been perceived as having transformative powers, capable of corrupting young women who would otherwise submit to a patriarchal, paternalistic social order. There is also a sense of consternation against the women who write them, envisioned by the likes of George Eliot as dressed in “elegant boudoirs, with violet-colored ink and a ruby pen” — this is the same terror of self-possessed, sensually-aware women with a firm hold over their own bodily autonomy that scholars like Silvia Federici have argued inspired the witch trials of history. 

Even feminists, however, have, in the past, expressed their contempt for romance novels. Mary Wollstonecraft herself, hailed by many as the founder of feminism and the first suffragette, saw them as subpar: “When, therefore, I advise my sex not to read such flimsy works, it is to induce them to read something superiour.”

This idea has found its modern retelling in newer forms of media. In film, romantic comedies — affectionately abbreviated “rom-coms” — and romance movies more broadly have been met with the same disdain. Rom-coms, in particular, are more often referred to as guilty pleasures than well-made movies, and enjoying them is often admitted to with a sheepish shrug or a defensive “OK, hear me out.” Like romance novels, they have been called cliché, unrealistic and, of course, trashy.

Romantic comedies, of course, have their flaws. Some of them are, indeed, poorly written or poorly made; the genre as a whole also runs the risk of oversimplifying certain problems that society faces today. “The social impact of romantic comedy, I think, can be limited by its tendency to think of social conflicts in personal terms, to sort of say, ‘All problems are solvable if we try to understand each other better,’” said Dr. Emily West, who teaches a class on romantic comedy under the department of film and media at UC Berkeley. “I love that sentiment, but I think some social problems need more than understanding; they need change.”

While there certainly are bad romance novels and rom-coms, however, and while there is definitely room for growth in these genres, dismissing them as garbage or garbage-adjacent gives too little credit to the plethora of instances in which they are executed well. Maybe more importantly, it unfairly discounts the ways in which the broader existence of romance in art and literature has benefited society.

Depictions of romance can be greatly empowering for certain groups — most traditionally women. Romance novels were one of the first, if not the first, to center around women and their experiences instead of the heroisms and tribulations of men, and to recognize that women could and should seek out the things and people they desire. This is, at least, part of the reason they were met with such backlash.

“I think women’s fiction and romantic discourse in fiction (have) been treated as lesser or even sort of shameful for (their) embrace of everyday life and relationships instead of being about these big historical forces,” said West. These “shameful” spaces, however, were often the only spaces women used to be able to exist in.

“I have wanted to avoid using the P word, but, you know, patriarchy and misogyny are two of the reasons the domestic space or the space of intimacy and relationships were the only spaces women were allowed to have voice,” she added.

The sexism behind our collective resentment against romance also lives in the music industry. While the love song has found itself frowned upon a lot less than its counterparts in literature and film, it has received its fair share of derision — particularly when it comes from certain female singers or songwriters. In attempting to illustrate this point, Taylor Swift, of course, is the first household name to come to mind.

“I think, objectively, Taylor Swift’s music has always been very variable in terms of the different types of things that she sings about. They’re not always about romance, but a lot of the songs that she’s gotten attention for and the pop songs that get really well known happen to be a lot of love songs,” pointed out Sarah Bayoumi, founding member of the UC Berkeley Taylor Swift Society.

Swift has, however, been not only popularized by but also criticized for her love songs. From the perspectives of Bayoumi and her co-founder Sneha Mukherjee, critics often do not take Swift seriously because of her age, viewing the romances she described in her earlier music as “not the real thing,” and because of her sex.

“It is interesting how Taylor was so scrutinized for writing about love when men at the same time who may have been the same age as her were not receiving that same scrutiny,” said Bayoumi.

Possibly less intuitive for many and fairly new in the academic space, in addition, is the idea that rom-coms have also been empowering for the LGBTQ+ community. “Even in early American cinema, there were plenty of queer representations of romance,” West told me. Romantic comedies made as early as the 1930s explored the queer experience, providing crucial representation for people who identify with characters on screen.

West also cited more recent romantic comedies like “Fire Island” (2022), a queering of Jane Austen’s iconic novel “Pride and Prejudice,” and romantic dramas, like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) as works of cinema that have been valuable in “getting us out of those heteronormative boxes.”

In these ways, romantic works of art and literature do important work addressing — and ameliorating — discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and discrimination based on gender as a whole. It doesn’t take an academic or a journalist to realize, furthermore, that they can and, especially in recent years, often do examine themes far beyond romance. Many times, they explore related but far more daunting topics like grief and tragedy. John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” for instance, a young adult romance novel, has no qualms delving into the grimmest parts of illness and death; Swift’s music covers a diverse range of topics, including her mother’s cancer diagnosis (“Soon You’ll Get Better”), depression (“Anti-Hero”) and youth engagement in politics (“Only the Young”); Aaron and Adam Nee’s 2022 rom-com “The Lost City,” starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, tackles ideas of trauma and healing.

In the same vein, West explained how, although prominent Hollywood studios have often sought to retain mass appeal by avoiding controversial issues, romantic comedies produced by independent filmmakers have often taken on weightier topics. “I’m thinking of the film ‘Obvious Child’ from a few years ago,” she said. “That’s a romantic comedy that ends with a woman considering an abortion, and it takes her agency over her body very seriously.”

Other kinds of love are also often explored in romance novels: Taking a step back in time, James Baldwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” recognizes not only romantic but familial love. Going even further back, through its exploration of animosity, love and acceptance, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” — the inspiration for “Fire Island” as mentioned above, and a personal favorite of mine — tackles, in a roundabout sort of way, love for one’s own self.

The same can be said for many romantic comedies — and maybe this is why so many draw great inspiration from the Austen classic. “I think one place that romantic comedies do a lot of cultural work is around encouraging self-reflection and compassion,” said West. 

“Often, it’s a sort of stock plot in romantic comedies that the two protagonists, of whatever gender, began with some kind of fundamental antagonism — they don’t like each other for some reason — and part of the process of falling in love … is actually overcoming those antagonisms is by seeing through them to some underlying misunderstanding or mismatch in needs.”

Love songs, even when they speak to romantic love, also find their impact and popularity in the way they can often be evocative of other kinds of love.

Mukherjee pointed out how love features strongly in all our lives, and is felt keenly either through its presence or absence. This is, perhaps, due to the strong feelings that love, romantic or otherwise, inspires in us.

“There’s a lot of passion that comes with love, and whether that be love in a first-hand experience or just witnessing or hearing the stories of others, I think we all yearn to be included and feel affirmed and feel like people care about us, and music about love feeds into those desires,” said Bayoumi.

All this helps us understand our love-hate relationship with romance in art and literature. We are constantly working against the historical forces that continue to shape our worldviews, casting a sense of inferiority and even disgrace upon it. At the same time, there are parts of us that resonate with this work — parts that are learning how best to love the people in our lives, be they significant others, family or friends; parts that are learning to love ourselves, to see ourselves in the art that we consume and fight for the lives we want to lead; parts that are struggling with the hardest parts of being human.

Perhaps, however, the explanation could be a much simpler one. Perhaps many romantic works of art are simply good.

Taylor Swift, for instance, is renowned for her prowess as a songwriter. “Her lyrics carry a lot of meaning, and I think that’s what people really gravitate towards,” Bayoumi said. Swift is also known for the artfulness of her bridges, which famously add dimension to her storytelling by introducing some sort of twist. Mukerjee calls them “the make-or-break moment(s) in her songs.”

This holds true for many popular romantic works of art. Books like “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Fault in Our Stars” are so widely read because they are effective in moving us. Rom-coms like “The Lost City” are so well-loved because they are successful in making us want both to be loved and to love ourselves. Finally, songs like Taylor Swift’s are so oft-praised because they are able to tell stories that we relate to. We love romance novels, rom-coms and love songs despite the forces telling us that they are beneath us because, at the end of the day, so many of them are well-written, and move and inspire us in ways that only art can.

Perhaps American author William Lyon Phelps described the power of romance in art best in a review he wrote for Edith Wharton’s romance novel “The Age of Innocence”:

“So little is said, so little is done, yet one feels the infinite passion in the finite hearts that burn.” 

Lee Xuan is the Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @8leexuan8.

NOVEMBER 18, 2022