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TV & Film Could Benefit To Drop These Problematic Romance Tropes

CBR 12/1/2022 Robert Vaux
© Provided by CBR

Romance is a key part of both storytelling and life, and romantic subplots in TV and movies are nearly omnipresent. The combination of inherent drama and ready audience identification is simply too potent, with tales of love and lovers going all the way back to the Greeks. Any two characters with a little chemistry always have a chance to become a couple.

Unfortunately, the resulting relationship isn't always depicted in healthy ways. In fact, Hollywood often adapts romantic story arcs with actively problematic content. Narrative expediency often means big dramatic gestures that play far better onscreen than in reality, and once viewers look beneath the surface, what appears to be a picture-perfect romance suddenly looks like toxic codependency. The whole of pop culture would do well to kick a number of common romantic tropes to the curb. Here's a list of some of the most prominent examples.

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'Abusive Behavior Is Romantic' Showcases Relationship Red Flags

People in love don't always behave rationally, but fictional characters have a way of taking that to sinister extremes -- often resulting in the harmful "abusive behavior is romantic" trope. In this case, one half of the couple becomes fixated on the other: stalking them, invading their privacy, assuming some level of "ownership" over them, and otherwise taking inappropriate action in the name of love. Their behavior is often presented as efforts to "win" the other person over, but comes across instead as inserting themselves into someone else's life. The Twilight saga is perhaps the perennial example, as Edward Cullen breaks into Bella's room, confesses an obsession with her, and becomes the dominating force in her existence: all with the power and wealth of a vampire to back him up. He's hardly the only culprit.

'Opposites Attract' Perpetuates a Harmful Myth

The "opposites attract" trope is almost as popular as dressing up abusive behavior as romance. The trope is based on the idea that two people with vastly different personalities and interests can come together as a couple through the "magic" of love. The trope can work -- Han Solo and Leia Organa fit the mold, for instance -- though that usually means acknowledging the challenges it presents over the long term. (Han and Leia broke up.) Most of the time, the writers go for the quick fix, which means at least one half of the couple needs to change who they are in order to accommodate the other. Long-term relationships simply don't work that way in reality, and in the worst cases, it becomes a means of control akin to the abusive behavior trope. As beloved as it is, Grease succumbs to this trope, as Sandy alters everything about herself in the end so that she can be with Danny.

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'Star-Crossed Lovers' Sends a Wrong Message About Sacrifice

The term "star-crossed" stems from Romeo & Juliet, referring to characters who want to be together, but are prevented from doing so by forces beyond their control. It makes for good drama -- Shakespeare clearly thought so -- but also for seriously problematic couples. That includes not only the same kinds of issues as other tropes on this list, but even worse things such as death and felonious crime. Romeo & Juliet famously ends in a mutual suicide, for instance, while Jack and Rose from Titanic essentially turns Jack into a sacrificial lamb so that Rose can escape her trapped life. On the TV front, Buffy Summers and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer succumbed to it more than once, but notably in Season 2, Episode 22, "Becoming, Part 2" when she kills him to save the world.

'Bury Your Gays' Perpetuates Homophobia

LGBTQIA representation presents a conundrum for pop culture, which usually tries -- ineptly -- to navigate societal homophobia even as it works towards greater diversity. The infamous "bury your gays" trope is the result, with either one or both members of onscreen LGBTQIA couples killed as part of the drama. 1993's Philadelphia cemented the trope, as Tom Hanks' Andrew dies of complications from AIDS, while his lover Miguel lives. Horror movies indulge in it far too often, such as Pennywise's murder of a young gay man in It, Chapter 2 (the scene stems from Stephen King's original novel) and Michael Myers offing "Big John and Little John" in Halloween Kills. The death of Sara Lance in Arrow Season 3, Episode 1, "The Calm," still roils the fanbase (though producers eventually brought her back), while Star Trek: Discovery drew complaints after Dr. Culber's death in Season 1, Episode 10, "Despite Yourself" before revealing it as part of a larger arc. (Culber returned to life in Season 2, Episode 5, "Saints of Imperfection.")

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'Bisexual Erasure' Is a Major Hallmark of Biphobia

Along the same lines, while gay and lesbian couples at least occupy some screen time here and there, bisexuality invariably throws Hollywood into a tizzy. Bisexual characters -- and particularly bisexual romances -- must often "choose a side" or otherwise engage in behavior that renders their bisexuality invisible. The most infamous example is undoubtedly Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer who -- after two cishet romances in the series' first three seasons -- entered a sapphic relationship with Tara Maclay in Season 5, Episode 16, "The Body." She referred to herself as "gay" or "lesbian" for the remainder of the series, erasing her self-evident bisexuality as a result.

While today's film and television landscape is making strides towards depicting healthier relationships on screen, it still has long ways to go towards normalizing healthy relationship behavior. A major step forward would be to drop these five prominent tropes that have defined film and television romances for well over a century.

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