I, self-proclaimed, am a hopeless romantic. Far too much of my free time has been spent overindulging in the typical rom-com movie fantasies. Two strangers meet, perhaps stumble into each other in that oh-so-whimsical way, fall in love, have the inevitable misunderstanding that leaves us (or maybe just me) screaming into pillows and waving fists in the air, followed by the long-awaited but never-doubted happily ever after. Bonus points if there’s rain. I’m looking at you, “The Notebook.” Ever since I had braces and hair that frizzed in a way that Rachel McAdams’ never would, I’ve been completely enamored by the romantic comedy.
This falsified idea of love being the happy, rose-tinted “after” to contrast a dismal “before” characterized by microwaveable meals for one was completely ingrained in the way I thought about relationships. Rom-coms taught me, if anything, that a life without all-consuming romance is one inherently lacking something. Until we find this romance that sweeps us off of our feet to the non-diegetic voice of Céline Dion, we are painfully unfulfilled and subject to aimless waiting. Yet I still choose to consume these movies, again and again, knowing they completely skew my perception of realistic love. What other option is there?
There are hardly any movies about self-love — women who focus on themselves and don’t have a yearning for romance, or women who simply live without some sort of romantic pursuit. Sure, there are movies about empowered women who take charge of their lives and chase after their ambitions, but they are still portrayed as lacking something within themselves — in blunt terms — lacking a heart. They need the love and all too subtle “handling” of a man to knock some sense into them, transforming them from robot to woman. This is a misleading example to follow, and has conditioned me to believe that if I lack awe-inspiring romance in my life, then there is an inherent dissatisfaction within me propagating this sense of “unfulfillment.” Or rather, my life is an example of pure normalcy that rom-coms purposely disguise as unfulfillment.
This blunt portrayal of “before and after” posits romance as a magic wand that seamlessly solves all of the problems within a person’s life, whether they be internal or external. So commonly portrayed in these rom-coms is a longstanding, innate discontentment that can only be mended with romantic love, then solved by an epic reconciliation usually portrayed by a dramatic embrace. Take “Two Week’s Notice,” for instance; poor workaholic, Lucy Kessler (Sandra Bullock), spends lonely nights at home ordering an excessive amount of Chinese take-out for one, stuck in the mundane rinse-and-repeat cycle of a loveless life. Enter the dashing George Wade (Hugh Grant), a business executive whose morals are skewed at best, completely transforming her life from the lackluster nine and five to an existence completed by love and belonging. Then, as if the void in her old life wasn’t clear to the audience already, the movie closes with her ordering Chinese food for two — a not-so-subtle full-circle moment made possible by Wade’s place in her life. Or how about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’’ Paul Varjak (George Peppard) wants to become a writer. Although he struggles to make his dreams a reality, he has the support of a wealthy woman he doesn’t love. Meanwhile, the flighty, unemployed heiress, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), can’t commit to anything, not to herself, not even to naming her cat. As their love story develops, Golightly is overcome by emotions. In a fit of panic, she tosses her cat out of a moving vehicle, leaving Varjak to rescue him. With the nameless cat saved, the two embrace in the rain and love conquers all once again. Cue the end credits.
In these movies, love is often depicted as a solution to all other problems, filling in the gaps of a person’s life as the screen dims. However, rom-coms conveniently seem to end at the moment of impermanent fulfillment, purposely failing to show the moments when the temporary solution reveals itself and exposes the inherent problems within a person; none of which can be solved by love. Lucy Kessler will still be overinvested and excessively sympathetic within her job, George Wade will still prioritize a penny over principles, Holly Golightly still has no real employment or sense of self and Paul Varjak is no closer to publishing a book than I am. The truth is, if we’re empty and unfulfilled without romantic love, it’s likely that we’ll be the same way once the honeymoon phase wears off and we’re forced to face reality. It pains me to admit that this realization was a rude awakening for me.
I found myself waiting ever-so-patiently for love to fall into my lap like it did in the movies. I waited to meet someone when I “least expected it,” except of course, I always expected it. It was always on my mind. The barista who gave me a venti instead of a grande, the guy I always see at the gym — could these people be the love of my life? Love seemed to fix everybody’s problems in the movies, didn’t it? Every little thing that incited turmoil in a person’s life seemed to evaporate upon the mere touch of another’s hands, or having an eye to catch across a crowded room. I was sure that if I only had love, if I only waited long enough for someone to love me, I could finally learn to love myself. Of course, upon spending many a night curled on my couch with a mega-bowl of popcorn, I know that it’s the other way around. The only way I could ever be ready for the love of another person was if I loved myself first. If I skip this crucial step, I’ll only ever see a relationship as an object of my fulfillment, rather than a true connection between two people.
“The thing about being single is, you should cherish it. Because, in a week, or a lifetime, of being alone, you may only get one moment. One moment, when you’re not tied up in a relationship with anyone. A parent, a pet, a sibling, a friend. One moment, when you stand on your own.” These are words to live by, and funnily enough, are taken straight out of a rom-com, “How To Be Single.” This movie chronicles the all-too-realistic experiences of Alice Kepley (Dakota Johnson) searching for love in all aspects of her life while balancing work, friendship and being a 20-something party animal. It seems as though each time one of her romantic endeavors fails to work out, a new prospect appears — and then inevitably fails once more. Kepley is cut from the same piece of cloth as a lot of women, myself included. This notion that we must search for love at the risk of sacrificing our personhood in order to complete a quota of “fulfillment” runs even deeper than we realize.
How do I know this? Throughout the entire movie, I kept waiting, kept rooting, for her to end up with each of her various flames, despite how evidently bad they each were for her and, even more embarrassingly, despite the title of the movie itself. As I watched her relationships crash and burn at her touch, I still expected a man to emerge from the embers and whisk her away into a happily ever after. This, of course, is not what happens. As the title suggests, Kepley embarks on this journey to find herself and escape from the obsessive nature with which she regards love. She begins to realize that love is all around — and not in the strange, making googly eyes at the barista kind of way. In the kind of way that makes you want to hug your parents a little tighter, take your dog on an extra long walk, hike your way up the Grand Canyon solo just to finally feel at ease.
But the idea of love as an objective, rather than a natural connection — pounded in my head by the barrage of airport embraces and sappy speeches — doesn’t go away with me just saying so. I think that I will always hold an expectation of love as something magical; if a TV screen can make my stomach do somersaults, then I sure hope my real life can as well. But love is not a fixer of problems, and it is certainly not something that I should spend my whole life waiting for with twiddling thumbs, despite what Sandra Bullock may have to say about it. I don’t foresee myself taking a break from rom-coms anytime soon, but I do hope to look at them from the perspective of someone who is already fulfilled and happy within myself. I am already an “after,” not a “before.”
Statement Columnist Irena Tutunari can be reached at email@example.com.