I love good romcoms because done well, they’re such refreshing narratives on how we approach love and falling in love. I was around for the golden age of romcoms and came of age with the genre’s steady decline. Since this genre primarly targetted women, it also echoed our evolution (even if not always well). I have mixed feelings towards a lot of these films because at best, they tried some interesting/progressive ideas and at worst, propagated horrible ones. One that I’ve always been conflicted about is ‘He’s Just Not That Into You‘ so I wanted to decode what’s going on there.
[Spoiler alert for ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’, the book as well as the movie]
This ensemble cast/multiple storyline film is based on a nonfiction book by the same name. That book in turn, is based on a single dialogue in an episode of Sex & The City. I was a huge fan of the SATC TV shows (and disgusted by the movies) so I also read the book that that show was based on (and didn’t like it because the book was outdated for me). When I saw the book ‘He’s Just Not That Into You‘, I grabbed it. The movie in turn, so many feelings. Let’s put it under the feminist scanner because I’ve realised this is where my bar of worthy-or-not stands.
On Women Not Being Passive Objects
The book was arranged chapter wise around specific behaviours/statements that indicated the titular truth ‘He’s just not that into you’. It was written in a he said/she said style. My problem was every chapter also assumed that all behaviours had to be expressed by men and the absence of these meant zero potential for connection. It left out a whole universe of shy men, confused men, men who like assertive women and every single woman’s personhood.
The film shows pairs where a woman makes the move and various endings to this action. (I’m going to refer to each character by the name of the actor playing them)
- Bradley Cooper is married to Jennifer Connelly because she issued an ultimatum, which is not really ‘making the first move’ but the kind of thwarted aggression that comes from repressing natural feelings. Her first instinct on hearing about his infidelity is to take on the blame herself and ‘try to work things out’. Her storyline is about her finally breaking loose of that oppressive stereotype of the all-accepting woman. Learnt feminism is no less feminist.
- Jennifer Anniston says she called Ben Affleck after their first date, instead of waiting for him to make the move and they go on to have a relationship of 7 years. Their dynamic shows that different things work for different people and notions like women not making the first move are regressive. Their storyline actually challenges the patriarchal notion of weddings being the grand prize for women and their only measure of worth.
- Scarlet Johannson quite obviously seduces Bradley Cooper, tiding over his weak protestations of being married (but also responding enthusiastically to her overtures). They do end up having an affair, a plotline that isn’t condoned by the problem there is the cheating, not who was being more assertive. True, there is the lingering stereotype of a sexually aggressive, marriage breaking vamp which isn’t feminist in the least.
- Ginnifer Goodwin is eager to make the move but seems to diffident/shamefaced about it, meaning some part of her still thinks she’s stooping to behaviours that she should not be doing. So her storyline has her frequently rejected by these men. At the time, I hated that she comes off stalkerish and needy. But in retrospect, I can see how her behaviour is shaped by the oppressive pressures laid on women and her values of hope, romantic idealism and the determination to find love (usually positive traits) end up muddied in this system.
On Male Misbehaviour
The book’s premise that “If he’s not calling, he’s just not that into you” hammers in the corollary that if he is calling, he is into you. The movie nicely overturns that with the admittedly funny ditty on Drew Barrymore’s musician date who voicemail bombs different women with the same cheesy message.
So just because he’s calling you does not mean he’s into you anymore than Bradley Cooper marrying you means he’s into you. We see Bradley Cooper watching others smoke & struggling to say no to a cigarette. He lives on the edge of temptation because everything he wants is what he believes is wrong. While neither cheating nor lying are okay, this must make him a very unhappy person and unhappy people can’t be in happy relationships.
The cheating storyline troubled me the most. But cheating is neither patriarchal nor feminist – it’s just bad behaviour. Patriarchy allows men to get away with it easier by treating it as a minor bending of rules, yes. But the rule is monogamy (itself arguably a patriarchal construct) so cheating is breaking that rule. Given that this plotline ends with the wife kicking her husband out while the mistress also seemingly parts ways with him to follow her own path, that’s a reasonably feminist approach.
Both Drew Barrymore’s storyline and the Bradley Cooper one are about male misbehaviour and its impact on women (ranging from frustration to deep anguish). The book seems to condone it in a ‘boys will be boys’ way but the fact that both these storylines end with less than glorious endings for these men, I’d say it’s a step up.
We’ll skip the obviously problematic statements like “Maybe she just wants you to be a man and do something” simply because this movie, like everything else was a product of its times. Showing gay people at all was pretty progressive (even if they formed none of the main characters) and having a gay man say this was, well, confusing. But it was a confusing time for people who grew up with the 80s hangover of Baby Boomer/hippie culture parents and the toxic masculinity of the 90s, then found themselves in a new millennium adulthood where everything they’d believed was wrong.
On ‘The Signs’
I only realised in my first read through of this post that I’d completely blanked on the Ginnifer Goodwin-Alex Long storyline even though that’s the one the film follows most closely. That might be a cue. My theory is that this storyline was the original plot but it didn’t have anything particularly new or interesting so the makers padded up the film with a bigger cast and a tie-in with a popular franchise. This storyline works decently enough to showcase the nuances of decoding men’s behaviour in dating. It does so by spelling it out rather baldly in an otherwise nuanced film. I’m not sure there’s anything either patriarchal or feminist about a couple that takes turns chasing each other and then decide to stop and become a couple.
All in all, I end with a film that takes its source material a notch up (and away from problematic) while still having room to grow. But I’m writing this in 2020 and the movie came out over a decade ago. Feminism is an ideology and must evolve to inspire the needs of the time and culture. In the meantime, that means there’s room for so many more stories exploring how we relate to each other.