Summary: Films show us how romance is changing in America. It’s a fundamental aspect of our society. This change is like plate tectonics: irresistible but indivisible unless looked for.
Romance is a social construct that has changed over time. Medieval romances were often between a knight and his Lord’s wife. Society changed, and the nuclear family needed a supporting scaffolding. In the mid-18th century social innovators created the modern concept of romance — such as Rousseau in his hot best seller Julie: Letters of Two Lovers (1761).
In the past two generations American society has changed again, re-classifying those classic romances as either fantasy (i.e., like The Lord of the Rings) or double-plus-ungood examples of patriarchal oppression. New forms of romance emerge to meet the needs of their consumers (mostly women). Let’s look at some, and learn.
The Prince and Me (2004)
Staring Julia Stiles. With spoilers!
Most of us enjoy film fantasies about lives like ours — or our lives what be if we had been blessed by wondrous fortune. These stories reflect our desires and fears.
For the growing legion of children from broken families there is The Parent Trap (1961) about teen children of divorced wealthy parents who reunite them (so popular that Disney remade it in 1998 with Lindsay Lohan).
For young women there is Legally Blonde (2001) — the travails and eventual success at work and play of a young woman struggling to get by with just her high intelligence (Harvard Law), vivid personality (sorority socialite), extreme beauty, and family wealth.
Difficult as seems to top that, Hollywood tried with The Prince and Me. It tells the story of a young woman, Paige Morgan, whose life is a parade: a beautiful girl in her senior year of college, vivacious and popular, who must choose between marriage to the Crown Prince of Denmark and entering Stanford Medical School (to become a doctor serving poor nations). She chooses the royal lifestyle. Everybody loves her except — at first — the Queen Mother. Eventually she declares Paige to be the “best thing that ever happened to the monarchy.”
That is not enough for Paige. She wants it all! She dumps the Prince and returns to America — and Stanford. As usual in modern films, the Prince reveals his true nature as a beta. He flies to America, bows before Paige, and pledges to give her everything she wants — just as she wants it. It’s romance!
Modern fantasies of new age women
Everybody has their fantasies. The entertainment industry thrives by projecting them on the big screen, so we can see and better understand ourselves. Women emancipated from the patriarchy want men to accommodate their needs and desires. That is difficult to show in realistic settings. It works best in action adventure films, like The Jewel of the Nile (1985).
So we often get beta leading men in new films set in normal life. A wonderful example of updating classic literature for our time is Unleashing Mr. Darcy. It is about people who love show dogs, in which the very alpha man in Jane Austin’s Pride & Prejudice becomes a sniveling beta (the title is a joke).
The Hallmark Channel has a series of made-for-TV romances starring low-testosterone beta heroes. They are popular in their limited-appeal genre.
Another version of having it all is shown by Taylor Swift in “They Way I loved you” (2008): she has a nice beta boyfriend who takes her on dates with dinners and movies. Her father likes him. She has a thrilling bad boy (who treats her poorly) for excitement in her late-night second-shift dates. The lyrics are quite candid about this.
As a 60+ male, I have little in common with the target market for these fantasies. Hollywood’s classic romances were fantasies, but I could imagine the characters successfully living together. I watch most modern romances like these — or those on TV (e.g., “Castle”, “NCIS Los Angeles”, and “Forever”) with the certainty that the sequels will show divorces. Either the guy will get fed up with his high-maintenance wife’s demands, or the high-powered wife will dump her beta boy husband.
Not all of them. Here are my recommendations to nine of the best modern American romantic films.
Their fans either see happier endings, or are content with the likelihood of divorce for the romantic couple. Much as people pledge “to death do us part” with the certainty of divorce as an easy and likely option. Perhaps we live out our fantasies more than did previous generations.
For centuries every generation of the West has been a journey into the unknown, with social change the only constant. We have consistently stumbled our way to success, with the occasional failure like those of the communist and fascist nations. That those were intellectual experiments should worry us, since we too are making radical changes based only on ideology — abandoning our successful strategy of incremental changes.
The most common reaction in comments to this series is that “nothing much will change.” That’s delusional. We have had the current social system of romantic love and nuclear families for an eyeblink of time in humanity’s long history. It is no more natural than the many other systems our species has used.
My guess (emphasis on guess) is that these films show a transitional era in which the institution of American marriage has begun terminal decline. Marriage rates will begin a substantial fall in the decade. How we will react to that I cannot even guess. Radical change? Return to previous forms? Rise of Islam and fundamentalist Christianity? Only time will tell.
Always want more: Paige’s life gets even better in the sequels
Update: fantasies for beta males
Everybody has fantasies. Hollywood is a machine to mine this and project them on the big screen. Captain America is the classic American beta male success fantasy. The film Get Smart (2008) attempts to create a new one. It bombed, lacking even the minimal grounding necessary for a fantasy (the TV show “Get Smart” was slapstick commendy, not a fantasy).
For More Information
- Do we want to bring back traditional marriage? What is traditional marriage?
- “Castle” shows us a dark vision of Romance in America.
- Taylor Swift shows us love in the 21st century.
- Why men are avoiding work and marriage.In the next decade we’ll see if the American family is broken. — Part 1.
- Will today’s young men marry? America’s future depends which of these answers is right. — Part 2.
- Technology will shape our society as porn and sexbots destroy 21st century marriage.