Earlier this week, I reviewed a book called ‘Hot Pursuit’. It was a quick, fun read and I enjoyed it, but it left me feeling uneasy in a way that was all too familiar. This uneasiness had nothing to do with the plot, or the female lead, or the cover, and everything to do with the male love interest. To avoid spoilers, I’ll summarise it very quickly: Nick is not a kind man, and his moments of kindness later on are somehow meant to redeem all his horrible behaviour at the beginning of the book.
Nick’s character is not new or unusual. Thinking back through the books and TV shows I enjoyed in my teens, so many fictional men who were meant to be sexy and irresistible were just mean. I remember everyone adoring Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass, who attempted sexual assault in the very first episode, and Gilmore Girls’ Jess Mariano, who broods and moans and acts like Rory’s opinions aren’t valid. The romantic comedies I loved as a teenager regularly involved the good old ‘enemies to friends’ trope, or showed women ‘changing’ the men they met. The books we all love aren’t much better. I love ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as much as the next person, but maybe I shouldn’t – Mr Darcy spends most of the book being extremely rude and antisocial.
For some reason, we’ve all absorbed this myth that our love stories are more romantic if we’ve somehow changed somebody, or if we’ve attracted the bad boy who doesn’t normally like people. We love reading about men who become better people so that they’re worthy of the women they adore, or who change when they’re around that one person who really means something to them. Sometimes they don’t even have to change and the mere fact that they’ve deigned to feel attraction to a member of the opposite sex is meant to be enough to redeem them (I’m thinking back to Edward Cullen and his possessive anger and unreasonableness).
I think seeing this image again and again in books, films and television is disappointing and maybe even dangerous. This summer, UK Love Island viewers watched as Adam Collard repeatedly and mercilessly dumped whichever girl he was coupled up with to see how things went with the newest entry to the Love Island villa. Women’s Aid issued a warning that his behaviour was emotionally abusive, but we still saw the new girls in the villa frequently choose him over seemingly kinder islanders. And in later episodes, when Adam seemed to show some genuine feelings to Zara McDermott and was kind to his male friends on the show, many viewers seemed to forget about his earlier behaviour. It was a real life imitation of what we see in literature and on screen – nasty men who finally fall in love and show some vulnerability are viewed as somehow more desirable and sweet than if they’d been nice all along.
So many of the relationships we’re meant to see as great love stories are, at heart, pretty dysfunctional and disturbing (remember Noah in the Notebook threatening to jump off a Ferris Wheel unless Allie went out with him?!). I worry that seeing these often abusive relationships romanticised could make young girls and women more willing to accept these traits in their own love lives. We need to see and love more honest, open and kind relationships so that we know what love should look like.
To some extent, the media is moving in the right direction here. Recent Netflix hit ‘To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ has been praised for its kind protagonists and depiction of a sweet, genuine relationship, and even some stories from longer ago included kind male love interests. I remember feeling so pleased when Katniss finally chose Peeta in ‘The Hunger Games’, because he was the nice guy and it felt right that she recognised the value in his kindness. The huge success of the series, and the fact so many teenage girls felt the same way, shows that we don’t need our main male characters to be cruel or angry. Nice boys in fiction are popular – it’s just a shame they don’t show up more often.
People are talking about the messages sent by the media and I hope that this means the relationships we see continue to grow in positive ways. That’s why I was so disappointed by ‘Hot Pursuit’. The story was fine and there was nothing terrible or seriously problematic about the relationship, but it felt like a real step backwards. I want the books and TV episodes coming out this year and next year to do better than the ones I loved when I was at school.