Valentine’s Day movies perpetuate negative stereotypes

Valentine’s Day weekend is no doubt a movie weekend — whether single or with someone, you’re bound to land somewhere (theater or couch) for a couple hours of escape. For studios and production companies, the Valentine’s Day movie slate is an important one. “The date movie” is a concept we’re all familiar with, which, on one of the most markedly consumerist holidays of the year, is a concept that is emphasized two-fold. Movies like The Notebook and No Strings Attached immediately come to mind. Last year, audiences were graced (or cursed) with the romantically marketed Fifty Shades of Grey, which opened the very weekend we’re talking about now. Then there’s Garry Marshall’s ensemble romantic comedy Valentine’s Day, which was released Valentine’s Day weekend of 2010, and He’s Just Not That Into You in 2009. You can pretty much guess the summaries of these films from the titles.

This year, audiences are offered three wildly disparate films to choose how to spend their night: Zoolander 2, Marvel’s Deadpool, and How To Be Single. Not the most conventional of fares. But it got me thinking — Zoolander 2 and Deadpool aren’t really stereotypical date movies at all— which means maybe we’re moving out of classically defined romance models. Maybe you don’t have to take her out to a candlelight dinner and then watch a movie about boy meeting girl, boy losing girl, boy getting girl back anymore. Which is fine. The end of the “date movie” as we’ve known it isn’t necessarily an establishment that needs mourning (although I’ll get to that in a second).

However, I did find issues with the idea of Warner Brother’s female ensemble comedy How To Be Single. I must admit, I’m writing this column having not seen the film. But I really don’t want to. Something about it fundamentally sits wrong with me.

In the film, Alice (Dakota Johnson) is newly single and can’t seem to figure out the dating world. Robin (Rebel Wilson) appears as her funny-man best friend who also tells her how precisely wrong she’s going about men and dating. Wilson makes fun of Johnson’s shaving habits (or lack thereof), Johnson seems to be incapable of talking to men at a bar and texting appropriately. Apparently, hilarity ensues. This is the trailer audiences are given that’s supposed to make us want to see the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the world’s biggest romantic comedy fans. I grew up on a steady diet of Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron. The death and rebirth of the traditional romantic comedy requires a whole other article altogether. But amid those classics (When Harry Met Sally, Something’s Gotta Give, etc.), some films have emerged that perpetuate a certain classification of the female identity. That is: the young, single white female, that just can’t get a date or doesn’t know how to, or will be, for all intents and purposes, alone forever.

It’s apparent in Katherine Heigl’s 27 Dresses character, who pines obsessively after her boss but can never manage to tell him (“always the bridesmaid, never the bride”). Furthermore, Kristin Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids accepts continual mistreatment from handsome Jon Hamm because she can’t seem to value herself enough to look for better. In The Wedding Date, Debra Messing plays such a single woman that she has to hire a male escort for a wedding because she has too much anxiety about showing up alone. And even Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger), as much as I love her, pretty much screws up every encounter she has with a man, enough so that Mr. Darcy has to proclaim at one point (lovingly, but also pointedly) that he likes her “just as she is.”

This was a conception I grew up with as a kid, and I took it at face value. I thought that that was just the nature of the game, growing up as an American woman in the 21st century, you were probably going to be single and frustrated for much of your young adult life, until you met “the one.” But up until that point, when the guy sweeps you off your feet, and you live happily ever after, things were going to be slow going.

I accepted that fate because of what was placed on the screen in front of me, and then, lo and behold, I was shocked to learn that none of it was true. I’m not about to go into the specifics of my dating life because that’s not the point of this column. The point is, I realized that the concept of the single woman I had been spoon-fed by studios and executives from a very young age just wasn’t accurate. Sure, we’re all single at some point, and we’re all awkward to one another, but this concept of being so desolate and downtrodden in life and love just rings false. I’ve thought a lot about this idea recently — as I get older I’ve come to grapple with just how much the media warps and disfigures our brains into thinking certain inventions are reality. And this stereotype is one that I’ve really railed against.

I don’t know if the formula has been immortalized by the insecure male executive looking to put women one more rung lower on the ladder in the age-old battle of man versus woman. Or maybe a group of out-of-touch studio heads thought simply that these movies would appeal to women, because women “are like that.” And for the most part they do appeal. I know I love many of them deeply and count them as some of my favorite movies. But they also damage. They inform a legion of young, susceptible young girls that this is the type of treatment they should expect, and perhaps worse, accept.

There’s of course nothing I can do about the films of the past (and the one coming this weekend) but going forward, I will be conscious of these preconceived notions when making my films. I hope you will be too.

Minnie Schedeen is a a junior majoring in cinema and media studies.  Her column “Film Fatale” runs on Mondays.