Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Other Side of the Story

We had an equal number of men and women in ballet class last night, which is really rare for an adult class. However, we didn't get to do any pas de deux, because we'd probably kill the poor guys with flying elbows. At least, I would. Not intentionally, but sometimes I struggle with remembering what to do with my arms while I'm worrying about what to do with my legs and my feet.

Now, back to the ongoing romantic comedy discussion as we lead up to the release of book 7, in which I have some fun with romantic comedy tropes in a wacky fantasy way. While I was curled up on the sofa, watching bad movies during my weekend cold, I thought of yet another reason why some of the more recent romantic comedies are failing. There's a failure to consider both sides of the story.

To me, a romance is more satisfying if both characters have a story arc, if there's stuff both of them have to overcome and work on in order to be together. But even if it's just one character who learns A Valuable Lesson, I still need to know why both of them are in this relationship. The formula for a romantic story, whether comedic or dramatic, is pretty simple: you have to have a reason for them to come together in the first place, a reason why he would want to be with her, a reason why she would want to be with him, and something that keeps them from being fully together until the happy ending. The stronger the thing keeping them apart is -- the more hoops they have to jump through and obstacles they have to overcome -- the stronger their reasons for being together should be. Too many of the bad movies in recent years have focused almost exclusively on one person in the relationship (usually the heroine, because these are seen as women's films), without much thought about what's going on with the other person. He exists as a quest object without much say as to whether he really would want her or why he wants her. I think that comes back to the cynicism in the filmmakers who don't think their audiences will notice or care.

For example, there was the Lifetime movie I was watching over the weekend, a sort of Valentine's Day version of A Christmas Carol, in which a bitchy bridezilla with a very mercenary attitude about relationships gets given a tour of her past, present and future Valentine's Days on the eve of her Valentine's Day wedding to a hunky lawyer. In the past, we see their first date, in which he takes her to a jazz club and starts talking about his love of music and how he really wanted to be a musician -- he plays jazz piano -- but he felt pressured by his parents into becoming a lawyer. She sneers at the idea of being a musician, talking about how musicians are total losers who seldom make any real money and never grow up, then switches the conversation to talking about how successful (and rich) he is as a lawyer and what a great car he drives. Of course, the point of the scene is to show the attitude she needs to change, but all I could think of was wondering why he even asked her out on a second date, let alone asked her to marry him. She wasn't hiding what she was or how she felt, so why on earth did he get involved with someone that obnoxious who didn't want to talk about his greatest passion and made it clear she was mostly interested in his paycheck? What did it say about him that he willingly got into a relationship that he planned to make permanent with someone he had to hide an important part of himself from? (We later learned that when he was "working late" he was playing piano with a jazz band and hiding it from her because he knew she wouldn't approve, and he felt he had to quit the band when he got married.) All I could think was that she must have put out on the first date and been absolutely amazing in bed. He certainly never articulated what he was getting out of the relationship that made it worth giving up something he loved. So, yeah, she learned she had to love him for something other than money, and all that, but why did he want to be with her?

This is similar to another bad romantic comedy trope, the triangle where the Miss Wrong is a raging bitch. The general set-up (and, boy, was this popular in chick lit books) was that the heroine is some mousy (Hollywood version, which means totally cute), sweet, loyal person who's in love with the hero, who doesn't seem to notice her that way, even though he really likes her and enjoys being with her. But he's in a relationship with someone else, who's a very high-maintenance bitch who makes his life miserable and is generally awful to everyone, especially the heroine. Some circumstances contrive for him to have to spend enough time with the heroine to fall in love with her, but there's still the bitch to deal with. Think Working Girl. But I always wonder what it says about him that he'd date someone like that and put up with the way she treats him and other people. If he's realized what she's like and has figured out that's not what he wants, why is he so spineless as to not do something about it? I know why writers fall back on this -- if your heroine is essentially the "other woman," then she looks awful if she's getting in the way of a relationship with a good person, so by making the other person look awful, the heroine looks better. But someone can be a decent human being and still be the wrong match. That's just a lot trickier to write, but if it's done well, it can be even more emotional because someone is choosing between two good things rather than the obvious good vs. bad choice.

And then there's my pet peeve: the misunderstanding plot, in which the heroine sees or learns about something the hero has done -- he's seen with another woman, he does something work-related that she doesn't like -- and immediately breaks up with him without discussing it or even being willing to listen to his side of the story. Then when she learns the truth that he was totally innocent, all is forgiven. But the story doesn't consider whether he's okay. Would he want to be with someone so eager to jump to the worst possible conclusion about him? Would it be wise to be in a relationship with someone whose way of dealing with problems is to just walk away without even talking to him or telling him what's wrong?

No matter how happy the ending seems, if this sort of thing is happening, I find myself thinking, "Yeah, that's not gonna last."

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