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How Rom-Coms Made Me Think I Was Straight

Not everyone sees themselves represented in popular media-- and the results can be devastating.

March 22, 2020

Marie Ebele
Amy the “converted lesbian” from Chasing Amy

et me get one thing straight: I am not. But it took me a little while to realize that.

A massive contributing factor to this were the romantic films I used to love. When Harry Met Sally, How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days, Sleepless in Seattle, Notting Hill, you name it. The relationship the main female character establishes with her male romantic interest so often looked exactly like my past relationships with men — me, the out-and-proud lesbian!

In fact, one of my favourite bad habits today is re-watching old classics and reinterpreting the main character as a gay woman navigating her life under the crushing pressure of trying to be straight.

How can this be? Why do I see excruciating similarities between myself and straight movie characters?

In fact, there is a term for it: Compulsory heterosexuality.

The term was originally coined by Adrienne Rich in an essay titled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”, which she published in 1980. She theorised that the construct of heterosexuality itself is sometimes so demanding, it cannot accept any other sexualities coexisting with it. She provided many examples of how heterosexuality is imposed throughout Western history, such as the destruction of records that documented the realities of lesbian lives, or the societal ridicule bestowed upon women who choose to remain unmarried throughout their lives.

There are two different ways this occurs: first, there are the direct and straight-forward ways through which society enforces heterosexuality, such as denial, erasure and punishment of gay and bi people. The stick, you might say.

And then there is the carrot: these are the psychological tricks that are offered to make us think heterosexuality is the only way. Rich argued that almost all cultural stories and stereotypes around love, like fairytales, love stories, and, you guessed it, Rom-Coms, make us think heterosexuality is an ideal to strive towards, and an inevitability of all human life.

“The ideology of heterosexual romance is beamed at her from childhood out of fairy tales, television, films, advertising, popular songs, wedding pageantry.”

These pop-cultural stories are “tools” that render heterosexuality “natural and inevitable.”

(Prime case in point: the plot of When Harry Met Sally makes heterosexuality seem universal and irresistible: at the end, it accepts Harry’s theory that men and women cannot be friends because [heterosexual] sex will always end up interfering.)

Let me explain how I experienced it. Let’s head back to Rom-Coms for a minute. Think of all the classic tropes of the genre.

First, typically the woman and the guy really don’t get along, right? Maybe she has zero interest in him or men in general, she finds him annoying or considers him purely as a friend. Perhaps he’s been in her life since childhood or just stumbled into it, but the thought of romance never crossed her mind when she thinks of him. Already sounds familiar to me!

In fact, she’s probably never been in love before, or suffered through a long string of failed relationships, always with the wrong guy (hello?!).

And then some change in circumstance occurs.

Turns out, the man is incredibly interested in her, or their jobs force them to spend every day together, or they get — literally — stranded on an island, and she slowly starts warming up to him. At first, it’s super awkward, but through a cute montage or some revealing happenstance, she discovers the plethora of endearing aspects of his personality.

He’s not so bad after all, he’s a Nice Guy!

Literally every single relationship I had with men happened like this.

At this point in the Rom-Com, suddenly it starts to rain, or they’re drunk, or they’re sharing a soulful moment, and without particularly active choice on her side, they are kissing. And this is where my lived experience diverges wildly from the interpretation of the movie that the filmmakers want the audience to reach.

When I see a “hopeless romantic” woman on screen who never initiates anything with men, I don’t see someone who deep-down wishes to be swept off her feet. I see someone with the absolute lack of interest in men that I know from myself. I see someone who has to make herself perform romance and interest in someone who she isn’t actually romantically interested in.

It turns out, from an outsider’s perspective, these Rom-Com plot lines play out just like actual events in my life. From the outside, it looked like I was entering a relationship with a man in a meet-cute sort of way, but internally, I felt like things had moved along too far to back out of, so I just tried to make myself love him, or at least fake it ’til I make it.

This is what love was like right? After all, it’s like this in the movies.

I thought that’s what relationships were like. I thought I was falling in love. I thought women decided to be in love. Particularly if the guy had made a big romantic gesture that I recognised from pop culture, that I knew women found — apparently — very attractive all the time.

When movies and books and columnists and love experts advise their audience that love is “hard work,” I took it to mean something completely different to what they intended to say. I thought what I was doing with men was the commitment and active choice and compromise that real relationships are all about.

Because the thing is, if you put these Rom-Com tropes and my relationships next to each other, they look exactly the same from the outside. A cute looking boy noticing my choice of novels in the library and following me around, advising me of his opinion on every single thing I pick up, until I agree to have a coffee with him — annoying, or kind of just like the meet-cute of Anna (Julia Roberts) and Will (Hugh Grant) in Notting Hill?

I don’t mean the outrageous drama or hilarity or excess of course, just the bare bones of the plot.

All these movies that I watched implied that heterosexual love can overcome all obstacles and is universal among all people. It’s supposed natural inevitability is ubiquitous in the Rom-Com genre; the man and the woman end up together, no matter what. The force driving them together cannot be stopped by class (Maid in Manhattan), location (Sleepless in Seattle), nationality (French Kiss), age (As Good as it Gets), or even time (Kate and Leopold), to name just a few.

Tragically, even different sexualities cannot stop the woman from returning to her man (Chasing Amy). It just so happened to make me think that my inherent lack of attraction to men was also just that — an obstacle that would finally be overcome by finding the right guy.

Don’t get me wrong.

I am not saying the Rom-Com type of straight love doesn’t exist like in the movies. I am just saying the universality of it can be one hell of a ride for a gay gal like me. Because the thing is, those universal feelings of love and joy for another person do exist and are well-worth any Rom-Com-levels of adversity — but I get those from women, not men. It just took me a little while to figure that out.

Maybe it’s time we get a few more Rom-Coms about women falling in love, and future generations of young queer gals won’t fall into the same traps that I did. Because if movies can make you think you are straight, they can also show you that you are not. (If you see people like yourself on screen, that is.)

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