Watching romantic comedies and dramas through a feminist lens* is a deeply concerning experience. The notion that romantic relationships are acceptable, in the ways they’re typically depicted, teeters on a familiar, vertiginous premise of “true love,” orchestrated by blocking and lighting and wardrobe and makeup and cameras and score, all of which recruit and coach our attention. Those are the things that tell us that the person frantically ringing the buzzer to the apartment, waiting outside the workplace, showing up unannounced with a gift, running to catch the same train, or declaring the night is young, is the hero(ine), and not someone overbearing, unbalanced, or even dangerous. As for gaslighting? Rampant. “You don’t mean that.” “You’re scared to let yourself be loved.” Etc. Such things slip past our censors precisely because they’re so familiar, and because we’ve decided in advance—that is, it’s been decided for us—that in the case of the chosen couple, such presumptuous statements are perceptive and accurate. I used to be a projectionist and had big plans to write about the occupational hazards of so much exposure to culture through film, all the dramatic speeches thrown around (not to mention the overt violence and interpersonal ugliness). But the truth is that the average American in most walks of life has been exposed to as much as I was, if not much more—occupational hazards of being alive here and now. We are collectively gaslighted by culture, and that shows up in therapy offices. Certainly there are gestures, small and grand, that are, in fact, romantic—that do, in fact, show love. There may be someone you’d be glad to see hoisting a boombox beyond your window to play your song. Ultimately, it’s your body that knows the most about who’s safe and welcome for you, and who’s not. If you feel you lack such discernment because of past trauma, which can certainly happen, there are ways to cultivate it. Notice your preferences and bodily responses to foods, beverages, volumes, scents, textures, temperatures, times of day. Honor your senses. Someone who’s not right for you isn’t ipso facto a villain; being clear with yourself and others isn’t about vilification. Nor are our emotions necessarily simple and straightforward, I get that. But resistance—for example, feeling uncomfortable if someone offers to walk you to your car, or suggests you meet on purpose if you’ve met by chance—is a powerful instinct. It warrants attention.
*I’m not a scholar and can’t speak in a scholarly way about the history and current meaning(s) of feminism, which I perceive as signifying different things to different people. My use of “feminist” is meant to imply the endeavor to think critically with care for the well-being of all persons; as such, for me, it is related to environmentalism and to good therapy.
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