Sunday, 6 February 2011

High School Romance - A Flawed Genre

Though the genre's been around for a while, there are a lot more of them these days than there used to be. Partly because there's more people making movies, so there's more of every genre (saving, perhaps, Westerns) and partly because the number of teenage girls has grown in this country (due to the fact that the population is bigger than it used to be). It's getting more popular: it's a sign of degenerative taste buds in films, widespread and getting wider, because the nobler arts of good films and good books are lost on the products of government-run schools.

(I have nothing against those who choose or are forced to for one reason or another attend a public school. But the by-product of teaching everyone the same things in a rigid and strictly-monitored setting is that they end up having similar interests, or tastes, or habits. Don't talk to me about those who break the moulds; if you break the mould, I'm not talking about you. Generalities, for all their faults, are the only things that allow us to write essays about any cultural topic. If everyone was entirely different and we could make no generalities, we can only write letters to one another, as whatever you have to say can only address an issue within a single person.)

Now, on to the topic at hand. High-school romance films. A subdivision of the chick flick category, including films such as 10 Things I Hate About You, She's The Man, and for an older pick: Grease.

Certain scenes or directorial choices resulting in objectionable material aside, there's something else deeply, deeply wrong with the way these movies unfold. On the surface, we care a good deal about the (usually) good-looking male and female leads. The other "romance" threads in the film may spark our interest as well. Speaking for those who would willingly watch these films, the story is very important to us. We want--sometimes desperately--for the obstacles separating the stars to be removed so we can watch them get together. Easy though it is, the films at least make us care for the characters on some level. Sometimes very much.

These sorts of films (and perhaps books; I've never read this genre of book, so I don't know) often begin with the main character (the male or the female) dumping or being dumped in some way by the person he or she was in a relationship with. At some point in the beginning, we see relationships that fail, characters splitting up with other characters, all to give us the desire to care for the main characters and see them find some happiness in life.

The stories take us through the setup of male and female characters, present insurmountable obstacles they must face, and bring them closer, gradually, together. The fireworks go off and the credits roll when they have had their most-likely-inappropriate-even-if-the-actors-were-actually-dating snog and we hope desperately that they'll live happily ever after.

The high-school romance genre characters are usually between the ages of 15 and 18. Most often right in the middle. Sometimes seniors; someties we don't know. It doesn't, in the end, matter. Why?

The beginning of the film shows us the unhappiness a breakup can give the characters; it presents what the filmmakers want us to think is a realistic view of what happens in high-school--showing us happiness lost, or never even gained, so that we'll want that happiness for the girl and guy, one of whom we secretly begin to envision ourselves as.

So what's ultimately horribly and insanely wrong with this picture?

I have no qualms in saying that I have enjoyed the sort of film often labelled as "chick flick" more than a few times. I like films from every genre; murder mystery, horror, thriller, action, romance, drama, comedy--and any mixture of those. (Not to be confused with the statement "I like every film from every genre"...some genres have a minimal selection I can enjoy.) I think love is a good thing--though a very rare thing in our world. I think stories about love are the most powerful ones ever created. Whether it be romantic, familial, or any other sort of love, we have no good reason for doing anything unless it is out of love. Love for others; love for God. Love for beauty, and art, and life. What is not done out of love for others is done out of "love" for ourselves: a love which really has no place being called such.

Why, then, if love is a good thing, and love stories are often the best and greatest stories written or performed on screen--what's wrong with high-school romance films?

When I say wrong, I don't necessarily mean it's immoral to watch or enjoy them. I can enjoy them on some level, if I care about the characters, if it's a halfway-decently-written script. I can enjoy watching them overcome their obstacles. But from a view of what makes a good story, what the filmmakers' intentions are for their story, and what actually comes of their efforts, the high-school romance is indeed wrong.

The filmmakers would have us believe that love can be found in high-school. Real love, they would like us to think. Okay, sure; I know people who found love in high-school. They found it, and often kept it. Nothing wrong with that. But what happens two weeks, or six months, or during the next summer, of every high-school romance film?

How long does it take the characters to grow sick of each other and repeat the same story over, and over, and over again? We have no reason to think the "true love" they found is any more lasting than any other relationship portrayed in the film. The high-school dating scene, in real life, is chock full of breakups and hookups and more breakups; those involved rarely on the large scale believe the one they've found is actually the one they want to spend the rest of their life with.

What makes this particular genre so antithetical to what it is trying to say, is that the filmmakers know this. They know the love won't last; and they don't care. Because they would like us to think that it's all right, that love doesn't need to last, that it's enough that they "got together" and that it's real love whatever happens. They aren't even trying to make us believe, and certainly aren't giving us reasons to think, that the characters we now care for will stay in their "true love" for any longer than any real high school romance.

A popular genre today is the conflict saga, sometimes fantasy, sometimes historical, sometimes alternate-universe. For example: Say we made a story about a real-world conflict between two nations, a historical conflict, where nation A defeated and ruined nation B. Nation B is who we root for, though, and we don't want to make a story that shows how ruined and depressed nation B is after nation A destroys them so wretchedly; so we give nation B a skirmish in which, after much fighting, they emerge victorious. Cut, end film. White on black words show up on the screen: "Three months after this battle, Nation A defeated and killed three hundred thousand people in Nation B. Nation B never did gain independence, and to this day are under the cruel regime of Nation A."

What do you think of that? Where's the real and lasting resolution? On the one hand, I grant you, stories can be and probably have been made about my example; if you intend it to be a statement on life, a comment on war and its evils, it can definitely work. But if you want us to think that Nation B's short-lived victory means anything at all, you have to make a different story.

Maybe this isn't a good example; nothing really compares. Love is the most powerful story; when you cheapen it by thrusting the message down our throats that it doesn't matter as long as they're together when the credits roll, and you expect us to think it was a lasting relationship, it feels not only patronising but insulting and demeaning to the word love. It's not just high-school romances that do this, that give a promise of love with no reason for us to think it will last; but with other settings, we have the ability, usually, to hope at least a little.

Take the story of 10 Things I Hate About You. Likable characters; likable actors. But Kat and Patrick, as they find "happiness" at the end aren't thinking about love that lasts; neither are the filmmakers.

What is wrong with high-school romances? A single glance tells us they are empty. We are cheated and betrayed by the use of the word "love" in a setting so temporary, so based on physical appearance and selfishness that it can be almost sickening. Those who say that characters stop wherever they were when the book closes, or when the credits finish, have never actually cared about any story or any character. Stories are based on characters that feel real to us, human or not. If they cease to act and think and exist when the author ceases to write, then they are characters too shallow for us to believe in. A drug user in a story, or an alcoholic, or a nicotine-addict who begins the story and ends it continuing his habits give us not even a trace of hope that somehow, now that the book is shut, they will stop using. Stop drinking. Stop smoking. The rightness or wrongness of these actions are irrelevant: characters actions once the pages stop are determined by what we know of them in previous pages. The changes they undergo, lasting changes, we expect them to continue. An alcoholic who fights to rid himself of the crippling and sinful urge to drink more to excess, and ends the book by winning one or more battles, gives us hope that, though he may fail in future, he will also continue to fight, to grow. One who fights, and ends the book by giving up, tells us that in future he will always give up.

We may expect Kat and Patrick to find love some day, however likely or unlikely that may be; but if we think about it, why would it be with each other? High school will finish, college will be looming, and they'll split because it's too much, it's too stressful; he might follow her, she might follow him, but they're done. They're over. Why? It's what we know of them. Maybe in or after college, they'll mature and meet someone else, maybe Kat will meet William and Patrick will meet Diana. Maybe they'll get married and live together, happily more or less, for a long time. But the story we saw, we invested in, we cared for, the characters we grew to love, have been wasted.

Can there be a way to make a high-school romance film that deals with lasting love? Yes. There most certainly is. I wish they would make it. If they've already made it, let me know. The flaws in stories can be fixed, if you work hard enough. But the flaw in cheap romances that we can't invest in beyond the "now" of them could prove fatal. We begin to lose our trust in the word of a man who vows every day to stop drinking to excess, and gets drunk the next day; that very night; within the hour. He is redeemable; all are redeemable. But only with great change.

This is a bit long-winded. Cheers if you made it all the way through. I've thought about this subject for some time. In the end, you see, calling them "romance films" is, in a way, just a big, fat lie.


  1. :) Wonderful description and discussion from our endearing cynic. hehe Love it.

  2. Good joaurb! ; )
    I liked it a lot, you said it better than I had…though I suppose you've probably been thinking about it longer than I, so it's understandable. ; )
    I've only spent a brief time thinking about this, but my thoughts follow yours (as laid out here) pretty closely.

  3. Haha, yes, Bekah, I am a cynic. Thing is. I do enjoy these films; I do watch them, and I do care about the characters. But a sense of betrayal comes over me when I finish, because I know there's nothing to hope for in most of them.

    Thanks. I'm I worked on it longer than I usually do.