Romance can be a tricky thing. Hollywood has sold us many idealised visions of true love over the years, but once the house lights come up the ethics of these relationships often fail to stand up to scrutiny. Take the following iconic movie romances which, when you think about them, are actually deeply problematic.
35. Harry Burns and Sally Albright – When Harry Met Sally…
It’s cited as one of the greatest movie romances of all time, and there’s a lot to like about When Harry Met Sally… Whether it’s Billy Crystal’s pitch-perfect wit or Carrie Fisher’s winning turn in a supporting role, there’s a reason why this is a romantic comedy staple.
But before you demand to have what Sally’s having, the ethics of their relationship need to be examined. After all, When Harry Met Sally… is fundamentally a film about two people who hate each other – or think they do.
It’s only after they grow to know each other that the couple’s true feelings are revealed. Fair enough, you might think – except the turning point in their relationship is rife with problems.
When Sally finds out her ex is getting married, she’s distraught and calls Harry. When he arrives, he takes advantage of his friend’s moment of vulnerability and they end up sleeping together.
The film is clear that Harry regrets this action and Sally does not, attempting to absolve Harry of blame and retroactively giving Sally agency.
However, when you think about it, Harry really should have just kept it in his pants that night.
34. Deckard and Rachael – Blade Runner
In the rainy dystopia of 2019 Los Angeles (yes, the film is now set in the past), there’s scant comfort. Deckard’s job, as a titular Blade Runner, is to hunt down and ‘retire’ replicants, robots so lifelike that they might as well be human.
Of course, whether or not they’re human, and where that line lies, is the central question of the film. Bringing the ethics of a sexual relationship into that debate was bound to cause issues.
It is for this reason that the moment when Deckard stops Rachael from leaving his apartment has become divisive.
For some, partially because Harrison Ford plays Deckard, the moment is romantic, especially given the ends-justifies-the-means argument that Deckard ends up saving Rachael.
By Blade Runner 2049, it’s established that Deckard and Rachael lived out their days together and even conceived a child. Yet the niggling question remains: is this a relationship predicated on a moment of assault?
If Rachael isn’t a ‘real human’, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But the queasiness in our stomachs tells us that it probably does.
33. Jack and Rose – Titanic
James Cameron’s epic maritime romance Titanic dominated the box office on its release and remains the third highest-grossing film of all time.
The romance of Titanic is all about class: Kate Winslet’s Rose feels constricted by her milieu and longs to fall in love, rather than be married off for social status.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack, on the other hand, is a man without means who is nonetheless passionate and artistic, everything Rose’s intended beau, Cal (Billy Zane), lacks.
However, it’s clear that Jack and Rose overcome different obstacles, and the film hammers the point home: Jack’s noble flotsam sacrifice at the end of the film isn’t motivated by love alone – it happens because he’s more expendable.
Sure, Rose abandons her aristocratic lifestyle after the trauma of Jack’s death, but there’s something uncomfortable about how she uses the death of a poverty-stricken artist to ‘wake up’ from her grandiloquent delusions.
We’re not going to decry their obviously consensual relationship as an abuse of power, but it begs the question: did Rose really love Jack, or just the freedom he represented and died for?
32. Lloyd and Diane – Say Anything…
Isn’t it curious that the doofus falling in love with the beautiful high-achiever is always male? It’s always the woman who make sacrifices.
This entry on the list is sure to invoke some ire, with Say Anything… being the cult classic that it is. With a young John Cusack in the lead, displaying genuine chemistry with Ione Skye, it’s undeniable that this is a charming slacker classic.
Yet slacker it is. Diane, while sheltered, is a valedictorian and ultimately moves to England to further her studies. Lloyd, on the other hand, is a kickboxing enthusiast who flunks everything he does.
Then the film makes us feel bad by having the only character who disapproves go to jail for embezzling the elderly. Since our moral compass becomes complicated, we’re meant to just go along with Lloyd and Diane because of the ‘simplicity’ of love.
We haven’t even mentioned how Lloyd effectively harasses Diane by blasting Peter Gabriel outside her window after their relationship goes off the rails.
And once the end credits have rolled, what’s Lloyd supposed to do after they move to England? We give them two months.
31. Elio and Oliver – Call Me by Your Name
Regardless of metric, Call Me by Your Name is perhaps the most successful romance of the past decade – whether it’s making a handy $41.9 million from a minuscule $3.5 million budget or improbably reviving Armie Hammer’s career.
The film has also been lauded for its rare foregrounding of a gay love story. And yet, something about it isn’t quite right.
The age difference between Elio and Oliver has come under scrutiny. As Jeffrey Bloomer writes in Slate, “[it’s] fundamentally about an erotic relationship between a 17-year-old teenager and a 24-year-old man.”
Ultimately, Bloomer concludes, Elio is “an older teenager messily discovering his sexuality,” and it’s worth remembering that the film doesn’t hold itself up as the ideal romance.
Rather, it’s the journey of a young man discovering his sexuality through a man who ultimately abandons him and breaks his heart. We should judge it as such: it’s problematic in a delicious and daring way that evokes lost youth; it’s not a relationship manual.
If we get another film with these characters – a sequel has been teased – it’ll be interesting to see how the power dynamics develop. After all, Elio will no longer be a naive adolescent, and Oliver will have some questions to answer.
30. Sandy and Danny – Grease
Grease is one of the highest-grossing musical movies of all time, and its songs are infinitely quotable (though Rizzo’s is clearly the best).
Unfortunately, rather than harking back to the halcyon days of the mid-twentieth century, watching 1978’s Grease today will only remind you of how intensely problematic the era was.
You’ve probably heard the furore over “did she put up a fight?” in Summer Lovin’, but the issues with Grease are far more fundamental.
Jim Jacobs, the author of the original musical, described the plot as a deliberate subversion of a man being softened by a woman’s influence; instead, she becomes his fantasy.
That’s exactly the problem. Sandy changes herself completely just to win Danny’s affections, even though the reason they’d fallen out in the first place is because Danny pressured her sexually.
Once again, Sandy sacrifices herself for the whims of her boyfriend – and that’s the message that’s been given to generations of pre-teen viewers.
29. Phil and Rita – Groundhog Day
Admittedly, Groundhog Day isn’t meant to be a romance. Instead, it’s a terrifying exploration of what it would be like to live the same day again and again, with romance tacked on for a happy ending.
That’s not to downplay the merits of this black comedy classic, but Phil and Rita’s relationship isn’t the fairytale it’s often made out to be.
In the film, it’s heavily implied that Phil breaks his time loop by learning to love someone other than himself. But since Rita is unaware of Phil’s predicament, the basis for their relationship ends up muddier than Punxsutawney Phil’s litter tray.
For one thing: is this the same Rita that Phil met in previous loops? Is it okay that Phil knows intimate secrets about Rita’s life, and that she has no idea?
Does she then fall in love with him because of his incredible prescience, which is, at its core, a complete lie?
Isn’t it creepy that Phil pursues Rita for weeks on end before finally achieving his goal of going to bed with her? We give them a month.
28. Belle and the Beast – Beauty and the Beast
Since the original animated film came out in 1991, a volatile mix of earnest debate and ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ jokes have made Beauty and the Beast the archetypal problematic romance.
The problems in the relationship between Belle and the Beast are plain: not only is he a hulking dog-goat-man, but it’s yet another example of a woman sacrificing so much to save someone who isn’t worth it.
The Beast is tasked with falling in love, but his intemperate rage and disrespect for Belle are warning signs of an irredeemable personality.
Sure, he’s happy enough when he turns back into a human, and even seems to treat his staff better, but there’s no evidence that his fundamental beliefs have changed.
The Beast’s issue was always that he had little regard for those outside of his social circle.
integrating a pretty woman into said circle doesn’t challenge his core beliefs, and Belle is likely to be on the receiving end of some snobbery sooner rather than later.
27. Elle and Emmett – Legally Blonde
Legally Blonde is one of the feminist classics of the modern age. Or is it? Ella Alexander notes in Harper’s Bazaar, otherwise praising the film, that Elle “did, after all, only decide to go to Harvard to follow her moronic ex and partly won a place based on a video of her in a bikini.”
Elle Woods becomes a successful law student after assiduous work, to the chagrin of her former boyfriend. So when she meets junior partner Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson), it seems Elle can have both a stellar career and a supportive partner.
But we’d be remiss not to mention that Emmett is a junior partner at the law firm where Elle is interning. Emmett’s far from geriatric, but he still commands influence and experience – and then he starts hitting on a college student in her freshman year.
This is a film that foregrounds a sexual harassment storyline – perpetrated by the big-shot lawyer of the firm, Professor Callahan.
Yet when it comes to Emmett, the imbalanced power dynamics of the relationship are swept under the rug.
By the second film – one that mostly focuses on Bruiser, Elle’s Chihuahua – Emmett and Elle are set to marry. This is a cease and desist order on that pairing.
26. Eric and Ariel – The Little Mermaid
Disney princess films have often been pilloried for their outdated relationships, but even something as comparatively recent as The Little Mermaid (1989) still has issues.
In the film, mermaid Ariel is driven by her determination to get out from under her father’s thumb and becomes obsessed with a landlubbing prince named Eric.
By the end of The Little Mermaid, Ariel is happy to keep her legs and sail back to shore with her new beau. But have you ever considered how old Ariel is? She’s 16.
Let’s spell that out: sixteen years old! How old is Eric? Well, old enough to own a castle and not be living with his parents (and with enough income and maturity to look after a dog).
Not only is Ariel young, she’s also naive. Do you honestly think that this fish-woman who doesn’t know the purpose of a fork is ready for a committed relationship?
Eric doesn’t even have a surname. He doesn’t even sing – making him the only Disney prince not to do so. That alone has got us suspicious.
25. Sam and Molly – Ghost
Few films are as deeply intertwined with their romantic moments as Ghost. Even When Harry Met Sally…, for example, is better known for its fake orgasm scene than for its moments of tenderness. For Ghost, it’s all about the pottery.
And yet, besides the messiness of poltergeist clay-work, and the sluggishness of Unchained Melody, there’s something unsettling about Ghost if you scratch the surface.
After all, this film isn’t just a romance: once Sam (Patrick Swayze) is killed, he’s cosmically tasked with finishing his bank investigation. In life, only two things are certain: death and then taxes.
Yet rather than allowing his wife (Demi Moore) to move on and continuing his investigation behind the scenes of this mortal coil, Sam instead becomes as visible as possible, moving objects and even possessing a psychic (Whoopi Goldberg).
Sam acts in his own interests to satisfy his emotional longing for Molly, completely interrupting her grieving process.
Then after all that, in the end he leaves anyway. Molly will need therapy for decades.
24. Harry and Helen – True Lies
1994’s True Lies is an unusually character-based endeavour for action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, as it centres primarily on the relationship between tough secret agent Harry (Arnie) and his oblivious, down-to-earth wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Director James Cameron has described True Lies as a response to the male chauvinist ways of James Bond – and yet the film has some astonishing sexism of its own, and is often thoroughly misguided in its treatment of its female lead.
When Harry suspects Helen is having an affair, his co-worker Albert (Tom Arnold) not unreasonably suggests the deceiving and constantly absent husband had it coming. Nonetheless, rather than talking Harry into a sensible course of action, Albert reluctantly goes along with a scheme, which is not only a shocking abuse of their power as spies, but also an appalling abuse of Helen as a human being.
Under false pretences, Helen is lured into what she thinks is a spy mission of her own, and forced to go to a hotel room to perform an exotic dance for an unseen stranger – who is in fact Harry, hiding in the shadows.
The alarming thing is Harry believes this is a viable route to rekindling the spark with his wife. As it turns out, she is quite naturally aghast at the whole scenario – but, before he is forced to explain himself, both Harry and Helen are taken hostage by the real bad guys, and the whole situation is conveniently forgotten.
Just try to imagine how that scene would play out if it didn’t end with their abduction. Exactly how did Harry really think Helen was going to react to learn that he had orchestrated this whole series of events, deceiving and humiliating the woman he claims to love?
23. Josh and Susan – Big
Big is fondly remembered as a heart-warming family classic, the pinnacle of the boy-in-a-man’s-body subgenre that enjoyed brief popularity in the late 80s (other examples including Vice Versa and Like Father Like Son).
Director Penny Marshall’s film also represented a watershed moment for lead actor Tom Hanks, landing him the first of (to date) six Oscar nominations (two of which resulted in a win, for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump).
However, whilst everyone fondly remembers Hanks playing Chopsticks with his feet on the giant keyboard alongside Robert Loggia, we tend to gloss over the fact that his character, Josh – a 12-year-old mystically given a grown man’s body – also enters into a romance with a genuinely grown woman, Susan (Elizabeth Perkins).
Once again, we have a relationship that is fundamentally based on lies. Josh conceals the truth about who he really is – although to a large extent we can forgive him for this, given that he is, after all, a frightened child.
But of course, that’s the real kicker: although Susan doesn’t know it, Josh is in reality way below the age of consent – and given what transpires between them (which is presented in a surprisingly blunt manner for a PG-rated film), she should be going to jail. At the very least, learning the truth should probably send her into psychiatric care.
This, of course, is just one of the many extremely troubling aspects about Big, whose central message would seem to be, “be careful what you wish for.” Even though at the end Josh returns to his old self and goes home again, there’s basically zero chance that either he or Susan will have anything resembling healthy relationships with the opposite sex thereafter.
22. Noah and Allie – The Notebook
Beautiful people viciously snogging in the rain – it must be a teen romance. The Notebook was a sleeper hit on release before becoming a modern classic weepie, but for all that this film features what has become an archetypal romance, it’s built on very shaky foundations.
That’s because when Noah (Ryan Gosling) initially asks Allie (Rachel McAdams) on a date, he does so bundled with the threat that he’ll kill himself should she decline.
It’s also made clear that Allie is 17, and Noah is of an unspecified age; admittedly, given the context of the film, it’s clear that he isn’t much older. At the same time, the gulf of life experience between the pair at that age must be yawning.
Whatever the age gap, it’s clearly unacceptable for Noah to make his life conditional on Allie’s decision, and it’s problematic to portray it as romantic.
Plus – spoiler alert – the movie’s vertiginous turn into a dementia narrative does it few favours. We’re meant to believe that the star-crossed pair are doomed to die together in old age.
Is death meant to be romantic? Why rush towards the dark expanse of the afterlife just for Ryan Gosling? Actually, putting it like that…
21. Mark and Juliet – Love Actually
Love Actually is a quilted film of several storylines, each portraying love in its many guises, some darker than others. However, even stories intended as innocent and sentimental fall prey to being problematic.
The narrative that stands out is that of Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and Juliet (Keira Knightley). It centres on Mark filming Juliet’s wedding to his friend, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and her presumption that he hates her.
In fact, the wedding video that Mark creates is the kind of saccharine idolisation you’d normally find on a well-worn VHS tape in a serial killer’s basement – but, if you can believe it, that’s not even half of the problem.
Mark becomes obsessed with Juliet, arriving at her house for that iconic and much-parodied cue card scene, but what we’re witnessing here is far from romantic: it’s a creepy man arriving at a married woman’s house to secretively ply her with platitudes.
What’s worse is that it apparently does the trick: Juliet promptly runs after Mark and kisses him.
What does the kiss mean? Is she going to leave her husband, or was it only a strange way to placate Mark? This one goes straight into the bulging file of problematic ‘grand gestures.’
20. Jim and Aurora – Passengers
Although Passengers was originally written in 2007, the movie was stuck in development hell for several years before finally releasing for Christmas 2016. Far from being a seasonal pick-me-up, however, the film is a dark rumination on loneliness.
Nonetheless, because this is a blockbuster film starring Hollywood-ordained beauties (in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence), romance becomes a central element.
Passengers sees Jim Preston (Pratt) wake up early from cryosleep as humanity travels to a new planet. He then becomes obsessed with fellow cryo-passenger Aurora (Lawrence), whom he surreptitiously revives because he wants a friend.
When Aurora discovers that Jim has effectively sentenced her to death – as it will be several decades before the ship reaches the new colony – she’s understandably outraged. Yet when the ship catches fire, Jim and Aurora (and a criminally underused Laurence Fishburne) must work together to save the rest of humanity.
Ultimately, it’s discovered that the ship has enough power to allow Aurora to re-enter cryosleep, but she declines, preferring to live out her days with Jim.
Unfortunately for the film, it’s not clear why Aurora would fall in love with Jim in the first place. In fact, it’s no coincidence that Lawrence’s character is called Aurora, as she ends up functioning as a submissive sleeping beauty, all for a hero-gets-the-girl trope.
19. Jake and Caroline – Sixteen Candles
If any director could lay claim to shaping the romantic instincts of a generation, it’s John Hughes.
The legendary filmmaker behind The Breakfast Club was a foundational influence for millions of teens across the globe. But what if Hughes was actually a bad influence?
We’re not the only ones retrospectively questioning the ethics of Hughes’ films. Even Molly Ringwald, the poster child of the Brat Pack, has seriously reflected on Hughes’ legacy in the wake of the #MeToo era.
Ringwald rightly points out examples of behaviour that would be unacceptable today, such as when John Bender “takes the opportunity to peek under Claire’s skirt” in The Breakfast Club. The worst case, however, has to be Sixteen Candles.
Jake trades his drunk girlfriend for a pair of underwear. Perverse and obviously unlikable it may be, but any criticism of Jake’s behaviour (“she’s so blitzed, she won’t know the difference,” Jake says as he hands over her unconscious body) is masked.
“Caroline shakes her head in wonderment,” Ringwald writes, “and says, ‘You know, I have this weird feeling I [enjoyed it].’ She had to have a feeling about it, rather than a thought, because thoughts are things we have when we are conscious, and she wasn’t.”
18. Bella and Edward – Twilight
Twilight, and its sequels, are much-maligned films. Even in the specific context of Twilight as a romance, you’ll find one of the internet’s most enduring putdowns: ‘still a better love story than Twilight.’
But there’s truth at the heart of the joke: Twilight has obsession masquerade as romance.
The intensity of Edward’s love isn’t conveyed by the sacrifices he makes for Bella, but by how he relentlessly inserts himself into her life.
“How did you get in here?” Bella asks as she sees Edward at the foot of her bed. “The window,” he says. “I like watching you sleep.” Admittedly, Edward is a centuries-old vampire and not a typical human being, but it still sends the wrong message.
In fact, by the end of the series, Bella becomes completely ensconced in a vampire conflict, ultimately becomes a vampire, and has a CGI vampire child, while Edward doesn’t change one iota, physically or emotionally. And for a ‘great romance,’ that’s a worrying sign.
If you needed any more convincing that Twilight is a problematic love story, consider that it led directly to Fifty Shades of Grey, which started life as Twilight fanfic and which has been widely condemned by puritans and bondage enthusiasts alike for its abusive take on love.
17. Dean and Joanna – Overboard
Rarely is a film so completely rotten, right down to its core premise – and yet how we still love Overboard. Whether it’s the genuine chemistry between one of Hollywood’s golden couples – Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn – or the camp comedy of watching an aristocrat fall from grace, it’s a deliciously fun film.
Unfortunately, there’s no escaping the fact that Overboard is a film about duping someone into believing they’re a completely different person, and then beginning a romantic relationship with them.
In fact, Joanna (Hawn) is betrayed by everyone she encounters; her staff laugh at her behind her back, her husband abandons her to party with younger women, and Dean (Russell) makes her do his dishes.
Dean even has his best friend create doctored photos to convince Joanna that she truly is the carpenter’s wife.
In the 2018 remake, starring Eugenio Derbez and Anna Faris, the filmmakers effectively confess to the problems of the original: here the roles are reversed, with playboy Leonardo (Derbez) losing his memory instead.
Nobody watches The Truman Show and thinks there’s a grand romance between Jim Carrey and the audience, so why is the complete obliviousness of Joanna/Leonardo considered a valid path to romance here?
16. Joe and Kathleen – You’ve Got Mail
You’ve Got Mail comes from a more innocent time. In 1998, chatrooms and email seemed to be the romantic nirvanas of the future, connecting us all like never before. If they remade You’ve Got Mail today, it’d take place on an app and feature far more unsolicited pictures.
Sadly, the problems at the heart of You’ve Got Mail remain regardless of the technology – and the only reason we don’t notice them is because it’s scientifically impossible to dislike Tom Hanks.
Joe (Hanks) dangles the carrot of his identity over Kathleen (Meg Ryan) for the entire film.
He hails from the chain bookstore that putting her independent operation out of business, so how could he ruin their burgeoning romance with something as petty as his basic information?
As a result, the classic will-they-won’t-they trope of the rom-com turns into a will-he-won’t-he reveal his identity to the woman rapidly becoming his significant other. Mostly, he won’t.
Ultimately, of course, Joe does come clean about his secretive correspondence. Kathleen cries and says “I wanted it to be you,” and the film ends. But the ends can’t always justify the means.
15. Edward and Vivian – Pretty Woman
One’s a wealthy businessman, one’s a sex worker. He’s got the money but no joie de vivre, and she’s got vivre coming out of her eyeballs, but nothing in her wallet. So begins a transactional story of love, thought to be the most popular romance of all time.
Pretty Woman has a lot in common with My Fair Lady: both feature a man of means (in this film, Richard Gere) gracing a lowly woman (Julia Roberts) with his favour. In the end, the man ends up learning about life and the woman is lifted out of destitution.
Yet to reduce a romantic relationship to a quid pro quo is a vast oversimplification. When Edward (Gere) hires Vivian (Roberts) to be his girlfriend for a week, she’s effectively trapped. Money shouldn’t be able to buy a person.
To then muddy those waters with romance ends up making Edward and Vivian’s relationship more complicated than an Escher painting built by IKEA – what in their partnership is real love, and what’s engendered by the promise of money?
Originally, Pretty Woman was set to be far more complex, with Vivian suffering with a drug addiction and ultimately remaining unfulfilled by the film’s end.
However, studio Walt Disney Pictures insisted the film be instead stripped back to pure romance, and Pretty Woman was born.
14. Kermit and Miss Piggy – The Muppet Movie
You won’t typically find Kermit and Miss Piggy on lists of Hollywood’s greatest romances. After all, they’re somewhere between puppets and somewhere between mops – it’s not exactly Gone with the Wind.
Part of the comedy of the pairing is that Miss Piggy is so utterly, unabashedly and obviously domineering.
This is played up in the poster for The Muppet Movie, in which she scoops Kermit in her arms – oddly, in a direct parody of Gone with the Wind.
But this role reversal isn’t necessarily an issue. After all, gender is a thing of multiplicity, and how individuals conduct their relationships on that spectrum and beyond it is entirely for them to decide. But Miss Piggy is real mean to Kermie.
Even if Miss Piggy is more pugnacious (pignacious?) and confident, that’s no excuse for how she berates her on-again-off-again husband, diminishing him and making his face do that scrunched up thing.
Plus, we aren’t willing to accept the Hensonite biology of all of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s male children being frogs and all of their female children being pigs. That problematic romance is sure to create some freakish porcine frogspawn.
13. Scott and Ramona – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Although it flopped on release in 2010, director Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s comic book series has become a cult favourite beloved by hipsters everywhere.
However, while viewers delight at the spectacle of Michael Cera’s indie boy Scott engaging in a slew of video game-style battles for the hand of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the toxic behaviour of our ‘hero’ is often overlooked.
First off, there’s no mistaking the inherent creepiness of 23-year-old Scott initially dating 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), even if we’re assured the relationship is entirely chaste.
We can’t begrudge Scott falling for the more age-appropriate Ramona at first sight, but the way he goes about wooing her is questionable in the extreme – not least because he does so without first ending things with Knives.
After stalking Ramona all night at a party, Scott discovers she’s an Amazon delivery person, and deliberately orders a package specifically to give him a chance to meet her – then he refuses to sign for the package until she agrees to go out with him. The fact that Ramona promptly falls for him too sends a very bad message about this sort of courtship.
Sure, we’re supposed to feel Scott has learned the error of his ways by the finale, when he admits his cheating ways to Ramona and Knives and apologises – but even so, after giving them both mere moments to take this in, he then asks, “so, are we good?”, as if a quick and simple apology fixes everything.
12. Holly and Paul – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
One of the most beloved romantic comedies of all time, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was made all the way back in 1961 – so naturally some of the attitudes displayed in the film have changed over the years.
In some ways, the film is by modern standards unusually coy and innocent, considering that its central protagonists Holly (Audrey Hepburn) and Paul (George Peppard) are both, in their own way, prostituting themselves to fund their indulgent Manhattan lifestyles.
In other respects, Breakfast at Tiffany’s features some truly appalling and offensive stereotypes, most infamously in casting Mickey Rooney as Holly and Paul’s Japanese neighbour Mr Yunioshi.
Yet at its heart, the film centres on what would seem to be an entirely wholesome romance that arises naturally between Holly and Paul.
However, once Paul confesses his feelings to Holly, he works on an immediate assumption that this gives him ownership of her: he literally declares, “I love you! You belong to me!”
When Holly decides instead to pursue the latest in a line of rich suitors, Paul belittles her for this – despite the fact that his own relationship with his ‘benefactor’ Emily (Patricia Neal) is clearly not that different.
11. Connor and Brenda – Highlander
Fantasy adventure Highlander captured the imagination of a generation with its tale of an ageless, immortal warrior facing his final battle in 80s New York.
As well as featuring epic sword fights captured on film in the flashiest way possible at the time, Highlander also ponders the personal cost of immortality, showing how the undying Conor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) has his heart broken by seeing his first true love die of old age, whilst he remains unchanged.
This might excuse Conor wanting to keep others at a distance in his present day life – but it does not explain the sinister and stalkerish way he pursues Brenda, a forensic scientist who discovers his lost sword at a crime scene.
Conor (using his present-day alias of Russell Nash) follows Brenda to a bar, and starts up a conversation with her in a very sinister way, heavily suggesting he knows all about her, whilst he’s a total stranger to her.
This might be fair enough if the film was suggesting that the immortal Highlander is, perhaps not unreasonably, totally lacking in social skills – but instead, it seems that Brenda finds this genuinely charming, and soon Conor becomes the object of her obsession.
As is so often the case with romantic subplots in action movies, the key problem is that Brenda herself is such a half-baked character. She’s really only there as a) someone with whom the hero can share an extremely unnecessary sex scene, and b) someone for his arch-enemy the Kurgan (Clancy Brown) to abduct in the final reel.
10. Zack and Laney – She’s All That
When you think about it, it’s a bit alarming just how many beloved romantic comedies centre on an extended act of deception.
Case in point: She’s All That, which sees shallow popular guy Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.) make a bet that he can turn weirdo outcast Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) into the Prom Queen.
The movie demands some mighty suspension of disbelief from the get-go, as it’s blindingly obvious straight away that Laney is extremely attractive, irrespective of the fact that she wears (gasp!) glasses, a pony tail and slightly masculine clothes.
That being the case, it should surprise absolutely no one that Zack, having befriended her under false pretences, soon finds himself falling for Laney for real.
She’s All That doesn’t ask us to disregard the ugliness of Zack’s actions – but what’s troubling is how easily Laney forgives and forgets.
While Laney is quite rightly furious when she discovers the truth, she still happily lets Zack in when he arrives uninvited at her door on prom night, and they share the obligatory kiss – regardless of the fact that Zack really hasn’t done anything to make amends for the wrong he has done.
9. Lewis and Betty – Revenge of the Nerds
When it comes to movies which demonstrate just how much certain attitudes have rightly changed over the years, Revenge of the Nerds warrants a special mention.
In a nutshell, the story seems empowering enough: after being belittled and ostracised by their peers, a fraternity of social rejects strike out on their own, embrace the things that make them different and ultimately emerge victorious in a battle of the frats.
Just to fully cement that victory, the leader of the ‘nerd’ fraternity, Lewis (Robert Carradine), wins the heart of the most popular girl on campus, Betty (Julie Montgomery).
Quite how Lewis winds up doing this is more than a little hard to fathom (let alone stomach), considering that he repeatedly violates Betty throughout the film in ways which, though treated as light-hearted in an 80s comedy, would be unequivocal crimes in the real world.
First of all, Lewis hides in the sorority house shower in order to catch Betty naked whilst his fellow nerds engage in a ‘panty raid’ and plant hidden cameras, in order that they can watch the girls changing on closed-circuit TV later on.
Most horrifyingly of all, Lewis later has sex with Betty at a costume party by disguising himself as her boyfriend: ie rape by deception. What makes it all the more appalling is that Betty immediately forgives him because she enjoyed the experience. This truly horrendous message has made Revenge of the Nerds one of the most controversial films of its era.
8. Andrew and Sam – Garden State
Zach Braff was a 29-year-old actor best known for TV sitcom Scrubs when he made his feature debut as writer-director on quirky indie romantic comedy drama Garden State.
Braff takes the lead as Andrew, a disillusioned and emotionally detached struggling actor who reluctantly returns home to New Jersey to attend his mother’s funeral. The visit turns into a voyage of self-discovery when he meets the eccentric and impulsive Sam (Natalie Portman).
Through Sam’s influence, Andrew gradually gets in touch with his own feelings again, and finally the two fall in love. All sounds hunky-dory, right?
Garden State earned some praise for its unflinching portrayal of dependency on psychiatric medication, but it’s also earned some warranted flak for helping popularise the unpleasant trope that was not long thereafter dubbed the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Portman’s Sam is the quintessential manic pixie dream girl: as much as she is intended to be a larger-than-life character in her own right, she only exists as a counter-balance to the dour lifelessness of Braff’s Andrew, and her only real function in the story is to give him what he needs.
Watching the movie, we absolutely see why he would fall in love with her, but we’re given next to no indication of why she would feel that way about him; in fact, it seems we’re actively encouraged not to worry about that one little bit.
7. Indy and Marion – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Now this one really stings. The chemistry between Harrison Ford and Karen Allen is a huge part of what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark such a timeless classic – so the last thing we want is to pick holes in that.
However, there’s no avoiding the fact that the turbulent romance of Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood is built on some very dodgy foundations indeed – even though this is left largely implicit in the film itself.
We get our first hints of something untoward when Indy admits to having fallen out with Marion’s father, his mentor, many years earlier. Later, when he is reunited with Marion and she greets him with a punch in the face, one snippet of dialogue says it all: “I was a child! I was in love! It was wrong and you knew it!”
That’s all that’s said of their past romance in the movie, but it’s clear that Indy has more than a few years on Marion, and it would certainly seem she was a bit too young for his affections at the time. That would certainly be sufficient grounds for his friendship with her father to be irreparably damaged. (Incidentally, Ford is nine years Allen’s senior in real life.)
So just how young was Marion meant to have been? The novelisation of Raiders of the Lost Ark places her age during their affair at a mere 15 – and, horrifyingly, writer-producer George Lucas has said he initially considered making Marion as young as 11 or 12 at the time.
Really, though, this unnerving revelation shouldn’t reflect as badly on Indiana Jones as it does on his real-life creator Lucas, who infamously declared, “15 is right on the edge. I know it’s an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she’s 16 or 17 it’s not interesting anymore.”
6. Schmidt and Molly – 21 Jump Street
Like Revenge of the Nerds before it, 21 Jump Street presents us with a triumph of the underdog story, in which Jonah Hill’s former high school loser Schmidt finally scores with the hot, popular girl who never would have given him the time of day when he was a kid.
Happily, the manner in which Schmidt achieves this is not so horrendous as in Revenge of the Nerds; we’re given the impression that the romance which blossoms between him and Brie Larson’s Molly is entirely chaste.
On top of which, Molly is a high school senior and, as such, we can safely assume she’s recently turned 18 – and, as such, were anything amorous to occur between the two, it would technically be within the boundaries of the law.
Having said that, we certainly can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that the relationship is founded on a tissue of lies, and that Schmidt is in reality the far older of the two.
We’re told the events of 21 Jump Street play out seven years after Schmidt and his bully-turned-partner Jenko (Channing Tatum) graduated from high school, which would put them both at around 25; and as undercover cops on a case, for Schmidt to enter into a relationship with someone involved in his investigation is massively immoral.
Still, as the film’s end credits reveal, Schmidt’s partner Jenko truly crosses the line by having sex with teacher Mrs Griggs (Ellie Kemper), who is under the impression that he really is a teenage high school student.
5. John and Jane – Mr & Mrs Smith
Few big screen romances have caused quite the same furore in the last two decades than Mr. & Mrs. Smith, thanks to the casting of two of the most lusted-after actors of their generation, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Infamously, the sparks that fly between the two leads on camera continued to resonate behind the scenes: Pitt would divorce his then-wife Jennifer Aniston soon thereafter, and embark on a relationship with Jolie which – not unlike that of their onscreen counterparts – had its own troubles.
In some ways, the fact that Mr. & Mrs. Smith resulted in the breakdown of a marriage is entirely fitting, as the film hinges on the implication that relationships built around deception can not only prove healthy, they can also be – well – really, really hot.
The film’s premise is simple: to outward appearances, John and Jane Smith are a standard, middle-class couple living a very comfortable, albeit somewhat stilted existence. However, in reality they are both world-class assassins: they’ve just never told one another.
Inevitably, circumstances see John and Jane assigned to terminate one another, resulting in the most celebrated sequence in the film, in which a brutal, explosive battle to the death gradually metamorphoses into passionate love-making.
We’ll agree there’s a lot to be said for couples being left stronger for airing out their dirty laundry, but with the high-stakes, high-profit lifestyles that John and Jane lead, can we really see them making it work in the long run? After all, Brangelina didn’t.
4. Yuri and Lara – Doctor Zhivago
Considered one of the greatest works by one of the greatest ever directors, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago was a massive hit on release in 1965, and although reviews were mixed at the time it’s revered as a classic today.
We certainly don’t wish to downplay the power of the epic romantic drama – and ‘epic’ is the operative word, given that in both widely-released cuts of the film (the original 1965 cut, and the extended 1992 re-release) it runs upwards of three hours.
Nonetheless, you don’t have to look too closely to see that there’s something distinctly off about the pivotal love story between Omar Sharif’s Yuri Zhivago and Julie Christie’s Lara Antipova.
The problem is very obvious: when he acts on his feelings for Lara, Yuri is already married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), a kind and loving woman who has done him no wrong.
It can certainly be argued that the fact that Yuri and Lara’s love is forbidden is the main thing that makes it so passionate; and given that they don’t act on their feelings until more than two hours into Doctor Zhivago’s running time, we can’t deny that they try to fight their feelings.
This still doesn’t change the fact that Yuri is betraying the trust of a loved one who has done nothing to warrant such harsh treatment.
3. Scarlett and Rhett – Gone with the Wind
Very few movies enjoy the same kind of iconic status as Gone with the Wind. For more than 25 years after its 1939 release, it was the biggest box office hit ever (and it still enjoys that status to this day if we adjust for inflation).
Director Victor Fleming’s epic romantic drama based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel famously centres on the tumultuous love story of Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara.
Everyone remembers how the doomed romance plays out: as Rhett walks out the door, Scarlett pleads, “where shall I go, what shall I do?” To which he coldly replies, “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (This was a fairly shocking use of profanity on film for the time.)
However, not everyone remembers that both Rhett and Scarlett are, in their own distinct ways, really quite awful people – and Rhett commits some truly heinous acts of abuse.
The most appalling moment comes when Rhett forces himself on Scarlett, kissing her despite her telling him no; and then he physically lifts her and carries her up the stairs, making it quite clear what awaits her once they get there.
What makes this especially sickening is that it’s not treated as the act of rape that it clearly is, reinforcing the dangerous myth that all sex within marriage is inherently consensual, and that women give up their right to say no the moment they say “I do.”
2. Baby and Johnny – Dirty Dancing
The legend of Dirty Dancing is built on the chemistry between its romantic leads Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze (who, famously, didn’t like each other at all in real life).
The dance-heavy romance is widely celebrated as an uplifting display of true love conquering all – but you don’t have to scratch the surface to see there’s plenty wrong with it.
Let’s start off with the obvious age difference. Johnny is a grown man of independent means; whilst Frances – nicknamed ‘Baby’ for crying out loud – is a teenager on vacation with her parents. (Grey and Swayze were both around a decade older than their characters, but still.)
The other problem with Johnny and Baby is that their physical chemistry is really all they have. OK, so the whole idea of love crossing social boundaries – she an affluent Jewish girl, he a lower working-class Irish Catholic – is a positive message, but we have to ask: just what is it they like about one another?
When all’s said and done, neither Baby nor Johnny are particularly likeable people. She’s really a bit of a spoiled brat who’s used to getting her own way with her wealthy parents, while he’s perpetually angry with a massive chip on his shoulder about his social status.
They’re not really in love: for Johnny, she’s just the latest in a long line of conquests, and for Baby, she’s just getting back at her parents by hooking up with a bit of rough. And above all, it’s just a summer fling. After Daddy gives his blessing in the final scene, we bet she loses interest within a couple of days.
1. Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet
Now, we know what you’re thinking. Romeo and Juliet is the most iconic love story of them all, the play which has been hailed throughout the ages as capturing the very essence of true romance. How could more than 400 years’ worth of scholars be wrong?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, they are wrong. Allow us to put forward a slightly different interpretation. The story of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t embody true love; rather, it embodies the fickle nature of youth, and how destructive its consequences can be if the impulses of hormonal youngsters are left unchecked.
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet makes this clear – and it would have highlighted it even more clearly had the filmmakers stuck to their original casting, with a then-14-year-old Natalie Portman playing Juliet, rather than the 17-year-old Claire Danes.
Portman was dismissed before filming began as they realised she looked far too young alongside 21-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio. However, this would have been true to Shakespeare’s original text, in which Juliet is indeed meant to be around 13 years old, whilst Romeo is 16 or 17.
As far as it being true love at first sight between them: first off, let’s be blunt, they’re kids who don’t know any better. Second, when the story begins Romeo is pining obsessively over an unseen woman named Rosaline, who he promptly forgets as soon as Juliet is in the frame.
Face it, he probably would’ve dumped Juliet for another new object of affection within a week or two, were it not that he rushed out to marry her the day after meeting her, then killed himself the day after that. Silly, impetuous teenagers!