Romance is weird – the attraction between two people can be the simplest thing in the world, but it can also get complicated very quickly. Hollywood, since its creation, has stumbled into that morass over and over again, and nowadays it’s getting hard to distinguish between real emotion and what’s fed to us through the silver screen.
These modern fairytales claim to tell us what ‘True Love’ is. Unfortunately, outside of Tinseltown, the ethics of these relationships often fail to stand up to scrutiny. These iconic movie romances, when you think about them, are actually deeply problematic.
20. 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 – but when you think about it, Harry really should have just kept it in his pants that night.
19. 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.
So, 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.
18. 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?
17. 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 what’s Lloyd supposed to do after they move to England? We give them two months.
16. 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. It’s also lauded for its rare foregrounding of a gay love story. And yet, something isn’t 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.
15. 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.
14. 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 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.
13. 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.
12. 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.
11. 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 – the only Disney prince not to do so. That alone has got us suspicious.
10. 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, and then in the end he leaves anyway. Molly will need therapy for decades.
9. 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…
8. 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 works: Juliet runs after him 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.’
7. 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.
6. 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.”
5. 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.
4. 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. Nobody watches The Truman Show and thinks there’s a grand romance between Jim Carrey and the audience, so why is Joanna’s complete obliviousness considered a valid path to romance here?
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.
3. 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.
2. 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. Disney insisted the film be stripped back to pure romance, and Pretty Woman was born.
1. 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.