What do you associate with the term romance? Roses? Hearts? Valentine’s Day? A special meet-cute of one of your favourite films/books/series? The colour red? In fact, it may well be that you and I have a very similar idea of romance because these ideas are most often a product of subtle cultural negotiation. So let’s explore the cultural processes that lead to this romanticisation.
Constructions of romance go beyond the romanticisation of signs, colours, pictures, and forms. Indeed, they affect the lives and love affairs of anyone by determining to a great extent what love is, who we should love, and how we should behave in a romantic relationship. In this way, relationships are normatively ‘scripted’, defining a culturally ideal vision of a romantic relationship based upon one’s gender, sexuality, class, et cetera. The idea of romance is in fact neither inclusive nor as tender as the above definition suggests.
Why romance is not inclusive. Well, similar to many areas of social life, heterosexual (monogamous) relationships still represent the romantic norm, overlooking open, polyamorous, and queer relationships. These romantic relationships are classified as incomplete, further intensifying discrimination and marginalisation of queer people. The ideal of romance is further exacerbated by media and pop culture. Although the past years have witnessed an emergence of movies centering around queer relationships, I challenge you to name one with a happy ending. Take Call me by your name, Moonlight, Eté 85, Blue is the warmest colour, And then we danced, they all have tragic sorrowful endings. So what? Are we meant to believe that romantic queer relationships are hopeless? Does romance simply mean any love story or rather ‘a committed heterosexual relationship’?
Why romance is not solely tender. Literary or cinematic representations of heterosexual romance include far too often transgressive behaviour – such as abusive speech acts, jealousy, or the exercise of control. These representations ultimately reproduce patriarchal ideals of dominance and subordination. An appalling example is the Netflix series “You”, which thematises the relationship between Beck and her stalker Joe. Although stalking and harassment are illegal, many viewers praised the way the main character Joe (aka the stalker) loved Beck, going as far as romanticising her kidnapping.
In this way, abusive transgressions are trivialised and relativised under the guise of romance. If we assume that romantic relationships are, at least partly, scripted after this narrative, this poses a real danger. Research shows that jealousy and dominance in particular are predictors of intimate partner violence (IPV). With 27% of women aged 15-46 having experienced either physical or sexual IPV worldwide, it is dramatic that this construction of romance continues to be propagated in media and pop culture. This also leads to blatant boundary violations not being recognised because they are misinterpreted as romantic gestures or expressions of love.
Ultimately, “the heart has its reasons that reason ignores” but let’s still challenge ourselves to interrogate the reasons why we love, how we love, and whom we love.