Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Feminism vs. The Slow Burn Romance [Guest Poster: Lindsay MacDonald]

You might know Lindsay MacDonald from her work at Tell-Tale TV, her pieces on TV Fanatic, or just that girl who we enjoy live-tweeting re-watches of The 100 with. Lindsay is an exceptional human being, super sweet, and passionate about television (and we got to have tacos with her at San Diego Comic-Con, so we win). 
Here, she's penned a guest post for us about what happens when television couples are written as "slow burns" and become... well, problematic in the way that romance is portrayed. Enjoy her piece and be sure to tweet her and/or comment below to keep the conversation going!

It's the staple of a good television show to tease out a ship, pairing, and/or couple as long as physically possible before finally letting them (finally) come together. The music crescendos, the boy gets the girl, and the fade-to-black slowly takes over your screen. But only, obviously, after a good four seasons of consistent suspense and anxiety. The main purpose behind this practice is, of course, to keep the audience interested and invested in the drama of the will-they-won't-they dynamic that governs all romances.

Some of televisions greatest couples have committed to the slow burn, in fact. Meredith and Derek on Grey's Anatomy. Damon and Elena on The Vampire Diaries. Luke and Lorelai on Gilmore Girls. Plus many, many more!

(No, seriously I could go on forever).

The beauty of the slow burn is that it draws us into the story being told and makes us root for the couple. The drama of a slow burn keeps us hovering on the edge of our seats to see when the couple might finally overcome all of their obstacles to be together. We're all suckers for a happy ending.

But there is a specific brand of slow burn that tends to grate on this feminist's nerves and it goes a little something like this:

Person A, suddenly and instantly infatuated with Person B, makes their feelings known via confession, acts of love, devotion, and whatever usual tomfoolery characters in love tend to participate in. All of which, Person B rebuffs, kindly or not through phrases that resemble: "he's a bad boy," or "she's just a friend," or even "I'm not looking for a relationship right now." These are all quite typical excuses used by Person B.  
Here's the kicker though: Person A still continues to pine and chase and pursue Person B, even after they've been not-so-subtly told to buzz off.

Usually, audiences go gaga over this kind of stuff in slow burn couples and in romance in general. There's something disturbingly alluring, apparently, about a woman who says no when she's really just fighting her deepest desires, or a boy who slowly and steadily becomes convinced that the girl of his dreams has been in front of him the whole time.

But that's typically right when warning bells start going off in my mind.

Because as saucy and spicy as it sounds to watch a man who won't take no for an answer and continues to pursue the woman he cares about, it's also reflective of a mentality that should send most girls -- who are not characters on television shows -- running for the hills. This idea that a woman who says no really just means "try harder" is so very troubling to see portrayed as a sexy, romantic subplot. Any girl who has ever been harassed by a stranger, an ex, or even a trusted friend will tell you that the most terrifying thing in the world is a guy who hears the word "no" and thinks you actually mean "yes" and continues to pursue you. Similarly, someone who pines after you or makes you feel like an awful human being for not giving them a chance romantically is a total buzzkill. If the feelings aren't there or mutual, do you really want to have to convince someone to like you? To see your beloved finally throw their hands up in the air and shout "Ugh fine, you've worn me down. You win!" when you ask them to love you back? That doesn't exactly sound like a solid foundation for long-term relationship if you ask me.

Both of these slow burn examples of characters forcibly turning a "no" in to a "yes" bring into question the topic of consent. And consent is a feminist issue that comes into play for both genders, and across the board. Men and women who say "no" to someone else's advancements deserve the right to be heard and respected by the pursuant individual, and romanticizing their refusal as simply just playing hard-to-get is, at best, irresponsible and at worst, extremely dangerous.

Dangerous because as a society, we are completely and totally inundated with media and its many messages. The books we read, and the movies and television we watch work together to shape our perception of the world -- in both right and wrong ways. And, whether we like it or not, media also shapes acceptable social behavior from the time we are children, up until the time we're old and grey. How many times have you heard a story about a little kid jumping off the roof or another tall structure because he just wanted to emulate Superman and believed that he could?

Obviously the politics of unrequited love and how best to react to it are a little more subtle than jumping off a roof or a building, but the core principle remains the same; we take the stories we see and read about to heart whether it's conscious or not. Therefore, depicting a firm "NO" in a slow burn romance as really a "not yet" is something that is akin to setting a lit match beside a pile of kindling -- extremely dangerous with potentially life-altering consequences as a result.

Now, I'm not talking about wooing, courtship, or even seduction as portrayed in media. Those things are all well and good and normal parts of a healthy romance and they are typically depicted as such. The slow burn of Luke and Lorelai in Gilmore Girls for instance, was a constant dance of two people trying to get the timing right in order to explore their deeper feelings for one another. There was never a moment when Luke sabotaged one of Lorelai's relationships in the hopes that she would one day give him a chance. He never guilt-tripped her for treating him like a friend instead of a viable romantic partner for so many years. Instead, the writers crafted a natural progression of romance and romantic feelings from each side that made their eventual coupling feel organic. Once those feelings were reciprocated on both sides, then the fun and games really got started.

Stealing from the same show, for a moment, we can see the example of a slow burn gone awry if we examine the relationship between Rory and Jess. I know, I know. But set down your pitch forks for one second while I explain a little bit more: Jess arrived in town and developed an instant attraction to Rory based on their shared interests, chemistry, and compatibility. And those are all exceptionally good things to have in a slow burn and in a romantic coupling. But how many times did Rory tell Jess to leave her alone? How many times did she make it clear to him how uncomfortable his interest made her and the many problems it caused between her and her current boyfriend, Dean? And how many times did Jess ignore her pleas to stop because he "knew" that she wanted him, deep down.

Are you seeing any red flags yet?

I'm not condemning the entire relationship between Rory and Jess. I do think it had many wonderful aspects, and well… she did want Jess, deep down. I'm merely pointing out that thousands of fans fell head over heels for the love story between these two, when -- at its core -- it sent the very troubling messages to men and women. Messages that girls will tell a bad boy they don't want him, when really they're secretly longing for him to ignore their refusal. Messages that if a woman shows no interest in you and rejects you, the natural response for men is to try and try and try again because eventually she will relent.

With one or two minor tweaks, and the addition of a creepy cabin in a woods, that story quickly turns into an episode of Criminal Minds.

With all of this said, does this mean that characters on TV can never play hard to get or fight against their burgeoning feelings for someone they know they probably shouldn't (or cannot) be with? Absolutely not! That's just good television, guys: the struggle, the angst, the longing. The key in crafting a slow burn that is pro-consent is in the way that the story is told. In telling the story of a slow burn relationship that evolves naturally, and in avoiding the kind of "relationship" that romanticizes and lauds the unsolicited wearing down of another person. That kind of romance -- the natural, good, pro-consent kind -- shouldn't be as difficult as it is to find sometimes on television, but you might be surprised at how often the second option is chosen by writers because, to them, it's just more alluring and sexy.

Now, here comes the difficult part. It's often hard for fans to see the flaws in their beloved characters and couples. We get so entrenched in the romance and passion of it all that we often forget to look for these delicate details that might cause us to reevaluate what exactly we find so appealing about a ship or a storyline and why. And, more importantly, we don't often think about what we're being told regarding relationships on television and what we -- personally -- have been taught to believe is acceptable in our own lives because of television.

So I've decided to end this little analysis of mine with a challenge. Are you ready? Here it is: Name some of your favorite "TV Slow Burn Romances" of all time in your head. And then take a good, hard look at them while asking yourselves these questions:  Did Person A keep pursuing after they were told to stop? Was person B cajoled or coerced into giving their not-so-romantic love interest a chance? Was your OTP's slow burn depicted in a way that makes you giddy or slightly uncomfortable?

Feel free to sound off in comments below with examples of each kind of slow burn romance: the good and the bad.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, so many times over! I find this to be a really important subject especially because so much of our romantic imagination is fueled by stories. We imagine ourselves to be part of those stories and we respond emotionally when we feel that something in "real life" is following an ideal that we have created in our narrative minds. I will try and keep myself from being verbose (not easy for me, I tend to gush with enthusiasm) but I feel quite strongly about this subject.

    A good story immerses us in Person A's viewpoint so it can (sometimes dangerously) get us to see the world as they see it. They believe passionately that they are "meant" to be with the object of their love and they see evidence of that all the time in the smallest details. We see it with them and are persuaded that they are correct about the way things are "supposed" to be. And that kind of immersion in a character's viewpoint is powerful. As the protagonist of our own lives we are completely immersed in our own point of view. Our own feelings are so intense (especially when we are young) and everyone else's feelings can only be extrapolated, never experienced. But if we don't take other people at their word ('No' being among the most important) we run the risk of believing that we are seeing "reality" and pushing that on another person who we claim to love. It can involve actual violence when the other person does not conform to script which is extremely frightening or it can be the passive aggressive violence of manipulation and guilt trips which make for very unhappy people. Maybe the other person is confused or conflicted but it is not our right to sort that out for them. So yes, long winded again...

    Anyway, I got to thinking about your challenge. Here are some good examples that come to mind:
    Luke and Lorelai- you outline everything there

    Booth and Brennan- my attachment to their story has waxed and waned but when one of them was ready and the other wasn't (this alternated) and said so, Person A BACKED OFF.

    Mulder and Scully- Lizzie has already discussed this in other posts at length

    Jules and Shawn in Psych- I need to think this through a bit more but I don't remember any pursuing or pressure there

    Pam and Jim in the Office- Jim was quiet for a long time and when he did say something and got turned down he did the quite mature thing and Got Out of the situation by moving away for awhile

    Barry and Iris in the Flash- Once again a long term pining situation but when Iris says no, I am with Eddie, Barry doesn't push her or try to convince her otherwise. There has only been one season of course but we'll see how this develops.

    Please point out if I'm not remembering something dicey in my list above. We like to remember things in a way that fits our feels rather than facts. I'm now trying to think of unhealthy examples. I think a lot of the ones above are interesting because the love interests are always in each others' lives due to working together which means that no matter what their relationship status they are around each other a lot. This can be painful but it also means that no one needs to invent/force a reason to be around the other.

    I know the relationships of Rory Gilmour get a lot of debate among fans but frankly I wasn't a fan of any of them overall. That's another rant of course.
    Roswell- It was a long time ago that I watched this. I remember feeling intensely about it but I think there were also some fairly unhealthy relationship dynamics going on. Now, unhealthy relationships are interesting and important to portray when done right. I just can't remember if something creepy was presented as romantic. This will take more thought.