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I was thinking about 80s movies tonight, and how much narratives around romance have changed.

The core romantic conflict in 80s movies was either that the guy didn’t have the guts to ask the girl out, or he wasn’t cool enough for her to agree to go out with him. Really, this is two versions of the same story; after all, a cool guy wouldn’t lack the guts to ask a girl out. Over the course of the movie, the guy would have to figure out how to be cool enough to captivate her attention.

Initially, he’d start out by trying to fake it. He’d pretend to like the same music she likes, or have the same interests as hers. He’d act like a jerk, try to display some knowledge about her interests, and then she’d roll her eyes and say, “Get lost, you creep!” Then he’d fall down or something, and a crowd of people would laugh at him, underscoring the fact that he was not cool enough to get the girl.

But the movie would always offer our hero a path to being cool. Either he’d learn to display some skill or prove some talent, or he’d learn to stand up for himself in the face of various bullies (parents, rich squares, a school jock, that sort of thing). Often the girl he thought he wanted would turn out to be shallow; she’d like him only when the crowd liked him, and despite him otherwise. Meanwhile, the girl he ultimately gets ends up appreciating him for who he was even when he wasn’t cool. He’d realize by the end of the film that he’d been a jerk the whole time — a “jerk” here being a type of uncoolness. And by the end, they’d fall in love.

However, exactly, the old movies told these stories, it was basically the same narrative. What strikes me about this narrative in hindsight is that it offers a path forward to people who are unlucky in love: By demonstrating coolness, we find the people who appreciate us. “Coolness” is a broad concept that encapsulates whatever happens to be important to you: your talent, your dignity, your ability to triumph over adversity, whatever. Prove that you’re cool enough, and you’ll get the girl; and if you’re true to yourself, you might even get a better girl than the one you wanted in the first place.

Modern romance stories do not function like this.

For one thing, if you’re not already cool, you have no chance with the girl. The message conveyed is that if a woman isn’t interested you from the beginning, you shouldn’t try to win her affection through personal merit. No means no; get lost, you creep.

For another thing attraction is instantaneous in modern love stories. A lot of these stories mask this assumption by having either the guy or the girl be “unaware” of his or her own feelings, until late in the movie, when he or she realizes that the whole reason all that emotion was bubbling to the top in the first place is because he or she subconsciously loved the other person.

And finally, the hero may win or lose (he usually wins, of course), but winning has no direct relationship to getting the girl. Sometimes he gets the girl before he wins, and they lie together and brood. Other times, he gets the girl after winning, but only on her terms.

So the modern love story is about two people who are already in love, deciding to act on their feelings, while other important plot-stuff happens to them independently of the love story. The message this is bound to convey to young people who unfortunately end up learning about love from the movies is that love is something that just happens to the heroes of the story, and nothing anyone actually does has anything to do with it.

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