The MeToo movement has done more than its fair share in helping women across the world realise the subtle mechanisms that govern abusive and unequal sexual relationships. As is characteristic of powerful social movements, MeToo has ushered in a new perspective on the representations of romantic love and eroticism in films and other popular media. The overarching male gaze penetrating all popular representations of masculinity and femininity has been brought under scrutiny. Its watchful eye has been stared back into, point-blank, and boldly called out for what it really is. The process of uncovering, illuminating, and christening unnamed problems is significant for the reaction it induces. Even the most morally upstanding amongst us feel a momentous surprise on realising that we have unwittingly rendered to normalcy what we would otherwise know to be deeply disturbing. Why does this happen? We must prod into what we as a culture deify, demonise, or normalise in order to get our answer.
Countless movies have excited our imaginations about all the adventurous and unforeseen ways in which we can fall in love. The pirate abducts a princess who then falls in love with him. A brooding criminal encounters a lively and innocent woman, who softens his damaged soul and brings him redemption. A feisty young woman tests the patience of an alpha male- the business tycoon, the mafia boss, the werewolf– all seething from her boldness and simultaneously being aroused by it. We have, unfortunately, learnt the lessons they have taught us all too well; that being abducted is romantic, that a dominating, ruthless man is sexy, that a virginal woman is more desirable than one who is sexually experienced, that men should be strong and brave, and women should be kind and forgiving. We comfortably overlook the disturbing aspects of these tropes because the narratives that they are a part of are presented to us as a rosy picture, stripped of the violence that a similarly structured real-life situation would invariably imply. The quality of the narrative, the dialogues, and the cinematography evoke beauty and glaze over the truth of its content.
Recently, a film named 365 Days took Netflix by storm. It has been deemed the most explicit film available on Netflix, blurring the boundary between erotica as a genre and pornography. Based on the first novel of a trilogy by Blanka Lipinska, 365 Days has been called a Polish Fifty Shades of Grey. The plot revolves around an Italian mafia boss named Massimo who kidnaps a Polish woman named Laura and gives her 365 days to fall in love with him. It is starkly apparent that this film has no conception of what consent means. A number of scenes are presented to us as ribald sexual games with Massimo teasing her with nipple brushes (even though Massimo had promised her that he will not force himself on her) and other suggestions of what she’s missing out on. In one scene, Massimo, the sexy- bad- boy, ‘saves’ Laura from a man who was forcing himself on her at a club. The great irony is, that what Massimo is doing to her is not very different.The film clearly meant these scenes to titillate the audience into wishing that their lives were as ripe with the promise of sexual gratification. However, the acting is so poor and the chemistry so genuinely terrible, that there is nothing cushioning the audience from the horror of retroactively gained consent. To an audience who is interested in even slightly more than an HD quality pornography video, it is disturbingly and sickeningly clear that in the world of this film, no implicitly means yes.
365 Days' regressive, disturbing and simply unacceptable content was glaring into the audience's face. One can immediately notice the jarring themes within a few minutes of watching the movie. However, what happens when similar themes are utilized in a way that is much more subtle and difficult to pinpoint? It can be argued that such integration into mainstream movie plots can be even more damaging to society, as they can often go undetected, yet implant these toxic ideas into the collective social psyche. An example of such a movie was Passengers, the 2016 romance sci-fi movie starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. This was clearly a big-scale release, starring two of the most popular names of the time, and with a budget close to $150 million. The movie revolves around Jim played by Pratt, who is one of the 5000 passengers on a spacecraft designed to transport them to a newly colonized planet. Jim is faced with a terrible technical malfunction when he wakes up from his hibernation pod 90 years too early, and is unable to go back to sleep. We then follow his descent into madness driven by his isolation and his bleak situation, which forms most of Act 1. His turmoil is broken by the awakening of Aurora, played by Lawrence, and Jim’s love interest.
The trailer had made it seem, vaguely, like Jim’s love interest was woken up by a similar technical malfunction. However, we soon learn that this is not the case. Seeing Jim’s obsessive interest in a sleeping woman, and seeing him go through her personal information, social media, and miscellaneous interviews, is somewhat disconcerting to watch. Even more horrifying is the final decision he takes– to wake up Aurora from hibernation, thus forcing her to spend a lifetime with a man she doesn't know. The questionable nature of this decision, however, is neatly smoothed over by the scintillating chemistry between the two actors, and their passionate love. When Aurora finds out about the real circumstances of her awakening, she is distraught to the point where she is shouting that Jim has “murdered her.” However, as the audience, we are led to root for the lovers to get back together. The entire movie is approached from Jim’s perspective. But, it is only when we switch over to Aurora’s perspective for a minute, that we can see how chilling the entire sequence of events is. She has been thoroughly studied by a strange man while she was asleep, and then forced to live out the rest of her life with him with no escape, all the while being lied to and made to believe that they were thrown together by a weird twist of fate rather than Jim’s own machinations. This is a highly veiled version of the popular and decried trope of ‘abduction as romance’, wherein an abduction or otherwise similar assertion of power of a man over a woman is viewed as ultimately sympathetic, if done for a seemingly good cause. However, since there is no physical violence on screen and the actions made by Jim are portrayed as the only way to prevent his insanity and eventual suicide. The movie Passengers successfully covers up this situation and portrays it not as a creepy and violating scenario for Aurora, but rather as a romantic one.
The issues further increase when the ship begins to malfunction and Jim tries to fix it at the expense of his own life. We see Aurora forgiving Jim for his actions, merely because of a single moment of self-sacrifice. Again, this has been a problematic trope in movies for a long time, wherein a character does not grow or strive to change themselves with regards to their mistakes, but is forgiven instantaneously in a moment of love due to a single sacrifice or empathetic deed they undertake. A similar scene can be seen in 365 Days, where Massimo dives into the ocean to save Laura, who has fallen in it during a physical altercation between the two. This scene is shown as the turning point of the movie; after his ‘daring’ and ‘heroic’ rescue, Laura decides to let Massimo in entirely as soon as she regains consciousness, forgetting all that he has done to her. They quickly fall in love after this pivotal moment. In reality, however, such a relationship would never be healthy. The problems with such an abrupt method of forgiveness can immediately be seen in 365 Days, however, they are less apparent, once again, in Passengers. Neither an act of love nor self-sacrifice can overshadow the fundamental problem that Jim has taken away Aurora’s autonomy and her freedom of choice.
As highlighted in this article, the movie 365 Days is not isolated in its highly questionable implications and tropes. Rather, it has unwittingly jolted us to reality. Such ideas are still propagated in mainstream movies that we all love and enjoy, albeit in a much more subtle way. Arguably, this situation is much more dangerous as it can plant ideas in our heads unnoticed.
We may believe that our intimate desires and fantasies are a deeply private facet of our being but the fact is to the contrary: Our desires are shaped by the ideas that we are exposed to. One may argue that it is ‘just’ a film and that things that happen in films never really correspond to our real lives. But what beckons a closer look in this line of argumentation is where exactly the disjunct between film and reality lies. The violence and dominance in underlying toxic relationships is the first to be veiled and its influence on real situations has dire implications. Individuals will, no doubt, be quick to label acts of violence or manipulation as romance even while experiencing the alienating violence and fear characteristic of such a situation.