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Sex + Relationships

6 Harmful Messages About Love From Childhood Movies

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

It seems that romantic love might be the most popular thing to make a movie about. This makes sense; people tend to tell stories that are meaningful to them, and falling in love is a shared human experience that is most definitely meaningful. This is why it’s important to debunk harmful notions about love reinforced by movies we grew up watching. 

It should be noted, many of my criticisms involve how love is depicted as all-consuming in some way, and I understand that this is expected of movies in the romance genre. Love is kind of the whole point of those. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy a classic rom-com. However, some of those movies still send questionable messages, and many films that aren’t even intentionally in the romance genre unnecessarily emphasize love. 

These messages are most impactful when received as an impressionable child. Also, many of the problematic ideas are specifically tailored to girls and women. I’ll be mentioning what I watched when I was fairly young, and while not everybody consumed the same entertainment, I believe the movies or the common tropes in them are far-reaching enough to be relatable. 

  1. Love will “save” or “complete” you 

Disney princess movies teach that young girls are meant to sit around and wait for their knight in shining armor to come save them. Cinderella was trapped essentially as a slave until the prince rescued her to live happily ever after in a castle. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were each saved from a curse by “true love’s kiss” from a man they hardly met. In real life there are rarely dire situations like this in which women can be literally saved. However, the general dynamic remains influential. I think many people, especially women, wait for the perfect partner to complete them or drastically change their lives for the better. The truth is, if you aren’t whole on your own, you won’t be whole with a partner. This mindset can cause dysfunctional relationships, blame toward a significant other for not filling a void that isn’t theirs to fill.

  1. Love is ownership

We’ve all heard of the romantic declaration “You’re mine,” or at least seen it printed on tiny heart shaped valentine candies. In most cases, it’s harmless and sweet. Sometimes, the meaning of the phrase is taken too literally. Twilight (2008) is about a disturbingly consuming romance between a human girl and a vampire boy. The vampire watches her sleep at night, follows her, and ultimately shows a level of obsession comparable to a toddler with toys. His desire for her blood and enhanced vampire abilities hint at a certain superiority over her, as if she really is just a toy that he owns and controls. Love is not about owning the other person, it’s about accepting and respecting each other as individuals. What’s so great about love is that two independently operating entities are able to learn from each other. The goal is to be in awe of the other’s quirks and choices, not to claim them as your own. 

  1. Love is unconditional 

I think there is a misconstrued idea of unconditional love. The Parent Trap (1998) has frequently been criticized for giving false hope to children with divorced parents. I see a related, but slightly different flaw; it is emphasized multiple times that the parents, Nick and Liz, had a toxic relationship. They didn’t get along in many ways and were constantly fighting. Yet, in the end, the kids succeed in getting their parents back together and they get married. I do believe there are cases in which a broken up, or even divorced, couple can work out their issues and get back together in a healthy manner. However, this isn’t demonstrated in the film, leaving us to believe that their relationship will continue to be unhappy and full of conflict after the initial thrill of getting back together wears off. The message is that the distress doesn’t matter, because they are in love, unconditionally. I think that love is conditional. The condition is all-around happiness. And this condition can and should override the love, as hard as that can be. 

  1. Love is immediate 

I’ve definitely experienced “love at first sight.” For me, it has happened with animals, food, and pretty views, not with people. Love for people is difficult and complex, but probably the most rewarding. There are endless examples in media of immediate love, but the oldest and perhaps most influential is the Shakespere play Romeo and Juliet (1597), and the several more recent film adaptations. We actually learn this story as young children in school, and there’s even an animated kids movie Gnomeo and Juliet (2011). The idea that love happens immediately is harmful, because it doesn’t. If you jump into something because of this common but unrealistic idea, more likely than not, it will backfire. Love takes time, because closeness and understanding take time. Attraction and lust can be immediate, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In many cases, they can lead to love. But neither feeling should be mistaken for it. 

  1. Love is born from conflict

I am no stranger to the “enemies to lovers” trope; in fact, as a tween, I ate that stuff up like I needed it to survive. I think there is valid reasoning behind it. A partner should challenge you, even fully disagree with you in ways that can be frustrating, but ultimately intriguing. However, there is a line. I always loved the film, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). But, along with the factor of the semi annoying and outdated “I’m not like other girls” stereotype, the way the main character is wooed by the love interest’s utter violation of boundaries doesn’t sit right with me. She also forgives him in the end for a horribly disrespectful bet he made to make money off of wooing her. Love doesn’t have to begin with dislike or hatred, and surely shouldn’t blossom from disrespectful conflicts. 

  1. Love is necessary

Let me clarify; we are social creatures, so human connection (platonic love) is most definitely necessary. However, being in love or being in a romantic relationship, is not. Films, even ones that aren’t in the romance genre or children’s movies, seem to emphasize that everyone needs romantic love. The children’s film series Ice Age eventually assigns each and every animated animal character a love interest. I mean, does Sid the Sloth really need a girlfriend? I don’t want to come off as anti-romantic or pessimistic. I’m simply reflecting on how these representations have impacted me, and potentially many others, in the real world. Truth is, most people will be single at times, maybe for long periods of time. I’d hate to think that people waste their time being single thinking that they shouldn’t be, or that there’s something wrong with them because they are. Being in love is a special, wonderful occurrence that I would hope everyone gets the chance to experience sometime in their life. However, it is not necessary to be a happy and functioning human, and certainly not at all times. If your life is a sundae, love is the cherry on top.

Shirlee Arreola

Cal Poly '23

Shirlee Arreola is a third year Sociology major with a minor in Media arts, Science, and Technology (MAST) at Cal Poly Slo. She is interested in writing, film and TV, and social issues. She hopes to pursue a career in which she can explore various intersections of these three areas. She also enjoys drawing and painting, reading, and nature.
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