As a 16-year-old girl in the 21st century, it’s hard to say that I haven’t fallen victim to the phenomenon of unrealistic teen romance movies. However, in my (and many, many others’) defense, these sappy love stories are written off as must-see rites of passage in the context of pop culture’s Constitution. Just picture it, a young 18th-century farm girl sits near a fire, reading stories upon stories, yearning night and day for her own Mr. Darcy. Now, replace that fire glow with a laptop’s warming fluorescent light and Mr. Darcy with Patrick Verona or Edward Cullen—it’s history repeating itself. As much as I love a good slow-motion “running through the airport security to catch the love of your life” scene, it is important to recognize that some of these films are not just entertainment but instead nuanced pieces that impact the lens by which impressionable viewers perceive life.
Movies across the board are guilty of romanticizing topics such as mental illness, drug use, and domestic abuse, but we sometimes fail to recognize that even our favorite movies do this as well. The Twilight Saga and The Kissing Booth movie series are mere examples.
The Twilight Saga, rated Pg-13, are adaptations of the novels by Stephenie Myer. They follow Bella Swan, Edward Cullen, and Jacob Black; a pretty girl, vampire, and werewolf (respectively). In what to some may have been an endless cycle, the saga included 5 films, each drawing up the trials and tribulations of the mentioned characters. The films released between the years 2008 and 2012 and were no doubt popular. They won many awards including “Best Movie” at the MTV Movie Awards in 2008 and “Favorite Movie” at the People’s Choice Awards in 2013.
Similarly, Netflix’s “The Kissing Booth” series, rated TV-14, are adaptations as well. They follow Elle Evans and her relationship drama with two brothers, Noah and Lee Flynn. The series began in 2018, a sequel was released in 2020, and a third is planned to be released in 2021. The Kissing Booth, in alignment with other Netflix originals, was a hit. The Chief Content Officer of Netflix, Ted Sarandos, called it “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world.”(Clark, 2018)
Although being from different moments in time, a key similarity in these films is their romanticization of toxic relationships. Examples of this include stories of control, the manifestation of gaslighting, and possessiveness/jealousy.
There are two key moments in the original Twilight film where displays of stalking can be witnessed. Early in the movie, Bella finds herself a “damsel in distress” when a group of guys in an alleyway give her trouble. In what appeared to be out of nowhere, Edward arrives to “save the day.” While some people might see this as sweet, Bella (and I) are skeptical. When she later asks him how he knew where she was, he dodges the question and responds with a mere: “I feel very protective of you.” (Twilight) As if this scene wasn’t enough to convince you of Edward’s stalkerish tendencies, he later admits to breaking into Bella’s room at night numerous times to watch her sleep, which he then explains away to be a compliment to her beauty.
Noah Flynn, the love interest in The Kissing Booth, has a similar attitude towards Elle. After a party at the beach, Noah feeds into the stereotypical “jock” narrative and beats up a guy at the party for “coming onto” Elle. Naturally, Elle gets mad at him and decides to leave the party, leading to Noah repeatedly calling after her and yelling for her to “get in the car”(The Kissing Booth). She ignores him and as one would expect, it instills a sense of anger within him. He slams the car hood, yelling a final “get in the car,” which startles Elle, scaring her into obeying him and getting in the car.
These two scenes depict very scary, yet very real scenarios. Noah and Edward, and many other male characters, are too often given free passes for stalkerish and overly controlling behaviors because of their alliance with the popular “dominant male love interest” trope. Their actions aren’t “aw” worthy or romantic, and they certainly aren’t done out of love. Edward and Noah’s actions suggest that they are entitled to these women. Elle and Bella aren’t shown the decency of being given privacy or self determination, something everyone is owed in a healthy relationship.
In the original Twilight movie, it’s really hard to tell whether Edward was just lazy or genuinely bad at keeping his status as a vampire a secret. After witnessing very obvious signs of him being a vampire, such as Edward’s speed or strength, Bella confronts him about it and he convinces her that she is crazy. Although she had a plausible reason to question him, he presents as very avoidant and manipulative. She directly asks him, “How did you get to me so fast,” but he responds with a blatant lie, saying “I was standing right next to you, Bella” (Twilight). As we and Bella witnessed in the previous scene, he was in fact across the parking lot.
These dire actions may be swept under the rug and seen as a fragment of Edward’s “mysterious” and “hard exterior,” but the fact is, he aimed to discredit Bella and leave her doubting herself—this is classic gaslighting (minus the vampirical mysticism). And although you may never find yourself being lied to at the hands of a vampire, it’s sad to say that too often people are the targets of this king of manipulation. A relationship can only bear benefits for both parties if issues and concerns are able to be expressed and acknowledged. It’s never okay to be told your cognition or emotions are wrong, even if it is by a charming vampire.
And so we circle back to “The Kissing Booth,” Elle is a victim of similar manipulation as well. She confronts Noah about his anger issues, a reasonable move considering their tumultuous fight. He goes on to express his past with therapy and counseling, explaining that those treatments were mostly ineffective. He then convinces her that she, a teen girl with no therapy expertise, can fix him more than actual therapy. As if being in a relationship with someone as violent and angry as him is not enough, she is now coerced into believing the responsibility of keeping his anger issues in control is hers, which is ultimately manipulative.
Elle should not be his therapist, but this scene insinuates that it’s her responsibility. It’s one thing to express care and concern for someone, but it’s another to have their entire well being on your shoulders. Although we all want our loved ones to better themselves, this shouldn’t come with a sacrifice of our own health, and definitely not if it’s forced upon us. It’s also crucial to consider the ages of the characters and the audience of this film. While no one should have to experience this, it is all the more detrimental to teenagers who are in the midst of learning to care for and be responsible for themselves. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean exploiting your significant other’s care for therapy. That is unfair.
Of course, you can not discuss Twilight without mentioning the infamous love triangle. When Jacob enters the equation, jealousy and possessiveness make an appearance, giving control and manipulation a run for their money. During a fight regarding Jacob kissing Bella, Edward comes after him, warning him to never touch her again, to which Jacob responds, “She doesn’t know what she wants”(Twilight: Eclipse). Not one of the two have any concern for Bella in this matter, even though she is standing right next to them and pleading for them to stop.
Instead of resolving this issue maturely and respectfully, they treat Bella as if she is an object to be fought over, never thinking to ask her what she wants or thinks. Bella is not a prize to be won and handed over. Newsflash Edward and Jacob, she is actually a person with opinions of her own! Perhaps if this were a healthy love triangle, though rare, Bella could express her feelings about the future of their relationships and be respected for her decision. Instead, her lack of autonomy is glanced over and romanticized as if the situation of being fought over is a compliment.
This is very similar to the entire plot of The Kissing Booth, which relies heavily on Noah’s possessiveness at the start of the film and their relationship. Early on in the movie, Elle finds herself being stood up by a date, only for him to show up later to explain his absence. According to the date, Noah had been “going around telling all the guys not to ask you out for a while now” (The Kissing Booth), a very far line to cross in the realms of possessiveness.
Elle, as she should, sticks up for herself and tells him to stop trying to control her, but instead of apologizing and stopping, he replies with a “we’ll see about that.”(The Kissing Booth) In this case, Noah has no respect for Elle and her boundaries. Once again, Elle expresses her (very understandable) concerns but is given little to no respect. And although this may be very clear to some, others may view this as flirtatious or charming. But to make it clear, when a love interest crosses an expressed boundary line, it’s neither flirtatious nor charming; it usually speaks to the transition from a sensible relationship to a toxic one.
Although these love interests try to mask these behaviors with the notion that they are doing it out of “love” or “protection”, it is without a shadow of a doubt wrong. As much as I love them, it must be said that the constant romanticization of toxic relationships in romance films, especially those aimed at a younger audience, insinuate the notion that these behaviors are acceptable and should be normalized. To the people behind these movies, do better. And to the audience of these movies, no matter how much you think you want to be in Elle or Bella or any other character’s place, I (and Jane Austen) want you to know that you deserve better.