Every holiday season, family and friends gather for festivities, which often includes watching movies. However, many scenes in popular Christmas romantic comedies are deeply problematic.
From stalking to criminal harassment and outright assault, there’s some borderline, or just plain blatant, illegal behaviours in these guilty pleasure films.
When film and television portray non-consensual behaviour as acceptable, it not only normalizes problematic ideas but also perpetuates rape culture. As a doctoral candidate researching sexual assault law, watching holiday romantic comedies doesn’t quite feel the same. I’m not suggesting we stop watching movies altogether, but we need to watch them differently.
The next time there’s a scene that makes light of gendered violence, pause and ask: what is really being shown here? Is this really all that funny or is it minimizing actual violence?
In hopes of starting a conversation about how romance is portrayed in film and television and its effect on how we see the world, here is a (Canadian) legal look at some holiday favourites.
Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)
This movie is perhaps one of the worst when it comes to trivializing harassment and, quite frankly, illegal behaviours, including sexual assault — which Bridget (Renée Zellweger) experiences at work and at home from a “pervy” uncle (James Faulkner), who slaps her butt without consent.
The intimate relationship with her boss and his subsequent pursuit of her (despite her ending the relationship) gives rise to concerns over consent. This is furthered by his position of power and authority over her. By showing up to her home uninvited, he also exhibits behaviours common in cases of criminal harassment.
These behaviours are portrayed as “funny,” but in real life, they could be terrifying.
Love Actually (2003)
As a movie that persuades its audience to declare their love in the spirit of the holidays, Love Actually shows some stalking and harassing behaviours under the guise of grand gestures.
The prime minister (Hugh Grant), for example, asking his secretary (Martine McCutcheon) where she lives and whether she has a husband or boyfriend is inappropriate — it is even more so due to his position of authority over her, especially when he shows up to her house, summoning her on “state business.”
It is important to note that the women being pursued seem to not be afraid, which is an important element in the offence of criminal harassment. However, the idea that a romantic pursuit like this is the kind of grand gesture that shows “immense romantic love” encourages behaviours that violate privacy over gestures that promote consent and equal participation.
The Best Man Holiday (2013)
When there are problematic behaviours in The Best Man Holiday, such as when Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) makes an unwanted sexual advance towards Julian (Harold Perrineau), the movie shows that it is inappropriate. Shelby is chastized (socially at least) for this behaviour.
Nevertheless, it is also seen as “funny,” which is disconcerting. Although criminal harassment and sexual assault are often gendered (Statistics Canada data shows that about eight out of 10 victims are women, and nine out of 10 stalkers are men), the offence in the Criminal Code itself is gender neutral. This means that unwanted sexual advances are inappropriate regardless of gender and can amount to harassment.
Single All The Way (2021)
This movie was one of the few that provided space for discussion and healthy reactions to rejection when there was a sexual advance. There is a scene where James (Luke Macfarlane) kisses Peter (Michael Urie) and it seems unwanted. James notices this and doesn’t try to kiss Peter again, even as they go on more dates.
Although there should be a discussion about consent prior to a person simply “making a move,” Single All The Way doesn’t normalize continuing sexual touching or advances without consent. Having said that, sexually touching someone without their consent, even if it is the first time, amounts to sexual assault.
The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star (2021)
The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star is riddled with criminal behaviours, from breaking and entering to Queen Margaret (Vanessa Hudgens) possibly obstructing justice by “pulling strings” to pardon Fiona’s (also Vanessa Hudgens) “squad” who had been sentenced to prison for previous crimes.
Fiona’s unwanted advance when she says “meow!” to Prince Edward (Sam Palladio), who reacts with visible discomfort and even fear, is a running joke throughout the movie — this could constitute criminal or sexual harassment.
Another concerning theme in the movie is that Fiona supposedly “does not know what she wants.” This is what Peter (Remy Hii) tells her when she rejects him. He gets upset and despite telling her that he will not see her again, forces her to interact with him, justifying his relentless pursuit of her by stating that “he needed to get her attention” and that he wanted what was “best for her.”
He displays paternalistic and controlling behaviours which can be abusive and can amount to criminal harassment. The dated expression of “all is fair in love …” fails when there is no consent.
Movies haven’t aged well
We often watch movies that have not aged well — and for good reason. It shows we have evolved as a society and that the problematic views past generations held are no longer acceptable.
But gendered violence, especially in the form of criminal harassment and sexual assault, is still very real in the lives of many. When movies portray this violence as trivial or something to be laughed at, we must ask ourselves what is at stake. To create a world that values consent, we need to question narratives that undermine it.
Maira Hassan receives funding from SSHRC, as a recipient of the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships-Doctoral.