There’s an impulse to believe that romance is supposed to look like the movies. After all, who doesn’t love the idea of a grand romance in the great Hollywood tradition? How wonderful is it to look at the way that people in movies express their love for someone and want to experience it in real life?
The problem is, most of what works in movies only works because it’s in movies. While I’m a big believer that you can learn a lot from movies, you have to make sure you’re learning the right lessons. And many times, what’s romantic in movies is deeply creepy in real life.
Despite this, people love to try to pull Grand Romantic Gestures – from elaborate proposals to simply asking women out on dates.
Here’s why those grand romantic gestures tend to be a bad idea.
Maybe Don’t Ask The Internet To Stalk Your Crush?
Last week, the Internet Detective section of Reddit stirred into life to help a young man with his love life. A young man going by the handle TheBushidoViking met a cute woman cosplaying as Tracer at the IHOP and it was puppy-love at first sight. After sharing in-game moves and pulling faces at one another, he made it home before realizing that he couldn’t stop thinking about her.
The problem? He never got her number. Or her name.
In fairness: this isn’t uncommon, especially at cons when you may only be talking with someone briefly. Neither, for that matter, are flash-crushes. I remember losing my mind over a girl dressed as Death at one event… anyway.
SoTheBushidoViking did what so many people have done after such a near-miss: he posted a missing connection – in this case, to Reddit’s /r/Overwatch board.
Most missing connections end up being fodder for writing prompts or cringe-worthy comedy fodder on Facebook.
This time, however, Reddit decided to help him out. TheBushidoViking’s post went viral as would-be Cupids began using the hashtag #HelpKyleFindTracer and trying to track down the cosplayer of his dreams. Suddenly Internet detectives were combing through troves of photos from the event, trying to discover the identity of this elusive Tracer, so that TheBushidoViking could have his shot at a storybook romance worthy of Hollywood.
Meanwhile, women across the Internet began to feel chills run up and down their spines at the thought of strangers trying to find an otherwise anonymous woman so a random person they talked to – someone they might not even remember – could ask her out on a date.
Now to be fair: TheBushidoViking did not ask for people to help stalk her across the Internet and has been abundently clear that he doesn’t want people invading her privacy just so he can have a meet-cute. It also seems clear that some (though not all) realize that this is a turbo-creeper move to take part in.
But Reddit’s eagerness to play Internet Matchmaker falls very firmly into one of the oldest and hoariest tropes from Hollywood: the Grand Romantic Gesture, where someone shows his (and it’s almost always a man) love in such a grandiose method that love can’t help but win.
It’s beautiful on film, where it plays out exactly as people hope it would. Reality, however, is a lot messier, and the Grand Romantic Gesture has many, many unintended consequences.
What’s So Appealing About The Grand Romantic Gesture?
Before we get into why the Grand Romantic Gesture, in all it’s forms, can be troubling, let’s talk about why it remains a staple of romantic movies – and the nerds who love to try and emulate them.
To start with, there’s the intensity of it. Passion, after all, is incredibly attractive. It’s one thing to say how much you care for somebody. It’s another entirely to show it… and the grander the gesture, the greater the passion. There is something appealing in watching somebody who’s so madly in love that they’ll do something absolutely absurd or over the top to show how much they care….
…even if there’s a fine line between “how much you care” and “stalking” and “property damage.”
There’s also the drama of it all. Most real life relationships are fairly simple affairs – sweet, but quiet and understated. Dramatic gestures, on the other hand can be exciting… at least, when you’re not at the center of them. That sense of something being larger than life, even cinematic, adds spice to an otherwise fairly mundane life.
But the thing that makes the Grand Romantic Gesture the most appealing is that in movies, it’s often how the protagonist finally wins. The recipient may be doubtful. They may love someone else. They may simply not even know that the protagonist cares… or even exists. But when they witness the sheer enormity of his love they can’t help but be swept off their feet by it.
This, ultimately is why the Grand Romantic Gesture is so popular, especially by those who try to utilize it in the real world. This expression of love becomes so powerful that it completely circumvents the need to be someone worth dating. The fact that they love someone that much is enough to sway even the coldest heart. Why spend time and effort talking to someone, building up sexual attraction and emotional connections when you can just bulldoze them with demonstrations of how deeply you care?
Well, about that…
Part of why people love to try to use the Grand Romantic Gesture in real life – whether with a stranger or to try to get out of The Friend Zone – is because they see it as how they “earn” a lover. It becomes part and parcel of the message that men “win” a girlfriend through doing things that makes them worthy, whether it’s metaphorically defeating Bowser or simply spending enough money on her. It’s simple and, in movies, all but guaranteed. There’s no need to spend time becoming someone worth dating or risking rejection because putting in the right amount of effort ensures that your passion will be rewarded.
However, much of what makes the grand romantic gesture work in movies is the nature of movies. The characters have no true inner life or animus. They’re guaranteed to fall in love because the writers and directors want it to work. No matter how over-the-top or disturbing or outright abusive the movie’s heroine1 is won over.
We never see, say, the pressure involved for her to give in, especially when someone has spent an absurd amount of money or put in ludicrous amounts of effort to make the gesture happen.
Or flown thousands of miles, unprompted, to show up on her doorstep out of nowhere.
Or fucking threatened to commit suicide if she didn’t go on a date with him.
Nor do filmmakers show the pressure and mortification that comes from suddenly being the center of attention of a judging crowd as somebody declares his love for her in front of an audience.
Or, for that matter, what happens when dozens to potentially hundreds of people have become invested in the outcome of your relationship. While TheBushidoViking may not have intended to unleash a mob, this random cosplayer is now the focus of strangers who want to see Kyle be rewarded with someone who never signed up for this.
What, for example, is going to happen if this cosplayer were to say “no” to someone she may not be interested in, after a highly-invested crowd of strangers had demonstrated their ability to track down a complete stranger?
Don’t get me wrong: I understand the appeal of things like #helpkylefindtracer. The idea of taking part in an epic love story and being an agent of love that brought two star-crossed lovers together against daunting odds is incredibly alluring. Who doesn’t want to feel like they’re part of why two people found each other? But the fact remains that one half of this prospective couple has no idea that they’re about to be involved in this story without either warning or their consent.
Romance Without Restraint, Risk Without Consequences
Let’s break down one of these scenes and look at just why Grand Romantic Gestures only work in movies. One of the most famous (and controversial) examples of movie romance is Mark’s famous confession to Juliet in Love, Actually.
Mark has been secretly pining for Juliet for years now, as Juliet has been dating and then marrying Mark’s best friend, Peter (Chiwetel Ejoiofor). This, to put it mildly, more or less marks her as being off limits. Not only has Juliet never shown any interest in Mark, but she’s deliriously in love with someone else. Mark, on the other hand, has issues with boundaries. After having been hired to shoot Peter and Juliet’s wedding, Mark has taken nothing but loving close-ups of Juliet. And after Juliet discovers a) that Mark’s obsessed with her and b) she’s not getting her wedding photos, Mark is left with a choice. Does he admit that he has been behaving badly, apologize for being unprofessional and deal with his feelings like an adult? Or does he do something that drops all of the responsibility for his feelings in Juliet’s lap?
If you answered anything other than b) then you clearly have never seen a romantic comedy before.
Mark shows up in secret on her door step and demands that Juliet deceive Peter for him.
And then Mark proceeds, over a series of scrawled notes on poster board, to tell Juliet “Hey, just so you know, I’m going to go fuck some models, but I’m going to always love you, so good luck with that.”
As an audience, we’re meant to see this as sweet. Mark has just confessed his undying love for someone, knowing that it’s hopeless. But in the real world, he’s just pulled the most passive-aggressive dick move possible.
First, he’s roped Juliet into keeping lying to her newlywed husband. Then he’s tried to have things both ways – he’s always going to love her but he’s going to go fuck other people because he knows it’s hopeless. It’s pretty clear that Mark is hoping that Juliet is going to be moved by this. After all, there was no need for this confession. If he truly believed it would never happen he could have just taken her aside and apologized. He could have said “Hey, I was dealing with this badly and I want to say I was a jerk and I’m sorry.”
Instead, he performs this Grand Romantic Gesture in secret. He takes no responsibility for either his emotions or his actions. It’s that she’s perfect and he can’t help himself. He’s effectively made her responsible for his feelings.
Now she’s left keeping a secret about Mark from her husband. If she tells Peter about this, she’s going to be responsible for possibly ending their friendship, not Mark. Meanwhile, Mark skates off, having dropped this bomb into the lap of the woman he supposedly loves.
Oh and gets rewarded for it. Did I forget to mention that part?
Mark is in love. Mark pulls series of dick moves that should, by all rights, leave many people incredibly pissed at him. Instead, he gets a kiss and a generation of people get the very wrong idea of how you should handle being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.
Granted, it could have been even more awkward…
What Makes For A Good Romantic Gesture?
Now, having shit all over the Grand Romantic Gesture, I want to talk a little about what makes for good romance.
As I said: the problem with most of these gestures is the coercive nature of them. They’re used as a means of skipping over the effort needed to truly connect with someone and, instead, put pressure on the recipient to go along with it. Even the over-the-top marriage proposals have an element of “Well now, you need to say yes” to them.
A good romantic gesture shouldn’t be one that’s intended to get someone to do something for you, nor should it be something that you use to try to overcome someone not being interested in you. Romance isn’t about bowling someone over with your feelings for them, it’s about doing something special for them – something that has meaning. Romance isn’t dependent on the wow-factor or the effort that you put into it, it’s in the emotion behind it. I asked some of my readers for stories of romantic gestures they appreciated. Among those:
@DrNerdLove Listened to me daydream about a trip I wanted to make, worked out the all the logistics, came to me with a plan BEFORE spending any $$$
— Kat and 47 others (@callionymidae) November 13, 2016
1) Drove 100 miles just to kiss me goodbye before I left on a trip
2) Re-sealed the roof rack on my car when it started leaking
— Amanda Timpson (@amandarin) November 13, 2016
@DrNerdLove My wife managed to get the lead singer of my favorite band to send a personal video note on our wedding eve. Total surprise.
— z + turkey stuffins (@ZillaPersona) November 13, 2016
@DrNerdLove so, this sounds less then romantic on the surface BUT it was. Night before my surgery, I was miserable. Drove four hours to …
— Summer Plum (@summerplum) November 13, 2016
@DrNerdLove …me pizza and rootbeer – which I wouldn’t be able to have for months after – so I wouldn’t have to be alone that evening.
— Summer Plum (@summerplum) November 13, 2016
@DrNerdLove I was too tired (and pregnant) to go to an event so they made a mini version (picnic and music) in the back yard just for us.
— Ruth Himlin (@RHimlin) November 13, 2016
@DrNerdLove a shy confession… “I’m smitten. Seriously. Smited.”
— ——— (@hyperlocavore) November 13, 2016
Romance is wonderful. Romantic Gestures, on the other hand, tend to be less so. Don’t let Hollywood’s idea of romance kill the real thing. An epic love story is one that happens organically… not one that gets imposed on some of the people involved.
- And it’s almost always a man making a gesture like this to a woman. [↩]