Emmet vs. Eponine

So this weekend my husband and I finally saw The Lego Movie (turns out the bargain theatre in town is totally awesome, yay), and we had a great audience (another post) and people only looked at me once for laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe, and to retaliate against my husband constantly singing the Awesome Song I’ve started sneaking up on him and yelling DARKNESS (NO PARENTS) so all is well in our household.

One part of the movie did get me thinking, however, and upon posing the question to my lovely Facebook friends and discovering that their ideas mirrored my own, I decided to summarize our collective thoughts.

In The Lego Movie we are “treated” to the incredibly familiar romantic subplot of Our Hero (thought to be “less interesting” or “boring” or “normal” or “average”) falling for The Cool Girl (with whom he certainly has surprise chemistry) only to discover she is dating A Cool Guy (often a jock, or talented artist, or in this case Batman). Over the course of the film, Our Hero attempts to cozy up to The Cool Girl, who in turn begins to realize that maybe what she really wants is an “average” guy because he’s more caring/thoughtful/different than she originally thought. At the end, Our Hero saves the day, The Cool Girl breaks up with The Cool Guy, and Our Hero and The Cool Girl ride into the sunset together.

(This can obviously take many forms, and honestly Emmet/WyldStyle was a fairly innocuous version of it; Emmet’s overtures towards WyldStyle never crossed into ugh-dude-she-said-she-had-a-boyfriend-back-off, and the breakup with Batman was perfectly amiable/Batman wasn’t a great boyfriend, but he wasn’t a terrible person/their relationship just happened to be rather shallow and it was good for both of them that it ended.)

The thought experiment thusly goes as follows: Can you think of an example wherein Our Heroine (a “boring” or “normal” or “average” girl) falls for The Cool Guy, only to discover he’s dating A Cool Girl, only to win him over so that in the end he breaks up with A Cool Girl and rides into the sunset with Our Heroine?

Implied requirements: 1) The storyline has to be about Our Heroine/even if she’s a subplot in a larger story, it needs to be from her perspective. 2) Our Heroine doesn’t have to “change”; people just have to realize her innate abilities or beauty or whatever in order for her to save the day or even just get the guy. 3) She has to actually get the guy.

To frame this in another way: how often do female unrequited love stories have a happy ending versus male ones?

The very first example that popped into my head was “You Belong With Me,” by Taylor Swift; the song is just about the unrequited crush, but in the music video the narrator does in fact get the boy. Yes, she dresses up in a prom dress, but a) it’s an in-character prom dress (versus say Sandy’s catsuit in Grease) and b) he clearly wrote that “I Love You” before he saw her all dolled up. In fact, the first verse has a sequence where she considers all the different looks she could go for before resigning herself to her t-shirt and pajama pants and look, I love that music video.

The very second example that popped into my head was Eponine from Les Miserables, which before the advent of Taylor Swift was pretty much the go-to musical example for all unrequited crushes. Eponine, of course, completely fails to pass the proposed test because hello. (Although I do remember asking my mother why Eponine is smiling during this song, and she said, “It’s because she dies happy. She dies in his arms.” A Foundational Media post for another time.)

It does occur to me that both of my instinctive thoughts differ slightly from many Our Hero versions of the story in that Our Hero usually meets The Cool Girl for the first time early in the story, whereas Our Heroine in both instances has known The Cool Guy (and her feelings for him) for quite some time. It’s also important to note that after these two examples, I was pretty much stumped.

My army of smart, talented women came up with…
0. “‘You Belong With Me’ oh wait you already said that one.”
1. Jane Eyre, which I would argue doesn’t quite fit because Mr. Rochester has no intention of actually getting together with the heiress, and he’s quite over his first wife before Jane even enters the scene.
2. The Wedding Planner, which I think totally counts! Despite being J. Lo, Mary is meant to be a plain no-nonsense kind of girl, not a Cool one. There is no real day-saving in this one, though.
3. Some Kind of Wonderful, which I guess I’ll have to see
4. Hairspray, the musical, which definitely qualifies in terms of “Our Heroine doesn’t have to change,” though they do get together before the end.
5. Mansfield Park, which I probably ought to reread as I only remember preferring the villains to Our Heroine, but I think it probably qualifies. If I recall correctly it falls under the “boy is seduced away by The Cool Girl before returning to Our Heroine” and also the they’ve-known-each-other-for-ages thing.
6. The Sound of Music, which, again, they get together before the end and Our Heroine doesn’t save the day in a conventional way and in fact really the Nazis mostly win but at least they escape with their lives?
7. A Walk to Remember, except the story is told from The Cool Guy’s perspective, Our Heroine is interesting via being mysterious, and Our Heroine is really just part of his narrative of self-growth alongside having her own storyline about, you know, dying.

There was also a discussion of Korean dramas (“k-dramas” to the uninitiated) that was QUITE FASCINATING but give its somewhat niche market will probably have to become a guest post here in the near future. And someone mentioned Slings and Arrows, a show about a Shakespeare troupe that I really need to watch.

So that’s…four, five examples. Feel free to come up with more! I would welcome them! But clearly, we have a problem. Or several problems, really, most of which are near and dear to my heart not only as a woman but also in terms of my personal story; we’ll see how many I can hit on in the next thousand or so words.

First of all, the sheer dearth of movies that even begin to approach this paradigm is appalling. I have no doubt that they are PLENTY of romance novels that fulfill this paradigm quite nicely, but the romance novel genre has its own issues with denigration and not-being-consumed-by-a-male-audience, which leaves us with movies as a media which might occasionally reach a male viewer, even if it’s just a trailer. And there just aren’t that many, and a large part of that is because of the issue we ran into with A Walk to Remember: the narratives are all about dudes. Sure, the movie tells the story of Mandy Moore dying from cancer, but it’s through the lens of how that story affected the male narrator’s life. If you’re looking for movies about women, let alone women saving the day, let alone women fitting this paradigm, prepare to just head to the library and scan its shelves because even Google isn’t going to help you with this one.

Secondly, as my friend Natalie pointed out,

“When I try to think of examples I come up with a major problem, which is that Hollywood won’t let the guy end up with her until she ‘gets’ interesting (aka hot), which never seems to happen the other way around. I can think of tons of ‘makeover’ flick where the unpopular girl by some circumstance (bet, dare, etc) gets made over, but I wouldn’t count that as guy simply falling for the uncool one because she’s not ‘uninteresting’ by that point. But I never have to see the guy get hot and become cool first….”

There’s been plenty of digital ink spilled over Judd Apatow and the latest rounds of bromantic comedies wherein the dudes get to have paunches and the girls still have to be skinny and hot; the man-child’s nerdy habits are deemed endearing instead of weird, but the bookworm chick has to go on a shopping spree and come out wearing ridiculous heels; or, my personal pet peeve, that wonderful trope wherein the girl isn’t even remotely possible as an object of desire until she takes off her glasses.

Again, most of the time these movies are actually about guys to begin with, which I think actually makes it worse: girls with glasses are told over and over and over again that unless they put in contacts (and, you know, hire a makeup and hairstyling artist) no guy is ever going to look at them. Trust me. I prefer my face with glasses (they balance out my overbearing eyebrows AND correct my vision), and it still took me years to convince myself deep down that all my rants about how stupid this trope is were true, that I was right and Hollywood was wrong, because the image is just so damn pervasive.

Never mind just how many people in this world need glasses, thus making this a completely arbitrary standard, or again the fact that the only example I can think of where a guy loses his glasses and becomes hotter is Peter Parker and EVEN IN THAT CASE MARY JANE LIKED HIM BEFORE HE LOST THE GLASSES SO IT DOESN’T COUNT. Girls in movies are so very rarely preferred before, and then change is almost always physical, thus implying that you can be the greatest person ever and even the nicest most deserving guy is never going to look at you because dudes only care about looks. Sure, there’s a certain level of biological truth to the idea that men are more immediately attracted to physical appearances, but we are MORE THAN OUR BIOLOGY.

Thirdly, even within the romcom genre, as a college friend of mine pointed out, “most of the movies (romcoms) I can think of with ‘I don’t know why he chose little boring not special ole me’ plots have the guy single to start, though often just after a breakup.” We get stories of Plain Janes being noticed (often due to Plot Wrench Bet/Dare/etc. that ultimately Doesn’t Matter Because Now He Cares For You) from Jane’s point of view, but not of Plain Janes having to compete with Cool Girls. No, if a guy chooses Plain Jane over Cool Girl, it’s probably because Cool Girl turned out to be lying while Plain Jane was patiently waiting for you this whole time–it’s the guy’s story of love and loss and finding it again, and Plain Jane is just in the background, appearing often enough to keep us all from forgetting about her–which isn’t often at all, because we the audience know where this is going.

So here’s the crux of the matter: there are a million narratives of guys liking a girl who’s with another guy, going after her (even if it’s just respectfully toeing the line between friend and more than friend), and eventually proving himself as a person worthy of everyone’s respect and also the girl’s love. Girls? Don’t get to have that narrative. They don’t get to go after guys who are already tied up; they get to wait it out, and usually by the story’s end they’re still waiting. Even if it’s clear to everyone involved that she is The One, you don’t get stories where people are urging her to TELL HIM HOW YOU FEEL the way guys are encouraged to do. It’s just expected that if the story requires them to get together eventually he’ll wise up. Before “You Belong With Me” came along, a girl’s unrequited anthem was sung by someone who was going to die and whose beloved was STILL going to get with the other girl.

Furthermore, we don’t even get scenes of the girls complaining to their friends (male OR female) about the unfairness of the situation, about how blind the guy is, about trying to move on but being unable to because she just feels drawn to him. When we see the girl’s side of the unrequited love, it’s a soliloquy to the streets of Paris, or a solo performance for her hairbrush. Girls suffer their crushes alone; guys get to complain, sometimes even to the object of their affection!

I’m certainly not advocating that girls start taking the “Nice Guy” approach to their feelings–it serves no one for girls to finally be treated like people only to treat boys as things–but telling guys they have a chance and girls that their lot is to suffer in silence, that guys can be themselves and hope to get the girl but girls shouldn’t expect anything or that if they want to even have a hope of anything they have to change their appearances and behaviors (that a guy who likes you when you pretend to be someone else is a guy you ought to be with)–is wrong. Wrong. And it’s false. I’m not going to say that every time you tell someone how you feel they’ll turn out to return your feelings, but when we never ever ever give girls the option of even trying, we’re just reinforcing the idea that their feelings don’t matter and their stories don’t matter and they shouldn’t try to be active agents in their own lives–that their lives matter, because what is a life but a collection of tales?

Yes, this is tied up in a larger conversation about gender roles and expectations, about how women shouldn’t be “forward,” how we have centuries of novels in which men can be as wild as they want and still get the good girl, providing she stayed good–where the good girl is expected to still want the wayward soul hoping to find a home with her. But I’m tired of that–and again, a girl telling someone how she feels isn’t nearly so forward as a “Nice Guy” telling a girl that he thought his being in love with her entitled him to her affection in return.

Give me ridiculous “I object!”s from women at weddings watching grooms about to make a terrible mistake. Give me girls saving the day through the power of being ordinary, or better yet, through those “feminine” arts that Strong Female Characters never get to use. Give me guys realizing they like glasses, or chests untouched by the miraculous push-up bra. Give me girls who love good guys and who get them by nothing more putting their own good selves out there. Give me girls who have friends to support them through their romantic woes–girls who don’t have to keep their crushes a secret. Give me girls living their own lives despite their crushes.

Give me my story. Let other girls know that it’s okay to speak. Let other girls know sometimes, it will work out. It’s never easy or painless–but sometimes, it’s true love, and it’s okay for them to claim it.

Categories: feminism | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Emmet vs. Eponine

  1. Kitty

    First, we are designed to struggle. Even walking is a push against gravity. So knowing that the struggle is part of the process and yields a benefit is a start.
    Second, women -according to Scripture- will always struggle with relationships with men. From the expulsion from Eden to Ephesians, women desire to be secure and cherished. We want a man who will fight for us and with us, even while we roll our eyes as we pick up socks/find the mustard/argue about directions. Our charge is to honor/respect our man. But that doesn’t translate well in books or movies. It is not funny or sexy. In the movie, The Rookie, the wife stayed home while the husband pursued his dream. She said, “I’m a Texas woman, which means I don’t need the help of a man to keep things running.’ Strong females must walk a fine line. Her statement only works because we see the strength of their relationship earlier in the movie. The female lead in The Edge Of Tomorrow walks that line brilliantly. Nice writing and beautiful acting. Your statement ‘give me girls living their own lives’ speaks to this.
    Third, men take that ‘design for struggle’ to levels and places that we as women cannot imagine. It is just not in us. Their charge is to lead and love. Your military life is all about that aspect, even to ‘the walk’. But wow! That struggle films well! We love a protagonist that slays the dragon! It’s smexy! When a woman slays the dragon it feels like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
    When I think about movies that satisfy me, there is an authenticity that meets these three points. But sex sells, and movies/books/entertainment is essentially about the profit margin so compromises are made. To have a heroine that is ordinary and noticed for her ordinariness is not going to happen. We are all created as special and unique. It is THAT uniqueness that gets noticed, not the ordinary. My challenge is to nurture my giftedness rather than rail against those who call me ordinary.

  2. Betheth

    First – Slings and Arrows is fabulous, and I have no idea how it fits into this post.

    Also: literally the only case I can think of a woman talking about a crush to her friend is Sidney Bristow in Alias, and it’s so (so) tangential because she’s, you know, kinda busy fighting the fake-CIA-agency-thing. (I still liked it, though.) So yeah. Not enough.

    • Beth

      (Sorry, no idea what happened to my handle there.)

      • Andrea said something about a third-season guy-gets-lured-away-by-new-dancer plot line, but wasn’t sure it fit or not.

        Is Alias good? I was online around the end of it and it sounded kind of ridiculous, but…female lead and baby Jennifer Garner appeal to me.

        also, Bethethethethethethetheth new favorite name for you.

  3. Beth

    Huh. It was… not quite like that. I don’t think it really fits this? It actually made me uncomfortable as a storyline, and I found it to be the weakest part of S3.

    I watched the first two seasons of Alias (minus the S2 finale, because apparently I will never be ready for that?) and I thought it was good! Jennifer Garner is amazing, and VICTOR GARBER, and their relationship, and the COSTUMES, and the wacky mythology, and yeah. I liked it a lot. I wouldn’t say it’s top TV, but I’d say it’s really good and seemingly underappreciated? I don’t hear much about it, and it deserves to have things said about it. I never continued past the second season because I heard it kind of went off the rails and that I’m not missing much.


  4. A Cinderella Story (the Hillary Duff version). I’m serious. They fall in love over text messaging before he ever sees her and dumps his “hot” girlfriend for her.

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