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Ranking popular romance tropes through a feminist lens

Valentine’s Day is once again upon us, fueling my desire to binge watch romantic content that continues to set my dating standards too high. While I’m not particularly fond of Valentine’s Day, I will always fold for a movie or show with a good romantic trope.

However, I recently revisited some of my old favorite movies and TV shows growing up and was disheartened to realize many of them rely on sexist and problematic tendencies for forms of hegemonic entertainment.

While I still hold all these movies listed dear to my heart, I find it important to analyze and critique some of the most popular romantic tropes on-screen, as well as Hollywood’s harmful westernized tendencies.

This article ranks some of these popular tropes by how well they’ve adapted into our more progressive society, with ten being the most problematic and one being the most progressive. These rankings are in no way meant to objectively encapsulate these tropes, as they’re reliant on content that I was exposed to growing up (so take it with a grain of salt).

10. The age gap

Starting off strong with the age gap trope, ranked last on my list due to constant reliance on a minor being groomed by a mentor/teacher as a form of romance. “Dirty Dancing” and “Call Me By Your Name” are prime examples of on-screen grooming of minors, but Hollywood also has a trend of casting young women with much older male costars in shows and movies, which perpetuate harmful messages to children in society surrounding love and beauty standards for new generations.

9. Forbidden and tragic love

An old classic Shakespearean trope, popularized through our love for passionate tragedies. While this trope is captivating, critiquing it through an intersectional lens shows how this trope is harmful to queer experiences and narratives; tragedy is the crutch for any queer love story that strays from heteronormativity, ensuring that Gay relationships in entertainment are destined to die.

For instance, “Brokeback Mountain” made waves by bringing queer love into the limelight in Hollywood, but at the cost of continuing to follow heteronormative guidelines surrounding not only the tragic ending to a passionate story, but also within the characters’ identities by accentuating their masculinities and whiteness. Tragic tropes in queer movies are still meant to appeal to the dominant society, but at the expense of queer experience. Therefore, it ranks at number nine on my trope scale.

8. Total makeover

Nothing is more boring and misogynistic than a makeover trope in love stories. I personally grew up romanticizing this trope through all my favorite rom coms, namely “Grease,” “Miss Congeniality” and “She’s All That.”

Any romantic comedy with a makeover trope leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth now, knowing the mental issues it gave me as a child regarding my looks and femininity. Because of shifting beauty standards in media, this trope hasn’t held up in recent years for more modern shows and movies.

7. The bet

Similar to the total makeover, the tropes regarding two opposite personalities and a secret bet that one person doesn’t know about is a sad excuse at misogynist apologist entertainment. “Ten Things I Hate About You” and “She’s All That” at their core are about women getting used and abused by men they thought they could trust only to be manipulated back into a relationship that’s destined to fail by the end of the movie.

6. Love triangles

Any movie or TV show with a love triangle is rife with drama and passion, making for quality romance. Unfortunately, my experience with this trope also follows patterns of two men and one woman, wherein the woman extremely codependent and has minimal character development outside her relationship with her love interests (I’m looking at you, “Twilight”).

While I don’t necessarily agree with the messages this trope sends to its audience, I find it overall harmless in relation to its effects on viewers; the exaggerated relationships allow room for critiques of love triangles while still regarding it as entertainment at face-value.

5. Fake dating

The fake dating trope is nothing but a good time in my books. From “The Proposal to Nick” to “Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” fake dating is unproblematic and lighthearted at its core. Separate from the enemies to lovers, fake dating implies that both parties are in search of something that the other person can provide them, which eventually leads to a blossoming love.

I personally love this trope, but most movies I’ve been exposed to and associate with it are subpar in quality, (with half of them starring Noah Centineo) which is why it ranks at number five.

4. Right person, wrong lifetime

Different from tragic love, this trope leaves me with a lump in my throat, but a better sense of purpose and satisfaction after watching. Love stories realistically can’t all have happy endings, and this trope encapsulates the beauty of living in the moment and learning to be OK with heartbreak.

“The Sun is Also a Star” is a great example of this trope in all the best ways, due to its amplification of Black and Asian characters and a beautifully heart-wrenching blossoming and fading of love.

3. Forced proximity

The main reason forced proximity made it this far up the list is because I consider “The Hunger Games” as a product of this trope, and I love everything about “The Hunger Games.” (I also realize that it isn’t fully a romantic movie, but romance was still fully apparent, and this is my ranking, so I make the rules).

Since it isn’t fully reliant on romantic aspects, like the love triangle trope, forced proximity offers complex layers of and often coincides with exciting storylines that make for great character development and an overall satisfying watch. These all factor into keeping this trope unproblematic.

2. Enemies to lovers

AKA, the universally beloved trope. Enemies to lovers is both exciting and captivating, as it fills a void within us that cannot be satisfied by our boring 9-5 schedules. This trope teeters a little too close to forbidden love and the bet, but what sets it aside is the complexity behind both main love interests that allow for an in-depth accumulation of feelings of hate that blossom into love.

This trope has had the most noticeable transformation and rebranding in today’s society, going from movies like The Breakfast Club, where the female lead is literally harassed by her enemy-turned-love interest, to shows like “Never have I Ever,” which embodies rivalries between love interests in the most consensual and charming way.

1. The slow burn

At number one, the will-they-won’t-they long-awaited friends to soulmates takes the cake as not only the most enjoyable, but, in my opinion, least problematic trope on this list. The slow burn formula always results in the most fulfilling feeling as an audience member, especially after many hours had been dedicated to the anticipation of two favorite characters ending up together.

This trope translates well into today’s society, as it focuses more on characters as individuals before becoming a couple, which eliminates room for problematic tendencies of objectified and face-value characters within romantic tropes.

While there are many admirable shows and movies to pick from, “New Girl” is my personal favorite adoption of a slow burn trope that plays out in a meaningful and satisfying way.

Despite the problematic tendencies of some of these classic beloved movies and shows, I still encourage myself and everyone to indulge in them every now and then. It is completely possible to be critical about things we love while still enjoying it for the meaning it holds to us.

And with that, I’m off to watch “The Breakfast Club” again in all its sexualizing and problematic glory.

Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in “Ten Things I Hate About You,” from Google.