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Hot-Headed Love

If you don’t have a teen or teen-ish person in your life, you may not have heard about the Netflix movie that has taken the teen rom-com world by storm, The Kissing Booth. Based on a self-published book by Welsh teenager-herself Beth Reekles, the story involves high school junior Elle who has a guy best-friend-from birth named Lee and the problems that arise when Elle falls in love with Lee’s older brother, bad-boy Noah, who is off-limits as far as potential romantic partners due to some friendship rules established by the besties.

Despite its rolling popularity with the young and young-at-heart (to date, it’s one of Netflix’s most re-watched movies), TKB has received terrible reviews. Standing at only a 14% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the general consensus is that despite the comparisons, this is NOT the 10 Things I Hate About You of the 20teens. Too much of the movie is derivative of other, better offerings, and the message that it sends about masculinity and male/female relationship dynamics is ill-suited for this #MeToo moment in history and the #Woke generation.

One specific complaint is the violence that Noah displays on an all-too-regular basis. It’s established early on that the dude is always getting into fights. And when the need comes for him to express his more-than-big-brother feelings for Elle, those warm-and-fuzzies take the form of protectionism via fists and threats. An example: when Elle is stood up for a date, she chalks it up to a combination of the guy’s flakiness and her lack of dating cred. The boy does eventually arrive on the scene to explain his no-show. Apparently, Noah has put out the warning that any guy who dates Elle stands the likelihood of having his face damaged. Throw in a couple of actual punches and Noah is only two hundred years removed from a likely death via dueling pistol.

As far as it goes, I enjoyed The Kissing Booth strictly for what it was. It had too many plot holes to count, blatant throw-backs to other teen rom-coms that I do love (the table dance scene from 10 Things I Hate About You being the prime example), and a height difference between the male and female romantic leads that I found hysterical. But I wasn’t expecting Romeo and Juliet so I could let myself enjoy the movie as a fluffy bit of story for a hot summer night. I hadn’t ordered filet mignon, so I wasn’t disappointed when I got a tuna-fish sandwich.

And to be brutally honest, I had absolutely no problem with Noah’s violent tendencies. Not a one. His over-the-top protectiveness slotted him easily into the stable with all of the heroes from my most favorite romance novels, men and warriors who would throw themselves between danger and their lady-loves quicker than a dog snatches up a bone. I openly confess that the two traits sure to make me fall in love with a fictional hero (note the word fictional) are extreme protectiveness and an abundance of self-confidence. Noah had both.

This all got me to thinking about the well-established trope of violence as an expression of love. Let’s state up front and uncategorically that I am NOT talking about domestic violence, which is a billion percent NOT about love but about control and mental illness and is always, always, always wrong. Always. Moving on.

I’m talking about violence as a male response to the reality or appearance that someone he loves is being hurt. In Noah’s case, he loses his cool when a guy smacks Elle’s bum, when he sees another dude not taking no for an answer, and when Lee makes some not-so-nice remarks about Elle and Noah’s relationship. The guy is a hot-head, pure and simple. When he finally develops true, real feelings for a girl rather than the surface attractions he was used to, this kind of punch-first, talk-later over-protectiveness seemed inevitable.

Now, I’m not saying that Noah was right. Violence is rarely the answer, even in the face of first blood. And it is very true that protectiveness can be displayed without resorting to fisticuffs. After all, Mr. Darcy never even took off a kid-leather glove during his efforts to keep Elizabeth Bennet from suffering public humiliation or in revenge for Mr. Wickham’s sleazy moves on Georgiana. As much as I’m sure he would have loved to shove Wickham’s head up a place where the sun don’t shine, our Darcy kept his cool and resorted no lower than looks of extreme disdain and probably the cut direct to punish the man for his boorish behaviour.

Also, there are two kinds of physical protectiveness on display in The Kissing Booth, one of which I do find unacceptable. Noah threatens violence to any guy who dates Elle. This was not a reactionary impulse, a demonstration of his inability to contain himself in the face of danger to his mate. Rather, this was a calculated effort to control what Elle could or could not experience, an action based on jealousy and possessiveness. For me, this is not a demonstration of love but rather an indicator of extreme immaturity. And I would agree with the movie critics that this is most definitely not the kind of behaviour we should be accepting much less romanticizing for young audiences. Even in fiction, there is nothing right about a man treating a woman as his possession, her actions determined by his whims and wishes.

But as far as Noah throwing down when Elle is directly confronted with possible harm – either physical or emotional – I own my un-PC-ness in admitting that I was okay with it as a story-telling technique. I find something insanely romantic about the prospect of a guy taking up arms to avenge the wrongs done to those he loves. And I don’t just mean loves in a romantic way, but those he shares familial and/or fraternal bonds with as well. In fact, the first time we see Noah throw a punch, he’s standing up not only for Elle but for his little brother, Lee, who has highly overestimated his own capacity for defending Elle’s honor via physical means. A fictional hero who loses his shit for his child, his mother, his sibling, his friend? It’s all cool with me.

While in truth it probably indicates an appalling lack of maturity and self-control, there is something oddly compelling in the concept of a man having feelings of such depth that his reptilian brain takes over his body whenever the object of his affection is imperiled. Perhaps it’s my own reptilian brain, the last remnants of cave woman, that makes me swoon at the thought of my man protecting my honor and my person, even to the length of violence. Isn’t it the purest proof of absolute love when one is willing to risk their own safety or even life in service to another? What parent wouldn’t throw themselves in front of a car to save their child? How many service men and women have died for love of their country? People sacrifice more for things they value more. Only the greatest of loves could inspire someone to make that ultimate sacrifice. Who doesn’t want to be the object of such great love?

Because this kind of behavior is both rare (thankfully) and really not that cool in our modern times, I think there is a level of fantasy at play when it is presented in fiction. And what we desire in fantasy is often a far cry for what we would accept in reality. Today’s woman is supposed to be strong enough to take care of herself. It’s impolitic to admit weakness or to imply that we can’t handle our own protection needs because to do so is to recognize a disadvantage that might put us on a lower level than men. We ignore the reality of physics and biology that dictate that females, as a species, are not always capable of prevailing in a physical confrontation with a male. In such a case, we need men to step up for us when the occasion calls for violence. Again thankfully, these scenarios are very rare. But there is something tantalizing about the idea that we would never have to ask for protection of this sort, that it would come automatically from the men who love us and, as such, save us the social humiliation of admitting that we need it. As long as we fully differentiate fantasy from reality, I don’t see the harm in indulging.

There can be made the argument that protective violence equaling demonstration of love is lazy storytelling. It is. Show a guy rushing to a girl’s defense and the first thought is that he has affectionate feelings of some sort towards her. It’s the equivalent of having the bad guy shoot a dog to prove that he’s pure evil, or putting glasses on an otherwise pretty girl so that she can eventually remove them to become the unexpectedly gorgeous swan. While it may be a narrative cliché, you can’t deny that it works. Whether because of evolutionary necessity or psychological wiring or social conditioning, we make that connection. It’s a legitimate storytelling shortcut that has no equally effective substitute. Granted, any writer (or movie maker) who uses ONLY this technique to demonstrate love should be called to task, if for nothing else but creating cardboard characters and insulting the intelligence of her readers/viewers.

Given the popularity of The Kissing Booth and the continued presence of such protective displays in romance novels, it appears I’m not the only one out there who, if even secretly, finds something appealing or at least acceptable about this trope. And I’m not sure that the effort to eradicate it from all forms of entertainment will ever be effective. Certainly it should be called to our attention so that we can address what it says about us and open a dialogue about how such behavior is really not desirable, and we can continue to take the steps needed to change society’s attitudes so that such a trope is no longer appealing. In its defense, TKB is self-aware that it has a messaging problem. Noah admits that his penchant for fighting is not to be put in his plus column. Elle extracts from him the promise that if wants to be with her, he can’t fight, and she’s the one to convince him that being “wired that way” doesn’t mean he can’t change.

But for now, bashing Noah because he’s a misguided blunt object is pointless. I assure you, the target audience for TKB, those who’ve made it a smash hit, are not saying to their friends “This is a great movie but Noah is a big jerk who can’t control his temper and I can’t believe Elle falls for him.” If that were their true feelings, the movie would be buried deep in Netflix’s archives rather than near the top of its trending feed. Rather, these gals (and some guys) are watching this movie over and over again because they view Noah and Elle as a romance for the decade.  Instead of renouncing Noah’s violence as something they don’t want, they shrug their shoulders and queue up the movie for another rewatching.

I think we can take comfort in the fact that maturity brings wisdom. Romantic movies aimed at adult women rarely feature men in their thirties, forties, fifties and up punching out cretins right and left. This leads me to believe that despite watching movies like TKB and reading books like the Twilight series, younger generations aren’t being brainwashed into expecting their men to don chain mail or minor in fencing. Besides, while Mr. Darcy did not resort to it, he did have at his disposal the very civilized option of shooting Mr. Wickham in the face or sticking him in the chest with a pointy metal object.

~ Jenna Harper

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