Not in Love Actually – A Feminist Response to “The Ultimate Romantic Comedy”

6a011168a0a2a7970c0120a692d315970b-500wiI used to love watching the film Love Actually. I saw it for the first time in the winter of 2003 and watching the movie quickly became a ritual for me during the holiday season. An admitted sucker for holiday entertainment, I savored the movie’s festive atmosphere as well as what I once considered numerous romantic stories. However, a recent viewing of the movie left me unmoved, dissatisfied and completely disappointed in the anti-feminist, regressive and somewhat misogynistic attitude of the movie.

Love Actually is set in present-day (for when the film was made) London, in the month prior to Christmas. The movie follows varied stories, all of which address different types of love: a husband is tempted to be unfaithful to his wife, a man pines for his best friend’s wife and, in what is probably the most endearing plot line, a young boy who recently lost his mother, longs for his classmate, whom he describes to his stepfather as “the coolest girl in school.”

All of these stories eventually come together on Christmas Eve, in what is supposed to be presented as a joyous celebration of love during the holidays. However, scenes that once left me moved to tears instead left me uncomfortable and disappointed by how the female characters in the movie were portrayed. While I once considered Love Actually to be better than the “chick flick” romantic comedies that I scorn and avoid, I reluctantly have delegated it into just that category, due to its portrayal women as submissive subordinates to men that are worshipped from afar rather than viewed as equal people in a consensual relationships.

The majority of the relationships in Love Actually are presented with women being inferior to men. Jamie, played by Colin Firth, lusts after Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz), his housekeeper who brings him tea and croissants while he writes. She does not speak English, and he does not speak Portuguese, so they are unable to communicate verbally; the movie depicts their conversations with subtitles, revealing to the audience that they are unwittingly saying the same things and are falling for each other. He eventually learns Portuguese and she learns English, and he asks her to marry him – and she says yes – despite the fact that they have never had a conversation with each other prior to his proposal.

The new Prime Minister of England, played by Hugh Grant, also lusts for a woman who serves him – Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). The two do speak the same language but barely know anything about each other; Natalie is sweet and subservient, quietly serving him tea and chocolate-covered biscuits with a smile. And Harry (Alan Rickman) is lusted for by his secretary, the outwardly flirtatious Mia, (Heike Makatsch); he goes as far as to buy her an expensive necklace for Christmas, even though he is married to Karen (Emma Thompson), and they have two children.

All of these relationships portray men in power and the women who serve them, furthering the regressive idea that women should be secretaries and receptionists to the powerful men who make the important decisions. These women take care of the men, bringing them nourishment and comfort, and furthering the myth that women are nurturing creatures who help and protect the people who are smarter and stronger than them. Not one woman in Love Actually is in a position of power, in the workplace or in a relationship.

Another aspect of Love Actually that I found to be disturbing was the portrayal of American women. One of the characters, Colin (Kris Marshall), a British man who is unlucky in love, decides to move to New York. Colin is presented as a tactless, physically unattractive man, or, as his friend describes him, “an ugly, stupid ass.” He flies to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and goes to a bar, where he is promptly pursued by a trio of incredibly attractive women. Attracted to his British accent, they invite him home with them, where they presumably have group sex, as seen from the street by the fourth roommate, Harriet – who then returns to England with Colin. The film presents American women as ignorant, promiscuous and easily susceptible to the charms of a British accent.

Love, Actually also depicts a disturbing and warped presentation of body image, calling women fat when they are not and making fun of women who are overweight. Natalie is referred to as “chubby” and having “enormous thighs” by another woman on the Prime Minister’s staff, and Aurélia’s sister, who is overweight, is offered to Jamie in marriage by her father, who says he will pay Jamie to marry her, presumably because no one else will.

Along with the subservient and demoralizing messages about women, Love Actually also presents a warped and idealized view of romance, as demonstrated in the relationship between Juliet (Keira Knightley) and Mark (Andrew Lincoln). Juliet has married Mark’s best friend, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Mark, who has always been aloof with her, is actually secretly in love with her. She realizes this by accident, and on Christmas Eve, he stands at her door, expressing his affection by holding up cards with words written on them, including the phrase, “To me you are perfect.”

This image has been constantly used in magazine articles about romance, presenting the unrealistic and idealized view of love that this movie perpetuates. Of course Mark thinks Juliet is perfect; he has never gotten to know her. He sees her as an ideal, rather than an actual person. No one is perfect and holding anyone up to that idea in a relationship is a recipe for guaranteed disappointment and disaster – not to mention the fact that Mark is very rude and unfriendly to Juliet for almost the entirety of the film, then attempts to redeem himself with one grand romantic gesture. And the gesture seems to work, given that Juliet chases him down the street and rewards him for his gesture with a kiss.

If you’ve read this far, you have probably come to the conclusion that I do not like romantic comedies. In fact, one of my least favorite lines ever in a movie comes from the American imitation of Love, Actually. In the ensemble comedy He’s Just Not That Into You, a man races to a woman’s door and informs her, “You are my exception.” And while I scorn the idea of that actually happening in life, I am happy to report that there is one exception in Love, Actually, and that is Emma Thompson.

Thompson plays Karen, wife to Alan Rickman’s Harry, who discovers her husband’s infidelity by unwrapping a Christmas present. Having found a necklace in his coat pocket, she assumed it was for her, but instead found a Joni Mitchell CD under the Christmas tree. She quickly excuses herself room and Thompson gives a stunningly moving performance crying silently, while pacing her bedroom. She hides her tears for her children’s sake and then confronts her husband about the necklace later in the evening when they are alone. When he selfishly says he feels like a fool, she responds by saying, “But you’ve made a fool of me. You’ve made the life that I lead foolish,” referring to their home and two children. Thompson takes a small character – she isn’t given much screen time – and presents her as a fully formed, sympathetic, brave and admirable woman who holds her husband accountable to the commitment he made to her and their family.

While I found myself slightly sad to realize how little Love Actually moved me (aside from the story of Liam Neeson and his stepson), I am not completely disillusioned. Ten years has passed and a great deal of social change has taken place in the world. Perhaps there will be a better love story arriving in the theatres soon.

6 Responses to Not in Love Actually – A Feminist Response to “The Ultimate Romantic Comedy”

  1. Jan Christensen says:

    When we first see or interact with someone or something for the first time — a person, a picture, a play, an event — we rarely think of how we’ll react to these same people and things at some remove in the future. As other experiences and understandings intervene in the meantime, it’s almost certain our perspective will shift.

    It was true yesterday, as I and so many others of a certain age relived our memories of the Kennedy assassination. Amid a pain still fresh after so long, it was another chance to take a mental and moral inventory, to see if in the fifty years between the teenager and the older adult, I’d come to some decent understanding of the world. The result was generally positive.

    It doesn’t hurt in the long run to see something once familiar with a fresh eye; even if the parting may be painful, it’s a sign we’ve grown and learned.

  2. Ashley says:

    Funny enough I do love stupid rom-com, chick-flick type movies, not as good film mind you but for pure relaxation and laughs. However I never liked Love Actually in spite of its enormous popularity and now after reading your post, I am thinking all of the underlying subtext about the women being subservient might be exactly why it rubbed me the wrong way all along. I felt the same way about that Adam Sandler film, Spanglish. Just ew.

  3. Alice says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I just revisited this film after a decade and had the same feelings. I am completely disturbed by the portrayals of women and am shocked that my younger self would have fallen for this. I don’t know you, Carey, but we should totally write our own ensemble Christmas film with strong women characters who do more than serve men and fall in love with them for no real reason.

  4. Alex W says:

    To be fair, the “chubby” Martina McCutcheon thing was meant to be having a go at the idea that slim actresses can be remotely sensibly called fat (referring something going on in the media with actress around that time), as shown by Hugh Grant’s uncomprehending reaction (though that could be more blinded by lust I suppose?). At least that’s how I and a few British reviewers took it.

  5. Felisha Witt says:

    Not sorry to disagree with these overly p.c. reviews.What is the problem with enjoying a funny,touching Christmas movie w/o looking for underlying meanings.Same w/Spanglish which I loved,the mother/daughter story was wonderful.This reminds me of women who also buy into the lie that there is a war on women!Give me a break and get off the soapbox,someone with a REAL complaint needs it.

  6. Stella says:

    Not to mention the transphobic and homophobic comments. I feel exactly the same about Love Actually and I am still not over watching it again this year (after all these years of watching it over and over) and being let down so badly.