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Musings on Romantic Relationships in the Media - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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February 16th, 2010


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03:05 am - Musings on Romantic Relationships in the Media
One of the reasons that I watch the new show White Collar (in addition to the surprising amount of excellent poly fan fiction) is that it contains one of a very small number of depictions of a truly healthy and positive romantic relationship that I've seen in shows that I've watched. With the exception of the short-lived show Journeyman, where the protagonist was in a romantic relationship that was fairly rocky, but also based on trust and compassion, almost every romantic relationship that I've seen in a US TV series has seen a disaster.

There are of course the various relationships by people in the teens and early 20s (like those on most Joss Whedon shows) which were both a major focus of many shows and which were utterly fraught and obviously doomed. However, I've also seen no shortage of (almost exclusively het) romantic relationships involving older characters that lasted the entire length of the series, where the basis of the relationship seemed to be lying, deception, distrust, and jealousy. We regularly see everything from endless & tired repetitions of Shakespearean plots based on mistakes covered up by lies to hosts of smaller lies and misperceptions - some played for humor and others merely seeming to indicate that the nature of romance is lies and never actually knowing the other person.

I'm reminded of catvalente's excellent post about gender relations in superbowl ads & sitcoms, but I don't watch either. Instead, I see similar (if usually somewhat less extreme) dynamics even in on the geeky, action shows that make up all of the TV series that I've watched for the last 25 years. The worst part is constantly seeing these dynamics in romantic relationships that are clearly supposed to be lasting and stable.

What's odd is that I not only regularly see far healthier relationships between characters of the same sex who work together, but even with opposite sex characters who work together, but are not romantically involved, the social dynamics are usually far better. Instead, what we are repeatedly shown is specifically a hideously negative image of romance (including same-sex romance, on most of the few occasions it shows up), even when the romantic relationship is not a driving force in the plot. Some of the reason for these depictions is clearly misogyny, but the depiction of men in the modern versions of such relationships is no better than of women, and instead what we see is that most TV romances involve people acting either idiotic or horrid, or both. I remain puzzled as to why such images of romance remain so ubiquitous. I presume (and sincerely hope) that the romantic relationships most Americans are in are not wretched messes of lies and jealousy and so wonder I've seen almost no alternatives to this vision of romance on US TV.

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Comments:


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From:andrewducker
Date:February 16th, 2010 11:37 am (UTC)
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The problem is that healthiness = lack of drama. If you take, for instance, any random Frasier episode then the entire plot could be shortcutted if a character chose to do the right thing 3 minutes in, rather than choosing to lie/conceal/avoid. These things are built around a framework of:
stable situation->initiating incident->drama->resolution->explication of lesson learned.
One little morality tale after another.

And if people just did the healthy thing in the first place then they wouldn't need to learn a lesson!

I have liked that the Penny/Leonard relationship in Big Bang Theory has been mostly played as a strong one, rather than being used as a constant "will they, won't they?" There are problems, but they mostly just come across as a normal couple.
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From:heron61
Date:February 16th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)
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Yes, and that makes sense when the romance is a central facet of the plot. However, there are plenty of shows where one of the protagonists is married to someone who is not a protagonist and is rarely seen, and even then the relationship is almost always depicted as a wretched mess of lies and distrust.
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From:mindstalk
Date:February 16th, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I remember thinking the relations on Buffy weren't nearly as annoying as the ones on Dawson's Creek. Buffy: drama of magic and violence. DC: drama of relationships with little distraction.

Though Buffy also went to the relationship well, so we get drama there too, and in Roswell. Teen drama must apparently have romance drama even if they have other things to do.
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From:shadowandstar
Date:February 16th, 2010 12:51 pm (UTC)
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I think andrewducker hit the nail on the head with his equation about relationship drama -- but I also think that demonstrates the lack of imagination in so many writers.

I don't watch much television, but Wolfling and I have been watching the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel on DVD, and I'm absolutely fed up with how Buffy and Angel are supposed to be "soulmates" and yet they are one of the most dysfunctional relationships I've ever seen. The pain they inflict on each other from sheer stupidity, arrogance, lack of empathy, and lack of trust are staggering. To affirm Andrew's forumla, when one relationship really seemed to work, they were punished by tragedy in order to trigger additional drama.

When I watch tv or go to movies with Wolfling I try to point out the many times we see a character who is supposedly in love with someone else treat them badly. "What kind of love is that?" I ask -- and try to get her to understand that just because someone says sie loves you, and perhaps even means it, doesn't mean their "love" is automatically good for you.

I generally appreciate the way the series Bones handles relationships -- although it does support your point that non-romantic couples generally treat each other better than others. I think they've handled the romantic relationships fairly well, portraying grown-ups who really do try to be honest, tender, and supportive of each other, and trying to deal with conflict in a healthy way.
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From:bodlon
Date:February 16th, 2010 02:26 pm (UTC)
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This was a lot of why I was so gutted when Wash died in Serenity. Wash/Zoe was a relationship I enjoyed seeing on screen in so many ways. It made me happy to see them. They were awesome.
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From:heron61
Date:February 17th, 2010 02:13 am (UTC)
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I'd forgotten them, but you are very correct. That's three examples out of many, but at least there are three.
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From:ladyjestyr
Date:February 16th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
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It's interesting you should say that, actually, because I heard a number of criticisms of White Collar such as this thread) based on the fact that Peter canonically stalked his wife before asking her out, and resorts to invading her privacy (including spending work funds on profiling her) to get gift ideas for her.
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From:teaotter
Date:February 16th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
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But we also see El holding up a sign to the surveillance van about liking Italian food -- she was clearly aware of the surveillance and having fun playing along with it. It's treated in the show as a game that *both* of them are playing.
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From:edwarddain
Date:February 16th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
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So which is worse, the husband that invades privacy to actually learn what his wife likes or the woman who has aquiesced to it because there is no other way to achieve "intimacy."

;-)
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From:teaotter
Date:February 16th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC)
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Actually, I don't think any "invasion of privacy" happened. Privacy is not something that happens on the sidewalk; all of the surveillance photos we see are clearly of exteriors of buildings and in the public right-of-way.

As for the reference above to viewing her credit card records -- if they are like most married couples in the US, both of their names are on the credit card and their purchases are intermixed on the statement, so *both* of them have access to those records. Is it an invasion of privacy if I look at my partner's electric bill, which has zir name on it, but which I pay a share of?

I object to the terms "invasion" and "acquiesce" under these circumstances -- they're emotionally loaded and are often used to reference abusive situations. They imply that the man's activity was violent and the woman had no agency in her decisions. Unless you can give me evidence that the referenced situation was coercive, I'd appreciate if you changed your terminology.
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From:edwarddain
Date:February 16th, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
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I was using the ladyjestyr's terminology in the first case but if you like I can reframe the "invasion of privacy" and the "asquiesce" and at the same time make the personal agency of each character perfectly clear...

So which is worse, the husband who, on the advice of a convicted felon, abuses his federal police powers and authority to defraud federal funds, co-opt valuable law enforcement manpower to engage in proxy stalking and mis-allocate federal law enforcement resources - all in the service of uncovering what his wife actually likes or wants after a multi-year marriage where he has been so self-absorbed or focused on work that he has been unable or unwilling to discover this information for himself or the wife who is willing to actively participate in these various illegalities and/or is willing to stay in a relationship with the man who will engage in them?

Is that better?
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From:teaotter
Date:February 16th, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC)
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Yes, actually, that is much better. Thank you.

You're confusing the events of two different time periods. At the time that they are married and he is looking into her gift preferences, he is not defrauding the US government in any way (other than possibly using his work computer for personal use, but that's not exactly prosecutable). He's just looking at their credit card statements and trying to figure out what to get her. As I've been known to go through my partner's closet to determine whether or not zie has a particular item of clothing I'm thinking about buying them, I'm not the person to ask about whether his wife should be willing to stay with him under those circumstances.

At the time when he was misallocating resources (the surveillance) -- that was before they were dating, so it was less a matter of staying in a relationship with him than getting into one. I don't think most people care if someone uses the company car for personal business every once in a while, and we aren't given any reason to assume that he was directing resources away from an emergency -- so I don't think there is a moral issue in whether or not someone gets involved with a person who misallocates resources in these circumstances.

The key point for me is that he didn't *do* anything. He didn't approach her, or yell things at her in the street. He didn't break into her home or even photograph her anywhere but on the street, in the public right-of-way. Nothing he did was abusive *to her* (as opposed to an abuse of his employers' trust, which it isn't her responsibility to police), and therefore her choices were not coerced. At that point, two consenting adults are having a relationship.
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From:edwarddain
Date:February 16th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)

This is a great post!

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And I wish I had something better to comment with. I think that andrewducker pretty much nailed it on a certain level - no conflict, no drama, no way to fill a time slot.

I do wonder, however, why you choose to single out US TV for this? I haven't noticed Canadian or British TV as being any better, nor is German or Brazilian or Japanese from what I am given to understand. Is there some Mecca of healthy relationships on TV?
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From:mindstalk
Date:February 16th, 2010 10:07 pm (UTC)

Re: This is a great post!

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Most obvious explanation would his mostly watching American TV...
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From:edwarddain
Date:February 16th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC)

Re: This is a great post!

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Well, yes, but I was wondering if there is something I'm missing someplace - and the Internet really is marvelous for finding things at times so I'm not going to assume that US TV is the only thing people are watching.

:-)
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From:heron61
Date:February 17th, 2010 12:08 am (UTC)

Re: This is a great post!

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I haven't see the problem be quite so bad on British TV, and I largely only watch US TV & some British TV.
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From:edwarddain
Date:February 17th, 2010 12:51 am (UTC)

Re: This is a great post!

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Fair enough, but when I look at Eastenders, Coupling, Footballer's Wives, Cracker, Hex, Master of the Glen, Coronation Street, etc. etc. etc...

Hell, let's add Dr. Who and Torchwood to the list to round it out.

I was just surprised and think that this is less a US TV phenomena and more a TV or even just human phenomena. The great plays and works of dramatic fiction (Greek and forward) and not about particularly functional or healthy relationships for the most part...
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 17th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
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It amazes me that what sometimes passes for lighthearted commentary on the gender situation looks, to me, like a living hell of mutual disrespect and diminishment.

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