Long before you start getting into relationships of your own, movies and TV shows provide an early template of what love is like. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though, as that portrait is totally unrealistic, complete with the impossibly adorable meet-cute, the fairy-tale courtship and the happily-ever-after ending. Which, of course, isn’t how real relationships work at all. It’s funny, however, how ingrained those initial beliefs are, partly because we hope they’re true.
For instance, only now in my 40s do I realize how much the films of Woody Allen impacted me as a kid. Putting aside the sexual assault allegations against him for a moment — I know, it’s hard, but go with me for a second — the preteen me saw his movies as wise-but-melancholy truths about the impossibility of making love last. So many of his films deal with matters of the heart, but the one that’s stayed with me the longest is 1979’s Manhattan, which painted such a wistful, cosmopolitan view of life and love in the big city that I, a kid from a small Midwestern town, looked at it with wide-eyed wonder.
Manhattan was filmed in black-and-white and filled with George Gershwin songs, instilling in me a rhapsodic sense of what a modern city-slicker romance was like. I can’t tell you the amount of times I would go on a walk around a metropolis like L.A. and New York with a beautiful woman and think, “Oh my god, this is just like in Manhattan.” Cities were where sophisticated, interesting people met and fell in love, and I wanted to be there.
Of course, relationships don’t work out in Manhattan, as they often don’t in Allen’s movies. Isaac eventually falls for the bright, neurotic Mary (Diane Keaton), but she proves too good to be true, leading to his heartbreak.
“But hey,” you’re probably asking yourself, “isn’t that also the film where Woody Allen’s character Isaac dates a 17-year-old”? Ah, yes, and it’s embarrassing in retrospect that I never thought about that — in my meager defense, I was just a boy who didn’t know better.
Continuing with that “not knowing any better theme,” other people my age watched glossy romantic comedies; I watched Woody Allen films because somehow I thought they were “truer” about love. I didn’t consciously think about these things — I just absorbed them unquestioningly, assuming that they must be true. It took me a long time to get over this doomed/romantic view of relationships. I’m just grateful I did.
Below, other members of the MEL team offer their picks for the childhood movies and programs that shaped their views of romance. Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all.
Can’t Hardly Wait
I watched Can’t Hardly Wait when I was 8 years old, and it changed everything for me. Since I was bumped up a grade (and therefore the runt of the litter from elementary school through high school) as well as an unapproachable art kid who liked System of A Down, I really connected with Denise, Lauren Ambrose’s character. She was completely defensive — or dare I say, as unapproachable as me — and yet, Seth Green’s try-hard, weird-ass kid still somehow understood her beauty. It made me realize that you didn’t have to be the most popular person to “fall in love” — it was more important to just be yourself. — Erin Taj, Art Director
It’s so typical that my 13-year-old self, fully in the throes of fawning over indie flicks like Garden State and Ghost World, would learn formative lessons about love from a Nick Hornby adaptation. But High Fidelity still resonates in my head as A Lesson About Real Relationships, despite the story’s bouts of toxic man-child masculinity. Rob isn’t always the most sympathetic protagonist — the story begins with his breakup with longtime girlfriend Laura, which leads him to seek out the other women responsible for his “Top Five Most Memorable Breakups” in order to get answers on why they dumped him. He is, in fact, an asshole, an abhorrent music snob who likes to mope, and is possessive about women in unbecoming ways.
In other words, Rob was a reflection of me, who was trying to figure out romance in middle school and routinely blowing it because of my rough, immature edges and short attention span. Over the course of the film, Rob begins to understand just why he sucks so much at committing emotionally to these women, and especially Laura. And in the last act, he basically tries to propose to her out of the blue, only for Laura to reply with a belly laugh and a “thank you.” It’s unintentionally hilarious, but also so real — Rob can’t always help being an impulsive idiot, after all. But later, on a dance floor, they sway and kiss and Laura seems to accept that he is actually changing.
The final line says it all: “I’ve started to make a mixtape, in my head. For Laura. Full of stuff that will make her happy,” Rob tells the camera. “It’s the first time I can sort of see how that’s done.” — Eddie Kim, Staff Writer
The Wonder Years
Winnie Cooper was my first crush, and the girl of my young dreams: Girl-next-door cute, smart, vulnerable and sweet to lovable dorks like Kevin Arnold — and by proxy, me. Everything about their budding romance seemed perfect: Not just the highs, like Winnie and Kevin’s first kiss on a rock in the woods in the pilot episode, but also the lows, like Winnie breaking Kevin’s heart to the sounds of “God Only Knows” in Season Four.
Ugh, that hand on the back kills me. I think what I loved so much about the portrayal of their coming-of-age story is how real it all felt. Like, “This is what’s going to happen — to you.” You’re going to fall in love, something is going to go wrong, maybe you’ll get back together (Winnie and Kevin did, thank God), but whatever happens, in the end, the experience is going to make you a better, stronger person. And, in my own formative years, it played out almost exactly like that. — Jeff Gross, Social Editor
10 Things I Hate About You
I rented 10 Things I Hate About You from Blockbuster for the first time at the beginning of third grade. I was immediately obsessed with its world full of unique characters, interesting women and cultural references I didn’t fully understand yet. Of course, there’s Kat Stratford, the “shrew” played by Julia Styles in this 1999 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew, and her bubblier, more conventionally feminine sister Bianca. But there’s also that totally freaky goth Shakespeare aficionado Alicia and the modelesque Gabrielle Union as the hilariously named Chastity. I rented the movie so many times that year that my mom finally bought it for me, sick of paying the same fees for the same movie.
10 Things I Hate About You taught me brands like Prada, bands like The Raincoats and that Hemingway was “an abusive, alcoholic misogynist who squandered half his life hanging around Picasso trying to nail his leftovers.” But the movie also taught me about the vulnerability of falling in love. Unlike some rom-com protagonists desperate for partnership, Kat is an independent badass who reads Sylvia Plath, dreams of going to Sarah Lawrence and mocks popular jocks for their emotional immaturity and love of male modeling (who plays a douchebag better than Andrew Keegan?). Her heart only softens for Patrick Verona, played by the inimitable Heath Ledger, who interrupts Kat’s soccer practice to serenade her with his rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes off You,” which he performs throughout the football stands in front of everyone in that kind of grandiose act of affection I still crave.
Even though Patrick’s interest in Kat begins as a scheme, there’s an honesty to their relationship that reveals falling in love isn’t always as simple or straightforward as it might seem in other movies. Love forces us to see ourselves for who we really are, fears and all, and asks us to not only consider, but to admit to another person, what it is that we really want. Love requires compassion and a sense of deservingness, even among total fucking badasses.
Further, let’s not forget the heartbreaking poem she shares in English class after learning that her and Patrick’s relationship started as a gross plot powered by Keegan’s character Joey. When Kat reads her poem to the class, she not only exposes her strong feelings for Patrick, but she also shows how empowered she’s become to share her true feelings in general, free of wit and snark. Of course, I’m crying just thinking about this scene.
I hate the way you talk to me
And the way you cut your hair
I hate the way you drive my car
I hate it when you stare
I hate your big dumb combat boots
And the way you read my mind
I hate you so much that it makes me sick
It even makes me rhyme
I hate the way you’re always right
I hate it when you lie
I hate it when you make me laugh
Even worse when you make me cry
I hate the way you’re not around
And the fact that you didn’t call
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you
Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
It took me close to 20 years after my 10 Things I Hate About You obsession began to realize that I never felt safe enough to let go of my own pretense or to abandon my own weaponized humor and eroticism. I was successful and smart and queer and punk, but at my very core, I didn’t think I deserved to be loved for who I really am. Eventually, I took a vow of abstinence and declared I would really love whoever I slept with next. A whole year later, I met a guy at a party and had sex with him in the closet after a couple of hours of becoming acquainted to him. He accidentally told me “I love you” during the act, but then got embarrassed and pretended he meant “I love your pussy.” Hahahaha.
I got his number and saved it with a heart emoji in my phone, a reminder of how glowy and different and vulnerable this felt than any of my past encounters. We’ve been together for most of the two years since, and that guard I always had up, like Kat’s, only continues to go down. — Tierney Finster, Contributing Writer