Here is one of the good things to come out of Donald Trump’s recent hot-mic revelations: The scandal, in its assorted horrors, furthered a much-needed national conversation about the shadowed contours of sexual violence. In response to Trump surrogates’ attempts to dismiss the candidate’s misogynistic comments as “locker-room talk,” media outlets and individual Facebook-opiners alike came forward to insist that, on the contrary, what Trump was describing in Access Hollywood’s recording was in fact a form of assault. Trump’s words, in spite of themselves, ended up bringing a bit of ironic clarity to a culture that is living in the aftermath of patriarchy—during a time in which feminism and Puritanism and sex positivity and sex-shaming and progress and its absence have mingled to make everything, to borrow Facebook’s pleasant euphemism, Complicated.
There’s one more thing, though, that has contributed to all the confusion: the romantic comedy. The common knock against rom-coms—besides their being too often glibly hetero-normative and horrendously lacking in diversity and ironically ambivalent about the women who generally watch them—is that they are fantasies, in the worst way as well as the best. (“I simply regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi,” Mindy Kaling, both a lover and a creator of the genre, has said.) The other complaint you can make about them, though, and one that seems especially apt at the current moment, is that rom-coms, on top of everything else, have a troubling tendency to blur the line between romantic exertion and sexual violence. Many assume a fundamental passivity on the part of women, and, relatedly, a fundamental assertiveness on the part of men. For any romantic coupling at all to take place, they argue implicitly—and, indeed, for the human species to have any hope of propagating itself—men must exert themselves, and women must gratefully accept them. Before Mars and Venus can fall in love, many rom-coms assume, Mars must first make Venus do the falling.