Remember when romantic commitment was followed by a ring, a date, a wedding, a house, kids, and a choice to act in a loving way toward the beloved every day until death parted the lovers? If you don’t, you have probably spent the last ten years or so watching Hollywood’s version of “the love story.” This week, three romantic tales are in the top five at the box office: Think Like a Man, The Five-Year Engagement, and The Lucky One. While the films do a relatively good job identifying the problems facing modern romance, their answers to those problems represent half-solutions unlikely to do much to heal the wounds that have been inflicted in the long-standing battle between the sexes.
Marriage: The Great Hurdle
It is not secret that Hollywood film is hot on romance leading to weddings, but cold toward marriage. A simple test will suffice: Taking the last ten years of film, try to identify ten movies in which married people are depicted as having an exciting sex life. Now flip the assignment and using the last year, name ten films that show single people having an exciting sex life. Even if you found a way to get to ten in the first challenge, it was certainly much more difficult than naming ten for the second. If we were to believe Hollywood, marriage is the sexual death knell.
Hollywood films are more about getting married than being married. In The Five-Year Engagement – a film where the comedy stems from the unfathomable difficulty two grown-ups have in getting from an engagement to the wedding – Tom Solomon and Violet Barnes live together both before and after their lengthy engagement. It is hard to see how being married will change them. They keep putting off their impending nuptials because the emphasis is on the production value – the right venue, the right schedule, the right dress, the right people to invite – rather than on the lifelong joining of two people. Even that idea comes under attack as Violet’s friend, commenting on the importance of wedding planning decisions, says, “You only get a few of these.”
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In Think Like a Man, relationships between men and women are depicted as an extended siege. Men want to have sex; women want commitment. Unfortunately, according to comedian-turned-relationship-guru Steve Harvey (who plays himself in the film and who does, indeed, have a book out), women give in to men too easily, and therefore will never get what they want – a long-term, committed relationship. The men fall into typical stereotypes: the Player, the Mama’s Boy, the Under-Employed Dreamer, and the Eternal Adolescent. The women are no different: the Lonely Successful Woman, the Single Mom, The Easy Girl, and The Woman Who Wants the Ring.
So Harvey provides the women with the inside information on men that women need in order to turn the tables and get what they want, while simultaneously whipping the men into much-needed (and latently appreciated) shape. The advice appears to work, as far as it goes. But the focus on doing whatever is necessary to get to the wedding – or in the case of most of the characters in Think Like a Man, to get some level of vague verbal commitment – undermines the critical analysis required to make sure that the subsequent marriage lasts.
Weddings do not solve problems. If people are not good marriage material, weddings are more likely to magnify, than solve, their issues. For Tom and Violet, they appear to think that a wedding represents a magic shield that will keep them from straying, enable them to respect one another, and iron out their differences. It will, as many people have discovered to their dismay, do none of those things.
A wedding is like a baptism – it is an external ceremony designed to celebrate an internal change. In the case of a wedding, it is the merging of two separate people into a family. The ceremony itself does not magically change people. Someone who would engage in revenge sex against a long-term romantic partner is unlikely to be magically transformed by a wedding into a practitioner of fidelity. Someone who believes that “sometimes you just have to be selfish” is a bad bet as a partner in wedlock. And whether a wedding is long-sufferingly planned, or is an impulsive leap, it will not fundamentally alter the participants in any way other than in the eyes of the law.
So how can young people prepare themselves to be married? According to Steve Harvey in The Five-Year Engagement, sexual restraint is a good place to begin, and he is right; he just does not go far enough. Harvey compares relationships to probation periods in a company. Women must require men to “prove themselves” before allowing them to take advantage of the woman’s “benefits package” (Harvey’s metaphor, not mine). Of course, this requirement can be adjusted depending on whether the man in question says the right things: giving the woman the title of “girlfriend” for example, or whispering those three words women are supposed to love to hear. In The Lucky One, the divorced Beth just needs some kind words and a consistent work ethic from Logan before she literally throws herself at him. In such cases, probation can be immediately dispensed with and the benefits disbursed.
What this leads to is the development of strategic character rather than genuine character. As the immoral men become aware of the rules, they comply in order to get what they want. When the desperate women discover the duplicity they are shocked, shocked! Imagine -- an opponent in a game altering tactics in order to win? And while the film ends in a feel good fashion, legions of broken-hearted women can attest to the fact that the sexual revolution has largely been a defeat for women financially and relationally, and has devastated families.
A Better Way
Saying words is not enough. Doing the right thing here and there is not enough. Playing time-card games with sexuality, giving it away once someone has logged enough hours, will lead to disappointment. But rather than explain what people who have embraced a secular, me-first mindset ought to be doing, it would be substantially more beneficial to address the Church in hopes that altering behavior can help us to regain the moral high ground, and show the world a better way (Matthew 5:16).
The Church needs to prepare its young men and women for marriage. It is true that some people are given the gift of celibacy, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Instead of letting Hollywood romance films set the (often very low) standard, the church should lead youth in a better way. Since people love a good story, a great place to begin is with Amy and Leon Kass’ book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courtship and Marriage. This professorial couple teaches a very successful graduate class on courtship and marriage at the University of Chicago, and the readings in this book make up much of the curriculum.
Both men and women need to be reminded that they are the image-bearers of God. When bands such as Nickelback and The Bloodhound Gang sing songs about sex that refer to people as “animals,” and the sexual content of many television shows and movies does nothing to dispel that idea, it is unsurprising that people would act like animals. But one of the problems with using media as a source of truth is that the frame of the song or the film doesn’t give you much information about what happens after the song is over or the credits roll. When people are treated like animals, the experience is, by nature, dehumanizing. God says we are more than this, that we are better than this. We should teach the implications of being God’s image-bearers, and learn to expect and demand respect.
Men should lead in the areas of respect and restraint. We need to reject the idea that it is up to women to civilize men – an idea that is a fairly recent cultural development. In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey argues that it was women who started the culture war, and that initially it was men who were regarded as initiators of virtue and self-restraint. The idea that young men are incapable of self-control is a lie; the problem is that contemporary culture doesn’t demand it, and often fails to demonstrate its rewards. John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart has transformed the lives of countless men who are seeking to do right, and honor themselves and the women they seek to court. And in the Scriptures – I am thinking particularly of Proverbs 7 – the responsibility for right conduct falls squarely on the young man.
Harvey’s 90-day rule would be laughable if its consequences weren’t so serious. Men and women should save sex for marriage, not just a well-timed romantic overture. Couples seeking marriage are supposed to long for one another – if they don’t, something is wrong. But clearly-defined limits, and a commitment to honor them by staying out of tempting situations, is the mark of a man who respects women, and of women who respect men.
The goal of many teen romances, and even in films such as Think Like a Man, is for people to “hook up” with a boyfriend or girlfriend. But the real goal of relationships should not be a steady stream of different partners, but to identify someone with whom you could happily spend the rest of your life. In the movies, the man is often charismatic, and a little dangerous; the woman is beautiful and sexually alluring. Instead of internalizing that trap, people need to choose to prefer character over mere charisma. Good looks and insincere charm will fade over time, but character is lasting. Wise coaches remind athletes that they will “do what they practice.” The question that should be asked about dating behaviors is, “For what end are we practicing: promiscuity, serial monogamy and divorce, or lifelong marriage?”
Redeeming Our Past
Because the attractive fire of unmarried sex has been stoked by Hollywood film for so long, few people are left unburned, or unscarred, through imitating those bad relationships. For some of us, the damage runs deep. It is easy to think that we are done, damaged, unsalvageable. But there is forgiveness and healing available in Christ. There is a new and better way outlined in the Scriptures that can restore self-respect and lead to more promising and fulfilling relationships. The sooner the Church begins to train its youth for marriage, unmask the lie of many Hollywood romance films, to help young people to understand the meaning of mutual respect, service, and true commitment, the sooner they will reap the benefits. And it cannot come too soon. The world is in desperate need of an alternative. We need to embody that vision.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.