‘Tis the Season to Watch “Love Actually” with a Critical Eye

Perfect for zombie hunting, that is.

You see, I rather enjoy the movie. It’s one of those ensemble plots where there’s a little something for anyone. Love Actually romanticizes falling in love like almost no other movie. And it’s quite bold when it comes to rom coms–a number of the subplots aren’t about falling in love, but rather about sadly walking away from it.

However, despite all that, the movie truly does objectify women. Not only that, but it really isn’t romantic at all. It romanticizes the idea of being romantic, but it’s not actually a romantic movie.

I was reminded of this when alert reader Katy sent me an article in The Atlantic about Love Actually. The author, Christopher Orr, brilliantly breaks down the movie into three disturbing lessons about love (the following bullet points are exactly quotes from the article):

  • First, that love is overwhelmingly a product of physical attraction and requires virtually no verbal communication or intellectual/emotional affinity of any kind.
  • Second, that the principal barrier to consummating a relationship is mustering the nerve to say “I love you”—preferably with some grand gesture—and that once you manage that, you’re basically on the fast track to nuptial bliss.
  • And third, that any actual obstacle to romantic fulfillment, however surmountable, is not worth the effort it would require to overcome.”

As the author picks through all the examples, I realized that truth about the movie: Love Actually is a movie about infatuation, not love. This plays directly into almost every subplot:

  • The little kid (now in a much better role on Game of Thrones) is in love with the pretty, popular girl at school despite saying that he’s never talked to her.
  • The best friend (now in a much better role in The Walking Dead) is in love with Keira Knightly despite having hardly ever talked to her.
  • The writer (Colin Firth) is in love with the foreign girl despite never understanding each other at all. (“Oh, Jamey, but it’s so romantic because they’re saying the same thing to each other in different languages without realizing it.” Right. So…they’re speaking nonsense to one another. How is that love, actually?)
  • The prime minister (Hugh Grant) is in love with the intern/secretary despite only one brief conversation.
  • The Brazilian dude is in love (or at least interested in) Laura Linney despite only having exchanged nervous hellos and goodbyes with her at the office.
  • The porn lighting stand in guy (now in a much better role on The Hobbit) is in love with his scene partner despite only exchanging pleasantries while gyrating.
  • The manager (Alan Rickman) suddenly prefers a young office seductress over his wife despite only the briefest of flirtatious conversations with her. Realistic? Sure. Objectifying? Absolutely.
  • The guy who goes to Wisconsin isn’t necessarily in love with the women he meets, but conversation is foregone in lieu of getting naked. (Okay, fine, I’m just jealous of this one.)
So…you saw her in her underwear, and now you love her? What is this teaching us?

In every example above, you can replace the words “in love” with “infatuated.” Of course, it’s just a movie, so who cares, right? But the problem is that the result of that infatuation is that it objectifies women. It’s a series of men deciding they love women purely by how they look, not by how they think, talk, or feel. It reduces the value of women to their looks alone. That’s sad, and kind of dangerous, because we all fall into those traps sometimes, and we really don’t need any more encouragement to do so.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so cynical. After all, there are other components to love than conversational convention. You can learn a lot from a person by hearing them laugh, watching them interact with friends and strangers, and even experiencing them driving or singing or being embarrassed.

But even then, love? Really? You don’t fall in love when a pretty girls holds the door open for an old lady. That might pique your interest, but you have a long way to go before that infatuation turns into true love.

At first I was going to propose that you not watch Love Actually this holiday season. But instead, I encourage you to watch it with a critical eye to see what’s really going on there. And then (or now) recommend in the comments a romantic, holiday-themed movie that doesn’t objectify women or confuse infatuation with love.

Update: Here’s a great “honest trailer” for Love Actually.

9 thoughts on “‘Tis the Season to Watch “Love Actually” with a Critical Eye”

  1. I disagree with angle from which this movie is being viewed. I’d argue that, based on what’s listed here, only part of the story is being translated into this post/the linked article. I have a counterpoint for many of the things listed above (or at least another way of looking at the scenario). Here are a few quick ones:

    – The porn lighting guy actually does spend time with/talk to his gyrating partner. He asks her out, and we see a scene with the two of them walking along the street talking together, which eventually leads to a first (adorable) kiss. I know we don’t see everything about their relationship progressing (or the movie would be 10 hours long), but it’s alluded to with the line, “It’s nice to finally meet someone you can actually chat to” (or something like that).
    – I can agree that one aspect of this movie (of the entire concept of infatuation) can be viewed as objectifying people, but I think it’s shortsighted say that it only objectifies women. I think the Laura Linney situation is almost entirely her pining over the hot guy in the office (simply because he’s the hot guy), not the other way around. Also, the Alan Rickman thing seems a lot more like the young seductress using him for his money than him coming on to her/using her. (I have some more on this one…)
    – The focus above is on the “easy” love stories…easy because they’re the first ones you’d think of when you watch this movie, the ones that lead to romantic or physical love between a man and a woman. For anyone watching this movie with a critical eye, I’d challenge you to consider the not-so-in-your-face love stories depicted…how about the one between a father & son as Liam Neeson & Sam (boy) go through life together. Liam is a pretty great dad…or the love that Neeson’s character clings to for his his deceased wife…there are others if you look outside of what is easy to identify @ first glance.
    – Also, to me, the title, “Love Actually” conveys a sense of realism. It’s supposed to have elements of traditional romanticism, but I credit the movie with going beyond that. The infatuation is easy to pick out, and it’s there, for sure. But isn’t infatuation often part of love? A lot of loving relationships (and bad ones) grow out of initial physical attraction or infatuation, and I think this movie is saying, “That’s ok. We never claimed to be ‘100% Romantic Love, Actually'” and, to the best of their ability, is trying to follow the beginnings of several of those scenarios and the mid-points/endings of a few.

    I could go on with some other thoughts, and I’d happily debate this over a cup of warm cocoa sometime, but for now, I urge the JSB readership to watch this movie with a critical yet enjoyable mindset, not a cynical one.

    • Trev–You know this movie very well, so I trust your judgment and memory.

      Did you check out the article I linked to? It talks a little bit about some of the deeper love stories in the movie too. I like your point about fatherhood in the movie.

      Also, I didn’t mention the Bill Nighey storyline, which, although it’s mostly there for comedic purposes, ends with a focus on friendship.

      Both you and Andrej have good points about infatuation. Infatuation is real, and sometimes it is the start of real love. When the boy in the movie says he’s in love with the girl, we know it’s puppy love, and we don’t hold it against him. I think perhaps it’s the Colin Firth storyline that bothers me the most in this aspect, because he does express his love for the woman without really knowing anything about her (the article says he actually proposes to her, but I don’t remember that). So, yes, infatuation if acknowledged as infatuation is spot on for a rom com, but infatuation turned directly into professions of love…that’s kind of creepy, right?

  2. Somewhat related to this post is the following video: https://www.buzzfeed.com/bookoisseur/love-actually-is-an-epic-mashup-fbwc?s=mobile

    Despite the fact that “Love, Actually,” has some flaws, I think it still has some merit as far as showing different types of love that aren’t romantic. And I’ll still keep it on my list of movies that I watch every Christmas.

    I’m not sure if my all-time favorite holiday movie counts as far as your above request, but “White Christmas,” (the original, not the SNL parody version from last weekend) is also a good one to watch. Similar to “Love, Actually,” it doesn’t just focus on romantic love, but also about the love between friends/family and that things people will do for those they care about. I highly recommend watching it and will gladly lend my copy out, or even possibly be willing to host a holiday movie night, complete with freshly popped popcorn and hot cocoa. 🙂

  3. You have a few good ideas and points here. The movie is enjoying a kind of resurgence due to social-crap-nostalgia: when that stuff you thought was crap when you watched it 5 years ago now gives you a bit of a warm feeling, and suddenly everybody on Facebook feels that way, too. But you’re right, it leaves a lot to be desired as a movie. And it objectifies the hell out of women. Almost every girl is fat-shamed or thin-shamed or otherwise appraised by appearance.

    You have conflated these problems with the problem of showing 8 or more love stories, which cannot possibly show true love developing in such a brief time. But you demand that “true love” appear in these plots. Is this because of the title? I think that the audience can give the benefit of the doubt to many of these couples, imagining them getting to know each other off-camera, after the initial spark.

    But the initial spark has to be there. It doesn’t have to be at first sight, or through a deep, meaningful conversation, or when a pretty girl holds a door, but it could be. It can be realized pretty much at any time. This kind of spark could be considered infatuation, but what is falling in love, then, if not infatuation that resonates through your whole being?

    The infatuations/initial sparks in the movie might work out, and they might not. It’s really up to the audience to decide.

    • Andrej–That’s a good point that the movie has so little time to spend on each subplot–I shouldn’t watch Love Actually expecting fully fleshed out love stories. I think it would be nice if even just one of those initial sparks, as you say, was grounded in conversation instead of physical attraction. Perhaps that might be the case, as T-Mac points out, with the porn-lighting people–although you never really see a great conversation between them, they tell us that they enjoy talking to each other.


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