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Is Love Actually actually sexist?

James Newbery revisits the Christmas classic, confronting its treatment of women, problematic power dynamics and lost lesbian storyline. He asks, "Could Love Actually be made the same way in 2020?"

Disclaimer: before I massacre the entirety of its script, Love Actually is one of my favourite films. I watch it every year without fail. Sometimes even two or three times. Boring my friends with endless streams of Love Actually trivia is one of my party tricks. I delight in the fact that Thomas Brodie Sangster (who plays Sam in the film) voices Ferb in Phineas and Ferb. Ferb, we later discover, has a crush on Vanessa Doofenshmirtz (played by Olivia Olson who also plays Sam’s crush, Joanna, in Love Actually).  But each time I watch it, the film seems increasingly dated. I am left with the nagging question— would Richard Curtis make the film in the same way in 2020?

There is something particularly disturbing about how the Keira Knightley storyline romanticises stalkerish behaviour. When discussing this scene with my family, they firmly argued that the Juliet, Peter and Mark triangle is merely a story about unrequited love. But what else is Mark’s series of adoring close-up shots of Juliet, other than a video made for his own (potentially sexual) gratification? Indeed, after the cue card scene, Juliet rewards Mark with a kiss for his continued attempts to pursue a woman who has just married his best friend. Certainly, we should feel a degree of sympathy for a man who is tortured with a love for a woman he can never have. The storyline however is emblematic of a trend that is prevalent in the film. The camera lingers uncomfortably on the female body—especially disconcerting when you remember Keira Knightley was only 18 during filming. We see this again in the Colin Firth storyline. The moment when Aurélia dives into the water to save Harry’s book involves a sequence of close-ups of her in her lingerie. I’m not saying that this moment is intrinsically sexist; rather, there is very little balance in the film in terms of sexualising both the male and the female body. In doing so, the camera becomes a substitute for the male gaze.

The Colin Firth storyline reveals another problematic strand of the film: the number of ‘workplace’ romances in which men are in the position of power. Almost none of the women in the film are in any senior managerial roles. In one scene, Alan Rickman confronts Laura Linney about her sexual desires for Karl— an interaction that is not really appropriate, given that Rickman is her boss. Yet isn’t part of the point of Harry that we aren’t meant to like him, and that he gives little consideration to the emotional welfare of the women in his life? The sheer number of storylines in which there is an uncomfortable power dynamic in a relationship unavoidably fetishizes the predatory manner of employers pursuing their employees. The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) ends up having a relationship with his tea-lady. Natalie is subjected to sexual harassment from the President of the United States, and persistently fat-shamed over the course of the film. In no way is Natalie a ‘chubby girl’. The actress, Martine McCutcheon spoke out in 2016 about the way that body shaming has affected her mental health over the course of her career. The film perhaps subtly promotes the idea that in order for women to conform to societal standards of beauty, they have to have Keira Knightley’s waistline.

For a film with so many storylines, it is a shame about the lack of diversity. Love Actually is not representational of different forms of love. Apart from the interracial marriage between Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the cast is overwhelmingly white. The relationships are exclusively heterosexual (unless you count the homoerotic subtext between Bill Nighy and his manager). Curtis cut a lesbian storyline with Anne Reid and Frances de La Tour from the final version of the film. The scenes can still be found on YouTube. In the storyline, Frances de La Tour dies from cancer, again playing into the trope that members of the LGBT community are familiar with; lesbian characters getting killed off. Films can be structurally sexist. Love Actually does not for example pass the Bechdel test, in which two women have to talk about something other than a man for a certain amount of screen time. Love Actually is not the most structurally sexist of all of Curtis’s films. Mary in About Time is marginalised and removed entirely from the plot as soon as she has given birth. She is literally a plot point; her only function is to procreate, thus facilitating a later plot-twist about the nature of time travel in the film. The fact she has a job at a publishing house and likes Kate Moss is the full extent of the characterization she achieves. Curtis’s female characters are often little more than cardboard-cut outs. We need to ask the question of whether his sexist depictions of women are unique to Love Actually, or whether they pertain to his films more widely.

Before anyone accuses me of ‘cancel-culture’, I am not advocating that we should ‘cancel’ Love Actually. This article is little more than a thought experiment. The Bechdel test is ridden with flaws; films like Moonlight or La La Land fail the test, even though American Pie 2 passes. There are also several nuanced depictions of female characters in the film. I particularly love the Laura Linney storyline. Linney gives a stunning screen performance, evoking in merely a few scenes the inner conflict of a woman facing conflicting pressures between her love-life and familial duty within the workplace. Emma Thompson’s character also powerfully conveys the emotional burden that being a stay-at-home mum can entail. She really is one of the strongest characters in the film— especially the way that she has to compose herself to take her kids to the Nativity after discovering her husband’s infidelity.

Love Actually is very much a relic of its time. It would most likely not be made in the same way now. Rewatching the film shows us how much social attitudes have changed between 2003 and today. Yet the slightly dated aspects of the movie do not detract from its warmth and charm. The Radio Times voted it Britain’s Top Christmas Film in 2016 for a reason. And I for one know what I’ll be curling up with my family to watch this Christmas.

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