Romantic Love is a Myth; Or, How to Unpack a Genre
(Warning: This is not a resource on how to teach Shakespeare. Except it kind of is.)
I had already been through one year of teaching “The Taming of the Shrew” to a high school audience. It had been reasonably successful; students enjoyed reading the play aloud, and were amused by the trickery and brashness of the main characters. The most interesting and fiery conversations, however, revolved around what Shakespeare’s intended message of the play was: was he giving us a realistic portrayal of love and courtship in his time, or not? Was the play going for straight-up gags, or deeper satire? And how did we interpret the text today?
At the end of the unit, several students petitioned me to show the movie “10 Things I Hate About You.” It would have been easy to screen the film, do a quick compare/contrast on an “updated” Shakespearean text, and call it a day — but the conversations we had were begging for something more thorough.
I began to examine how we dealt with the topics of love and romance at school. Discussion of these topics was usually relegated to hallway gossip, personal confessions, or, at best, a unit in health class. In an English class, romantic plot threads are seen as a great way to drum up student interest, but often given light treatment compared to topics like loss of innocence, family, or war. This disparity seemed non-sensical at best and inequitable at worst — especially at a school that openly claimed some feminist roots.
So why not apply the same tools of analysis that we usually reserved for more “serious” topics? This project would be a chance to take a closer look at our cultural traditions of love and romance, and the countless texts that influence those traditions — with “Shrew” as an important milestone in that history. As for tracking the tradition into the present day, media portrayals of love and romance abound! After considering the possibilities available (matchmaking reality shows, online dating sites, Harlequin novels…) and I settled on sticking to romantic comedy films. I knew that students thought of these movies as superficial entertainment, nothing more. What was slipping by into their psyches while they were looking for a laugh or a cry? It was an opportunity for some basic media literacy, but also engage in a deeper exploration of the dynamic between a text and the society that consumes it.
So we would read the play. Students would have their choice of RomComs to watch, and learn how to read them critically. And we would try to figure out what the relationship was between love and romance in “the real world” and what we read, on the page and on the screen.
At this point, I had no idea what an awesome mind-bender this project would be.
Big Ideas and Questions
Using Understanding By Design as my planning guide, I developed three essential questions for this unit:
- How are love and marriage portrayed in different texts?
- How do we win people over? What tactics are effective?
- What is the relationship between a text and society?
I also identified a few enduring understandings that related to the questions, but did not answer them:
- Literature does not have to be interpreted historically; it takes on different meanings in different eras.
- People hide or mask certain aspects of themselves for many purposes; the pursuit of love is a powerful reason to do so.
- All works of media are constructions, and it is up to the individual to learn how to read that construction properly.
These points attempted to address both the play specifically and the larger genre we were going to be messing around with. Those questions could easily be changed if adapting this plan to another traditional text about romance.
Looking at it now, one of the glaring absences is that none of this takes on the “comedy” part of the romantic comedy. It’s an important issue, but one that I didn’t have enough time or brain power for when I first created this unit.
The Provocations and Tasks
Reading the play came first. During our reading, I frequently antagonized the class by suggesting the thesis that Shakespeare had intended the play as an indictment of his culture, and specifically as proof that romantic love is a myth. The first time I presented this argument, the class thought that this was my personal belief — which I immediately ran with, challenging them to disprove my thesis and then cynically shooting down their optimistic examples of teen love. (In order not to commit complete character assassination, I eventually relented… but not until we got to the last act .)
After we finished reading, students had a general brainstorming day where they were split into groups and collected quotes from the play relating to the following themes:
- Male ideas on courtship/dating
- Female ideas on courtship/dating
- Boyfriend/girlfriend as a status symbol or possession
- Parental interference in courtship/dating
- Romantic love/love at first sight
- Male/female expectations in relationships
- Honesty and deception in relationships
These quotes were posted online for later reference. Then we watched My Best Friend’s Wedding in class.
During and after the screening, I would prompt students to compare and contrast the movie with the play, via the themes listed above. The movie was a place to model and practice this activity, as it had both obvious overlaps (irrational, underhanded pursuit of a mate) and differences (girl chases boy this time) from “Shrew.”
The final step was for students to chose their own romantic comedy to analyze. Armed with ideas the class brainstorm, they would pick one or two of the themes to zoom in on. They had to pick a movie that portrayed contemporary society, and it couldn’t be an adaptation of Shakespeare. And to acknowledge the difference in mediums, their final product would blend quotes and screen shots into a “visual essay” published to the web.
The Final Project
The projects were posted on wikispaces, and to put my work where my mouth was, I created a complete project as a model, based on “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Students had a complete example to look at, as well as some specific prompts for what they should touch on: alternate quotes from the play with screen shots from their film, make sure they give adequate context for each, and make sure that their analysis went past simple character comparisons and delved more deeply into the themes from our brainstorm.
To create their introductions and thesis statements, I gave them the following questions in the drafting portion of the project:
- Which of the seven focus areas for this assignment are you “zooming in” on?
- In at least two sentences, give the context of both the play and the movie here–introduce the specific plot points of each that you will be focusing on.
- What statement can you make about “Taming of the Shrew” that relates to this focus area?
- What statement can you make about your selected movie that relates to this focus area?
- In a few sentences, describe how these two statements compare/contrast. What do they have in common, and what is obviously different? This is the core of your essay–it shows how audiences have changed (or not) over time.
Snapshots from different student projects are visible in the gallery above. One of the joys of this project is that students have the freedom to choose films that they had already connected with. Though some students initially complained that they just didn’t watch romantic comedies, it only took a little brainstorming to find a film with a sufficient romantic plot. Popular selections included “The Proposal” and “Why Did I Get Married?,” but students also developed quality analysis of films ranging from “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” to “Amelie.” This also gave students flexibility to choose a text that they felt spoke more to their own life experience, be that based on race, gender, or even their style of humor.
In their selection, students were bringing their analysis much closer to home. By asking them to turn their critical lens on a film they knew, I was also hoping that they would be able to turn the lens on themselves and modern society.
That last piece was much harder than I expected.
Struggling with the Medium
The first time I taught this unit, one of the most memorable moments came after we watched a short clip of “The Notebook” in class. Several young men in the class registered themselves as conscientious objectors to the film.
“That movie is ruining our lives,” they complained. “It’s setting the bar way, way too high for how boys are supposed to treat their girlfriends.”
A faction of young women in the class immediately chided the boys and proclaimed their love of the movie. Other students of both genders dismissed it as “corny,” which made the believers even more adamant in their defense.
Going into the project, I would have immediately sided with the critics. Most romantic comedies strike me as highly cheesy. They still do. But the more we discussed the “reality” of these texts, the clearer it became that there was no way to separate our beliefs about romantic love from the endless media examples that fill our lives. Even the students that were rejecting “The Notebook” were refining their notions of love and partnership based on what it shouldn’t look like. Moreover, the project showed us that nobody was isolated from this genre. even the most cynical students swooned over films like “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” and I’ve been watching “High Fidelity” since I was a teenager myself. We were all wrapped up together in a diverse but connected web of romantic texts.
The more sobering discovery, however, was how hard it was for students to detach from these films emotionally and analyze them as reflections of society. Having now taught this unit twice, I am beginning to see the outline of what it means for all of us as media consumers.
When reading a novel in class, I’m thrilled if students become invested in the fates of the characters, but later I will expect students to balance that visceral connection with a more removed consideration of issues like authorship, theme, and audience. In this unit, however, I was surprised (and a little frustrated) at how students flat-out avoided answering a question that was posed to guide their conclusions: What do these portrayals show us about society’s attitudes towards courtship/dating? Many students wrote about the movie characters as though they were real people, and their conclusions spun the themes they had identified into commentary resembling relationship advice. At best, students pointed out how their modern film showed more equality between the genders than “Shrew,” but these comparisons were also using the texts as stand-ins for real world examples.
In a way, this trend was its own response to the questions posed at the beginning of the unit — there is no division between the text and the people who consume it, because the audience either considers the text to be real, or at least an adequate facsimile thereof, and award it as much value and influence as they would any “real” personal experience.
This discovery terrified me. Didn’t students know how many of these films were callibrated for profit, not honesty? But I knew that we were hitting up against one of the most basic understandings of Media Literacy. Students had been trained to approach written fiction in a particular way, but little or no suggestion had ever been made to them that the same methods could be applied to the fiction they watched.
I felt like Marshall McLuhan was in the room, shaking his head at us. I keep coming back to one of his aphorisms: “we shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.” What will it take for students to deconstruct visual mediums the same way they do books? And if film is a tool, what function does that tool serve? The best literature inspires the soul as well as gives us something to sink our critical teeth into. Here’s to hoping that students can eventually have that same experience with film in the classroom.