Girls Just Want to Have Autonomy

Photo by Kleigh Balugo

By Ryland McGinniss

What do To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Notebook have in common? Well, they’re both book-to-movie love stories cemented in the rom-com genre. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before definitely is more of a Gen Z read, while The Notebook is iconic for millennials. They both center around heteronormative tropes where the girl is “swept off her feet” by the guy she never expected to fall in love with. It’s as if this genre is frozen in time, stuck to its problematic roots. It seems like the creators of these love stories are seriously attached to toxicity.

The Notebook is a perfect example of this toxicity. Allie and Noah only go out on a first date, because of the very concerning ultimatum he provides her with: literally life or death as he asks, “Will you go out with me?” and pleads with puppy-dog eyes. As he hangs from a ferris wheel at the local town carnival, he literally baits death until she agrees to this forceful request. This scene irks me, it seems like the writers were trying to villainize Allie for having boundaries, similarly to how men in real life try to seize the autonomy of women. Media is so influential, especially on the younger generation. So, in a film as popular as The Notebook, many viewers are taught to buy into their skewed notion of masculinity. Allie had politely denied Noah’s date request, but the way “the hero” of Noah is portrayed, paints Allie in a negative light. Viewers are taught to accept something because they have no other choice. The male validation trope runs so deep, and The Notebook is still one of the most glamorized love stories of all time. 

This toxicity manifests itself again in the story of Lara Jean Covey, the main character in Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy. Those vulnerable letters, addressed to different romantic interests she had throughout her life, were handwritten in her beautiful calligraphy. The letters were a manifestation of her own dreams, in a particularly personal way. The writing contributed to her confidence as a character and helped her develop a deeper relationship with herself. She didn’t particularly care about storytelling in her letters. Rather, they served as more of a diary. This is what made me fall in love with Lara Jean as a character. She was so strong-willed and embraced her romantic feelings, but didn’t rely on a man to validate them. She knew her past love interests existed, and that was enough for her. But, the plot stripped her of her autonomy. 

Instead of being able to choose whether to send those letters on her own prerogative, violations of her privacy occur and she is no longer in control of her own romantic life. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jenny Han, but this forced trope of “finding love” as a result of unknowingly exposed personal feelings is pretty toxic. Lara Jean doesn’t get a choice about her letters being sent out and they become a plot device to advance her relationship timeline. Her privacy and choices are gone, all for a man. This was an absolute disservice to the image of Lara Jean I had crafted in my head. I don’t believe in the media’s portrayal of love stories, because they’re not rooted in love. They’re rooted in toxicity glamorized as love. 

And it’s not that I hate love stories, I hate the ones that exemplify men in control of women who were once made out to be “stubborn” or “stuck in her ways.” Maybe she was never really “stuck in her ways,” she just had autonomy that was seized in order to avoid being seen as too powerful. The saddest part is that these stories don’t inherently frame themselves as being toxic, but rather as being the ideal relationships to strive for. They have so much potential to be different, to be feminist, to empower women; but they don’t.

Honestly, I don’t care about whether Lara Jean and Peter end up together or whether Allie and Noah actually fell in love and got married. Above everything else– Can we stop plaguing love stories for the sake of perfection and just give women autonomy?


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