Let’s all give a big round of applause to yet another thing that the sexual revolution has made way worse — infidelity!
Open relationships, friends with benefits, and Tinder hookups are all symptoms of increasingly “empowered” generations. The same compromises that older generations made when entering into their marriages don’t always fly anymore. Our apps leave us feeling like we aren’t beholden to traditional sexual norms, and the media that we consume isn’t doing much better either.
Have you ever stopped to notice how cultural staples for Millennial women like Nicholas Sparks rom-coms are major offenders of writing off infidelity? Star-crossed lovers Noah and Allie in The Notebook cheat on their partners, even though Allie is actually engaged and in a healthy relationship. Sparks takes his audience on another whirlwind romance in The Choice where main characters Travis and Gabby have an affair that leads Gabby to break off her engagement.
Forbidden love takes many forms, whether adulterous or not, but far too often those stories are framed to elicit a sympathetic response from the audience. It's almost as if screenwriters are giving cheaters a free pass as if everything is okay if it’s all in the pursuit of “true love.”
After all, we wouldn’t be too happy if the cheater was someone we knew, so why are we eating up media that glorifies infidelity?
We’ve Been Consuming Cheating Stories for a Long Time
Depictions of infidelity in media have been commonplace for longer than it may seem. Look back all the way to the stories of Tristan and Isolde or Lancelot and Guinevere. Romance in the Middle Ages was marked by secretive breaches of faith in prearranged marriages. Imagine you’re being married off to someone and you had no choice in picking who you’re spending the rest of your life with…the natural human instinct to desire romantic love led a lot of people to go behind the backs of their spouses and experience it by cheating.
Romance in the Middle Ages was marked by secretive breaches of faith in arranged marriages.
As my fellow Evie writer Meghan Dillon pointed out in her piece on how cheating is never empowering, many older tales of infidelity were tales of caution to women, like in Anna Karenina, where Anna, married to a bureaucrat falls head over heels for a military officer, or in Madame Bovary where Emma has multiple affairs. The bottom line is, both of those women were deeply dissatisfied with their lives to the point of suicide since they couldn’t seem to find worth beyond fantasy and extramarital desires.
Alright, well, perhaps the screenwriters, authors, and directors of the world should get a pass for excusing infidelity when it’s being used to showcase a bad character’s actions and we as the audience are supposed to sympathize with the person who is being cheated on. But what about all of the times where it feels like the cheaters end up being the characters we’re supposed to root for?
Problems Arise When We’re Meant To Sympathize with the Cheater
Each December, my husband and I watch one new Christmas movie every single day leading up to Christmas Day. The only rules are that we can’t watch anything we've seen before, and that there has to be overt mentions of Christmas. As you can imagine, we have a lot of “Hallmark” style movies to choose from.
One that caught our eye a couple of years ago was Holiday in the Wild with Kristin Davis and Rob Lowe. Kristin’s character Kate is about to take a second honeymoon with her husband, but he unexpectedly confesses he doesn’t love her anymore. Kate then flies solo to make the most of her booked trip to Africa. While there, she strikes up a relationship with Rob Lowe’s character, Derek. If you’ve seen any Christmas rom-com, then you know how things played out – though I’ll give it to them, I haven’t seen a lot of bonding over elephants before – and the two lovebirds make things official. You know what wasn’t made official in the plot before all of that, though? Kate’s divorce from her husband.
We all know adultery is wrong. Marriage is designed to be an unbreakable vow, but there are many people who enter into marriage without realizing that their partner might not satisfy the emotional connection they’re looking for. In fact, experts say that the most common justification cheaters use is that they weren’t having their needs met.
It’s common even in the healthiest relationships for one partner to feel like the other might be spending too much time working and not enough time with them. Since we know relationships are all about communication, the rational thing to do would be to confront your partner and talk about feeling lonely, dejected, or ignored. If we were to use many rom-coms as a model for our own relationships though, we’d be having affairs instead of biting the bullet and having difficult discussions.
If we were to use many rom-coms as a model, we’d be having affairs instead of difficult discussions.
Another (problematic) popular love story women everywhere gush over is Titanic, where main character Rose is engaged against her will and the audience is made to feel sympathetic as she cheats on her fiancé because he’s evil. This type of cheating reads more like someone saving a person they love from being stuck in a relationship that might not be their right match. Now all of the sudden, the cheater is the hero.
Just because a character is reprehensible for one reason or another, does that mean they should be cheated on? As audience members, we might experience a moral conflict, ultimately not knowing who to sympathize with since the original relationship was toxic, but the new relationship is dishonorable.
Should Showrunners Be the Formators of Our Moral Compasses?
Film and television play unique storytelling roles by creating narratives that we can both see and hear. They’re engaging and can draw us into their universes in ways which books might not be able to. With glitzy cinematography and heart-pumping soundtracks, film and television can glamorize anything.
People biting each others’ necks and monstrously sucking blood in order to stay “alive”? That’s sexy now. Or at least Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and Twilight frame it that way.
Hollywood has even made concerted efforts to create alluring fish-monsters. I’m not kidding. Creature Designer Mark Hill for The Shape of Water was directed by Guillermo del Toro to “make him [the creature] sexy.”
In the same way that film and television glamorize otherwise unattractive, stereotypically loathsome characters like vampires, zombies, werewolves, and other monster-like creatures, they’re also guilty of glamorizing bad behaviors. Infidelity is made to look sexier on screen, which in turn, normalizes it for the audience.
Likewise, there’s a good reason why reality television shows draw such high, returning viewership: chaos and drama sell. The self-destruction that we see in a tale of adultery or infidelity has viewers on the edge of their seats, wondering if the cheater will get ratted out.
In a similar vein, tales of cheating also reveal how deep our societal desire for instant gratification is. Wouldn’t it be awesome to cave to your first impulses that come to mind and just act on them? Wouldn’t it be fun to throw morality to the wind and take a big risk that might pay off in blissful bouts of serotonin?
Tales of cheating also reveal how deep our societal desire for instant gratification is.
Watching momentary, fleeting romance can give viewers a sense of gratification to live vicariously through fictional characters that get to act out scenarios they wouldn’t otherwise endorse for themselves. In Gilmore Girls, Rory and Dean have an affair while Dean was married to Lindsay. In Riverdale, Archie and Betty cheated on Veronica and Jughead in what seemed like a totally random plot point to stir drama. In Emily in Paris, Emily hooked up with Gabriel even though he was with Emily’s friend Camille.
Yes, it’s all just fiction of course, and who wouldn’t rather see cheating on screen than in real life? This is also true of murder, crime, horror, whatever the vice or evil is. Cheating used as a narrative construct to tell the story of a fundamentally flawed choice or idea is one thing, but cheating used to sell a risky, nefarious lifestyle isn’t okay with us.
So if Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Charlotte Brontë, and countless brilliant minds shared stories of infidelity, is it actually a problem that these same tropes continue to be repackaged and sold to us today as daring and empowering? We think so.
No, cheating is nothing new from storytellers all throughout time. But infidelity used to stir up drama in a plot without showing the emotional pain the victim feels and without condemning the cheater’s behavior in one way or another is destructive to a society that has grown increasingly uninterested in healthy, monogamous relationships and increasingly interested in sexual “liberation.”
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