Courtship is a major element of many romantic movies. It is the exciting, fun and optimistic period of dating before a couple move on to a more serious commitment like marriage or other form of domestic partnership. It is a time when two people are deciding if they have a future together, and is more formal than casual dating, with an ultimate goal of marriage. (Jackson & Braboy) From a sociological perspective, courtship has been systematically studied since the 1940’s, with noticeable changes in the language, style, rituals and activities that constitute courtship (Sprecher & Regen). New theories about courtship norms developed in the 1980s. Sociologists Moore and Perper argued that courtship is a female initiated activity, controlled primarily through verbal and non-verbal behaviors that attract men. Other sociologists and anthropologists who focused their research on body language, reinforced many of the assertions about courtship being largely initiated by women. However, some feminist theorists disagreed, arguing that courtship was a patriarchal social construct that subjugated woman. Many of these theories completely seemed to ignore the role of romance, focusing on power, status, socialization and traditional societal norms. Romantic movies, however, often examine the ways relationships are constructed and destroyed, which may offer insights into how male and female characters instigate and end courtship and marriage relationships. In this paper, the conventions of courtship, and in particular who “starts” a relationship and “ends” a marriage will be examined analyzing the films Love Actually and ,Kramer vs. Kramer.
The 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually portrays nine relationships with characters of different socioeconomic backgrounds, ages and temperaments. Characters include the Prime Minister of England, played by Hugh Grant, a caterer who believes he will be more attractive to woman in America, and a manager who jeopardizes his marriage for his young assistant. The film is full of flirting and other courtship rituals. In her Nonverbal courtship patterns in women: Context and consequences, sociologist Monica Moore identified over two hundred “flirting behaviors” used almost exclusively by women who are interested in initiating a relationship, which she called “initial selection of male partners” (Moore 133). Other researchers, have also detailed the ways in which women initiate and exert control over the courtship process. (Jackson & Braboy)
In Love Actually, most of the new relationships are female initiated. For example, Harry, a successful married advertising executive, is actively pursued by his younger assistant Mia, who uses seductive non-verbal body language, and eventually verbally reveals her feelings for him. Mia uses a variety of “flirting behaviors” to initiate a relationship with Harry. These include sitting on his desk and “leaning in” when talking, maintaining longer than average eye contact, laughter and light touches when in close proximity. Mia also uses non-verbal flirtation cues, telling Harry that she will be “just hanging around the mistletoe, hoping to be kissed” at the office Christmas party. Mia is clearly the person attempting to initiate a romantic relationship. Like many stories in the film, the love story between Harry and Mia is also about another relationship failing. Harry’s behavior causes his wife to question their marriage.
Other blossoming relationships in Love Actually also reinforce the theory that women usually initiate courtship. After Jamie’s wife cheats on him with his brother, he falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia. They are both relatively shy and conservative people, something they have in common. However, slowly Aurelia begins to loosen up and display flirting behavior, which encourages and emboldens Jamie to pursue a romantic relationship. She begins dressing more provocatively, opens up and displays romantic body language, including increased eye contact, laughter, and cooking more elaborate meals for Jamie. She also uses verbal cues to let Jamie know she is interested in him as a mate. When he tells her that he enjoys spending time with her driving her homer, that it is the favorite part of his day, she replies that “It's the saddest part of my day, leaving you” In fact, Aurelia goes to great lengths to prepare for a relationship with Jamie, learning English “just in case” he decided to fly to Portugal to propose to her. In the film the respectable and polite male characters only pursue women when they get the kinds of “signals” that indicate their advances are appropriate. This aligns with the research conducted by Moore and Perper, whose research investigates the stages of this process, which is “a clearly defined courtship sequence usually initiated by woman” (Perper, 11).
One relationship featured in Love Actually clearly has a female character who is the first to initiate courtship. Sarah works at Harry's company and has had a long and secret infatuation her creative director, Karl . After she finally initiates a romantic encounter with Karl a phone called from her mentally ill brother ends the relationship. The relationship never materializes, however, it was clear that Sarah was the one who pushed for the romantic encounter, after careful consideration.
Not all of the relationships and courtships in Love Actually are initiated and controlled by women, but many of them are, and many of the themes involve women negotiating complicated social arrangements into a formal dating relationship. They do they by first letting the potential partner know that they are interested in a relationship. Feminist theorists might argue that many of the woman in the film are pursuing men from high socioeconomic status, such as Jamie, a successful and affluent writer marrying his maid Aurelia, or Mia being interested in her employer Harry (Jackson & Braboy 630). Whatever the social reasons they identify the men as potential partners, they do seem to initiate the courtship process, which reinforces Moore’s theories.
If women initiates the courtship, who initiates divorce? Courtship is an exciting time full of romantic promise. However, many relationships end before marriage. and many end in divorce. According to the American Psychological Association, close to half of all marriages initiated in 2014 will end in divorce, and over eighty percent of the divorces are initiated by women (“Marriage and Divorce”). There is a large body of research that attempts to explain this phenomena, focusing on women’s rights, employment outside the home, adultery and other social factors that contribute to women deciding to file for divorce (Buehler 84-86). While there are many romantic comedies that explore the exciting and promising world of the initial stages of a relationships, often the narratives on divorce are much more serious. There are exceptions, including the 1989 dark comedy The War of the Roses, which examined the ugly absurd side of love gone sour, when two wealthy and affluent partners turn on each other, destroying their own homes and careers, only to reunite at the end of the film.
However, Kramer vs. Kramer is a much more serious exploration of the realities and social consequences of divorce. It received five academy awards and started a national dialogue about the social ramification on divorce on both parents and children.
In the film, Joanna tells her husband Ted she wants a divorce, because she “needs to find herself” He is forced to raise their son alone for over a year, until she returns and demands custody. The film depicts Ted as oblivious to his wife’s needs and concerns, and Joanna as selfish, erratic and vengeful. Many social aspects of divorce are raised in the film, including the “feeling” or idea that woman are the best person to raise a child. The women’s liberation movement is also identified as a societal force that encourages women to acknowledge their own needs as individuals, instead of focusing exclusively on being a mother, wife and homemaker. These are all factors that sociologists have investigated as possible explanations of divorce (Walcott & Hughes). The film also accurately portrays the reality of modern divorce, which like the beginning of the courtship process, is usually initiated by woman. However, it is clear that these conclusions are open to interpretation. Women could be “forced” to file for divorce by an abusive or adulterous husband (Buehler 82). In Kramer vs. Kramer it is clear that Ted is a workaholic and only after the divorce does he realize the importance of being a good father. This may suggest many divorces are a result of a communication breakdown, and a lack of focus on maintaining healthy relationships. Everyone who gets divorced were at one time involved in the courtship process, falling in love, and looking towards marriage with optimism. However, the hard reality is that most courtships fail and many marriages end in divorce, which is reflected in popular culture. The construction and destruction of romantic relationships are complex dynamics, which is why they are so fascinating to watch, and part of the narrative of so many stories in popular culture. Films like Love Actually and Kramer vs. Kramer offer sociologists the opportunity to examine representations of social realities that resonate and are meaningful to society. While both men and woman choose to marry for social, economic and emotional reasons, many sociologists have argued that there are gender differences in the courtship and divorce processes, and women have a large amount of control, and a primary role, in initiating both courtship and divorce.
Buehler, Cheryl. "Initiator status and the divorce transition." Family Relations(1987): 82-
Jackson, Pamela Braboy, et al. "Conventions of courtship: Gender and race differences in the significance of dating rituals." Journal of family issues 32.5 (2011): 629-652.
"Marriage and Divorce." Http://www.apa.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015. <http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/>.
Moore, Monica M. "Nonverbal courtship patterns in women: Context and consequences." Ethology and sociobiology 6.4 (1985): 237-247.
Perper, T. Sex Signals: The Biology Of Love, (1985). Philadelphia, ISI Press.
Sprecher, Susan, and Pamela C. Regan. "Passionate and companionate love in courting and young married couples." Sociological Inquiry 68.2 (1998): 163-185.
Wolcott, Ilene, and Jody Hughes. Towards understanding the reasons for divorce. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies, 1999.