You’ll watch ‘LoveActually’ this Christmas. I promise. You will watch Love Actually and probably hate it. That sort of thing is going around. It is not, you will protest, a film for the MeToo era. Men are too dominant in it, there are any number of workplace relationships, there are so many gratuitous fat jokes – it is, in short, a film so obviously made in 2003.
You’ll be right to an extent. This film would be better if Karen were the Prime Minister instead of David, or if Andrew Lincoln had been miraculously cast in the Walking Dead just a few years earlier. In the expectations of 2018, Love Actually falls low. It’s fine to judge the aspects of the film. But dismissing its female characters themselves would be more than a shame – it would be an uncomfortable precedent to set.
Yes, they are love interests, these women and they don’t always have as many lines as the men or jobs as cool but they’re not objects, as the internet would have you think.They’re all pretty scathing, they all have personality to spare. They aren’t helpless, they’re still very much people, even if they’re people that men get to fall in love with. The audience is under no impression, for example, that Aurelia thinks Jamie is anything other than a grade-A muppet. The president harassesNatalie but is patently depicted as a bully. But Hugh Grant does not abuse any power – she so plainly likes him back, and we see, over and over again, that she’s opinionated enough not to be dwarfed or silenced by his status. We keep assuming that women who are love interests or secondary characters or domestic are simply waiting for a man and simpering for him. It’s as if we’ve all stopped watching the actual film, as if when a female character has one aspect that isn’t ideal all her positives are somehow invalidated. If the women ofLove Actually were objects, I wouldn’t be able to tell you their names – they might not need any – or detail their personalities – they might not have any. Yet here I am. Accepting that just means acknowledging that female representation isn’t necessarily bad when it comes in forms we aren’t expecting.
Some of the women of Love Actually are real wonders. Natalie is both kind and blunt.Aurelia does not – despite whatever the internet wants to tell you – tolerate a language barrier preventing her from expressing her feelings. Judy gets her clothes off for a living and is totally fine with it in a way that we should all be pretty proud of. Karen is incredibly strong. She might not be Katniss Everdeen and she never lands a punch – although we wouldn’t blame her – she is feminine, she is a mother and a housewife and proud of it, and she is diminished by none of that. It would be a problem if these women’s careers or status informed their personalities but they don’t. Show me a moment Aurelia actually listens to something Jamie says, I mean it. We deny ourselves some interesting representations of women if we dismiss the female characters in Love Actually. What’s more, we deny ourselves the notion that women can be strong and interesting in ways that we don’t expect.
The words Karen uses when she confronts Harry are important. She says ‘you have made a fool out of me and you’ve made the life I lead foolish too’. Pay attention to those words, they are significant. Karen’s life of making lobster heads and going to dubious Nativity Plays is important to her, even if we don’t want it to be. She doesn’t see it as trivial or herself as an object. Women who are stay at home mothers don’t. It isn’t feminist of us to dictate the way women lead their lives. We need to be careful, with our sudden influx of choices and rightful,important, gratitude for them that we don’t make use of those choices compulsory. It invalidates our ability to choose if we insist all women do something they never could before. It invalidates the women who don’t.
Women are wonders. Our awareness of that is at an all-time high and our desire to increase the standards of media is so important. But we can’t dismiss things based only on assumption. Some past films and some female characters have little, in our new understanding, to recommend them. Some parts of LoveActually do. But we can’t assume any of this. We have got to judge the film we have and not the film we want. Not doing so belies the strength of our movement, it denies us of some interesting characterisation – and it can, worryingly, have us denying whole groups of women. And we’ve had, quite frankly, quite enough of that.