As I’ve said before, pop culture has traditionally been a particularly terrible place for people to go for advice about sex and romance. Things are slowly getting better, but the rom-coms and teen movies my generation grew up with portrayed romantic gestures as things that would warrant felony charges.
Let’s take a look at some of the worst movie role models for love, and be thankful we didn’t follow their leads.
1. Jake Ryan and Ted, 'Sixteen Candles' (1984)
People always defend this film by saying it’s 30 years old—well, so am I, and yet I manage to have a working understanding of consent.
It’s a shame, because the movie does a few things very well. Molly Ringwald’s Sam Baker is an awesome early example of a developed female character with her own point of view at a time when that was a rarity in teen movies. It’s also pretty great that Sam and Jake’s love story is primarily driven by Sam. And yes, “the Geek” (one of the earliest pop-culture uses of that term) is a pretty effective takedown of aggressive stalkery “seduction” techniques that are to be avoided by all.
But let’s be real about this. Jake straight-up hands his falling-down-drunk, barely-conscious girlfriend Caroline to Ted (after musing that he could “violate her ten different ways” but feels no desire to because he’s fallen for Sam). It’s strongly implied that Ted and Caroline have sex, i.e. without her consent. Caroline wakes up the next morning with no memory of what happened but “thinks” that she liked it. She and Ted are now an item, and this is played for laughs against the contrast of Jake and Sam’s sweet first kiss over her birthday cake.
Look. I am an awkward, self-conscious Asian guy. I remember all of Geddy Watanabe’s scenes as Long Duk Dong very clearly. I still think the thing with Ted and Caroline is by far the worst and most unforgivable thing in this movie.
2. Knox Overstreet, 'Dead Poets Society' (1989)
Dead Poets Society is another film that hasn’t aged that well. While the advice Robin Williams’ Professor Keating doles out is, in retrospect, pretty bad, the worst thing about the film is its side plot with Josh Charles’ Knox Overstreet and his crush on Alexandra Powers’ Chris Noel.
Whatever your personal interpretation of “carpe diem” might be, “declare to all your friends that you will commit suicide if you can’t get a girl you just learned the name of” is not a particularly great one. If you must pursue this as a goal, following her into her classroom and reciting a self-penned poem about her in public is not a great strategy, particularly if you are given to turns of phrase like “hair and skin of gold” that make her sound like an Oscar statuette.
And, of course, if you don’t know a girl very well, caressing and kissing her while she is asleep is not just a bad idea but, in fact, a criminal act. Her boyfriend reacting with physical violence to this might not be very nice, but it would, in fact, be both predictable and justified.
3. Lester Burnham, 'American Beauty' (1999)
As much as this movie wants Lester Burnham to be a likable, sympathetic protagonist, he does a lot of things that are fundamentally terrible.
Winning an argument at the dinner table through physical intimidation, by impulsively flinging a plate against the wall? Not cool.
Randomly quitting your job and buying a Pontiac Firebird when you’re responsible for a daughter who’s going to college soon, then snapping at your wife and daughter for questioning this decision? Not cool.
Passive-aggressively masturbating in bed next to your wife and then angrily demanding she have sex with you when she objects to this? Not cool.
In addition to all this, the fact that he has been creepily lusting after his teenage daughter’s underage friend is presented almost as an afterthought. It’s his “redemption” when he stops seeing her as sexually available because she reveals her virginity, implying that whether or not it’s okay for him to have sex with someone who’s legally a child is based mostly on whether she's done so before or whether she’s “pure.” (Which is, you know, all sorts of messed up.)
Oh, and I know I’m the 50,000th person to say it, but it’s just a plastic bag.
4. Edward Cullen, 'Twilight' (2008)
While I understand that what we like in fantasy does not necessarily reflect our values in reality and so on and so forth, I just can’t help being creeped out by Twilight.
Despite the progress movies have made in rejecting the stalker romantic hero, this movie celebrates and elevates this behavior to literally supernatural levels. You know, to the level of breaking into her house, standing in her room watching her sleep without her knowledge, and steeling himself against touching her because it’s all he can do not to violently kill and consume her. (Later on in the series we get gems like Edward sabotaging Bella’s truck to keep her from going to a party where she’ll see Jacob, his rival, and this is treated as romantic rather than a criminal act.)
We don’t need a generation of young boys watching earnest YouTube videos about “How to Be A Boyfriend Like Edward Cullen” and actually taking the lessons to heart. Even Robert Pattinson, whose breakout starring role was playing Edward and who had a strongly vested financial interest in promoting the films, was unable to stop himself from publicly admitting that he found his character to be a “dangerous weirdo.”