Sure, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” if the choice is between a great love and fighting Nazis. But for most of us, pandemic restrictions shrunk the world down to a few little people. Under these circumstances and in celebration of Valentine’s Day, pop-culture love stories deserve credit for more than providing fizzy distractions. They’re a way of exploring the emotions and connections that are keeping us all sane — or driving us around the bend.
If romance is considered a women’s genre, that’s because women know that love has high stakes. The covid-19 pandemic upped the ante, stranding couples who could work from home in the house together for months at a time, exacerbating differing opinions about risk-taking. Meanwhile, parents have taken on additional roles as teachers and health advocates, burdens that often fall more heavily on women.
This fallout is very real, as are concerns about the logistics of escaping domestic violence and preventing child abuse. And yet, though survey data suggests that spouses who have suffered financially have experienced more stresses in their marriage, couples broadly say that the pandemic has made them appreciate their partners more, or even that they are more in love than they have ever been. Prolonged togetherness and the high-stakes nature of human interaction appear to have made many dating relationships more serious.
So what do the past year’s worth of fictional love stories have to say about building a strong relationship, even under duress?
By sheer coincidence, a number of intriguing romances star couples who feel trapped or isolated in some way. In the romantic comedy “Palm Springs,” the trap is a time loop. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s novel “The Heir Affair” sticks its leads in a rigid, manipulative royal family. The Netflix drama “Malcolm & Marie” drops its audience into a brutal fight between a struggling couple. And Disney Plus has its latest hit in “WandaVision,” in which a heartbroken superheroine traps her lover in a recreation of classic sitcoms.
All those metaphors deliver the same message. Honesty is crucial. Candor is hard, even — and maybe especially — when you’re stuck in close proximity to someone for an extended period of time. But no resentment or grief can stay below the surface forever, especially without the respites of work and normal social lives. Whether you’re living the same day over and over again or confined to the same house — no matter how nice or literally palatial — proximity makes grievances harder to keep under wraps. But rather than treating forced togetherness as a death sentence for a relationship, these stories treat it as a catalyst for their characters to develop deeper understanding of each other and commit to stronger partnerships.
By contrast, Sofia Coppola’s movie “On the Rocks” and Netflix’s hit romantic period drama “Bridgerton” are cautions against inventing problems where none exist. Rather than simply talking to her husband, the lead character in “On the Rocks” becomes convinced that he is cheating on her, a worry her mercurial father encourages. And in “Bridgerton,” a duke traumatized by a wretched childhood goes through ridiculous contortions to avoid allowing himself to be happy.
There are plenty of reasons for American couples and families to be anxious and fearful right now — and to feel guilty about what happiness comes their way. But “Bridgerton,” in particular, is a light, lovely argument for the transformative power of joy. Certainly, it’s possible to be reckless in pursuit of pleasure during a pandemic or to mistake self-gratification for liberation. But fetishizing feelings of guilt and shame do nothing for anyone else, either.
And finally, radically, two of the more touching love stories of our covid year suggest that the greatest gesture of love can be to flexibility. In Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal,” a heavy metal drummer and his girlfriend make remarkable sacrifices for each other; even though at the end of the movie, the pair are no longer together, their tenderness endures. And in “Sylvie’s Love,” a jazz saxophonist and an aspiring television producer build a life together that neither could have imagined when they first met.
Like the characters in “Sylvie’s Love,” who fall for each other against the backdrop of the changes wrought by the rise of television, the civil rights movement and shifting tastes in popular culture, our lives and loves are caught up in a particularly fraught historical moment. One way to understand what’s happening to us is to look to economics, sociology and epidemiology. But to survive the pandemic, we need love stories, too.
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