“The Notebook [is] the standard by which all romance films are judged in popular America since it was released.” So says Marty Bowen — who, as the producer behind the Twilight series and The Fault in Our Stars, knows a few things about film romance.
And up until the record-breaking success of The Fault in Our Stars this past weekend, The Notebook held the mantle as the most significant love story of the last decade. With two relative unknowns (Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling) as the younger versions of two established actors (Gena Rowlands and James Garner), it grossed $115 million worldwide on a $29 million budget — a stellar number for a “female-oriented” film, especially one not released on Valentine’s Day. Over the last 10 years, it has sold an astounding 11 million DVDs — a sales number usually unique to Disney films, Harry Potter, and superhero films.
The Notebook is classic Nicholas Sparks, which is to say that it follows a pair of good-looking protagonists who resist each other until, under the slanting light of the coastal Carolina magic hour, they don’t.
But The Notebook also has two things that render it spectacular: There’s the genuine chemistry and charisma between all four of its leads, including the revelation of Ryan Gosling. Yet it also takes the traditional Sparks narrative to a second, more profound level. The soul of the story is Noah and Allie’s courtship: all of the parts with McAdams and Gosling. But the true heart is the secondary, shadow narrative of the aged Noah caring for Allie as she descends into Alzheimer’s, attempting to rekindle the memories of their enduring love before, at film’s end, they die, peacefully, in each other’s arms.
By setting the initial story so far in the past, we’re able to see the fruition of their love in the present. Unlike the rom-com, which cuts to the credits at the very beginning of a relationship, The Notebook proves that the romance went on far beyond the ending credits. Not just a year beyond, or a child beyond, but decades upon decades and a sprawling family beyond. In this way, The Notebook offers both the Sparks hypothesis — “true love conquers and endures all” — and its proof.
That — and the exhilaration of watching McAdams jump into Gosling’s arms — is what makes The Notebook so addictive. The potential danger, however, is that the version of love proffered by the Sparks narratives — of which The Notebook is the apotheosis — might also be a form of what can only be called emotional pornography.
And yes: The Notebook and the rest of the Sparks genre are escapism. They’re melodramatic. But they’re also a coping mechanism, and an expression of frustration with a world that’s increasingly difficult for women — and men — to safely navigate.
If the contemporary rom-com is filled with the stresses of urban life — text messages, high heels, workplace drama, stylish high-rise apartments, shopping montages — then the Sparks love story is rooted in an almost pre-digital arcadian space, a stone’s throw from the ocean, filled with ancient trees bathed in golden light, and nary a computer or smartphone in sight. In the city, it’s all concrete and stoplights; in the Sparks utopia, it’s always 70 degrees and sunny, except when a thunderstorm comes and cues a love scene.
The rom-com focuses on the contradictory and frustrating demands that structure the lives of twenty- and thirtysomething women; the Sparks love story, however, offers a fantasy space in which money and race are invisible and the past — and any trauma associated with it — can be cured by the love of a good man. The rom-com has to be comedic in order to distract us from its implausibility, and the Sparks narrative is replete with tears in order to tether us to its emotional core and overarching message: Namely, that in the end, it’s love, not romance, that matters and endures.
Sparks himself has been adamant about the difference between his work and the “romance”: “I haven’t written a single book that could even be accepted as a romance novel,” he told Mediabistro. “I mean, there’s a completely different voice. They’ve got very specific structures; they’ve got very specific character dilemmas; they end completely differently; and they’ve got certain character arcs that are required in their characters — I do none of those things.” Sparks has been criticized for attempting to distance himself from the feminized genre of the romance novel and, indeed, his distinctions are, at bottom, a matter of semantics. Sparks’ works are certainly love stories, but what makes them powerful — and so successful in our contemporary moment — is their embrace of melodrama.
Melodrama, however, isn’t a genre so much as a mode: a register in which you render the world. Today, we mostly think of the word in pejorative terms — “stop being so melodramatic” — but melodrama has a rich and complex history that, when applied to narratives like the Sparks oeuvre, helps illuminate why otherwise preposterous narratives hold so much sway.
If you were living in the Western world pre-Enlightenment, your understanding of the world was guided by one thing: the church. The church composed the outer edges of the moral universe, dictating what was right and wrong, sinful and righteous. The world was filled with mysteries — what happened inside the body; what was the sun; was the earth a flat plane and were we going to fall off of it — and the spread of the church, and Christianity in general, was a manifestation of its ability to provide explanations, however vague, for those mysteries.
But the Enlightenment and the various scientific revelations that accompanied it undercut the church’s authority. The seasons, for example, didn’t happen because God willed them; they happened because we rotated around the sun. It’s easy for us to be blasé about these type of truths, but try to imagine just how seismic they would’ve been at the time. To be clear, it wasn’t as if droves of people were suddenly fleeing the church and taking up atheism. But if before, the moral compass was fixed, then post-Enlightenment, it began to spin wildly. Thus: the proliferation of some of the most influential philosophers of the last 500 years, many of them attempting to articulate new terms and negotiations of morality.
But not everyone in the late 18th and 19th centuries was up to reading a little light Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, or Kant. So where’d the masses find their solace? The stage, which began to develop narratives, gradually deemed “melodrama,” that offered clearly discernible good guys, bad guys, and narrative resolution: a world that was morally legible and, by extension, cathartic and comforting.
Melodrama, however, wasn’t a genre so much as a mode — a register in which you render the world. There’s the basic genre (romance, tragedy, action, comedy) and the melodramatic mode imposed upon it: In a romance, for example, you still have all the same tropes (man, woman, love notes, angry parents, rings, kisses, weddings), but the arrangement of those tropes, and the truths they elucidate, are firmly rooted within the moral legibility that characterizes melodrama. In a melodramatic romance, for example, the woman who compromises her virtue must either suffer or die; in a melodramatic action film, the righteous hero will vanquish the deceptive villain. You left these productions secure that the world made sense.
With melodrama’s basic modality set in place, it manifested over the next century in everything from “blood and thunder melodrama” on the stage, early silent film shorts involving women in peril, and the women’s film of the 1930s and ‘40s. It was in the “wet, wasted afternoons” of films like Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager that melodrama began to accumulate its pejorative, feminized connotations.
These melodramas aren’t always happily after ever, but they are, at bottom, morally ever-after. And that, above all else, is the appeal of the melodrama: It may not be realistic, it may seem facile, or overblown, or filled with acute highs and lows, but it’s always offering an escape — not to a world that doesn’t exist, but one in which, even amidst the horror and ennui and confusion, the moral compass stays true.
All melodramas represent a fractured world that can, ultimately, be righted. And that’s the overarching narrative thrust of the Sparks love story: The contemporary world may be filled with sadness, anger, and distrust, but that world, once blessed with love, can be transformed — and everyone else along with it. As the complications of real life fade away, the clarifying righteousness of enduring, self-sacrificing love remains, a guiding beacon in an otherwise morally murky world.
It’s easy to see how that sort of story would be appealing. But it doesn’t quite explain the incredible popularity of the Sparks oeuvre, which has grossed more than $740 million worldwide.
So what makes some of us keep watching? Part of the answer lies in predictability: The Sparks narratives are all slight variations on the selfsame themes. The protagonists’ ages, vocation, and locations vary, but only superficially — and the same goes for who dies, and for what reasons, and at what points in the narrative. They’re formulaic, but so are superhero movies, rom-coms, Westerns, and the rest of the films that top the box office. The formula is part of the solace; “genre” is nothing but a contract with the viewer, a promise that things will go as expected and desired.
Sparks thus follows the basics of the genre — there’s a man and a woman, something that separates them at first and brings them together at the end — and just modifies the attributes that structure the narrative, always keeping within a very Sparksian rendering of the world. Setting, characters, plot, and resolution — the details of each are crucial to the Sparks fetishization of the traditional American dream.
If the popularity of the Sparks oeuvre springs from a desire to return to the spirit of the pioneering American dream, it makes sense that the majority of his novels take place in the settings that come closest to that nostalgic ideal: the South, where time has stood mostly still — at least as depicted in the Sparks movies. Life moves slower, seems smaller. People care about their neighbors, and kids run free through the streets.
But the Sparks films take place in an even more specific version of the South: either North Carolina (Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, The Last Song, Safe Haven), South Carolina (Dear John, The Notebook), or Louisiana (The Lucky One). The Carolinas offer all the picturesque qualities of the ocean without the connotations of wealth affixed to living next to the sea anywhere else: In California, you live next to the sea because you’re a fancy snob; in the Carolinas, you live next to the sea because you’re a landscape painter, or you run the corner store, or your family always has. That’s not true, of course, but that’s how the Sparks universe works.
It’s also a South wholly removed from any specter of racial struggle or history. All Sparks protagonists are white; when there is a character of color (Viola Davis as the inn owner in Nights in Rodanthe; Al Thompson as Shane West’s best friend in A Walk to Remember), their race is never mentioned. The Sparks South, then, is a South absent its history and, in most cases, stricken of any visual reminders of its fraught past.
Indeed, many of the most striking Sparks settings are, in fact, old plantation homes: In The Last Song, the Wormsloe Plantation doubles as the home of Will (Liam Hemsworth); in The Notebook, the Boone Hall Plantation is Allie’s summer home; Beth’s ex-husband’s family lives in the Housmas House Plantation in The Lucky One; and Savannah’s family home in Dear John is the Cassina Point Plantation. Granted, the owners of these grand structures are almost always antagonists: barriers to love, or stricken by the lack of love. Not because their money most likely came from a history of exploitation and racialized violence, though — but because they’re rich and therefore blind to the powers of love.
Sparks films take place almost entirely en plein air. On the beach, of course, but also at the fair, in the stables, at a construction site, going canoeing or, in so many cases, eating a meal (a picnic, a fancy dinner, attending a family gathering) under the moonlight or at twilight. Even the interior spaces — usually family homes and churches — have so much light as to feel outdoors. And if the outdoors is our natural state, then the Sparks setting places us firmly within it: When we’re outside, the cares of civilization melt away; only the most essential cares (love) remain.
Sparks films are also, without exception, in close proximity to a large body of water: usually the ocean, but a lake or lazy river will do as well — as will a tremendous rainstorm. Water functions as a clarifying narrative catalyst, the place where characters let down their guards and become their truest, most honest selves. In the beginning of several narratives, characters spend significant amounts of time staring at the water, as if desiring that sort of honesty but not quite ready to give themselves to it. Somewhere around the end of the 45-minute mark, the character is persuaded to revel in some body of water — in The Last Song, Will takes Ronnie scuba diving in the aquarium; in The Notebook, Allie and Noah frolic in the waves; in Safe Haven, Katie gets invited to a family outing to the beach — and, in the process, let down his or her guard.
But it generally takes a rainstorm for the real emotional revelation to happen: most famously in The Notebook, but also in Dear John and Safe Haven. In The Lucky One, the figurative rain comes from an outdoor shower; in Message in a Bottle, the storm takes place just outside the window; in Nights in Rodanthe, it’s a veritable hurricane, threatening to take down the entire house.
In the Sparks film, the abundance of emotion is too much for any character to articulate; the unspeakable thus overflows into the mise-en-scène, manifesting itself in the imposing form of the plantation, the roiling sea, the thundering sky. These filmic tropes are the descendants of classic melodrama: a way to communicate emotions too abundant to put into words.
The South, the water, the easygoing familiarity of rural life: They’re all backdrop, but they’re a backdrop that amplifies the personality and actions of the Sparks character types — of which there are approximately five.
1.) The Woman
If the rom-com heroine is the postfeminist paragon, obsessed with shopping and sex — always put together, always walking with a purpose — then the Sparks heroine is her casual inverse: She looks great in cutoffs and a tank top, and her hair looks best when misted with the sea air. The rom-com heroine rarely has children, although she feels her biological clock silently ticking; the Sparks heroine is either a single mom — and a good one — or naturally maternal.
These women don’t have careers or degrees; they have jobs and classes. And no matter the scenario, however, work or education is always, always secondary to family. It’s not that these women are dumb or ignorant; it’s that relationships and responsibilities trump personal edification. In A Message in a Bottle, for example, Robin Wright’s job at the Chicago Tribune provides the means for her to find the sender of the message in the bottle; Julianne Hough’s waitressing gig allows her to run into Josh Duhamel in The Lucky One, and Beth’s dog kennel business is a natural fit for Logan (Zac Efron) and his German shepherd. Other female characters are either in high school (and don’t need a job), in college (we never learn their major), stay-at-home moms, or from a time in history when most women didn’t work (The Notebook).
The woman can be older or younger, but she’s usually wounded in some way — and wary of being hurt again. Sometimes she’s been literally battered by past boyfriends; others, she’s been repressed by familiar expectations, dragged through a bad marriage, or lost a close family member (mother, brother, insert cause of deep sadness here). If she’s not wounded, she’s the giver of love: the compassionate, caring one who will help make a wounded man whole. If she’s stuck-up (Allie in The Notebook), love will make her unspoiled; if she’s frazzled, love will calm her; if she’s angry at the world, love will help her see its beauty.
The Sparks Woman rarely has female friends, and if she does, they’re simply a launching pad to love: Viola Davis putting Diane Lane in charge of the house in Nights in Rodanthe, Robin Wright’s co-workers urge her to seek out the writer of the love notes in Message in a Bottle. Because the Sparks heroine doesn’t need friends: just a man and her family and the love they provide.
Finally, the Sparks Woman is, above all else, naturally beautiful. She has a lithe frame and simple style. She looks amazing in a bathing suit, but is never, ever vain. If she drinks, it’s very little. Her relative chastity comes easily: She’s never the one making the first move, but when it’s clear that a guy’s intentions are good, she’s an excellent kisser.
2.) The Man
The Sparks male protagonist is in stark contrast to the one of the leading protagonists of popular American cinema: the Judd Apatow Man-Child. If the Apatow-style man-child refuses to grow up, turning all women around him into pestering shrews, the Sparks hero is a self-sufficient adult. Many of them have been in the military; others work close to the land, usually with their hands: Kevin Costner refurbishes boats in Message in a Bottle, Gosling’s a carpenter, Josh Duhumel runs a corner store on the coast that requires him to spend lots of time fixing things. And if a character isn’t one of those things — like Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe — his high-powered job (as a surgeon) is framed as the cause of their inner despair.
Some of these men are single dads, others are kind to single moms. All of them want to be made whole and make others whole in return. Some are quasi- but never overbearingly religious. They don’t swear or lose their tempers. They’re real men, and real men don’t speak much. Instead, they communicate through acts: fixing a boat, remodeling a home, protecting a clutch of turtle eggs. They live simple lives; all they lack, really, is the Sparks Woman.
What the Sparks hero offers, above all else, is security. He sees the woman not as a sex object, but as an emotional solace — and she does the same. They fall in love chastely, much like in a classic Hollywood film — lots of glances while taking care of kids, or accidental run-ins that lead to meandering, confessional walks home. He uses his strong body not to intimidate her, or get what he wants, but to pick her up, keep her safe. All of the man, but none of the menace.
If the contemporary rom-com hero is an architect or works in an ad agency or a lawyer and looks great in a suit, the Sparks hero works with his hands and a short-sleeve button-down is about as fancy as he gets. He’s traditionally handsome (two Sparks Men, Tatum and Gere, have been named People’s Sexiest Man Alive; a third, Gosling, declined the offer); well-muscled but not overly built, and looks great in the slightest of scruff.
3.) The Sage
Either the Sparks Man or Woman has a member of his or her extended family, always older, who functions as a love “sage”: a slightly crusty but lovable father (Message in a Bottle, The Notebook), grandmother (The Lucky One), or great-uncle (Safe Haven); a dying but wise father (The Last Song); an overprotective but sage pastor father (A Walk to Remember); an autistic but loving father (Dear John). Or, when the characters themselves are older, a wise adult son takes the role (Nights in Rodanthe).
For reasons that remain unexplained, the Sage is always single. But the Sage also facilitates the relationship between the Sparks Man and Woman — usually explicitly, as when Paul Newman tells Kevin Costner to “choose between today and tomorrow.” In whatever form, the ultimate and unspoken task of the Sage: Prevent their loved one from ending up alone like them.
4.) The Child
The Child can be an actual child (a son, a daughter, a kid brother) or a figurative one (an animal of some sort) but his/her/its sole purpose is to illuminate an ability on the part of a character to be compassionate, kind, and loving. The overarching message: If a character is good and kind to kids or animals, his or her lovability and worth becomes clear.
5.) The Complication
A conservative, class-conscious parent (The Notebook), a best friend who’s done something stupid (The Last Song), a jealous ex-husband (The Lucky One), an angry husband of a former patient (Nights in Rodanthe), the military (Dear John), the specter of the dead ex-wife (Safe Haven again) — these characters are around mostly to derail, however temporarily, the love between the protagonists. Always hazily characterized, sometimes dead already, sometimes about to die, oftentimes not bad, per se, so much as saddened by the choices that led them to forsake love for themselves.
The Sparks Woman, the Sparks Man, the Sage, the Child, the Complication — each is a clear type and operates according a clearly delineated function. But when and how those functions intersect — that’s the stuff of plot.
Every Sparks narrative is a gradual yet assured march toward love. Love makes bad people into good ones, selfish people into generous ones, angry people into compassionate ones. But this is a very certain type of love — it’s Christian, even if it rarely expresses itself explicitly as such, and undergirded by kindness, charity, care, and, in most cases, relative chastity. True love, in other words, is OK with just making out. Love is patient; love is kind — but Nicholas Sparks love is also white, heterosexual, Southern, and absent of almost any markers of class.
The path to that love, however, is never straight. The Sparks Male is always figured in inverse to the Sparks Female: If she has kids, then he doesn’t; if she’s closed herself off to love, he’s opened himself to it. Sometimes they’re equally “broken” — one’s lost a spouse, the other has been abused by one — and need each other to heal. Either way: Alone, they are incomplete; together, they make a whole.
But if the Sparks Man and Woman met in the first 10 minutes and fell for each other, you wouldn’t have any story. Sparks films thus function within a very traditional narrative structure: First, in a variation on the rom-com “meet cute,” they cross paths in some sort of random way. In The Last Song, Liam Hemsworth spills Miley Cyrus’ milkshake all over her; Channing Tatum dives from the pier to rescue Amanda Seyfried’s purse in Dear John; Zac Efron uses a photo that he found on the ground in Iraq to track Taylor Schilling’s whereabouts in Louisiana.
There’s tension during the first meeting: One person’s too poor (The Notebook), too military (The Lucky One), too asshole (Nights in Rodanthe). But the barriers slowly break down, usually when one person shows just how committed they are to compassion and kindness. That compassion can be manifest in care for animals, the poor, children, or a broken-down house, but it allows the pursued to begin to see how that compassion and kindness could be transferred to them.
The second of the three acts tracks the couple as they slowly rotate toward each other, otherwise known as courting. At first, it’s hesitant and totally platonic, often assured by the presence of children, parents, or friends. But those encumbering factors slowly disappear, and the affection crescendos to a passion scene.
But there’s no actual climaxing in this first passion scene. Only passionate kissing allowed, which communicates potential of their love, but doesn’t follow that potential to its natural extension. There’s a make-out… and then there’s a complication. In The Notebook, for example, when Gosling takes McAdams to the falling-down plantation and they undress together, it’s the climax of the movie to that point — but they get interrupted halfway through, which leads to McAdams’ departure for college and their long-term separation. In Dear John, the complication is Channing Tatum’s departure for the Army; in Message in a Bottle, it’s Robin Wright’s return to Chicago — and so on.
But that’s not the end of the love! In four of the eight films, the couple keep their love alive, despite distance and difficulties, through the language of the love letter.
The love letter is the perfect vehicle for the specific sort of über-masculine yet hypersensitive love that typifies the Sparks hero: It allows him to be incredibly expressive without actually saying a word.
Sparks himself is a connoisseur of the love letter — when he was courting his wife, he sent her 150 love letters in two months. But the Sparks love letter isn’t filled with poetry, or sex dreams, or even angst. Instead, it follows the Sparks love letter formula, as outlined in Men’s Journal: Set the scene, move into specific memories of time together, transition into a declaration of emotions and gratitude, and end with a “fond acknowledgment”: “Love always,” “I’m the luckiest person ever,” or “You’re my one true love.” Writing, sending, and reading these letters transform into a montage of a love’s rise and fall: the way that it coalesces and, when unrequited, the way that it disassembles.
Because love can fortify itself only if it first falls apart. The order of disassembly varies from film to film, but there’s always a disappointment of some kind — “how dare you not tell me that you were there when my brother died in Iraq!”; “how dare you not tell me that your friend burned down the church that everyone thinks my dad destroyed!”; “how dare you not write me!”; “how dare you sign up for another tour in Afghanistan!” — that creates a temporary or years-long rift that can then only be healed through a declaration of love (“It wasn’t over! It’s STILL not over!”) followed by a second love scene.
This love scene isn’t one of glorious screwing, however. It’s all clutching and grasping and meaningful looking. Instead of close-ups on the curve of a breast, the camera zooms in on the clutch of a hand on a back, two hands intertwining, an intense and unwavering held gaze. These aren’t sex scenes; they’re passion scenes — passion that’s a manifestation of true love and devotion and, without fail, leads to what we’re to understand as long-term commitment.
There’s a fairly good argument for turning off any Sparks movie about five minutes after that second passion scene. That gives you enough time to watch The Gos tell McAdams that he wants “some pancakes…and some bacon” in that adorable way that he does. You’ll get to see Amanda Seyfried look adorable in Channing Tatum’s oversize shirt, and Taylor Schilling wake up in Zac Efron’s bed of billowing white sheets and blissful morning light. If you just stopped the playback right there, you’d end on a delicious love high.
But that’s not the way a melodrama works.
The trick of the romantic comedy has always been its ability to end right at the climax of the pursuit: There’s a last-minute ploy to win back a girl’s heart that just barely works and then — CUT. That sort of resolution is immensely pleasing, in part because you don’t have to deal with the logistics of the aftermath. How will they live? Will they stay together for even 10 minutes more? What does the path down from the peak look like?
The rom-com isn’t interested in the realities of the post-clinch moment. It’s not trying to illuminate truths about the moral functionality of the world, or make you feel anything other than vaguely amused, if not entirely assured, by the winsome trajectory of a couple on screen.
The love story, however, needs to cut a hole in your heart so it can make you feel whole. You must, in other words, feel the piquancy of loss. Only then can you feel the true revelation of love.
In every Sparks story, then, there’s a significant loss to bear. But in most Sparks narratives, that loss conveniently allows the two leads to at last be together: In Message in a Bottle and Safe Haven, the loss has already occurred, and we watch as the widower comes to slow terms with the fact of his wife’s death — which then allows him to be with the new woman who loves him. In The Lucky One, Taylor Schilling’s ex-husband dies while rescuing their son, which lifts the cloud of surveillance from her relationship with Zac Efron. In Dear John, Amanda Seyfried’s husband, whom she married out of duty, succumbs to cancer, effectively making her available to the enduring affections of Channing Tatum. In The Last Song, the death of Miley Cyrus’ father illuminates just how important it is to say yes to love — especially the love of Liam Hemsworth.
Sometimes, however, the loss also marks the end of an otherwise beautiful relationship: Mandy Moore dies at the end of A Walk to Remember, and Richard Gere is killed in a fluke Peruvian mudslide in Nights in Rodanthe. But both Moore and Gere are figured as transformative catalysts: They may be gone, but they’ve changed their partners forever, turned them into men and women capable of love and compassion. It’s sad — the tears are endless, especially in A Walk to Remember, when Moore’s character is only 18 years old — but the narrative guides the viewer to think that the great loss had a purpose, as it converted one more person to the religion of love…and, by extension, converts the audience members as well.
That’s hard to stomach — but the combination of the great sadness, undergirded by great love, is part of what makes A Walk to Remember the second-most enduring of Sparks narratives.
The first, of course, is The Notebook — which returns us to the notion of the Sparks film as emotional pornography. Just as many men (and some women) use pornography as a substitute for actual physical intimacy, propagating unrealistic sexual and physical ideals in the process, many women (and some men) use Sparks narratives to replace the lack of emotional intimacy and satisfaction in their own lives and, as a result, cultivate unrealistic ideals about what a relationship — and love — should resemble.
In sexual pornography, the intended result is orgasm — and a temporary quelling of desire for sex. In emotional pornography, the end result is tears and hope — and a temporary quelling of desire for love. One caters to the stereotypical feminine sexual desire to see the sex act narrativized — it’s all about the building-up-to, much less about the money shot — while the other switches the priorities, disposing of exposition in favor of one climax after another. Both, however, are but temporary substitutes, and ultimately end in the hunger for more sex, more emotional fulfillment, yet with distorted instructions on how to obtain them.
That argument certainly seems to have some truth to it, as anyone, male or female, can tell you about the experience of trying to apply ideas gleaned wholly from a porn or a Sparks movie on to real-life experience. Yet instead of condemning the appeal of this sort of emotional pornography, we might try to understand what, exactly, is pushing women, today, to this sort of emotional escapism.
The love story itself is obviously nothing new. But the appeal of this pre-feminist, 19th-century version of it coincides with a time when women are being asked to balance so much more than work and family. If you’re a twentysomething today, there’s a veritable list of things that you should perfect: your body, of course, but also your career, your relationship, your spiritual health, your children, your social media presence, your political aptitude, your knowledge of world affairs, your attentiveness to environmental issues, your dedication to feminist activism, your 401(k), the list goes on. The Sparks narrative offers a life — and a love story nested within it — that extracts its protagonist from those concerns and consolidates the demands of life into one, simple task: Open yourself to love, and love in return.
It’s a version, however glowy, of the American dream. But it’s not the dream of the 1950s, with its yearning for the single, nuclear-family home, the freedom to consume, the white picket fence, the washing machine, the perfect mother. Rather, the Sparks American dream harkens back to the 19th-century iteration, with its visions of a bucolic rural space, rugged individualism, and the security of the sprawling extended family, where the men are men and the women are women.
It’s not, then, that women are simply suckers for love. They’re suckers for simplicity.
But there’s more too. When critics say the Sparks Male is a fantasy, they’re correct. But the impulse to fetishize this type of kind, emotional man is, at least in part, an extension of the frustration and fear of misogynist male culture. Misogyny is by no means a recent phenomena, but with the vivid manifestation of misogynistic theory put into practice, none more visible than the recent Santa Barbara shootings, it makes sense that the heterosexual American woman doesn’t want a man who’s hot or smart or clever so much as one who will never hurt her.
That’s a low bar — and isn’t to suggest that this current scenario, in which we hide from the misogyny that undergirds contemporary American culture in the eddies of the Sparks narrative, is a sustainable one. But you can look to the narratives at any point over the last 200 years and see how the most vivid and compelling periods of melodramatic production emerge at the moments when the world is at its most muddied and uncertain.
Which is another way of saying that historians may look back at this decade of Sparks films and think about the ways in which their popularity speak not only to the dissatisfaction with the promises of have-it-all postfeminism, but a dramatic, almost reactionary recoil from the barely sublimated misogyny simmering just under the bulk of mainstream media and many women’s experience of the world.
Some people love an action melodrama like The Avengers because it promises a world in which good guys beat bad guys — a world safe for the mere mortal. Others flock to a romantic melodrama like The Notebook for its equally over-the-top, yet no less compelling, embodiment of a love with the ability to structure the world and endure within it.
One mode scares us and then saves us; the other cuts our heart open and then heals it. Neither scenario — or any movie, for that matter — can possibly fix the fractured world. But both provide the sort of elusive yet necessary reassurance that a better, safer, more communicative, and compassionate world is one is worth striving for.