The INSIDER Summary:
• “Love Actually” is a 2003 holiday movie considered a romantic classic.
• But people have been pointing out the sexism in the movie for years.
• Enjoying “Love Actually” is perfectly fine, but best done with eyes wide open.
‘Tis the season to be jolly and remind everyone that “Love Actually” is one of the most problematic and sexist Christmas movies still considered to be a holiday staple in homes around the world.
Many people — myself included — cosy up and watch “Love Actually” almost every year. In the 13 years since it’s release, “Love Actually” has managed to become a ritualistic part of holiday movie watching just like “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
But while some have latched onto “Love Actually” for its promise of feel-good romance and star-studded cast (seriously the casting is insane in retrospect), others have pointed out the many misogynistic issues embedded in the script. If you haven’t read Lindy West’s takedown of “Love Actually” — stop everything you’re doing and go read it.
Let’s dive into the muck. First up — the constant references to overweight women.
The strange volume of fat jokes
For a movie supposedly about true love, there are way too many jokes made about women’s weight. Pajiba writer Courtney Enlow wrote an excellent breakdown of the most bizarre repetition of fat jokes all about one character: Natalie.
“Love Actually’s biggest mystery is this: Why does everyone think Natalie, played by actress Martine McCutcheon, is such a monstrous fat cow beast creature?” Enlow wrote in 2014.
First Natalie tells Prime Minister David — her bachelor boss played by Hugh Grant — a story about how her boyfriend dumped her because “she was getting fat.”
Then Natalie has a weird encounter with the president of the United States, in which he uses his power of authority over her lack of agency as a subordinate to almost trick her into sex? And as a result, David makes a politically charged speech and then fires Natalie.
Technically, he asks for her to be “distributed elsewhere,” but even during that conversation her weight comes up again. David’s chief of staff refers to her as “the chubby girl.” Later Natalie’s father calls her “Plumpy,” as if that’s a flattering nickname your grown daughter loves to hear.
There’s another fat joke directed towards a different character that never made it into the movie, but still tarnishes our memory of “Love Actually.”
The weird fat joke that only appeared in the trailer
Everyone remembers the iconic “Love Actually” scene in which Mark — a man who has fallen in love with his best friend’s new wife, Juliet, without ever speaking to her — shows up to the newlyweds house and silently performs the romantic gesture of professing his love for her.
Sweet, right? Well … it’s actually kind of creepy and disrespectful. Your BEST FRIEND — Peter — just married a woman who you have feelings for. Yes, that sucks, but your plan is to go behind your friend’s back to tell Juliet that you love her and probably will for the rest of your life?
As Lindy West put it succinctly back in 2013: “That best man guy shows up at Keira Knightley’s house and spawns a decade of nice-guy emotional manipulation reframed as ‘romance.’ And Keira Knightley f–king kisses him for it.”
Oh and then it gets worse. Last year, while rewatching Christmas movie trailers, because why not, we realised that there was an extra card originally in that stack of “romance.” This is straight from the official Universal movie trailer:
Mark was supposed to call Juliet “Fatso” while in the middle of professing his love to her. That doesn’t even make sense. And in the trailer, she just laughs at it? As if that’s the funniest joke a man she barely knows and who has treated her with disdain as a method of self-preservation can make?
Women’s general lack of agency
Moving on from the fat jokes, it’s hard to ignore the fact that women have little to no agency in this movie — unless they’re after sex.
The movie barely passes the Bechdel test — as far as we can tell the only two female characters who speak about something other than a man are Karen and her daughter Daisy. They discuss the lobster’s role in the nativity play.
But Daisy is barely a named character, and all the other women only ever speak with men in romantic settings.
Lindy West pointed out that the largest example of this comes from Colin Firth’s storyline, in which he stays in a French home and falls in love with the woman hired to clean his house every day without every properly speaking to her.
“Colin Firth falls in ‘love’ with Aurelia at first sight, establishing Love Actually’s central moral lesson: The less a woman talks, the more loveable she is,” West wrote. “None of the women in this movie f–king talk. All of the men in this movie ‘win’ a woman at the end. This god d–n movie.”
The demoralising conclusion of the cheating plotline
The most depressing storyline in “Love Actually” is Harry’s extra-marital affair.
Harry — played by Alan Rickman — has an affair with his secretary (a character reduced to walking genitals, according to West’s apt description). Eventually Harry’s wife, Karen, realises what’s happening and tearfully confronts him.
But at the end of the movie we see her greeting him at the airport, and it’s unclear whether she decided to leave him or not. But one of the script editors for “Love Actually” (and the wife of the writer and director Richard Curtis) tweeted some depressing confirmations about the ending in 2015.
Not only did Harry definitely have a physical affair as well as an emotional one, but Karen decides to stay with him even though their home will never be as happy again. Ugh. We’re not arguing that divorce is always the answer, but it’s upsetting to have no real closure for this narrative. At the very least we would have appreciated seeing a real conversation between Harry and Karen that was more meaningful.
3 plot holes we can’t suspend disbelief over
Again, we have to give props to Lindy West for really driving these points home.
First — how in the world did Harry find a Joni Mitchell CD his wife didn’t already own? That gift was already depressing because Karen was expecting to see a gold necklace and instead realised he had bought fancy jewellery for his sexy secretary.
But Karen said earlier in the movie that she loves Joni Mitchell, and has been listening to her forever. So what on earth was the CD that Harry found and bought? A secret recording Karen had never heard before? Puh-lease.
Then there’s the scene early on in the movie where we learn that Mia — Harry’s sexy secretary — is still looking for somewhere to host their office Christmas party just weeks before the holiday.
I’ve been an office manager before. You do not find a place to host a large corporate holiday party on December 1. That process begins in like October, or heck even over the summer.
Mia is the worst.
In a similar vein, the movie opens with Billy Mack recording his Christmas single with five weeks to go until December 25. Don’t celebrities usually record Christmas albums in, like, July? What is this guy doing? No wonder he’s stressed about making it to number one.
All the turtlenecks. All of them.
OK, just kidding. The turtlenecks are the best part of “Love Actually.” If there’s one thing that gets more and more fun with each rewatching of this movie, it’s pointing out every turtleneck worn throughout. BuzzFeed did the “Definitive Ranking of All the Turtlenecks in Love Actually” back in 2013 and it’s a must-read.
You have Mia’s saucy black turtleneck, Daniel’s sad “my wife just died” turtleneck, and “Just” Judy’s appropriately nude-coloured turtleneck.
But the best of all is Mark’s “oh my god Juliet knows I love her” turtleneck. You see — it starts out as a regular zip up sweater.
But then it transforms into a turtleneck of shame and self-delusion:
But in all seriousness. There are more issues with “Love Actually” than we’ve had time to go through here. You should really take a read through Lindy West’s hilarious takedown of the movie.
I still watch it every year, but as my colleague Megan Willet said, it’s a movie best enjoyed with “eyes wide open.” Being aware of the issues with representation of women and relationships in movies like “Love Actually” is an important first step. So, if you must, sit back and enjoy the cheesy sexism and plethora of turtlenecks. But don’t mistake the movie’s message of “love” for the real deal.
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