No, I’m not talking about the song from Back to the Future (1985), although that is one of my favorite films. This week I’m talking about how love can be a powerful motivator for characters, both protagonists and antagonists.
Six years ago today, my fiancé and I went on our first date, and later today we’re taking pictures to celebrate our engagement. So, after struggling with what I wanted to write about, I decided to look at how and why romantic relationships can be so motivating.
Now, the problem with many pop culture romances is that, while they can be romantic and incredibly interesting (read: juicy), they are often incredibly unhealthy. It is these unhealthy habits that make for some great drama and keep it interesting. So, while they create opportunities for romantic declarations, they aren’t exactly what you necessarily want to shoot for in real life.
… Or maybe you do…? I mean, you could, I guess…
It’s not really my thing.
Next year, I’m marrying my best friend. He is kind and supportive and our personalities and interests complement each other. Neither of us is particularly interested in drama, so there isn’t a lot of it in our relationship. In other words, it’s super boring. Seriously, ours is not a romance anyone wants to watch.
However, across pop culture and media, whether it be a TV show, movie, novel, comic, manga, anime, cartoon (you get the idea), characters are often motivated by romance. (I mean, to be fair, whole industries are motivated by this idea of finding ‘the one’.) But why? Why does romance motivate characters and why do audiences eat it up?
How I Met Your Mother ran for nine seasons from 2005 to 2014 on the premise of Ted Mosby’s search for the titular mother. Audiences remained invested in finding out who she is, how they meet, what happens to her, and what the poor woman’s name is. Although there was a great deal of disappointment with season nine, the show basically ran on romantic relationships the whole time.
In Once Upon A Time (2011-2018), almost every character is motivated by the promise of ‘true love’. From the Evil Queen to Rumpelstiltskin and the villains in between, many of them are motivated by the search for ‘True Love’. Protagonist Emma Swan struggles with romantic love throughout the series, culminating in a wedding in season six. And, we are given glimpses of couples’ ‘happily ever afters’ at the end of season six and throughout season seven.
Batman‘s Mr. Freeze and Adventure Time‘s (2010-2018) Ice King are both motivated by the loss of their significant others. Mr. Freeze is often depicted as looking for a way to save his wife, while Ice King, in his amnesiac state, kidnaps Princesses in an effort to find his lost girlfriend, Betty.
The point is, romantic love is a major driving force across media and pop culture. So, why is it so motivating? And why do audiences care?
I think it has a lot to do with the human need/desire to connect. Everyone wants to feel understood. Humans naturally look for and fall into groups where they share a common trait or goal with other members. Romantic love is often depicted as being loved unconditionally, despite (or sometimes because) of a person’s flaws. It is the ultimate expression of being understood. Someone is choosing to spend their time with you, possibly committing to years in the future. Romantic love is demonstrating that, for whatever reason, this is the person you choose. They see you, understand you, and make you happy.
It’s an addictive feeling, being understood and feeling safe and happy whenever a specific person is near. The promise of such a feeling can be incredibly tempting and it is something infinitely precious. People don’t want to feel alone. Isolation is often a symptom of depression that can exacerbate already dark thoughts. Knowing you are not alone and are understood can do wonders. Romantic love (in theory) can often provide that.
Now, of course, these feelings can also be hugely detrimental. For one, an insane amount of emphasis is placed on finding a significant other, getting married, etc. It can often leading to relationships where the couple is a bad fit, or situations where people stay together because they are afraid to be alone.
Also, while love is a wonderful feeling, one that releases all kinds of feel-good chemicals in the brain, your life is not incomplete without it. It can be a wonderful life bonus, but shouldn’t be the ultimate focus of your life. You often hear about elderly couples who have been together decades dying shortly after one another. It’s a demonstration of how powerful romantic love and companionship can be, but also how such dependence can end your life prematurely.
Thirdly, pop culture is rife with characters who are motivated by feelings of longing. From villains acting out in search of love or because love lost, to protagonists who make poor choices, characters are often compromised by love or even the promise of it. Look at Romeo and Juliet. They are considered one of the greatest love stories of all time (they’re not. Anyone who’s read the play will tell you that is a lie), but they both give up their lives because they don’t want to live without each other (and a stupid misunderstanding).
Love is essentially a drug. It can make you feel amazing, but also kill you.
Now, before I conclude, I would like to say that I made a lot of generalizations here. My goal is to discuss the majority and also what motivates both characters and viewers. Romantic relationships are not for everyone and not everyone feels this way or the need for such a connection. My argument is about why romantic love can be so motivating to act on/watch. I do not intend to invalidate other forms of connection, though I would maintain that it is rare that someone does not require any form of human attachment to another living creature.