Katie Larkin interrogates the resilience of the “enemies to lovers” trope and what its constant reinvention says about us.
The enemies to lovers storyline is a common trope across fiction and film. The trope almost always implies toxicity between characters, but in my opinion, can also subvert stereotypical representations of femininity in film. Often, the trope begins with a distinct dislike between two characters, as a result of some sort of conflict in personality or disagreement. It then develops into a tense yet sexually driven animosity between the pair. Eventually, the hate fades into love, and the couple end up together.
Interviewed for Dazed Magazine, Dr. Tony Ortega, a clinical psychologist and author of several relationship management books, writes about the trope saying “we see two individuals who may well have had great disdain for each other working through it and becoming a sexual or romantic couple.” According to him, “constant sparring can result in something called affect tolerance” which he defines as “one’s ability to be able to deal with negative emotions over time.” Supposedly, the more we engage with certain behaviours, the more resilient we will be when faced with that behaviour. This narrative is illustrated in many notable films as well as television series. However, it seems that the trope says volumes about society and about what we as members of society are drawn to in the media. The underlying trend seems to be that the media we consume often reflects personal desires and ideals. But what is it exactly that we desire in the media we consume? Do we want to mirror reality or do we want to escape to ascend to a higher realm of romance?
The underlying trend seems to be that the media we consume often reflects personal desires and ideals.
I believe that the “enemies to lovers” trope as a whole does reflect elements of toxicity and how we can often turn a blind eye to flaws in the people we desire. Translated to real life, this can be harmful in how we allow ourselves to be treated.
Often the characters involved are hateful and toxic towards each other as they toy with each other's emotions. The trope is not complete, however, until they predictably lie to everyone else and themselves about how they truly feel. Although the outcome might be positively romantic and happy, the trials and tribulations needed to get there are anything but.
A particular movie I wanted to delve into is Silver Linings Playbook (2012) directed by David O’Russell and starring Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany) and Bradley Cooper (Pat). The movie’s plot centers around their turbulent relationship. Tiffany is a young widow with an unnamed mental disorder and Pat, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is recovering from his divorce and subsequent psychotic break that led to him beating the man his wife had an affair with to near death. Together they form a primarily transactional relationship; Tiffany needs a dance partner for a competition, and Pat wants assistance to win his wife back. Driven by the misfortune in each of their individual lives, their relationship is frequently strained and they are always somewhat aggressive with each other. Pat turns down Tiffany’s offer of casual sex and as the movie progresses, the pair eventually develop real feelings for each which only makes them collide even more violently. It isn’t until Pat is reunited with his ex-wife at a dance competition, that he admits his genuine feelings for Tiffany. After seeing the ex-couple reunite, Tiffany escapes, forcing Pat to chase after her to finally confess his true feelings for her. Relieved, the pair share a kiss and begin a relationship.
I believe that the “enemies to lovers” trope as a whole does reflect elements of toxicity and how we can often turn a blind eye to flaws in the people we desire.
Disney also offered their take on the enemies to lovers trope with Anna and Kristoff in Frozen (2013). As they plough through the winter ice to find Anna’s sister, Queen Elsa, to end the constant winter, their relationship is strained by their radically different upbringings, and only continues to deteriorate throughout the film. Their dislike and disdain for one another eventually turns to love once Kristoff saves Anna from death during the movie's third act.
Similarly, late 1990s classic rom-com, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) stars Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger as polar-opposites who bear a certain disdain for one another. Kat (Stiles) is an outspoken feminist who doesn’t have the time of day for kids in her school or for Patrick Verona, the resident bad-boy (Ledger). In this modern take on Shakespeare’s infamous play The Taming of The Shrew, Kat’s younger sister, Bianca is not allowed to date until she does. In an attempt to date Bianca, shy and quiet Cameron develops a ploy to get Kat and Patrick together. The plan works for a while: although she treats him with disdain at first, the two develop genuine feelings for one another. However, is it only a matter of time until Kat finds out the truth? Despite having her heart and self-esteem shattered by the first boy she ever truly loved, Kat forgives Patrick at the end of the movie and they start dating.
While most of these narratives are meant to be romantic, perhaps even aspirational, toxic behaviours are recurrent throughout the enemies to lovers narrative
While most of these narratives are meant to be romantic, perhaps even aspirational, toxic behaviours are recurrent throughout the enemies to lovers narrative. The common denominator with these movies is that they imply that we ought to let those who hurt us back into our lives because mutual attraction and chemistry are worth more than our well-being and peace of mind.
The apparent rejection of the conventional standards of femininity in heterosexual relationships is also worthy of note. Often, the female characters do not play into what is expected of them during courtship based on their gender. This contrasts with the tropes we grew up with as children, such as the Disney princess movies, where women were always literally damsels in distress. The protagonists of these films, however, do not need to be saved from men. Often, they are as independent and as abrasive as their male counterparts.
To see a couple fall in love with each other, flaws and all, is refreshing and somewhat admirable, shattering the notion that we need to perform or behave a specific way to be deemed worthy of love.