Mary: I’ll bet Romeo marries his Juliet.
Jimmy: They have a baby…
Mary: …and make lots of friends!
Mary & Jimmy: That’s prob’ly the way the play ends.
Here’s a story. There was a boy, and there was a girl. Can you fill in the rest? Did you think ‘they get together’? On TV and in film, most of the time, you’d be right.
The male and female leads almost always have sex or get into a romantic relationship, whether they stay together or not. You can identify those who are ‘tapped to be a part of the romance’ long before they ever cement their relationship.
If not the leads, you can be damn sure some guy is going to get together with some girl in the pool of secondary characters. It can occur with little to no previous interaction between the characters. It will occur in nearly every story you can name.
This is compulsory heterosexuality on screen.
Compulsory heterosexuality is a term coined by Adrienne Rich. It is the notion that society dictates to us that all people are inherently straight (especially women). It differs from heteronormativity in one key way: it proposes that heterosexuality is not only presented as ‘the norm’, but it is enforced as such.
How is it enforced? By presenting monogamous heterosexual relationships as natural without ever examining whether that is actually true. In other words, we are told that being attracted to the ‘opposite sex’ is natural. When feelings arise that do not fit within that mold, they are cast out, ignored, or misinterpreted in order to serve a notion whose only claim to truth is ‘because we said so’ and ‘that’s what we’ve always thought’.
Television and film contribute to the continuation of compulsory heterosexuality. Television is reflective of the world around us and projects what it could be. It’s a feedback machine. We learn from television and television learns from us.
Television and film present what is expected of us as the ‘norm’ (often unthinkingly). Everything that does not conform to that supposed ‘norm’ is ‘deviant’ and therefore an undesirable reaction to ‘the norm’.
In this way, compulsory heterosexuality is self-perpetuating. You don’t need to explain to anyone that heterosexual relationships, and all that come with them, are deemed normal when you are consistently bombarded with them since birth.
What’s the problem?
It creates lazy storytelling and actively detracts from storylines that otherwise would be better off without it.
It enforces gender roles (that disproportionately harm women) because heterosexuality as a construct has these built in.
It undermines friendship and cooperation between men and women and contributes to a more adversarial relationship between sexes.
It erases, isolates, and hurts LGBT people by painting them as ‘deviant’, ‘abhorrent’, or ‘non-existent’ against a false and artificially constructed ‘normal’.
It disallows people from getting to know themselves and their desires organically.
We begin with WHIP IT. This is an example of how forcing heterosexual romances into every story is bad for storytelling and undermines other relationships.
Who thought this was a good idea? Is there no chlorine in this pool?
This is an older example, but one which I recently watched, so we’re going with it. Make no mistake, this type of thing is showing no signs of dying off in the current time, I just have no patience for it nowadays.
WHIP IT is about a southern girl named Bliss whose mother wants her to be a beauty queen. Bliss goes along with it for a while until she discovers roller derby in all of its knockdown tattooed glory. Bliss joins the worst team in the league: the Hurlscouts.
She toughens up and finds her power in the rink. She is eventually able to assert her own identity and desires without destroying her loving relationship with her mother.
What does a boy in a band have to do with this? Nothing. But he’s there anyway.
Bliss meets a boy to whom she is immediately attracted. We know right away that they will get together. Notice how we assume a love interest will reciprocate. We know where things are going right off the bat. They date. He may or may not cheat on her. She eventually leaves him after burning his clothes.
The trouble with this is that it has absolutely no bearing on Bliss’s character arc. In fact, it detracts from the story because it takes up time that could have been dedicated to where the story’s focus should have been: Bliss’s gradual ascent to being more assertive with her family through her relationships with the Hurlscouts.
This story would have been better off without a romance, but compulsory heterosexuality dictates that we must always have a heterosexual romance or we’ve failed to reinforce its regime. We’re so focused on this type of relationship that we shoehorn it into every story we make. We can’t conceive of a single story with it.
This line of thinking has produced a number of terrible and poorly constructed on screen couples that are simply there for their own sake. These romances are easy to predict, don’t affect the main story in any meaningful way, and in cases like WHIP IT, they harm the overall narrative by taking time from more important relationships.
Anansi is the pseudonym of a writer who knows that if she uses her real name to talk about subjects like this he’ll get his head handed to him faster than Vito Corleone put the horse’s head in that idiot pervert producer’s bed.