11:00 am EST, December 10, 2015

In defense of ‘Love Actually’: Why you can like this movie and be a feminist

Love Actually is all around. Literally, it'll be all over every website until Christmas.

And so this is (almost) Christmas, and what have you done? Written an article about why we should all hate Love Actually, probably.

Yes, the Christmas season has rolled around again and that means it’s once again time for every good feminist to proclaim to the world just how much they hate Love Actually. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” also gets a good ride this time of year, what with the whole date-rape vibe. I get it guys, I get it. I spent most of the year writing about why feminists should love UnREAL and Parks and Recreation, and take issue with Sherlock and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So why does Love Actually get a pass from me? Because I love it, actually.

love actually feminism

Yes, there are some genuine problems with Love Actually. First, why is Rowan Atkinson only in two scenes, when he is clearly the best character in the film? And forget about the unrealistic romances, the real fantasy of Love Actually is that these characters who never seem to be at work could somehow afford these beautiful, huge houses in the middle of London.

Okay seriously, yes, Love Actually isn’t some glorious feminist romance. The film has many aspects that make me pretty uncomfortable. The articles that encourage us to boycott Love Actually make good and valid points, particularly about the lack of development for most of the female characters. Remember when Colin Firth embarks on a possibly illegal human trafficking/green card marriage? And Prime Minister Hugh Grant fires his potential love interest because he doesn’t think he can control himself around her? That’s not even mentioning the incredibly creepy and inappropriate actions by The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes and his gross, “nice guy” cue cards.

But there’s also a lot to love about this film. For one, let’s all take a moment to appreciate Liam Neeson achieving the usually impossible feat of having floppier hair than Hugh Grant. And the nativity scene complete with octopus, King Spider-Man, and more than one lobster.

I also enjoy playing “Where Are They Now” with the impressive ensemble cast. Here’s Bryan Mills on a day off; nothing has been taken, except perhaps any musical ability his son Jojen Reed ever possessed. There’s John Watson standing in on a movie that seems to be comprised of nothing but sex scenes. Here’s Jack Bauer’s daughter and her roommate Betty Draper. And there goes Severus Snape, acting like a total gross asshole who we are supposed to think is romantic (wait, no, that one is in character).

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love actually feminism

And all these years later Love Actually still pulls at the (read: my) heartstrings. Yes, all of the characters in the film are mostly terrible people who you wouldn’t like to find yourself in a relationship with. The clear exception is the the objectively perfect Emma Thompson. Thompson’s storyline, set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell and the sound of my heart breaking, makes absolutely plain to the viewer that it is Rickman’s character who is in the wrong, not her. Their reconciliation at the end is bittersweet and reluctant, not joyful. It’s complicated.

Laura Linney’s storyline is also treated with immense empathy. When Linney chooses her brother over a potential partner, we aren’t supposed to feel bad for her, or for Karl. We feel sad about the situation, but there is no sense that Linney has lost out just because she ends up spending Christmas with her brother rather than with Karl’s abs. And anyway, the real horror of this situation is Laura Linney being haunted, not by family obligation, but by her tragically outdated original Nokia ringtone.

Linney’s storyline demonstrates that while the romantic relationships have their problems, the non-romantic scenes do come off reasonably well. In addition to Linney and her brother, we see the rather lovely bonding between Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as step-dad and son, in a story arc that’s much more about escaping grief than a 10-year-old seducing his classmate.

Is it a perfect film? Of course not. Is it as terrible as everyone makes it out to be? I don’t think so. Do people watch Love Actually and think these ridiculous romances are the stuff of dreams? I hope not. This isn’t a documentary. One couple hasn’t spoken to each other in the same language before their wedding proposal. Another inspire a major foreign policy decision out of jealousy and workplace harassment. And to be clear, I’ll never be over the awful, “I just thought you should know” sentiment of the appalling Christmas cue cards. If you learn one thing from the anti-Love Actually brigade, make sure it’s that that scene is probably the least romantic one in cinematic history.

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But I like a film with an unnecessary musical number (incidentally, the entire score and soundtrack are genuinely fantastic). I’m amused that the guy with the terrible pickup lines is basically considered a piece of vermin by all of his friends, but when he goes overseas he is some exotic wonder. I like that the film somehow makes Hugh Grant seem like a viable Prime Minister, simply by making the President of the United States so unappealing.

I even find Martin Freeman’s bumbling attempts to ask out a woman he has pretended to have sex with almost hysterical, although that could be flashbacks to the first time I saw this film, sitting in the cinema between my parents at 12 years old as we watched the fake sex scenes in awkward silence, and then never spoke of them again.

You can read a film like Love Actually in many ways. I could argue that I enjoy Bill Nighy’s campaign to get his “Christmas Is All Around” parody single to #1 because of its sharp commentary on Christmas consumerism. I don’t, I just really love Bill Nighy. I’m just saying, I could argue that.

And a feminist reading of Love Actually is certainly justified. Feminist critiques of Love Actually might be occasionally exaggerated, but they aren’t wrong. But that doesn’t mean that I, as a feminist, have to boycott a movie I find otherwise a bit silly, a bit sad, and a bit funny. After all, this is the movie that once inspired me to sing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” at a school concert, not because I wanted the boy, but because I thought the girl from the film was badass.

Love Actually isn’t feminist gold, but I enjoy it all the same. Maybe, as Roxane Gay would say, I’m just a bad feminist. Or maybe I sometimes switch off my feminist checklist to enjoy a good (or bad) movie. Either way, I’ll be laughing along to Hugh Grant’s dancing once again this holiday season. If you like Love Actually, I encourage you to do the same, regardless of what every second article will try to tell you.

Just don’t expect Love Actually to be a guide to realistic love. And while you’re at it, don’t take any dating advice from “Baby, it’s Cold Outside,” either.

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