In a world where writing female characters is still somehow a difficult task, a lot of praise is heaped on movies and shows where there is no romance. Creators pat themselves on the back for not making the female character have a love interest, the public gushes on how it’s oh so feminist and progressive. This is especially prominent in regards to Disney movies; the company, after receiving tons of criticisms for having their main characters fall in love and get together so quickly, has started to make itself appear revolutionary by phasing out on romance.
I think to myself, is this really the bare minimum a movie needs to do to prove that it’s female friendly? Not have a romance? Is this really what it’s come to?
Here’s the thing: it’s not always a bad thing to have romance. It’s only bad if it’s shoehorned.
Take a look at, say, Aladdin and Jasmine, Belle and the Beast or Ariel and Eric. All these couples have lots of onscreen chemistry and relationship development. They may have happened quickly, but it was clear they loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company. And it didn’t compromise any of the female characters. All these women still have an interest in exploring the world(s) around them, care about their family and friends, are kind, have distinct personalities, and have active roles in the plot. The romance didn’t harm any of that.
On the other hand, look at couples like Anna and Kristoff or Captain Amelia and Dr. Doppler. Kristoff is pretty rude and condescending to Anna for most of the movie and she doesn’t really show much interest in him but suddenly by the third act they love each other? And Dr. Doppler gets with a woman way out of his league and she becomes a mother (even though she’s not very maternal)? Yeah.
So there is nothing wrong with giving your female characters a love interest. It is a problem when the romance feels forced. But you can still have a romance without getting all lovey-dovey; you can just have one character asking the other character if they’d like to get a coffee or go on a date and that’s perfectly okay.
But the problem with Disney’s recent stance on not having romance is that it’s just starting to happen with their films focused on nonwhite people.
Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, and Frozen all featured romances for their white (or white passing) leads. When Big Hero 6 rolled around, there were no romances whatsoever, not even implied ones. Then Moana got lauded for not giving the main lead a love interest. And now apparently they are getting rid of Shang to replace him with a rival in the Mulan remake.
Why is this a problem? Because people of color don’t get to see themselves be in a romantic relationship a lot. Sometimes you’ll see two black people pair up, but the white couple has the main focus. Or it will look like the white lead will get with a woman of color only to ditch her for a white woman later. Sometimes you’ll see pairings between a white man and a woman of color, but never a man of color with a white woman (unless the movie is making a statement on racism), and you’ll rarely see interracial couples between two different nonwhite races. And of course you’re hard pressed to find any LGBT couples. You can see how there would be an unfortunate implication that white, heterosexual couples are the more ‘acceptable’ or ‘desired’ couples that people are willing to see. Disney does not have a lot of pairings with a person of colour involved and, with the exception of Aladdin and Jasmine and Tiana and Naveen (or not, if you think them being frogs for most of the movie doesn’t count), none of them get a lot of focus.
My main point is, it IS possible to have a romance and still be progressive if it gives representation to people of colour and LGBT people (and other minority groups, without relying on offensive tropes). You don’t have to add romance to everything, but if you do, it won’t hurt to add in minority groups.
And if you’re NOT going to give your female lead a love interest, don’t make it sound more important than it actually is. Making your female character single is not the be all end all for making her a ‘feminist’ character.