I have a confession – I’m a sucker for a good love story.
When I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and share my writing with the world, I had an idea of writing a long-form piece on love. I had the idea of interviewing different couples and partnerships ranging in race, age, gender, religion. I wanted old folks who have been together for a long time. I wanted monogamous and non-monogamous couples. I wanted partnerships wit more than two partners. I wanted to experience, and report, the different ways love, romantic love specifically, could exist.
That was a few years ago and that piece has not been written. I don’t know if it ever will be. But what I do know is that the piece I dreamed of writing is what Amazon Prime’s original series Modern Love could have been – an exploration of the vastness of love and partnership. Instead, what we got is regurgitated tropes of romance imbued with cis-white-heteronormative narratives.
I don’t completely understand my fascination with love and partnership. I’ve never been the type to daydream my wedding or write the initials of my crush in my notebook. Maybe it’s because I know I’ll probably never experience the love my grandparents have. Or, maybe it’s because love, in all its forms, is the “purest, most concerned thing” as one of the narrators exclaimed in episode 2 of the series. I guess, what interesting to me, chiefly, is the different routes we take to end up at one goal – to give love and be able to receive in a way that is healthy and honest.
I watched the eight-episode series twice through. The first time was simply to enjoy the series. There was quite a buzz surrounding the series, portraying itself to be a “new kind of love story.” And as we know by now, I loves me a love story. But as I made my way to the episodes a second time, my eyebrows raised in confusion and my eyes rolled in annoyance at the sheer white heteronormativity of it all.
The concept of modernity is to do away with old things and bring about something new that augments uniqueness, inclusion, and equality. Modern Love is neither unique nor inclusive, but offers recycled age-old tropes of the romantic genre and sets it to pretty music. A few things stood out to me:
- Aside from one couple, every couple in Modern Love is cisgender and heterosexual (note: just because a cis man and a cis women are a couple doesn’t mean that they’re heterosexual, queerness presents in many forms, but the series gave us no reason to believe that the characters were anything but cisgender and heterosexual so that’s what I’m going with).
- There were no women of color as a love interest in the entire series. They are only in supporting roles (with very little lines) to their white women counterparts. (note: There needs to be a conversation about how the romance/rom-com genres have perpetuated the colonial notion of the gentle innocence of white womanhood)
- There were men of color included, but outside of Dev Patel’s character, they all lack agency. Their only significance is tied to the development of their white partners.
There is one episode that solidified Modern Love’s commitment to a white-centric, heteronormative narrative. “Hers Was A World Of One” follows a gay couple Tobin (Andrew Scott) and Andy (Brandon Kyle Goodman) who plan to adopt Karla’s (Olivia Cooke) unborn baby. As all of the episodes are, this episode was adapted from an essay that was written about a true journey that of the writer and activist Dan Savage experienced. However, the series makes some drastic challenges to the narrative that cheapen the story and highlights its commitment to more conventional narratives. While Savage’s piece was chronicling a very difficult journey of adoption and wanting his son to have a relationship with his wayward mother, Modern Love’s spin on the tale seems to be nothing more than a white man’s redemption story by focusing on Tobin’s relationship to 1) having children in general 2) the tumultuous relationship with the child’s mother. NPR writes that it is a “reductive” take on the narrative.
The episode is further complicated given the racial dynamic of the couple. Tobin and Andy are in an interracial couple – Tobin, the main character, being white and Andy being Black (Dan Savage and his partner [Terry Miller] are both white). Andy has no real agency outside of his connection to Tobin in the episode. He is present but rarely says anything of substance. The audience is even left questioning what Andy does for a living. Tobin is by Karla’s side as she gives birth while Andy is in the waiting room. In the final scene of the episode, the child is now a toddler and Tobin is by her bedside telling her a story while Andy is in the corner reading one of the child’s books. All these moments may seem innocuous, but further, speak to an underdeveloped Black character who has no agency without the partnership he shares with his white counterpart. This is also reflected in episode 3, “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am” with Gary Carr, starring opposite of Anne Hathaway, a Black male lead in the episode who the audience knows nothing about except that he’s handsome and like peaches.
Furthermore, while I understand that this is adapted from a true tale, when the only queer narrative is one that perpetuates the idea of assimilation into heteronormative, dominate culture by gays feeling “incomplete” without raising children, Modern Love’s commitment to heteronormative storytelling feels pretty deliberate.
Modern Love has many feel-good moments. I found myself smiling and tearing up at certain moments. But in this current political climate, it is impossible to depoliticize art. Especially when said art is purporting itself to operate under the guise of modernity. Activist and author bell hooks understood the importance of images and how representation dictated social and cultural currency. In her book Race and Representation, she challenges us to “rethink” the ways to write and talk about representation in order to challenge systems of oppression – for there is a direct correlation between the media and images we consume and the maintenance of dominant culture. Under a president and administration where so many people have been othered, it would have been nice to follow narratives that challenged the status quo instead of reinforcing it.