Rooting for Affairs: The Blurry Lines of Pop Culture Romance

This one comes from our friend Liz Riggs, a writer for The Wise Guise. Don’t […]

Mockingbird / 5.7.13

This one comes from our friend Liz Riggs, a writer for The Wise Guise.

Don’t most of us fundamentally agree that cheating, no matter what the circumstance, is wrong? That it’s dishonest and treacherous and infinitely disloyal? That it is the sort of indelible unfaithfulness that, simply put, changes everything?

So, if that’s how most of the world thinks, then where does all the black and white turn grey? Where do the lines blur, and how do we make sense of them?

gatsbymInfidelity has always permeated culture. From the dawn of time to modern television, “stepping out” has become a ubiquitous plot point in everything from classic novels to modern film. This is probably because it gnaws at the core of same very raw and visceral human emotions: love, lust, and, ultimately, the tipping point of all affairs: temptation.

As a society, these moments of betrayal have become a simple part of human life. They happen, people move on (or maybe they don’t), and then everyone talks about how “awful” and devastating” that was. And, yet, in popular culture viewers can find themselves subconsciously rooting for these affairs. It’s as though we want them to happen; we’re yearning for the moment where this act of infidelity finally comes to fruition and is able to satisfy our desire for easing the emotion/sexual/romantic tension.

For an issue that feels so black and white, what about this becomes so grey?

Some popular culture examples of this strange sentiment:

1. The Great Gatsby

This one will probably be even more culturally pervasive once the film is released May 10 and Leonardo DiCaprio is playing Jay Gatsby and, well, let’s face it, everyone is rooting for anyone to have an affair with Leonardo DiCaprio. Nevertheless, the Gatsby premise remains an illustrious example of an extramarital affair that readers (and viewers) simply want to happen. Because Tom Buchanan is a pompous and abusive misogynist, and their blithely dispassionate relationship is painted in such sad, dismissive colors that it’s hard not to want Daisy to escape. Especially when this escape leads her to a man who has longed after her for such an inordinate amount of time that you have to wonder if anyone else in the world is capable of such commitment.

So here’s the moral dilemma (if there is a true dilemma at all): What is right? To remain committed to someone who is disdainful and potentially abusive? Or betray the trust and commitment of a relationship for the hope of something better?


2. Walk The Line

The thing about Walk The Line is that it’s a film version of a real life story, a story of a man who surrendered himself to Christ and later committed to a different life. Given that the film version has obviously adapted and retold his life story, it should certainly be considered with a grain of salt. Here, it’s not that viewers want Johnny and June to get together because Johnny’s wife is abusive (although she is certainly portrayed in a contemptuous light.) Mostly, we find ourselves rooting for Johnny and June because their interest and attraction for each other feels infectious. In Walk The Line, it seems like maybe Johnny settled down too early, or maybe Johnny just simply settled. So what does that mean for Johnny and June? Is their great, great love doomed because they met other people first? After their respective divorces, the two were married for 30 some years, and died within months of each other… so maybe, it’s just the fact that, there isn’t one person out there for all of us. Maybe the idea of great love is just a little different than it’s typically imagined.

3. Titanic, Mad Men, Almost Famous, Finding Neverland, New Girl, Nashville, etc. etc.

Nashville-Deacon-RaynaThere are so many other shows and films where this premise lands at our feet, and we, as viewers and readers and consumers of media must decide what to do with it. When Jack and Rose are shacking up in the back of a car while she’s engaged to that totally unlikable Cal, it’s hard not to root for the sexy DiCaprio from steerage even though it’s still a betrayal. Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, plays a similar trick on viewers, as do other well-known dramas such as Mad Men or the new ABC show, Nashville.  There’s a sense from all of this that maybe our interior emotional compasses are each pointing in different directions, torn first to one thing and then to another. One second we’re pulling for the affair. The next, the creators remind us about the destruction that betrayal will cause, and our brains are torn and confused and our spirituality feels compromised.

Maybe, at the end of the day, we are, at our deepest heart of hearts, a group of people who want to see true love thrive. We want to see people happy, and we want to see people find true love.

And this is why perhaps we are a society that is confused by a world where people do not always find that. Or people do find true love, but they already married someone else. So badly do we want people to find true, wholly life-altering love in the form of another human being, that we find ourselves deeply invested in the disparate, often-contradictory pictures of love in movies or television, and how they can tug at tiny, sensitive threads of our hearts. True love does exist. And maybe it’s not always our call as humans to decide whom it’s for, when people find it, or how they keep it. But it’s there. It’s definitely there.