Olivia Andrews examines how iconic rom-com ‘The Notebook’ demonstrates the worst of toxic relationships.
Since its release, ‘The Notebook’ has been praised as one of the most romantic films of all time. I first watched it at the insistence of my friends: “How can you not have seen ‘The Notebook’? It’s literally amazing” were the words uttered at nearly every sleepover in my teens, so I went into the film with high expectations. Nearly every review claims that the characters depict the most ideal, pure, perfect love (cringe). When I finally watched the film, I couldn’t quite believe that people can’t see through the veneer veiling the ugly truth of their relationship.
On a surface level, the film is a heart-warming tale of ‘boy meets girl’ from the other side of the tracks with a tragically moving, romantic ending.
However, I’m not sure this is actually the message the film adaptation endorses. Aside from the problematic class dynamics (the suggestion that their love is ‘fantastical and rare’ because it defies class boundaries enforces social stereotypes), the film actually romanticises an incredibly dysfunctional relationship.
The romanticisation of their relationship masks early red flags that signify an abusive relationship. Ryan Gosling, who is considered one of the best-looking actors in Hollywood, guises the toxic behaviour of Noah. Allie and Noah’s first meeting is normally met with cries of ‘awwwh’ but when you actually consider the intention of his actions, Noah comes across as a manipulative creep. He threatens to seriously harm himself and even implies suicide to coerce Allie into going on a date with him. Are women supposed to think that’s romantic? Why is Hollywood presenting hanging from a ferris wheel by one arm as a declaration of love? Is this not actually an attempt to emotionally blackmail her into a date? This scene enforces the message that women are responsible for the actions of men and reiterates the outdated ideology that boys are mean to girls when they fancy them. Romanticising this encounter excuses Noah’s unacceptable behaviour and leads women to tolerate similar actions, which places them in potentially vulnerable situations.
But what about the other grand romantic gesture – the renovation of the couple’s dream house? What tends to be seen as deeply loving and thoughtful, is actually Noah toying with Allie’s emotions. This is incredibly unfair when he’s seen her happy with another man. The house personifies Allie and their relationship: Noah gets the idea into his head that if he works on the house constantly until it is perfect, he will be happy. In reality, this is another example of Noah’s unhealthy obsession with Allie and mirrors how they promise to work on their relationship, but never actually resolve their issues (yet still end up married, a super realistic plot line for young girls to aspire to). When Allie sees the photo of Noah in the newspaper she is emotionally rattled, drives to see the house and crashes her car like a classic ‘silly, irrational woman’, because we all know that women are awful drivers.
Despite all of Noah’s flaws, I should dutifully mention that Allie is no saint either. Her behaviour is often volatile, unpredictable, and violent. The message this sends to young viewers is that if a man really loves you, he’ll want to be with you no matter how you treat him and will actually beg for you to stay. Idealising this sort of behaviour is incredibly dangerous: it masks toxic behaviour, romanticises the slippery slope to abusive relationships and glorifies them as being the purest form of love.
At multiple points in the film, Allie shoves, pushes and hits Noah round the face, which is never acceptable. If the gender roles were reversed, the film would have a much darker tone. Neither of the couple is innocent, and it is suggested that because they make life difficult for each other, they are somehow a match? Their love is portrayed as strong because they argue and fall out then ‘make up’ every time. Yet, we never see them actually reconcile, apologise or even listen to each other. What is actually going on is a serious lack of communication and like so many Hollywood relationships, it dangerously advocates that love comes from conflict. Noah’s grand speech that he is willing to fight and argue all the time for them to be together continues the message that this unhealthy, argumentative relationship is ‘true love’.
So, am I going to watch ’The Notebook’ again or recommend it to friends? No; the characters are frustrating and their relationship issues could be resolved if they communicated effectively. It perpetuates dangerous power dynamics and the ending is entirely unrealistic. It fails young women, particularly survivors of domestic abuse, in its inadequacy to send a positive code of appropriate behaviour in relationships. Once you see ‘The Notebook’ for what it really is, it is difficult to watch without identifying so many layers for scrutiny. Unfortunately, this shouldn’t really be surprising considering this pattern is rampant throughout so many other Hollywood films directed by men, but aimed at women.
Artwork by Iona Holmes.