Teen romantic comedies have been a staple of cinema for years, often credited to have been birthed in 1982 with Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Following this came a flurry of teen based rom-coms from the now iconic director John Hughes, giving voice to a generation overlooked in mainstream film. It is a genre that resurfaces in full force the second it starts to dwindle; evidenced by Clueless (1995), again directed by Amy Heckerling, which sparked a whole wave of new films, filling the genre with modern classics such as 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). On the British side of the pond many fondly remember films like Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008) providing glimpses into much less glamorised first romance.
These movies have never been free of sexism but in recent times they have focused more on the autonomy of the lead female love interest instead of the behaviour of the man wooing her. Obviously, this genre is still dominated by hetero-normative relationships, as most genres are, but the lessons learnt from them are universal.
It seems that recently Netflix has taken up the torch for this well-loved and well-worn genre. The most popular of these being 2018’s To All The Boys I Loved Before, however, this was not the only teen romance Netflix launched that year. A few months prior they released The Kissing Booth and despite its bad reception from critics the film was green-lit for a sequel, which has just been released, and even a third instalment.
Despite vague memories of not enjoying it the first time, I decided to re-watch The Kissing Booth and see what all the fuss was about. Much to my disappointment I found not only a terribly mediocre film, something much sinister was lurking beneath the surface, something I thought we’d left behind in rom-coms of old.
The Kissing Booth blatantly romanticises behaviour that is toxic at best, abusive at worst.
What’s so special about The Kissing Booth?
For those who need a quick The Kissing Booth recap because you either forgot due to the bland plot or because you have avoided it thus far let me fill you in. Our protagonist Elle, portrayed by Joey King, has been best friends since birth with Lee Flynn. The two are inseparable sharing everything from secrets to birthdays, living in their happy world playing Dance Dance Revolution as often as possible. Lee has an older brother, who we are told early on is off-limits due to their friendship rules. This brother happens to be a star football player and school heartthrob, named Noah.
You can already see where this is going as Elle inevitably falls for bad boy Noah, keeping their relationship secret until it eventually comes out and destroys her friendship with Lee. Spoiler warning – it all works out in the end… until the sequel of course. All seemingly innocuous and nothing really to write home about, however, underneath this is a much less wholesome message for young girls.
Red flags and emotional manipulation are so romantic.
Lee himself is pretty standard on his levels of selfishness, I can see how his reaction to discovering his bad boy older brother has been secretly sleeping with his best friend might not be favourable to the couple.
My main fascination with Lee is the fact that before he knows the two are together he sees Elle with a black eye and immediately jumps to the conclusion Noah has hurt her. There is only a split second seeing her before this conclusion is reached, highlighting a very important theme throughout the film – Noah is highly aggressive.
His violent outbursts are framed as defending Elle from other men who would do her harm, despite her own affirmations that she does not want this. Right at the start of the film we see Lee trying to defend Elle from another student who touches her inappropriately but Noah swoops in and beats him up before Lee has the chance. We see this recurring during the story with the only person able to control Noah’s rage being Elle herself, although even she is unable to at points.
The student who slapped Elle’s bum comes back into the picture and asks her out, which she accepts, bringing up a whole host of feminist issues in itself. He stands her up but comes to apologise and explains that Noah has banned everyone from dating Elle. She is understandably angry at this but after a few moments of exhibitionism this is completely forgotten and passed off as just part of his secret crush on her.
Jealousy and ignoring boundaries are two of the key elements in a controlling partner, these are behaviours Noah exhibits without even actively pursuing Elle. Noah is seen with multiple other girls and known to be a player but cannot stand the thought of his secret love being with even one other person, the double standard here is unbelievable.
However, throughout the film this is portrayed as Noah watching over Elle because he cares rather than him manipulating her into believing nobody else is interested in her. There is no hint at whether Noah would have made a move on Elle if the events of the film had not occurred, did he plan to scare men away from her for the rest of their lives, whilst he dated every other woman under the sun?
Toxic relationships include a ‘if I can’t have them nobody else can’ mentality, keeping the other person on the backburner until the abuser is ready to pursue the relationship fully. This is a nasty phenomenon many young people find themselves trapped in, often setting patterns of abuse that can last a lifetime. Yet here is an incredibly popular film glorifying that exact behaviour.
No apologies necessary, Noah.
The phrase “actions speak louder than words” is often thrown around when people are making amends for their wrongdoings, however, this is normally said after a verbal apology is made.
Noah does not apologise to Elle at all.
The order of “I’m sorry” goes as follows; Noah apologises to Elle’s father specifically for the drama caused but not for his feelings towards Elle. Elle apologises to Lee, which he does not initially accept but comes around and they go to prom together. Note that Lee does not say sorry back. Noah then confesses his love for Elle, she says “I’m sorry Noah, I can’t” – twice. After Elle runs away, he apologises to Lee for what has happened and they plot to help him win Elle back. She then says sorry to Lee twice more and goes to win Noah back, she gets in the car and Noah reveals himself to have heard her confession of love and they live happily ever after.
In case you skim read that, I wouldn’t blame you if you did, nobody actually apologises to Elle for their behaviour towards her. Not once. Noah says sorry to her father but not actually to her.
The fact that Noah has been manipulating her love life without her knowing for years, kept her secret, ruined her friendship with his brother, and then broke her heart was completely overlooked. The Kissing Booth’s message to young girls seems to be that toxic behaviour is okay as long as it’s done out of love.
Onward but by no means upward.
I have only watched the trailer for the second film but within that short extract it appears Noah is up to his old tricks. This time he wants Elle to change a plan she’s had for years with Lee to go to college together to instead come to Harvard with him.
Whilst this is only meant to be a light-hearted movie, it is alarming how many red flags for a manipulative, controlling relationship there are packed into this 1hour 40 minute escapade; not to mention the sequels. Films like this set expectations for young women and men alike, if those beliefs are skewed in favour of a partner who dominates the life of their romantic interest, this will surely impact the expectations a young person has entering into their first relationship.
The bad boy trope is by no means innately misogynistic but we are more aware of the respect women deserve from their partners, so can easily recognise when a bad boy is just an abuser. The Kissing Booth perpetuates archaic ideas such as ‘he’s mean to you because he likes you’ or ‘he loves me so his behaviour is okay’. In 2018, this was worrying enough but the fact that this idea has spawned two follow up films reveals that the feminist ideals exhibited in many movies for older rom com fans have not yet trickled into those aimed at the most vulnerable.
Netflix, I implore you, please give us less Noah Flynns and more Peter Kavinskys (To All The Boys I Loved Before) from now on.
Words by Danni Scott