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What is so attractive about the terminal romance genre and its obsession with love and youth?

What is so attractive about the terminal romance genre and its obsession with love and youth?
Entertainment
Ryan O’Neal kneels beside Ali MacGraw’s deathbed toward the end of the romantic classic Love Story. Her silky smooth hair is perfectly splayed across her pillow and her skin is enviably rosy. Somehow in the shadow of death, MacGraw is even more beautiful than usual. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” A lump builds at the back of my throat.

Do I want to cry or wretch? The vulgarity of the clichéd melodrama is overwhelming, but because a dying Ali MacGraw is so beautiful, young and in love, I’m weeping.

With the release this weekend of Five Feet Apart, a film about a pair of teenagers with life-threatening illnesses who meet in a hospital and fall in love, another film joins the long ranks of melodramas in which a perfect love affair is disrupted (and typically enhanced) by a terminal prognosis.

The terminal romance genre has almost always been booming. Alexander Dumas’s semi-autobiographical novel, Camille, about his love affair with a dying courtesan was adapted no fewer than six times in the first half of the 20th century. At the height of Hollywood melodrama, falling in love was often equated to danger, with characters embroiled in a romance falling victim to disease, disability and death in films like Dark Victory, An Affair to Remember, Magnificent Obsession and Letter from an Unknown Woman.

Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse in Five Feet Apart. CBS Films

With the blockbuster success of Love Story in 1970, however, the genre refocused itself on youth. And over the past 50 years, this trend has only increased as tragic terminal romances continue to target high school and college-aged students. In these stories, the idealization of youthful romance reinforces an assumption that love cannot last, allowing the overwhelming intensity of a young love affair to be frozen in time.

Growing up, A Walk to Remember, starring Mandy Moore, was the epitome of romance at the all-girls Catholic school I attended. In the film, Jamie, the preacher’s daughter, grabs the attention of the resident bad boy, only for the audience to be hit with a third act twist when it’s revealed that she’s dying.

What was it that was so attractive about this premise? It was a film where death, rather than being an obstacle against true love, was the vehicle for it. It was a love story in which we could escape the trials and tribulations of shame and sinfulness hanging above us. As we fearfully looked towards an uncertain future, perhaps there was a morbid comfort in attaching ourselves to a love story that would never be tested by the real world.

In the case of most of these films, they represent their young women as aspirational symbols of femininity. They are beautiful, smart and morally upstanding. Due to her terminal prognosis, Jamie never has to compromise or adapt to an increasingly complex adult world. Death saves her from the disappointment of a failed relationship and the shame of losing her virginity out of wedlock. With the “ugliness” of her disease safely relegated to off-screen space, she remains beautiful and youthful even in death. Like many of these films, Jamie’s death serves a dual purpose: initiating a coming of age in the male character and preserving youthful femininity.

In Autumn in New York, Richard Gere plays Will, a 50-something ladykiller who falls in love with a beautiful 22-year-old, Charlotte (Winona Ryder). While the film opens with Gere dating a more age-appropriate woman, over the course of the film, his heart is opened thanks to Charlotte’s joie de vivre. Unlike the girlfriends that came before (including a fling with Charlotte’s mother decades prior), Charlotte is virginal and trusting, and aside from her pesky heart disease, completely immune to the evils of the world.

Over the course of the film, Charlotte is continually measured against other women in Will’s life. They are all older, jaded, tired and cynical. It is only the purity of Charlotte’s youth that allows Will to change his ways and emerge as a better man. While she dies in her “prime,” Will comes out of the relationship redeemed with a new lease on life and a better sense of what’s important. He is even inspired to reconnect with his adult daughter. While Charlotte has expended her usefulness, Will still has room to grow.

Terminal romances are less about love, and more about the fetishization of youth — often with female characters whose significance is only found in how they affect the men in their lives. These movies portray love frozen in time, uncorrupted by the trials of long-term monogamy. More than the disease, aging is presented as the true threat against love in an adult world that is consistently portrayed as cynical and corrupted. For women especially, the conservative expectations these romantic ideals impose are limiting and infantilizing.

If Ali MacGraw’s death at the end of Love Story makes me weep, it’s not because I’m sad about the death of her perfect love and beauty. I’m crying because I’m thinking of my own mortality and my own tally of romantic disappointments. Encased in her perfect 25-year-old life forever, she is a symbol of everything we lose as we grow older. If terminal romances tug at our heartstrings at all, it’s because they remind us we are all in a losing race against time.

In this occasional series, Jordan Peterson writes from his international speaking tour for his book, 12 Rules for Life

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