These is no doubt that there is a certain formula that our favourite teen romcoms follow.
There’s drama, angst, and pretty people kissing. There’s yelling, unrealistic declarations of love, and romance that gives us way too big expectations for what dating should be like in high school. Surprisingly, there is one thing that doesn’t seem to match all the other fluffy and warm clichés that flood our TVs and cinema screens, and that’s the ever-present trope of the dead parent.
It is such an insistent plot line that in the classic film The Princess Diaries, the main character’s dad was killed off despite being alive and well in the original books. And that’s just one example, if you need more then here is a list I’ve compiled, from just a quick google search, and scroll through my memories of all the teen films I’ve seen, where at least one of the main characters has a dead parent: She’s All That, Clueless, The Last Song, The Edge Of Seventeen, A Cinderella Story, The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants, Drive Me Crazy, Wild Child, Save the Last Dance, The Spectacular Now, Aquamarine, Step Up. It then came as no surprise when I tuned it to watch the two biggest teen films of the year, The Kissing Booth and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, to find they both had followed the same trope.
These films – all so different in tone, scope, and era they were made in – all have this same thing in common: a dead parent, mum or dad or, rarely, both, that gives them that perfect amount of a tragic background to let the audience know that these heroines are “not like other girls.”
They’re not like other girls because they’ve seen things; they’ve felt grief, and that makes the love they find and the journey they’re on so deep and profound and meaningful, right? Wrong.
Here’s the thing: some of those films I love, some I’m ambivalent about, and some I even dislike immensely, and not all of them handle the trope badly, but they all, in different ways, made me at least a little uncomfortable. To see yourself in a movie is to feel heard, but these movies rarely made me feel heard. More often than not, I just felt used.
When I was eight years old, my own mother died from an illness she had had for pretty much the entirety of my life. It was hard, it still is hard, and I imagine it will probably be hard for my entire life, but I have yet to play a role in my life in the way it does in all these cliched romcoms. No long lost friend of my dead parent has ever shown up with a gift just in time for me to understand that true love was right in front of my nose this entire time, it has never given me the tools I need to ride off into a happily-ever-after.
The truth is, losing a parent when you are young is more complicated and messier and never-ending than can fit into a film when the main focus is an unrealistic teen romance. Instead, these films slot this trope into their main character’s life to give them a conveniently tragic backstory that doesn’t need too much exposition. These very real events that change who you are fundamentally, are packaged up and dolled out at opportune moments when they best serve the plot at hand. In many of these films, the dead parent is a plot device and nothing more, they’re convenient and lazy ways to let the teens run wild without someone to question them, or a reason that they’re ‘mature’, or something equally as
Not every film makes these mistakes in the same way, some of them did include things I related to, but even those films had sections that left a sour taste in my mouth because the emotional beats they hit feel disingenuous, designed solely to tug at the heart strings of the people who don’t understand what it’s like to deal with that loss. And if a film about me doesn’t really feel like it was made for people like me, then it can’t really be capturing the reality of dealing with that type of grief. For example, To All The Boy’s I’ve Loved Before‘s scene in the kitchen — a sequence where the two romantic leads have an awkward conversation that highlights the similarities and differences between losing a parent to divorce and one to death — felt familiar and real to me. But even that film, which I enjoyed very much, had moments — like the one where the main character discusses her dead mother with her dad in a diner — that didn’t sit right with my experiences but felt more designed to illicit the right type of emotion than to be truthful.
But this isn’t an attack on any one film.
Many of the films I used as examples are still films I enjoyed or think are important, but it is a call to ask for more from the films we are given. When tropes like this are so overused it just feels lazy, and that in turn feels insulting, and it puts me off watching films from a genre that I want to enjoy.
I just want, for once, to tune into the latest romcom and not be confronted with my own trauma, neatly bound up in the protagonist’s journey to find true love.
Sometimes, I just want to watch two cute people fall in love without the niggling reminder of the loss I carry with me. And I think, ultimately, not relying on these kinds of tired plot-lines will give us better films for everyone. As we enter a new age of good teen movies and romcoms, it would be nice to leave this trope behind.