As I said in my Pepé Le Pew post, times are constantly changing, and so too are our perceptions of their subjects. Pointing to derision, mocking, and stalking as evidence that a guy likes a girl is more readily scorned than in previous decades, and, more relevant to today’s discussion, the concept of the love potion becomes less charming and more…creepy, shall we say? Possibly even…the dreaded “R” word?
Some might say that the whole idea of love potions was never that great to begin with. After all, romance as a whole is hard to write well, and portraying two people hopeless infatuated with one another often becomes sickening, simplistic, saccharine drivel. It puts one, both, or even multiple characters into a kind of trance, which looks closer to lust than our modern concept of what love is supposed to be, and they digress into illogical, stupid beings with no sense of boundaries.
I would agree there. If a love potion “plot” could be written well, I have yet to see it for myself. But worse still is the still newly-emerging revelation that a character who would willing overlook the thoughts and feelings of another person and simply force them into being with them (explicitly in a sexual way or not) is, quite frankly, a terrible scumbag of a human being.
Think about it: it’s rape in a meta-ethical sense, if not a literal one. A person thinks to himself (or herself), “Gee, I really like this person, but they don’t like me for whatever reason. Let me see if I can override that, whether they like it or not.”
It’s never phrased that way, of course, but that’s the basic subtext.
To keep things even, let’s look at a few notable female examples of this thing being romanticized:
Look at something like The Craft. Robin Tunney’s character, Sarah, casts a spell on a guy she likes named Chris, in order to get him to fall in love with her. At one point, Chris becomes so obsessed that he tries to rape her, only for Sarah to escape and her fellow witch and then friend Nancy (played by Fairuza Balk) to come to exact revenge. But despite the despicable nature of this act he tried to commit, no one ever pauses to think that he had limited agency in the overall situation. And I don’t say that to be apologetic; he was literally forced into ‘loving’ Sarah, and the magic just escalated it too far. Chris is punished and killed for something he probably had no control over, but we probably instinctively root for the former (if not the latter) because of our visceral loathing for the act of rape.
Let me just say here that I don’t think that having an attraction (physically, emotionally, etc.) to someone is inherently bad or wrong. It’s what you do about it and how you treat that person as a result of it that can cause problems, and the fact that enough people fantasize about forcing someone to fall in love with them that it’s a popular trope in the media makes me very glad that love potions don’t actually exist. Our society would fall into chaos and debauchery, probably just like the golden calf scene in The Ten Commandments.
Let’s take another magic movie: Practical Magic. Sandra Bullock’s Sally has a curse that all men who truly love the women of her family will die before their time, and so, as a young girl, she casts a spell that seals her feelings entirely on a man that “doesn’t exist.” She gives him what she thinks are impossible and ridiculous qualities, just so they will never meet and fall in love. But, lo and behold, such a man does meet her over the course of the movie.
The idea that Gary is under the influence of a spell and may or may not actually love Sally is never really satisfyingly resolved; at one point, she reveals the truth about her curse and spell to him, and, despite everything he has seen, replies that curses are only real if people believe in them. Sally is still supposed to be likeable, if flawed, but she just decides to take their love on faith, and embraces the man whose agency she took away. He embraces her as well, and they all live happily ever after. The curse did get broken, no doubt allowing Gary to live to a ripe old age, but the spell that binds him to Sally is never really mentioned again. And it’s constantly implied to be romantic because of how sweet and tragic it is!
I have some issues with Practical Magic’s overall execution, but that is a review for another time.
In Ancient Athens, stories about infatuation and Aphrodite were regarded as a kind of madness, and the love was basically an object to be acted upon by the “lover.” Gods and other mythical beings mostly got involved with “love” to be dicks and mess with people
or because they were arrogant enough to think that they knew better than the people themselves (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream). And yet today, we still see a lot of love potion stories in which we are meant to sympathize with the instigator, for kids no less! (see Breadwinners “Love Loaf” episode and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for just three random but recent examples)
The “safest” method of execution is to have one or more characters try to bring two other characters together, because he/she/they think they should be.
Personally, I prefer Garnet’s approach to love in Steven Universe:
“Love at first sight doesn’t exist. Love takes time and love takes work. At the very least you have to know the other person…”
I think that’s a much healthier attitude to teach kids, and I wish it would catch on more in the adult world as well. The idea that love always has to be dramatic or turbulent, but “don’t worry because it’s all worth it in the end” frustrates me, but still more is the idea that wanting to control someone else to such a ludicrous extent isn’t abusive, sociopathic, or just straight up objectification. You don’t have to know the person; you just have to want them badly enough, and thus they deserve to be yours, especially if you’re the protagonist. And if you have a way to make it happen, you’ll do so with no second thoughts.
At least having those would be better than just thoughtlessly making it happen in two seconds.
Even the most mindless entertainment can actually change the way we view the world, if its messages are constantly reinforced and we don’t get any variation. Somebody has to challenge the current notions if they are ever going to change, and I know it’s difficult. It’s hard to be different, and it’s hard to discern between what you may be overthinking and what’s actually a problem.
Believe me, I know, but ultimately, thinking about it and demanding more from your entertainment can make things better.