Mono-centric Torture Porn

Yes, I kinda just made up the phrase “mono-centric torture porn.” Here’s what I mean by it: a story that dwells on, even fetishizes, the character(s) being forced to choose between two lovers in order to end up in a monogamous long-term relationship. I borrow the term “torture porn” from film reviewers who use it to describe movies that don’t seem to have much going on beyond the gory dismembering and killing happening on screen, since it gets to the point of being gratuitous violence.

I also feel like plots that make us sit through a book or film where OMG YOU MUST CHOOSE ONE are gratuitous and sickening. I mean, who would ever write a book or make a movie about someone being forced to choose between their two best friends? It’s disgusting to me to even contemplate a storyline where someone ends up in that position. I would contend that romantic love isn’t terribly different from the other kinds of love that people experience – the love of a parent for a child, or the love of a close-knit group of friends for each other – but we wouldn’t waste our time on a movie that depicted parents agonizing over which child to not love anymore, would we?

The examples are too numerous to list, and they tend to cluster in young adult (YA) film and literature: Twilight, The Hunger Games, and so on (though I recommend this Feministe post on why The Hunger Games is not quite a love triangle). The trope where a girl has to choose between Mr. Nice and the Hot Bad Boy gets a lot of play too, in romantic comedies and romance novels among other genres. I’m sure there are plenty more examples, but I mostly don’t pay attention to those kinds of plots because they piss me off, so feel free to fill in the blanks on your own.

Why are these plots so prevalent? Why don’t the characters seek some other kind of resolution, such as turning to open relationships or clearly communicating what they want in the first place? Why do they tend to get so destructive, with scorned lovers setting out to ruin lives or manipulate targets into taking them back?

I don’t have all the answers, again, because these plots disgust me so much that I ignore them when given the option. I’ll enjoy plenty of kinds of narrative conflicts in novel, comic books, or films, but this one just makes me shudder. I think, however, that it has something to do with contemporary American culture’s unease with sexual exclusivity and the meaning of monogamy. We’re taught from an early age that monogamy is the only way to go, but we live in a culture with high rates of cheating and divorce. Women and men are basically pitted against each other, with women taught not to “give it up” unless it’s for the right guy, while men are taught to seek out as many conquests as possible. I’m not surprised that we’re working out these cultural conflicts in popular narrative, but I wish we could find a better way to go about it. I think mono-centric torture porn takes an essentially pessimistic, dystopian view of the world, requiring characters to be emotionally tortured in order to finally make “the” choice. Why not envision a world with an abundance of love? A world where people hook up monogamously if they want to, and otherwise don’t torture themselves over finding and picking “the one”? Again, we’d never consent to watch a film about a parent trying to choose between two kids, so why would we create and consume these plots where love is competed for and warped?

We humans are pretty creative critters, so I think we can do better with our storytelling if we put our minds to it. There are varied relationship models and sexual preferences out there, and I’d love to see more of them making it into mainstream narratives.

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About Jeana

Jeana

Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

     You raise some really excellent points about the need for conflict in most plots in Western culture, as we tend to value stories that include drama and conflict over those that are excessively peaceful and cooperative.

    And it’s true, these sorts of plots do exist within the family, but I would argue (as a fairy-tale scholar) that fairy tales make it obvious who the audience should root for, but romantic love plots are often much more ambiguous, leading to more emotional involvement and catharsis for both the main characters and the audience members.

  • http://twitter.com/foxyfolklorist Jeana Jorgensen

     Thanks for your comment. I guess my main point was that more creativity in relationship models would not only be more interesting, but it would make this whole slew of romance films a lot less tedious and annoying.