The Kissing Booth, directed by Vince Marcello and starring Joey King, Jacob Elordi and Molly Ringwald, caused a bit of a stir in the rom-com genre when it was first released on Netflix in May 2018. Not least because it was based off a published Wattpad series by Beth Reekles, written when she was just fifteen years old. As someone who used to frequently read (and occasionally attemptto write) Wattpad stories, I maintain that it is a valuable platform for creating and consuming content in its most preliminary form; though I do wonder if there were other less damaging narrative that Netflix could have picked up and transferred to the big screen.
The series follows characters Elle and Lee, best friends since birth, and Lee’s older brother Noah, as they navigate a twisted love triangle which is problematic from the start. Lee has forbidden Elle from dating Noah; not because he wants to be with her himself, but rather because his overprotectiveness of their ‘friendship’ apparently prevents him from being able to view her as an autonomous individual who is able to make decisions for herself. At the end of the first film, Lee says to Elle, ‘you know, my whole life Noah has gotten everything that he has ever wanted. The only thing that I had that he didn’t was you. And now he has that too.’ This sentiment perpetuates a patronising and outdated implication of teenage romance as possessive and competitive, not to mention how it degrades Elle to simply a component of these boys’ lives rather than a person in her own right.
There’s no doubt that the first film was questionable in its motivations and representation, so its blatant popularity despite these complications somewhat concerned me. Yet, when the sequel to The Kissing Booth was released on Netflix last week, of course I had to watch it and find out what had happened to these fictional and frankly unrealistic characters. I was surprised to discover that the actual production and direction of the film was noticeably superior, perhaps due to the prominence of the first film allowing Netflix to push for a bigger budget and more competent filmmaking, but the premise remained much the same.
Some of the most unsettling aspects of the film have less to do with the central romantic relationships and are instead manifested in the portrayal of female characters. Not only are both of these films very unlikely to have passed the Bechdel test, with parents and friends alike only existing as an accessory to Elle’s love life, but they also preserve many harmful stereotypes surrounding female contention. Lee’s girlfriend Rachel can’t bear having Elle around, despite them all having a seemingly amicable friendship with one another. Meanwhile Noah’s new ‘friend’ Chloe is unnecessarily portrayed as a villain from the beginning; revealing her as an ally towards the end of the movie does nothing to undo the tiresome normalisation of female rivalry in the context of male attention. Introducing these additional characters only to heighten the drama of the central relationship is counter-productive in the discourse of a genre which is constantly trying to reinvent itself away from its traditional pejorative associations.
When the main target demographic for a film is young, impressionable and predominantly female viewers, I strongly believe it is in the best interest of everyone involved that the overall message of the film is not one with misogynistic undertones. While it is easy for us as a collective audience to disregard the cultural impact of films such as these, categorising them as frivolous and unimportant, this is often not the case. According to Netflix, one in three viewers of the first film have re-watched it, and it has been cited as, ‘one of the most-watched movies in the country [US], and maybe in the world.’ The Kissing Booth series may seem like harmless fun, but it does nothing to prevent the insidious perpetuation of patriarchy which is rife within the rom-com genre, and this is surely what we should be focusing on.
Featured Image Source: Still from The Kissing Booth 2 Trailer / Youtube