When the first sign of frost emerges, the first Christmas decoration is put up, the first mince pie is bitten into, there is Love Actually on our screens. A cult classic, a feel-good favourite, a wholesome holiday rom-com special, or…an early 2000s monstrosity?
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A classic romantic comedy with just enough Christmassy references to get us in the holiday mood, the film is a guaranteed family favourite.
But in Love Actually, where there are nine storylines (not all of them romantic), all focus almost exclusively on the trials and tribulations of white people. People of colour feel performatively included, ‘thrown in’ to the story rather than featuring as a meaningful part of it. Colin, the cheeky ‘God of sex’ who travels to the US and sleeps with loads of white women, has a Black friend, whose storyline is woefully underdeveloped. Similarly, Kiera Knightley marries a black man, but he is written out of the story by his white best friend who, although unsuccessful in stealing his girl, kisses a married woman. People of colour serve as narrative links rather than relevant, developed characters, or are excluded from the narrative altogether. There are cameos of a Black woman in the PM’s staff (yay), a Black radio presenter, and a storyline where a young boy has a crush on a black girl, but this carries less weight for an adult audience. They’re kids, after all.
For a film set in London, it does little to reflect the unique diversity of the city. Where are the East Asians, the Southeast Asians, the Arabs?
But, credit where credit is due. Richard Curtis recently admitted that Love Actually's lack of diversity made him 'feel uncomfortable and a bit stupid.” 'A bit' is probably an understatement.
Love Actually is all about love. There are some sweet moments of platonic love, familial love, and even self-love in the film. When rockstar Billy Mack realises that he totally platonically adores his music manager, the nation lets out a unified ‘awww’. But for the most part, and certainly where romantic connections are concerned, Love Actually only looks at long-term, monogamous, heterosexual relationships, with the exception of the guy that travels to the US for sex. And good for him - as long as it’s consensual and healthy, casual sex is great. So why does the film appear to make fun of it? What should be a celebration of sexual liberation instead becomes a sinister set-up, where over-sexualised women throw themselves at a man. It’s funny, but wholly inaccurate of modern relationships.
There is also no inclusion of queer love in the most popular rom-com of our time. As it stands, the closest the film gets to addressing queerness are phrases like “gay as a picnic basket” and “gay as a maple”. Realistically, a film from 20 years ago is going to have a hard job responding to the modern-day demands for inclusion. But should such a reductive view of love really be lauded as the go-to festive romance?
We can’t do a Love Actually deep dive without addressing the awful emphasis on thinness as beauty. Hugh Grant, playing the PM, falls in love with one of his staff, who is then consistently fat-shamed by him (“god, you’re heavy”), other employees (“there’s a pretty sizeable arse there, huge thighs”), her family, and her ex-boyfriend, who left her on the basis of her gaining weight. There are countless comments about weight. Nicknames like “chubbs”, “plumpy”, and “Miss Dunkin; Donut 2003” all create an atmosphere of body image negativity promoted by the film.
Our takeaway? Watch the film and enjoy. But let's not take everything it says as gospel, and let's call out what we see is wrong.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are still some moments to be appreciated. The touching 'Bye Bye Baby' funeral montage, Sam and Daniel's father-son relationship and Martin Freeman showing us the behind-the-scenes of sex on screen, have us all smiling and crying (whether from sadness or happiness who knows). It's not all totally irrelevant either.
As Emma Thompson reminds us: “No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time”. Harsh, but potentially true…
Written by Ayaat Yassin-Kassab