(CNN)For many of us, nostalgia has become a steady part of our entertainment diet during these stressful months as the Covid-19 pandemic wears on and, in many places, grows worse. My own pop-cultural comfort food of choice has been romantic dramedies from simpler times, tales of adorably complicated women and the often-chiseled men who love them. Movies like these hail from an era of now-verboten pleasures, like casual hugs and bustling nightclubs and actual, not virtual, shopping.
I have some bad news about 'The Notebook'
But on my latest dive into familiar (and supposedly romantic) films of the past three decades, I can hardly see their leading men for all the red flags flapping around them. Watching these films has suddenly become less escapist -- and more reflective of our current reality.
Pick a decade -- 1980s, 1990s or early 2000s -- and it seems that one of its defining leading men is a manipulator, someone who gaslights.
"Gaslighting" has become a household term over the past few years, thanks to the current political administration in Washington. But it has its origins in entertainment, having entered the popular lexicon as the title of a 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie, based on a play, in which a young wife is slowly driven toward insanity as her husband toys with her mind.
In broad terms, as CNN contributor Frida Ghitis put it in her analysis of President Donald Trump's own manipulative behavior, gaslighting is "tactical tampering with the truth."
It is repeatedly questioning a person's sanity, and what they believe to be true, with the intention of rendering them compliant. It's a hallmark of domestic abuse.
And the more classic romances I watch, the more convinced I become that we've all been gaslit by screenplays that are pushing the idea of obsession and conflict as necessary hallmarks of worthwhile relationships. That the very definition of romance lies in its ability to make a woman truly miserable before rewarding her with a happy ending.
To my dismay, three of my most-loved recent re-watches, "Pretty in Pink," "Reality Bites" and "The Notebook," are grade-A examples. These romantic male leads hoodwink heroines into thinking they're Mr. Right, despite failing to demonstrate any understanding of good relationship dynamics, and aggressively making their love interests feel like crap on multiple occasions.
Outside the rosy light of nostalgia, I have to be honest. This is not love. This is not cute. This is manipulation. (Even if it's dressed up as peak Ryan Gosling.) And rom-coms have been grooming cinephiles to think otherwise for far too long.
The first offender, 1986's "Pretty in Pink," is the John Hughes-written story of Andie (Molly Ringwald), a working-class teen who falls for a rich kid named Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Upon picking her up for their first date, he rudely asks her if she wants to go home and change ("I already did," she mumbles, in the first of many times he'll chip away at her self-esteem). Then comes this exchange:
Blane: You up for a party? Yeah? No? Maybe
Andie: No, I don't think so.
Blane: They're my friends. It's OK....I wouldn't go if I didn't think they'd accept you.
Andie: Can't we go somewhere else?
Blane: Andie, I like you. I think you like me. We know a lot of bullsh-t goes on, but if you're above it, I am. If we want to make anything out of this, we gotta deal with it, right?
Blane: Come on, I got as much to lose as you. We can go out with your friends if you want: We could go crawl under a rock.
So, to clarify: At the outset of their first date, he insults her clothes, and her friends and pressures her into going to a party with her school bullies (who turn out to be just as cruel during their down time as they are in the halls).
At the end of the night, it's Andie who apologizes to Blane for ruining his evening, which he rewards by asking her to the prom.
"PIP" builds to a showdown about the prom, wherein Blane ghosts Andie, then bows out of his promise to take her, with a lame excuse. When she decides to go solo -- and ends up accompanied by Jon Cryer's quirky sidekick Duckie (the romantic victor in an original ending rejected by test audiences) she runs into Blane, sad-sacking it at a table by himself.
"You said you couldn't be with someone who didn't believe in you," he says, mopily. "Well, I believed in you. I just didn't believe in me. I love you ... always." He follows this not by kissing her, or asking her to dance, but by slinking out of the room.
But that doesn't make any sense. It sounds like a guilt trip. How, exactly, did he believe in her? Why is this her fault, or her problem? How can he love her "always" if they've been out on exactly two dates? Why is Duckie telling her to go to him? Why is any of this behavior being rewarded?? Never mind, ROLL CREDITS.
Next up was the iconic Gen-X rom-com "Reality Bites" (1994), in which Winona Ryder's Lelaina is torn between musician slacker Troy (Ethan Hawke at his greasiest) and corporate square Michael (Ben Stiller, who also directed). I'm a sucker for its brand-name shoutouts and nihilistic outlook, but in the cold light of 2020, its notions about romance do not hold up.
The well-read, underemployed Troy is insufferable from the start, building to a scene in which he catches Lelaina coming in from a night with Michael -- a very nice guy! With a job! Who is cute and funny, and likes her a lot! -- and trolls her for dating "the reason Cliff Notes were invented."
Lelaina: "If something's bothering you that much, I wish you could be man enough to talk to me about it."
Troy: "All right. [Cups her face in his hands] I am really in love with you. [Snickers] Is that what you want to hear? Is it? Well... don't flatter yourself."
In a sane world, this would be the end of her friendship with this man. And yet.
Later, when she dons a lace dress for another date with Michael, the omnipresent Troy tells her she looks "like a doily." Watch Lelaina's face fall and see her say she's going to go change! Michael tells her not to, and that she looks beautiful. Says Troy: "And don't go thinking for yourself."
She was thinking for herself -- I yelled at the screen -- when she bought the dress she's wearing.
The plot hurtles toward Troy's speech extolling his supposed virtues. "I might do mean things, and I might hurt you, and I might run away without your permission, and you might hate me forever, and I know that that scares the s**t out of you because I'm the only real thing that you have."
Lelaina rightly balks at this laundry list of toxic BS, but not for long, because in the end she spurns Michael's attempt to make her a famous documentarian, and chooses Troy anyway.
Similar themes can be found in Noah Calhoun, romantic hero of 2004's "The Notebook," whose pick-me monologue is: "That's what we do, we fight! You tell me when I'm being an arrogant son of a bitch, and I tell you when you are a pain in the a--. Which you are, ninety-nine percent of the time. I'm not afraid to hurt your feelings. You have like a two-second rebound rate, then you're back doin' the next pain-in-the-a-- thing ... So, it's not going to be easy. It's going to be really hard; we're going to have to work at this every day, but I want to do that because I want you."
Ladies, can I get a resounding, 'No thank you'? "Working" at marriage is one thing; having someone invite you to a lifetime of being called a pain in the ass is quite another.
The 1940s-set "Notebook" sells the idea that Rachel McAdams' character Allie should unquestionably end up with Gosling's more-intense Noah. How intense? He threatens suicide upon their first meeting unless she'll agree to go out with him, dangling from the top of a Ferris Wheel with one arm until she gives in.
When they finally end up on a date, he'll convince her that lying down in the middle of the road is fun, even though it almost gets them run over; their ensuing summer romance is driven by fighting and making up.
In the years to come, she'll move on and get engaged to a foxy and very chill war vet named Lon (James Marsden) while Noah obsessively builds a shrine to Allie (out of a plantation, a whole other can of worms) and becomes an alcoholic hermit until she wanders back into his life -- a scene that culminates in the "It's gonna be really hard" speech.
In the past, I've been beset with hate mail for suggesting we reevaluate our old favorites, whether they're movies or TV or music or celebrities. Personally, I'm not planning to stop watching any of these movies if I come across them. But I'll be filing them in my brain as a different genre: Psychological horror. And I'll be Team Duckie, Michael and Lon all the way.