The Orange County Screenwriters Association
    Be Inspired, Do Good Work

    Is Deception in Romantic Comedies Rape?


    I frowned at the students' contention.  Then I started to think about it.  Is it?  Maybe they had a point.

    overboardI had assigned the movie "Overboard" to my Intro to Scriptwriting class (Class Info) in honor of Garry Marshall's passing. I needed a romcom and that was the one that fit best when I looked at his filmography.  The discussion was to be about how these types of movies work and when done properly, reinforce the best of what is a fun genre.

    The key words here are "was to be."

    An interesting and troubling side discussion came up about the sex scene in which Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell have (loving) intercourse.  It comes at an appropriate time in the film and it's shot very beautifully and tenderly.

    So why could it be considered rape?

    The storyline is simple and funny.  Goldie plays a wealthy, obnoxious woman who is married to a vacuous and specious man.  They do nothing positive as they sail the seas in yachts that look like the Queen Mary.  She is not happy, never satisfied and constantly, consistently ultra-critical of everyone and everything.  He hates her (it's obvious) and yearns to be free from her constant screech.

    Russell is Joe Everyman, a widower, laissez-faire father with three unruly boys who the school district is about to come down hard on because the boys are quite boisterous, even to toilet-papering the school's principal when she visits to welcome them to the area. The principal warns Russell that he has to get some supervision for the boys or else the next visit will be from social services.

    Russell is also a handyman and is called to Goldie's yacht (in the area and in dock for repairs) to expand her closet.  When he makes the closet out of oak and not cedar, she refuses to pay him, pushes him overboard and throws his tools in after him.

    Later, while trying to retrieve her wedding ring during stormy seas, she herself falls overboard, hits her head and loses her memory.  Russell Overboard movie 5discovers this and decides to take the money she owes him out in "trade" by pretending they are married and taking her home to do the chores and monitor the kids so the school district doesn't force sanctions on him.

    Most of the fun of the movie is watching Goldie's character cope with the impossible.  Rich and spoiled all her life, she has no idea how to wash dishes, let alone cook dinner or make lunches for kids.  "This cannot be my life,"  she laments.  But Russell does all he can to make her believe and eventually, she becomes both a terrific spouse and mother and a solid partner in life and business to Russell. 

    As she gets a handle on how to do the common, everyday things we all do, Goldie's character begins to have an amazing impact on Russell's character and his sons: he becomes a responsible father and they become nearly model students.  The boys all adore her and her positive influence, and Rusell becomes increasing guilty about his deception but also wants to now keep her close.

    They all fall in love with each other and would live happily ever after if not for the interference of Goldie's husband who returns months later after having sown some very wild oats with young "actresses." 

    The execution of the formula is almost perfect.  And charming.  And funny.  Everything, anything you could want from a romantic comedy by a master filmmaker and some incredible talent script-wise and acting-wise

    But, this was made in 1987 and many things have changed since then.  Is the sex the main characters share now considered rape?  How could it be?  Well, we today have much different sensibilities about many things: body shaming, politically correct speech, bullying, concussive football injuries, hate speech, etc... 

    Could sex under false pretenses now be considered rape?

    Obviously, the main characters love each other at the point in the film where the sex happens, and also obviously the sex is consensual. But two overboard familystudents in my class (both young, one male, one female) brought up that this could be "rape" because the sex was under false pretenses. Kurt was pretending to be Goldie's husband and that lead to the sex act.  But did it?  I'll come back to this point a bit later.

    I've looked around and can see some precedent for this in legal land but the false pretenses are much more severe and usually involve a dark room and someone not asking just doing.  One case involved a man coming into a bedroom after a woman's boyfriend had just left and engaging in sex with her.  It was dark, she was sleepy and she thought her boyfriend had come back.  Pretty obviously non-consensual.

    But is this movie portraying the same thing? Maybe, but don't we almost always try to present a better image of ourselves than is true? If I dye my hair or lie about my occupation to impress isn't that the same thing? What about women or men who have plastic surgery?  Or someone who pretends to be a virgin or to have had limited sex partners because they know the person they want to be with demands that?  Isn't most of what we do as potential mates under some pretense?

    I'm torn on this. I take the point but I also wonder how something like rape, which is violence, can be applied to this?  I guess false pretenses can be considered emotional violence and that makes things very cloudy here.

    She loves him and his sons, that is clear.  She discovers that he's a hard-working, good man who does extra night shifts at the fish fertilizer factory to be a solid father to his sons even though he pretends to be going out drinking with the boys.  And, as with a lot of romantic comedies, there is a falsehood at its core but he makes several attempts to tell her so, unsuccessfully.  Doesn't this mitigate the sex under false pretenses thought as being rape?

    More to the point for me as a writer is do my students have a point? Is it rape? Does it rise to that legal or at least moral definition? Can we as writers put something that seemingly innocuous in a script these days without being indicted as being sexist and insensitive by an audience? 

    The answer is most probably no - certainly not without some recognition and consequences.  In "Overboard" there is a very emotional moment when the Goldie Hawn character finds out about the deception but it didn't feel strong enough even the first time I watched it.  It was typically underplayed as befits a Garry Marshall film who at times has had me scratching my head at the emotional black holes he creates in some scenes. 

    Maybe the key here is that the characters didn't have sex, and Russell's character never tried to take advantage in that manner.  Until Goldie's character was amenable to it, their relationship was chaste - she slept on the couch and there was never an accidental bathroom scene or similar moment where they checked each other out. 

    In other words, her consent wasn't based on his demands as a "husband" but rather her intensifying love and genuine affection for him and he for her.  So perhaps not rape with all the terrifying trigger points that entails but certainly, there needed to be more of a reckoning to his actions.

    What strikes me most strongly about this is that my younger students are seeing this film through the prism of 2016 sensibilities.  I am seeing it through older eyes, from a time when "date rape" and "body shaming" wasn't on everyone's radar.  I've certainly grown with the times and don't see the world the same as I did but this film and its clear deceptions always seemed funny to me - not dangerous or morally bankrupt.  Maybe we can't laugh this way anymore just like we cannot use words that we now know hurt and maim people emotionally - like "retard" or phrases like "that's so gay."  Maybe it's something deeper that I'm just now trying to wrap my head around - like I feel that I'm missing parts of a culture that I no longer totally understand because I'm not eighteen anymore.  In other words, age.  (Wow, that was painful to write! )

    And then again, maybe I'm being overly sensitive to this.  Comedies have never been so overtly crude (watch "Trainwreck" or "Superbad".) Romance is still very cynical and manipulative in many, many films.  I read an article that suggested that the boys in "Superbad" for example were committing date rape by purchasing booze to get girls at a party drunk so they could then take advantage of them.  Yeah, looking at it that one way it is.  Impaired consent is not consent.  But, the argument went on, the girls drinking the booze, knowing that it lowered inhibitions, were consenting to the impairment. 

    Crap.  Who knows?  This can be argued and parsed to pieces and I doubt any clear-cut conclusion can be made.

    I'll always love "Overboard" and Mr. Marshall's sweet but gently cynical world view of relationships.  But, I will never again be able to think about it in the same naive fashion unfortunately.  I guess that's just part of any writer's evolution.  We have to keep an open mind, be sensitive to what's going on around us, and understand that we can't take anything for granted when we tap-tap those keys of our creativity.

    To comment on this, please visit our Facebook page: LINK  or blue tab at the top of the page.


    Copyright (c) Orange County Screenwriters Association
    Fair Use Statement

    Fair use refers to the right to reproduce, use and share copyrighted works of cultural production without direct permission from or payment to the original copyright holders. It is a designation that is assigned to projects that use copyrighted materials for purposes that include research, criticism, news reporting and teaching. When a project is protected under fair use provisions, the producers of that project are not subject to sanctions related to copyright infringement. The maintenance of fair use protections is central to many non-profit and education projects, especially those that operate in digital and online spaces.

    This website may contain copyrighted material, the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright holders. The material is made available on this website as a way to advance research and teaching related to critical media literacy and intercultural understanding, among other salient political and social issues. Through context, critical questioning, and educational framing, the Orange County Screenwriters Association, therefore, creates a transformative use of copyrighted media. The material is presented for entirely non-profit educational purposes. There is no reason to believe that the featured media clips will in any way negatively affect the market value of the copyrighted works. For these reasons, we believe that the website is clearly covered under current fair use copyright laws. We do not support any actions in which the materials on this site are used for purposes that extend beyond fair use.