Whatever Happened to Romance?

Review of The New Romantic

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

In a postmodern society enjoying the benefits of the sexual revolution, the roles played by a man and woman in a relationship is under intense scrutiny. Looking back, people in our culture tend to scoff at the stereotypical 1950s American wife who looked good in her dress and pearls as she made her man his favorite dinner. This couple is now replaced with the egalitarian version, with the male abandoning the hubris of the stereotypical husband who once disdained what was considered women’s work. Now the male can, and is expected to, do everything the housewife once did while the woman can do anything she wants to try. Meanwhile, no one takes the role romancer. The lover-beloved relationship begins as a one-sided pursuit—the lover is motivated to give by only the hope that the beloved will return the love.

So the progressive-minded may take pause when considering two SXSW2018 films, a feature (The New Romanic) and a short (Shiva Baby), stories that depict women willingly choosing to become involved with a sugar daddy. It is important to note that in both stories, the girl does not really seem to consider herself a prostitute, but she lovelessly agrees to sleep with the man in exchange for provision.

In The New Romantic, aspiring journalist Blake (Jessica Barden) is a college senior who writes a rather uninteresting column on sex and dating. The trouble is, she has little to no experience in these matters. She is frustrated because the men in her life seem unmotivated to try romance.

No doubt, there is increased caution these days due to the heightened concern over sexual harassment. College boys these days can never be too careful in how they approach the girls. Besides, friends with benefits seem to be good enough when they can be found—no commitments, no expectations, dutch treat.

Blake stumbles upon a girl who has found a sugar daddy. It begins as a just the means to get an award-quality story for the school paper. Soon, Blake earns the trust of the girl, who sets up Blake with her own sugar daddy—one who happens to be a well-respected professor (Timm Sharp). Meanwhile, the college boys in her life stand by—almost clueless.

This kind of relationship is a father-daughter sort in terms of coddling and gifting, but it is also prostitute-john relationship when it comes to sex. Oddly, when added together, the girls’ role seems a near return to the kept wife of the 1950s. The question arises, is this not the same relationship the progressive-minded would scorn today? And as The New Romantic suggests, even a sugar daddy agreement can be as binding as a marriage. It is not always clear who is taking advantage of whom—but it is certainly a transaction for the purpose of sex, companionship, and material perks. At least the kept wife might have found love along the way—not to mention the benefits that can be found in the traditional family.

The film excels in exploring what kinds of relationships might be satisfactory to a progressive college-age girl in need of some romance in her life. A fulfilling relationship is a covenant, and one gives up something in exchange for what they need in return. And yet some contracts also restrict what can be given or taken—and this is tricky for the freedom-loving individual who likes to keep score.

The story raises the question: will such a sugar-daddy relationship will be so rewarding—sexually, socially, and financially—that Blake can never again be open to the more pedestrian type with a handsome boy—one who cannot afford to buy her affections? Or simply, whatever happened to romance? The truth becomes evident in our pop culture’s stories of the day; even while mastering all the ends and outs of sex, this generation never learned how to make love. Maybe this film will help.

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