Why Do People Love Fake Dating Tropes, Like the One in ‘Marry Me’?

In Marry Me, pop star Kat Valdez (Jennifer Lopez) is supposed to get married on stage to singer Bastian (Maluma), when she discovers he’s been cheating on her. Instead, on the rebound, she decides to marry a random high school teacher in the audience, Charlie (Owen Wilson). After that impulsive moment, they decide to spend a few months of photo ops for publicity purposes. But they get to know each other and…well, you know the rest.

The reason you know the rest is that this is a standard rom-com trope. The fake relationship that turns into a real relationship is a staple of the genre, from Pretty Woman (in which a rich guy pretends he’s in love with a *** worker and then falls in love with the *** worker) to the first season of Bridgerton (in which a pretend romance for mutual social benefit becomes a real romance—for even more social benefit). And there are lots of other examples: Green Card, The Proposal, 10 Things I Hate About You, Decoy Bride—not to mention a slew of romance novels.  

Which raises the question, why is this such a popular trope? Why exactly do romance fans love seeing pretend love turn into real love?

The question just about answers itself. Romance narratives are in part wish-fulfillment fantasies. You imagine yourself falling in love with the perfect special someone—even if, like me, you are already in love with the perfect special someone. (Waves to wife.) Part of the fun is pretending that the fictional love is real.

The fake to real rom-com provides numerous opportunities for will they/won’t they tension, as well as context collapse humor and opportunities for intimacy which keeps the “from” in the rom-com. It also helps out with plot; a big problem in rom coms narratively is that you have to figure out why two attractive single people who have chemistry would fool around for hours or days or weeks or months or however long the plot goes, before falling into each other’s arms the way we all know they’re going to.

But if they start out faking it, then there’s uncertainty. Maybe he’s just acting when he is obviously breathless at her beauty! Maybe she’s just following the script when she is obviously breathless at her beauty! How can they know for sure?! Fake-real is a great way to stall for time so the movie (or novel) isn’t over before it starts.

jennifer lopez and malumamarry me
Courtesy of Universal

But the true genius of the trope is that it so blatantly mirrors the genre’s themes, goals, and aspirations. In fake-real rom-coms, the characters step into a fictional life, just like you step into a fictional world when you start watching the movie. And then that fiction becomes real—just as you want the fiction to become real.

More, the fiction for you does become real, at least in the sense that, if a romance works the way it’s supposed to, you fall a little bit in love with at least one of the characters, and ideally with both. Elizabeth Bennet and Lord Darcy—everyone’s heart beats a bit quicker at their names, right? (Right?!) You start out knowing that it’s all fake; just as Kat and Charlie in Marry Me know they’re not really married. But then the marriage comes true, and they fall in love with the characters they’re playing, just as you do.

Marry Me adds some additional layers of meta to that meta-blueprint. Jennifer Lopez is playing a pop star who looks an awful lot like Jennifer Lopez; the fake character is real, just as the fake wedding is. On the other side, Owen Wilson as Charlie is constantly worried that the world of celebrity and social media fame is too fake or shallow or not authentic. Which is ironic since Owen Wilson is just pretending to be a high school math teacher schlub, when in fact he’s a celebrity film star.

All this shuffling of fake and real and pretense and authenticity is almost daring you not to suspend your disbelief. Fake-real rom coms scream at you the whole time that you’re watching the movie that you’re watching a movie. “These people aren’t who they say they are! These feelings are pretend, it’s all an act! Abandon all authentic hope ye who enter the rom-com!”

And then, magically, after telling you over and over that love is pasteboard and plaster, the fake-real rom-com reminds you that, no, it’s real after all.

Marry Me is in theaters on Friday, February 11. 

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.