I recently lent my copies of Scott Pilgrim to a friend of mine—a delightfully geeky dude who, like me, works part-time in the law school computer lab. He’d never read the books prior to watching the movie; he loved loved loved the movie, and I knew he’d eat the books up. And sure enough, he spent a good part of our shift giggling like a girl as he ploughed through Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Ian’s manic glee piqued the interest of another co-worker of ours, and he asked us what the books were about.
“Slacker dude with a band dates a high-school girl because it allows him to skate by emotionally, then he meets a hot rollerblading delivery girl who’s literally the girl of his dreams, so he cheats on the high-school girlfriend, then dumps her kind of brutally, and then he finds out he has to defeat hot rollerblading delivery girl’s seven evil exes in order to be with her forever,” I replied.
Ian looked at me. “That’s not… You make it sound like a romance novel.”
I looked at him dead in the eye. “Well, yeah, that’s because it kind of is.”
Ian hung his head a little. “Well, I guess… I don’t know. It’s just…”
And then a bunch of first years came in needing to have their computers set up so we stopped talking about it.
Here’s the thing: Scott Pilgrim isn’t just any kind of romance novel: Scott Pilgrim is an old-school romance novel.
1. The protagonist starts out painfully vulnerable, naive and young.
2. Falls in love with an emotionally distant, mysterious, sophisticated figure who is trying to escape a murky past (with only limited success).
3. They both have to overcome some serious adversity to gain true love, and the protagonist grows up a little in the process. The love interest doesn’t really want to change the protagonist, she just
wants to tame him
wishes he’d get a job.
4. For various reasons relating to Beaucoup Drama, they experience a Long Separation. The protagonist goes through a bit of a meltdown.
5. Then there’s a glorious reunion and reconciliation, where all serious obstacles are cleared, and the protagonist gains some maturity For Realz.
6. Fade to HEA.
And just as with an old-school romance, I’m left wondering: why the hell did they fall in love with each other? Why is Ramona, who’s seriously hot, want a schmuck like Scott? Scott’s… kind of a whiny, useless putz, super-sweet evil ex-slaying skills aside. I enjoy Scott Pilgrim as much as I do despite the protagonist: I love the self-aware and self-referential storytelling style, I love the non-stop music and video game references, and especially I love the crap out the supporting cast, especially Wallace Wells, Scott’s hilarious gay roommate, and Kim Pine, Scott’s deadpan and acerbic high school sweetheart. It’s very much a romance written by a dude, and it lives out dude fantasies: useless schmoe uses awkward charm to win over a lady fair, promptly after which he gets to engage in a series of escalating video game battles with her evil exes. And while it’s hard to deny that it’s satisfying on an atavistic level, I can’t quite shake the nagging why of the love story—why are they in love? But that’s a problem I tend to have with most old-school romances, whether dude- or chick-centric. To the series’ credit, however, Ramona is no shy and retiring flower waiting to be rescued from the scourge of her terrible past lovers. Ramona is, in fact, capable of kicking serious ass, and the ultimate showdown has both Scott and Ramona battling side-by-side, which is a pretty sweet change from the boy-rescues-helpless-girl-who’s-validated-only-when-she’s-in-a-relationship trope that we still see in a lot of love stories.
The movie, while brilliant and pitch-perfect in every other way (oh my God the MIDI sound effects were amaaazing), suffers from the Oh God Why Is This Hot Girl Dating This Useless Douche problem even more acutely, because casting Michael Cera was a terrible, terrible decision. Make no mistake: I love Michael Cera. He only has one mode, but I’m usually a fan of that mode; nobody gets Awkward Comedy Timing the way he does. He was perfect in Arrested Development, and he was perfect in Juno. Thing is, Scott Pilgrim has a certain brash charm that Cera completely fails to pull off; what the role needed was Zach Braff in his early 20s doing a somewhat less bright J.D. from Scrubs, and not an infinitely skinnier, infinitely more awkward George-Michael Bluth. (Seriously, Michael Cera: eat a sammich. Eat MANY sammiches. You’re terrifyingly thin.) So anyway, the Scott Pilgrim movie, which in some ways was actually better than the comic, became yet another iteration of Useless Passive Schmuck Gets Hot Girl.
To Scott Pilgrim‘s credit, the movie and the comic present him as persistent and dorky, not outright manipulative; although Ramona and Scott lack all chemistry, Scott never enters Being Nice1 to the Hot Girl in the Hopes of Hot Makeouts territory. And make no mistake: most Nice Guys, at least as portrayed in pop culture, are manipulative. It’s why it’s one of the most pernicious cultural tropes we have. Being nice to a hot girl in the hopes of a payout through her sexual favors is, well, gross. It is in fact the opposite of nice: it is rank opportunism in sheep’s clothing. And this trope is everywhere, especially in comedies scripted by dudes. Otherwise excellent movies like Kick-Ass have been ruined for me because the protagonist, who’s usually kind of adorable and kind of dorky, leaps headlong into Oh Jesus You’re Creepy and Deserve a 2×4 to the Head territory when he outright lies or manipulates the girl he has a crush on in the hopes of getting closer to her, with the understanding that if he hangs in there long enough, maybe he can git ‘er done.
The Nice Girl trope is equally annoying, but not quite as gross, and you don’t see it nearly as often in movies (though you sure do see a lot of it in romances): the Nice Girl depends on her unsophisticated (sometimes even outright mousy) charms to win over the dashing figure of her dreams. She’s attractive to the hero mostly because she serves as a foil to his Evil Exes, with their perfect coiffures and sexually experienced pasts and impeccable manicures. There’s a lot less outright manipulation, and more a reliance on the pure goodness of her Magic Hoo-Hoo radiating through all adversity. Which, when it comes down to it, is exactly how Scott gets Ramona Flowers: his Magic Hoo-Hoo (and, to be fair, superior combo attack sk1llz) won the day. Once Ramona had a taste of the Magic Hoo-Hoo, there was no going back. All the sophisticated charms of her Evil Exes were as dust and ashes.
So here’s some news for you nerds out there: Scott Pilgrim is totally a romance novel, and you know what? So many romances would be improved if the heroine got to fight the hero’s Evil Exes and made them explode in a shower of coins and power-ups. Just sayin’.
1 And by “nice,” I mean “not physically abusive”.