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Love, Actually? A therapist's critique of a modern classic

Love Actually (2003) recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. When I first saw it as a teenager at the cinema, I remember enjoying the sharp, witty humour, charming characters, excellent soundtrack and countless feel-good moments, as several London-based love stories were expertly woven together by the writers. However, last Christmas, I rewatched it for the first time in over a decade, and found it somewhat confronting to revisit the star-studded film from the perspective of now being a practicing therapist.


Given Love Actually is still very popular and is often rewatched over the holiday period, it is an important film to critically examine through a more contemporary lens, particularly regarding its portrayal of women and relationships. Though I presume that most viewers know the film depicts a romanticised and exaggerated version of reality, there are some disturbing undercurrents that warrant scrutiny.


Gender stereotypes


Love Actually perpetuates numerous gender stereotypes. Many of the women in the film are depicted as passive objects of male desire rather than active, complex characters. For example, Billy Mack’s (Bill Nighy) scantily clad backup musicians and dancers, and the tall, thin American women who promptly invite a complete stranger (Kris Marshall) home for group sex because he has a cute British accent, present a one-dimensional view of women being predominantly valued for their attractiveness and sex appeal (qualities that are narrowly equated to being tall, thin and seductive).

Additionally, the now iconic scene where Mark (Andrew Lincoln) professes his love to Juliet (Keira Knightley) - his best friend’s new wife - after she catches him engaging in stalking behaviours towards her, seems to have Mark’s problematic advances rewarded when Juliet kisses him behind her husband’s back (and Kiera Knightley being only 17 years old when this scene was shot adds even more problematic layers).

Another gender stereotype perpetuated by Love Actually is that women predominantly exist to support and serve the successes of men. Most of the female characters in Love Actually work in support roles for the film’s more powerful male characters, for example:


  • Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) is Jamie’s (Colin Firth) housekeeper,

  • Mia (Heike Makatsch) is Harry’s (Alan Rickman) assistant,

  • Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) is the Prime Minister’s (Hugh Grant) catering officer, whose prime role was to bring him tea and biscuits,

  • Karen (Emma Thompson) is a homemaker for her successful husband Harry (or if she did work, this was not acknowledged in the film).


While support roles such as the above are no less valuable and important for society than the leadership roles of the men in the film, it becomes problematic when the majority of female characters are depicted only in this narrow category of occupations, in which men hold more social and financial power, dominance and prestige. It would have been refreshing and empowering to see one of the female characters portrayed as a boss, and a male character portrayed in a support role for them. In fact, one of the most dominant female characters in the film is probably Mia, who channels her power and energy into seducing her married boss, which is hardly a celebration of female empowerment.

Lack of female agency


Female agency is strikingly absent in many of Love Actually’s plot lines. Characters like Juliet are acted upon rather than being active participants in their story, such as the famous scene between she and Mark described above, as well as Jamie’s very public surprise proposal to Aurelia at her workplace (though he still ensures he has asked her father’s permission beforehand...). This scene becomes even more questionable when we remember that they had never actually had a proper conversation due to a significant language barrier, and only around a month earlier, Jamie broke up with his previous girlfriend after discovering she was having an affair with his brother. It’s hard to imagine he would have moved on from this experience in such a short timeframe and have been ready to make a lifelong commitment to someone new.


The implications of such plotlines extend beyond the screen, as they contribute to a societal narrative that romanticises problematic behaviours in men, such as stalking, unsolicited advances and knee-jerk, grand romantic gestures that could actually have manipulative or pressuring impacts on women (not to mention the long-term ramifications of such impulsive decisions for both people involved). This can lead to distorted perceptions of love and relationships for the audience, as the feel-good editing and emotional soundtrack can contribute to increasing the acceptability and even desirability of such behaviours within a courting process.

Depicting only heteronormative relationships


Aside from the occasional gay joke, Love Actually has no reference to or depiction of relationships between same-sex or gender diverse individuals. Numerous TV shows and films depicting openly gay characters had already been released in the decades prior to Love Actually – so, given how many relationships and romantic encounters are woven through the film's plot, it is disappointing that the writers did not decide to portray even one romance or relationship between same-sex, or gender diverse, individuals. A creative decision to do so in such a high profile film could have contributed significantly to the move towards LGBTQI+ acceptance and equality in society in the early 2000s.


To the writers’ credit, at least when young Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) tells his stepfather Daniel (Liam Neeson) that he is in love, Daniel expressed an open mindedness about the gender of Sam’s love interest potentially being a boy or a girl (and, on a side note, Daniel and Sam’s relationship is one of the psychologically healthiest of any kind depicted in Love Actually).


Fat jokes


Love Actually is littered with fat jokes, most often in relation to the Prime Minister’s catering assistant Natalie, who is repeatedly referred to as “chubby”, “plump” and “sizeable” by her work colleagues and family members. The running joke about her weight is, in fact, a critical aspect of her character's storyline. Similarly, famous musician Billy Mack often criticises his manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) publicly for his heavier weight in order to get cheap laughs from his audience, and Aurelia's father openly bemoans her sister's heavier weight as a key reason she is still single and a financial burden on him.


This type of humour contributes to perpetuating negative stereotypes about larger-bodied people, and increasing feelings of inadequacy or self-consciousness. Even for viewers who are not overweight, it can contribute to the development of unhealthy behaviours such as restricted eating and over-exercising, so as to avoid potential weight-related criticism, teasing and negative judgment from others in future.


I was an overweight teenager when I first watched Love Actually, and I remember experiencing some unpleasant emotions alongside the enjoyment I got from the romcom, such as the feeling that because of my weight, I was destined not to be taken seriously by those around me, just like Natalie, Joe and Aurelia's sister.

The fact that curvaceous Natalie was the love interest for someone as high-profile and attractive as Hugh Grant’s character did little to assuage these feelings, as he first had to field numerous weight-related jokes and criticisms behind her back from colleagues (and rather than saying something positive about Natalie when they came up, he simply questioned their assessment of her weight).



Love Actually remains a beloved British romcom for many audiences, however, its portrayal of women and relationships is problematic. On the one hand, it offers many relatable and charming characters portrayed skilfully by an iconic ensemble cast, a rousing musical soundtrack, and expert comedic writing and editing, while on the other hand, it falls short in providing diverse, multi-dimensional representations of women and relationships. While we can enjoy it's many heartwarming and entertaining moments, it is also crucial to critique its promotion of gender stereotypes and unhealthy relationship dynamics, the complete absence of gay and gender diverse people from a plot that supposedly presented a diverse snapshot of 21st century love and romance, and the many jokes that exploit the self-esteem of higher-weight people to obtain cheap laughs.


Images in this article courtesy of StudioCanal, 2003.


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