Psychological manipulation in romantic comedies has been happening since Shakespeare had Petrucio browbeat Katherina into marrying him in The Taming of the Shrew. Even though none of us are wearing neck ruffles anymore, audiences are still enthralled by romantic comedy tropes that should have been put to bed after the 16th century. Normies love watching beautiful people fall in love on screen, and that’s fine, but there are some low key dark af romcoms out there that put forth the idea that you don’t have to be intelligent, or even nice to snag the object of your desire – you just have to be manipulative.
You would think that gaslighting in romcoms only happens when men want to trick the object of their affection into taking off their giant glasses and go to prom with them, but female romantic comedy leads are just as guilty of gaslighting in movies as their male counterparts. Romantic comedies of the late-20th century are especially guilty of characters gaslighting one another in order to manipulate them into all kind of petty schemes. The plots of films in '80s grown-up movies like Overboard and millennial teen romps like She’s All That feel like they would operate better as Eli Roth directed torture-porn features, but for some reason they were presented as romantic comedies for the whole family to enjoy. If you learned everything you know about love from these psychologically destructive romantic comedies, then you may need to rethink everything you know about relationships.
Love Actually, the king daddy of ensemble films about sad attractive people becoming happy attractive people, is full of disappointing and unsettling storylines, but the worst of them all involves Andrew Lincoln falling in love with his best friend’s new wife Juliet (played by Keira Knightley). Lincoln's character, Mark, goes out of his way to be distant from Juliet - which seems oxymoronic - but it's all a part of his plan to make her realize that her affable, handsome husband is boring and not the guy for her. When she finds out that he ruined her wedding video by completely focusing on her (and constantly zooming in on her face with a disregard for the audience not seen since The Blair Witch Project), she's intrigued. But it isn't until Lincoln shows up on her door with a collection of threatening cue cards that she knows that the truest love actually (sorry) exists between the two of them.
Does Never Been Kissed leave anyone else feeling like they've just been dragged through the mud by a wild horse? The trope of an adult going back to high school in order to get the scoop on a track meet or school lunches is problematic, but it never entered full creep territory until Drew Barrymore went back to South Glen South High School to the sounds of Jimmy Eat World and wooed her English teacher under the guise of being an 18-year old (let's at least just pretend she's 18 in order to keep the retching to a minimum). And her scheme works! She gets her article about school pizza or whatever, the English teacher falls in love with "her," and they likely spend the rest of their relationship in a mutual state of distrust. A happy ending for all!
Some film historians believe that Taxi Driver is the ultimate film in the genre of social deviance. And sure, Travis Bickle stalks the streets of New York trying to clean the scum from the city with vigilante violence, but does he begin wearing a horrifying old woman costume in order to surreptitiously spy on his children and ex-wife while scheming to kill her new boyfriend? No way. Mrs. Doubtfire is a collection of scenes in the life of a human nightmare of a man who sinks to unheard of lows in order to drive a wedge between his ex-wife and her new boyfriend so that he can win her back. By the time his scheme falls apart after an attempted murder, he's ingratiated himself enough that he's actually rewarded for his time spent inflicting mental anguish on everyone around him.
Out of all the characters on this list who manipulate, lie, and harass their way through a relationship, Kate Hudson's Andie Anderson (seriously) is the only one who goes out of her way to completely destroy her love interest. While trying to write an article about driving men to the breaking point, she does everything from breaking into Matthew McConaughey's home, to badgering his friends and convincing McConaughey to change himself completely for her. When the target of her scheme discovers what's been done to him, he doesn't seek out therapy or rethink his entire life, he chases Anderson down to tell her he loves her - proof that her programming worked.