thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Life Reaches Out: A Better Vision of Love in Silver Linings Playbook

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Melissa Sexton

Real love tells you when you’re not being a standup guy.

Well, if you’re alive in the blogosphere or if you live near a television, at this point you probably know that Jennifer Lawrence took home the 2013 Best Actress Oscar for her recent role as the depressed widow Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook. And if you know me, you’re probably not surprised to hear that I love Jennifer Lawrence ferociously. I thought she was amazingly tough in Winter’s Bone and that she was perfectly steely in Hunger Games. I have loved her even more since reading her recent Vanity Fair interview where, despite the super-sexy photographs that accompany the article, she comes across as entirely human: a little goofy and awkward and just on the border of appropriate. And now, I love her beyond belief for biffing it on the stairs at the Oscars, and then beaming anyway. I love how her flustered acceptance speech feels so true to my experience: when the good things that you’ve always wanted happen to you, sometimes you just fall over in shock and forget how to be graceful. I love her hilarious post-win interview, where she destroys our cultural dream of actresses as poised princesses: they’re clumsy and flustered – they trip and curse. They aren’t decked out by fairy godmothers and gilded in dreams: they take a shower, take a shot, and take a fall, even when they’re on top of the world. In other words, her victorious Oscar persona has much in common with Tiffany, even though Lawrence is wearing Dior and Tiffany’s usually in sweaty spandex and sneakers: Lawrence in real life and Tiffany as a character both suggest that the most beautiful things come with some assembly required – come full of cracks and pockmarks, flaws, imperfections, pain, embarrassment, struggle. And that all that imperfection doesn’t have to be something we hide in order to find beauty, experience love, or build a better life.

Silver Linings Playbook is a film about love and about dark honesty, a pairing I don’t see enough of in the current media landscape and for which I am starving. As someone who has just finished a PhD, I can give you an elaborate and carefully documented explanation of what is wrong with most cultural depictions of love – and not just in modern media, but tracing back to the courtly love tradition. I can explain exactly how we are culturally trained to view love as an impossible and yet perfect thing, a thing that we can never attain but which we must always pursue, a thing that would save us if we could just find it. I’ve talked about this problematic ideal of love before on this blog, particularly when I was talking about Rihanna and how she also diagnoses this romantic idolatry. But I’ve also realized that I am hungry for alternative visions of what love can be. I want to see something that doesn’t make me roll my eyes. Some of us have been lucky enough to have parents or friends or family members that model realistic yet beautiful loving: compromise, honesty, patience, acceptance, confrontation, reconciliation, enduring, and laughing. But novels and songs and movies and shows give us so few appealing alternative visions, preferring, it would seem, either unrealistically gauzy visions that obliterate self-reliance or depressingly gloomy visions that condemn us to eternal broken hearts and self-abuse. Okay, there have been some really compelling portraits of what love can look like, but it’s usually not in the films billed as romances or romantic comedies.  For every portrayal of a couple that struggles through real life with all its complications – like Tami Taylor and Coach Taylor (Friday Night Lights), Annie and Officer Rhodes (Bridesmaids), or Anna and Oliver (Beginners) – we have dozens of Bellas and Edwards – couples that are driven together by an impossible romance that eclipses everything else – friends, career, personal happiness  – and that is devoid of substance, crafted from cliches and suspended resolutions.

But Silver Linings Playbook presents an entirely broken and entirely beautiful depiction of how love can grow in the midst of human messiness – and the film insists that such love is never only about a couple and romance, but is also about learning to love your family and your self and your past. From its opening, I was in love with the film’s nakedness, as its protagonists wrestled with mental illness and divorce and the deaths of their partners and the fights in their complicated families. I was in love with the appearance of many of my incongruous favorite things: football, ballroom dancing, and American modernist literature. And I was, predictably, in love with Jennifer Lawrence’s complicated Tiffany: a widow whose husband was tragically killed in a car accident and who since has tried to drown her sorrows in frequent, anonymous sex. Tiffany is ferocious. Tiffany is kind and vulnerable and strong. Tiffany is a mess. She is a beautiful and talented woman whose life is on the rocks and who is not dealing with the collapse very gracefully. Just honestly. And when love comes along for Tiffany, she does not accept with poise and beauty. She trips and falls right into it, crying and embarrassed as well as in love.

[spoilers ahead!] Tiffany’s love interest, Bradley Cooper’s Pat, is released from a mental institution at the film’s beginning. Well, that’s not quite right. His mother manages to spring him out of a mental institution, via some legal loopholes. He landed there after his undiagnosed bipolar disorder contributed to a big-time snap, when he discovered his former wife in the shower with a lover. Pat is also a mess. He wants romantic love to be a beautiful story that will fix him, and so he is desperately trying to get back together with his ex-wife. Pat is desperate for a silver lining, for an unexpected beauty on the underside of what has been a dark time for him. But what Tiffany helps him to discover is that you can’t find that silver lining through denial and naïve positive thinking. You can only find your way back by facing and accepting all the dark parts of your self. No person will cover that up for you or make it go away.

The moment when I fell head over heels in love with this film takes place when Tiffany and Pat are running together down the Philadelphia streets, seriously in denial, fighting about whose life is more messed up. Tiffany ends up screaming at him, “Okay! I was a slut! There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy. But I like that, just like all the other parts of myself. I can forgive. Can you say the same for yourself, fucker? Can you forgive? Are you capable of that?”

That’s the kind of love I can get behind. The kind that forgives. The kind that sees clearly and doesn’t flinch away. The kind that challenges and fights back but still accepts. The kind that is not about illusions or a quick fix to a crazy life, but is about the slowstruggle to know yourself and to let someone else in to share that mess.


This past fall, I was teaching a book on positive psychology and I had a chance to give a lecture on this book, where I took umbrage with the author’s vision of love. Specifically, I was frustrated with the author’s insistence that a certain kind of love – heterosexual, marital love that involves lifelong soulmates – was necessary for our happiness. How many times have we heard that story? And how many of us have discovered, slowly and painfully, that it’s not true? In my lecture, I wanted to critique the American version of the courtly tradition – a tendency to highlight impossibility, constant longing, and idealization rather than emphasize the slow and painstaking work of knowing someone truly and building a life together with him or her. I wanted to point out that there are many ways to love and that by fixating on romance, we sell ourselves short and set ourselves up for both unhealthy relationships and frustration with our selves. But, some people asked, by critiquing the visions of romance that we do have, wasn’t I just a bitter person hating on love? Wasn’t it just my own status as a single woman in my thirties that made me skeptical of what the cultural machine was selling?

But I don’t believe that. I love love. What I hate is reducing the complex concept of “love” to being only and always a stable partnership based on sex. As though other kinds of love – family love, the love between intimate and platonic friends, the love of a teacher for her students or an athlete for her teammates or an artist for her collaborators – as though these kinds of love could not form the components of a deeply satisfying life. Or as though romance could replace those other kinds of love even when it did come along Now. I’ve dated and not dated. I’ve been in long-term committed relationships and I’ve been deliberately celibate for long stretches of time. And in all these states, I have been through periods of contentment and of anxiety. Romantic relationships are a part of life, not a fundamental game-changer of the internal battles we fight. Whether we marry young, never marry, find a life partner, spend a long time alone – no matter what, we all face battles to know ourselves, to find meaningful work, to make peace with our deepest fears, to become strong and compassionate and fully alive. And I am tired of narratives that suggest that one moment – when he kneels and pops the question; when a white-clad woman and a tux-clad man say ‘I do’; when that special boy finally calls – will somehow provide an escape-hatch from our essential lostness and fear. In my lecture against love-as-happiness, I was trying to say, listen, love is necessary and does make us happy, but a) love does not equal romance, necessarily and b) all love is great but also painful and complex and lots of work. Love will help you be more alive but it’s not going to automatically save you

A movie like Silver Linings Playbook helps us to consider love in all such complexity. It refuses to settle for cliched and destructive visions of love. That’s right. Destructive. As I’ve written about before, I think the American worship of romantic love is destructive. It pushes people, particularly women, to view themselves as insufficient in and of themselves. I believe we do need other people. We can’t pull ourselves through life alone. But a romantic partner won’t solve the equation, either. Realizing this is the central drive behind Pat’s gradual acclimation to life outside the mental institution and after his marriage. When he first gets home, Pat refuses to believe that his marriage is over and engages in a classically romantic pursuit of his former wife, Nikki. He is determined to change for her. He runs the streets in a garbage bag, shedding pounds. He embraces a new vision of “silver linings,” finding the good in everything and powering forward through teeth-gritted positivity. But while self-improvement is not necessarily a bad thing, self-denial certainly is, and that’s where Pat lives. His entire family tries to convince him that his wife never really loved him – that she always loved a vision of him. Even when Nikki finally smuggles Pat a letter, what she tells him is that she keeps hoping for him to become the man she always imagined: a generous, kind, motivated, fit man. While all these characteristics are good things to strive for, they’re only a performance for Pat. And pursuing them, he gets all mixed up. He seems to start believing that if he could just get Nikki back, this would prove his worth as a person. Getting in shape and getting on medication aren’t things he does for himself. They’re just for her and they only have value through her. He can’t forgive himself. He sees romantic love as his salvation.

Ironically, it is by performing this idealized vision of himself that he falls into a relationship with Tiffany, the person who forces him to face who he really is and how he can really be happy again. Tiffany agrees to smuggle letters to Nikki if he will learn to ballroom dance with her and compete in a city-wide dance competition – an act that she insists will appeal to Nikki because of its romanticism and its generosity. But in the process of trying to become a generous and romantic person, Pat gets to know a woman who calls him on his shit and falls for him anyway – someone who will take him even while he’s running around in a garbage back and pitching modernist novels through windows, someone who will hold him accountable and tell him, “Today you are not a standup guy!” but will still give him a hug and share a bowl of Raisin Bran with him late at night.

Love, like awards shows, is not always perfectly choreographed.

But the true power of this film is that it doesn’t suggest that Tiffany’s love saves Pat. It helps him as he works to save himself, but he is also helped by close friends and family. Pat doesn’t turn into the guy Nikki imagined he could be, but he takes slow steps towards a fundamental okayness. And that comes from recognizing that, in his father’s words, life is holding something out to him – new relationships, new chances. Love does save him – if by love we mean a willingness to be patient with himself, to let others in, to accept that he deserves good things in life that come to him and that he doesn’t need to stay in situations that hurt him. But love doesn’t look like a rose or a glamorous gown, a nice speech or romance. It looks like two hurt people running down the streets together, gradually forgiving themselves and then trying to reach out.

  1. This discussion of Ben Affleck’s comments to Jennifer Garner made me think about your post: and about how love/relationships are work, fun, messy, amazing , etc. as you delightfully detail. but also the piece touches on how most narratives in the media don’t allow us to see (or celebrate) that work or messiness.

    • Thanks for sharing, Phoebe. That article is truly wonderful – and yeah, why the heck is it a bad thing to admit that marriages are work? What is up with the total sanctity of the romantic? That’s what we call idolatry, I think!

  2. Your post added fuel to a fire that I’ve been thinking about regarding Lawrence’s building star text. Occasionally, she almost comes off as rude, snide, a jerk and yet such behavior is so refreshingly unorthodox that it works for her. (I think it helps that she’s a brat about bullsh*! not in response to criticism about her bad behavior or entitlement or some such.) It also fits with our conception that this is her “real” self, which we find genuine and, therefore, likeable, as opposed to, say, what seems like Anne Hathaway’s calculated, affected niceness. Interesting, actually, that these are the two young up-and-comers the Academy decided to honor. Something about their wins feels more like a blessing from the group for their careers than a specific tornado of one year’s politics. (In one sense, this blessing tone abides with the actors too—Waltz winning despite the similarity of film/character to his last win and Day Lewis’ making history with his third Best Actor win.)

    I loved your post, too. I quite liked this movie but (through no fault of Lawrence), I found Tiffany a bit unbelievable as a character. This made me think a bit deeper about the strengths of the movie, including Tiffany. It also made me think of how their bizarre hybrid dance works as a metaphor for the messy, imperfect love the film celebrates.

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