It’s that time of year again: Love Actually season is upon us. The modern holiday classic is full of egregious flaws, from the not-so-romantic cue card scene to the constant body shaming of a healthy, attractive woman—flaws that fans such as myself have had to come to terms with in order to enjoy the holiday season staple.
But in 2017, the year of #MeToo, of silence breakers and silence broken, of bathrobes and potted plants and secret door-locking buttons, Love Actually’s workplace “romances” feel particularly unpalatable—in fact, they feel more like harassment, actually. In the final quarter of this year, drowning in revelations of workplace misconduct by some of the most powerful men in politics and media, we found that sexual harassment actually is all around. But in Love Actually, no one gets punished.
Much of Love Actually is set in and around workplaces: Hugh Grant’s 10 Downing Street, Colin Firth’s French cottage, and Alan Rickman’s strange company that has something to do with design. In each of these settings, entanglements arise between male bosses and their young, irresistible female subordinates, women they have hardly interacted with beyond having them fetch their tea. With the exception of Laura Linney’s poor Sarah, all of these employer/employee relationships involve a problematic power imbalance.
The workplace crush at Downing Street, between the powerful prime minister David and his young, insecure catering manager Natalie seems innocent enough at first. The PM is endearingly awkward—his problematic comments, like offering to have her ex-boyfriend murdered or wondering who he needs to “screw around here for a chocolate biscuit” (hint: it’s the attractive woman who brings him biscuits!), could be put down to nerves and timing… if nerves and timing were acceptable excuses for workplace impropriety. But the prime minister, a man twenty years her senior, should know better, as should the 36 British lawmakers so far accused of inappropriate sexual behavior. But it’s not until another man—in fact, another world leader—sexually harasses the PM’s workplace crush that things turn criminal.
After 11 months of a U.S. president whose “grab ’em by the pussy” comment still echoes around our heads, whose accusers are still looking for justice, it’s excruciating to watch a fictional U.S. president boldly harass a foreign staff member on a state visit the minute he is alone with her. Natalie is frozen in shock until David’s return, but as she hurriedly leaves the room, the president doubles down, suggesting to the embarrassed woman that he hopes to reoffend on his next visit. While the prime minister is able to rebuke the president on the international stage (turning an embarrassed woman into a silent object in their ongoing power play and himself into a political hero in the process), Natalie is made voiceless, with no such diplomatic recourse. From here, the mistreatment of Natalie only gets worse. After she has been sexually harassed by an untouchably powerful man, the jealous PM punishes the victim, requesting that Natalie be “redistributed” from the workplace. His reasoning—that “it’s just a weird personality thing”—is accepted without question. If that wasn’t enough, an unlawfully dismissed Natalie writes her former boss a card, apologizing for being sexually harassed and calling herself an idiot for letting it happen, echoing the heartbreaking self-blame experienced by many of this year’s high-profile harassment victims.
Otherwise likable characters seem to find the idea of prime ministerial harassment uncomfortably funny. “Don’t let my brother [who happens to be your boss] put his hands on you,” laughs Karen, the PM’s sister, after being introduced to Natalie backstage at the school concert. “Twenty years ago you’d have been just his type.” Her weight, meanwhile, is topic of discussion in the workplace, with one assistant referring to her only as “the chubby girl.” The Prime Minister does not question the appropriateness of such a description, only its accuracy.
In another workplace, another young woman is fetching an older man’s tea. Poor spurned Jamie falls for his young Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia, despite the fact she doesn’t speak a word of English. Jaime is the literary man in the story, the thoughtful novelist, (the Lorin Stein or the Leon Wieseltier perhaps?), and though he apparently loves words, it’s when she strips off—in slow motion—to jump into the lake to rescue his novel that he first realizes his feelings for his employee. Aurelia’s employment arrangement is less formal than that of Downing Street, but she is still in a position of vulnerability, working alone in a house for a boss who finds her smoking hot. Though she is never fired for being hit on by another man (fortunately for her, there are no other men around), she is still a woman trying to make a living, not asking to be lusted over as she cleans and makes tea. Yes, she happily accepts when he proposes, but we can still “hate Uncle Jamie” for his presumptuousness in posing such a question to a former employee with whom he has apparently fallen in love without ever having exchanged a word.
Harry—the husband who buys a necklace and then come Christmas gives it to someone who is not Emma Thompson—is often seen as the villain in his storyline, but he is in many ways a victim of sexual harassment himself. His new secretary Mia is aggressively sexual towards him, from spreading her legs and staring at him suggestively to demanding he buy her “pretty” presents. One wonders where the HR department objected (or existed) when Mia organizes an office party in a gallery full of naked images, as well as “dark corners for doing dark deeds.” The Harry-Mia storyline turns the sexual harassment found in other storylines on its head, with depiction of sexual harassment by a younger woman of her older boss. Her behavior should make us no less uncomfortable simply because it comes from a woman, as it did in the case of Kansas Democrat Andrea Ramsey. Though not to blame the victim, Harry isn’t the greatest when it comes to establishing a healthy tone in his harassment-infested office. The inappropriate boss plays a creepy role in the awkward relationship between Carl and Sarah, not only telling a female subordinate how to act on her feelings, but basically ordering her to do so, micromanaging his employees’ sex lives.
Somewhere nearby, Colin, “god of sex,” is using his workplace as a platform to hit on women, asking them to try his “lovely nuts,” and bothering them as they try to enjoy a wedding, or in the case of Nancy, do their job. Colin refuses to leave Nancy the chef alone, holding food near her mouth and attempting to feed her despite her obvious desire to be left alone. Her refusal leads him to determine that English girls are “too stuck up,” simply because they are unwilling to sleep with him. Ironically enough, the most respectful workplace relationship in the film is the one that involves the most nudity: John, a body double for a sex scene in a film, is the outlier, treating his coworker Judy with the utmost respect, always asking permission before touching her.
As Hugh Grant says at the opening of the film, “I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” This year, it’s hard to escape the thought that the men and women of Love Actually are full of sneaky, inappropriate feelings.