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'Sleepless in Seattle'
Image: TriStar Pictures

'Sleepless in Seattle'

Today’s art film and theater still give us many of these gut-wrenching “what if?” stories, but our most popular modern dramas are more likely to offer fantasy scenarios than nightmare ones.

The popular drama of extenuating circumstances creates a situation where a normally censured action is made acceptable, necessary, or virtuous. Taken is a violent fantasy of extenuating circumstances: what would make it morally permissible for someone like me to hunt, torture, and kill a group of men? What if they had kidnapped my daughter and sold her for sex? War movies are often dramas of extenuating circumstances because war itself is an extenuating circumstance: killing is wrong, except for here. Heist movies often ask: what if it were okay to steal—even good to steal—because the business/casino/institution in question is corrupt? We like these stories. They give us safe outlets for questionable desires.

Romances of extenuating circumstances are generally aimed at adult women, because they generally feature a variation on infidelity (generally an adult problem). In Sleepless in Seattle, it’s okay that Meg Ryan leaves her fiancé after carrying on an emotional affair with a man she’s never met—the extenuating circumstances being that her fiancé is kind of lame, and that fate itself keeps pushing her across the country towards Tom Hanks. In Titanic, it’s okay that spoken-for Kate Winslet tumbles into the arms of charming pauper Leo DiCaprio, because her parents have forced her into an engagement to an awful toff. In The Bridges of Madison County, Meryl Streep is married to a withholding man who doesn’t understand her, so it’s forgivable that she has an affair with deep, kind Clint Eastwood.

And Nicholas Sparks is the reigning king of the extenuating circumstance romance. Whether it’s spousal abuse or war or illness—or, when all else fails, “fate”—his characters always find the reasons that they must be together.

Christian women have a harder time buying into the romance of extenuating circumstances, at least publicly, because Christian culture tends to be more absolutist about ethics. Many Christians feel that ethical inquiry into rare outlier scenarios needlessly muddies the clear messages of Scripture, and that focusing on exceptions is a distraction from the more important general rules. (For example, some Christians believe it’s God’s will that all couples have children. Others counter with the point that many happy, loving couples are infertile, so the procreation of children cannot be considered a defining characteristic of godly marriage. A typical response to this point is that infertility is an unfortunate reality for some couples, but that this furnishes no argument against the general principle that fertile Christian couples ought to be procreating.)

The extenuating circumstance in a romance needs to be incredibly convincing for a Christian woman to buy into it, because otherwise she’d be taking secondhand pleasure in a character’s sin—a guilty pleasure indeed. A Christian woman is advised instead to enjoy romances in which a couple needs no mitigating circumstances to legitimize their relationship.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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