Sometimes, when we go to the video store in search of a comedy, we are unaware that we might be forced to endure a storyline that is morally appalling and anything other than light humor. (Those of you who have seen Rumor Has It might know what I'm referring to.) Recently, I was driven to my local Redbox in search of a simple chic flick, and ended up bringing home He's Just Not That Into You, a new release starring an acclaimed cast with a cute punch-line: "If a guy does not call you back, he's simply not interested in you." I had seen previews and thought the movie might be entertaining, although I did briefly consider avoiding what might be another twisted Hollywood version of what relationships are supposed to be like. But curiosity won over, and I found myself indulging in a guilty pleasure that would soon give me a case of nausea.
The movie began with introducing several storylines of people searching for love and dealing with relationships. While some seemed innocent and relatable (who hasn't felt rejection at some point?), one of the storylines was far from cute: Anna and Ben meet in a supermarket and are immediately drawn and attracted to each other. But there's a slight complication to their romantic run-in: Ben is married. While he puts up a brief struggle and avoids Anna's advances toward him for a short time, he eventually caves in and begins an intimate and romantic relationship with her, hoping that his wife will immediately settle for a divorce once she finds out the truth. Anna, in the meantime, is excited by the prospect that Ben will leave his wife for her because of their intense chemistry and connection. Ben's wife, Janine, however, is not a quitter: even after Ben tells her of his affair, she feels a need to take responsibility for her husband's lack of interest in her, and works to rekindle their love. This catches both Ben and Anna by surprise in a very inopportune moment and reveals Ben's inability to make firm and responsible decisions to avoid both hurting the woman he loves, and the woman who loves him. It becomes clear to Anna that their affair will never lead to marriage, and later, it becomes clear to Janine that she cannot live with Ben's lies and that their marriage is meaningless. In the end, both women leave him.
Granted, there were other humorous scenes in this film, and some of the other characters had very happy and fulfilling outcomes. My qualm with the story of Anna, Ben, and Janine is not the lack of a happy ending, but the fact that the affair was thrown into the rest of the comedy as something light, human, and forgivable. As a recently married woman, two truths have become very clear for me and for fellow friends, regardless of the religion we practice: first, there is something very sacred and precious in the innocence of a man and a woman when they enter marriage. Nothing can replace having this sole partner with which to share life and love, and this is especially true when it comes to intimacy, which is something very protected by the law of God in the Qur'an as well as earlier sacred texts.
Given this first fact, the second, blazingly clear sign is that Hollywood producers love to take this innocence, rip it up, and throw the shreds into the wind, because it is a nuisance to their industry and moneymaking culture. While many young adults have grown up hearing this message from their parents, it does not ring true until we are married for ourselves and can compare our private relationships with what we see in the media. In real life and in our Islamic communities, we have the support of family and friends, but especially the Holy Qur'an and Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), which lay out both the rights and the responsibilities of two people in a marriage.
Conventional logic demands, "I know that this movie is false and only meant for entertainment, so why should I get upset about affairs in a film, or make up conspiracy theories that link open sexual relationships to some apocalypse?"
The simple answer to such a question is that we, as Muslims, do not live in our own Islamic bubbles. We draw influence and inspiration from the society we live in and the culture in which we participate and help to create. In the culture we find in the US post-1960's, the domestic life, as well as love and everything that typically leads to marriage, has been taken apart and put back together so many times and in so many ways that there are few wholesome rules that lead to good results. It's no wonder that over 50 percent of couples divorce in a culture where men and women are encouraged into and expected to have semi-serious relationships that involve all the perks of marriage without the responsibility and accountability.
The society in which we Muslims today live takes away the safeguards and boundaries that protect our hearts from being hurt by the one-time crush who will not call back or will not ask us out to a dance; it takes away the chastity that is so precious in a marriage, and it takes away the accountability for one's actions, no matter how small, from checking out someone while you are still married to displaying your beauty in the hopes of seducing a man (much less a married man!). While Allah placed chemistry between people and gave both sexes ample attractive features, He also gave the guidance to go along with it so that we could channel our energy beyond animalistic instincts to something higher. In the Qur'an, Allah commands both believing men and women to "lower their gaze and protect their private parts" for "verily, that is purer for them. Allah is all-aware of what they do." (24:30) Nothing could be as basic and dignified as guarding one's self with modesty and chastity.
But this is the advice for the believing men and women, not actors and actresses portraying the reality of some of today's relationship patterns. Why the heat? Simply put, one may laugh at foolish things that are done in the name of love, but none of these things were ever punishable by death according to Biblical and then Qur'anic Law. For instance, the movie portrays other female characters obsessively checking their phones, emails, and various social networking accounts waiting to hear back from The One, only to be disappointed. This humorous commentary reveals the painful yet bearable desperation of women in a jam, wondering why the object of their affection has not contacted them yet. (Needless to say, they later learn that their dream guys never called them back because they were "just not that into them" to begin with.)
This situation is bad enough in reality, when our culture exposes women to this one-night-stand scenario where they will be the object of pleasure for a limited time, only to be duped because they could not distinguish between a player and a true gem of a gentleman. Yet one can see the humor in a break-down of communication. In the case of the affair between Anna and Ben, the audience is expected to see their attraction as humorously ironic and their intimacy as human and passionate. Anna is never apologetic about her interest in Ben. While this one point might be understandable and human, her apathy toward the existence of Janine is unforgivable. Furthermore, Ben's decision to begin a physical relationship with Anna before leaving Janine is unthinkable and a nightmare for any married partner.
Okay, so it's a movie, and we should get over it, right? Obviously, no one needs to linger over a romantic comedy, except that when we begin to take things like affairs lightly, we slowly begin to let a lot of other things pass. When we can make one exception, we are exercising a muscle that will become stronger until there are cracks in our foundation, and we soon find ourselves promoting behavior and actions that Allah has tried to protect us from or at least finding it acceptable when others openly engage in them.
There is the commonly-cited example of how to cook a frog. It is not thrown into scalding hot water, but rather, in a pot of cool and enjoyable water. The heat is raised so gradually that the frog does not notice the difference until it is too late. While we, as Muslims or as people of faith in a God-inspired institution of marriage and family, may never see ourselves succumbing to this vile behavior that is portrayed as humorous in a light comedy, we also do not want to gradually lose our sensitivity to the ideals of commitment, purity, and fairness. So I say to this most recent film and all Hollywood films that like to portray something as serious and painful as an affair as "light" and "human": I'm just not that into this! Unless, of course, the writer had chosen to strike both Anna and Ben with a lightening bolt by the end of the affair.