(500) Days of Summer: How the Media We Consume Hurts our Relationships

Ittai Sopher PZ '20

Film Columnist

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I first saw Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer, during my early teens and I thought the film was brilliant mostly because of how much I could empathize with the film’s protagonist, Tom, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. After all, we both shared a love for sweater-vests, vintage music, and the ending of the 1967 film, The Graduate. What’s more, we were both obsessed with the passionate demonstrations of true-love preached by our favorite films. So, when Zooey Deschanel's character, Summer, dumps Tom abruptly, in favor of marrying some other dude, I was outraged. “Summer is a jerk,” I thought.

However, upon rewatching the film, half-a-decade later, I could feel my cheeks turning red with embarrassment, because, as it turns out, Tom was one of the biggest self-absorbed assholes in recent romantic-comedies. So what did I miss?

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are very perceptive in their understanding of our expectations as an audience. The writers know that the faceless narrator’s warning at the beginning of the film that tells the audience, “this is not a love story”, will go ignored by most people viewing the film for the first time. The audience is conditioned to believe that Tom is us, and that we should sympathize with his familiar quarter-life work and relationship crises. And many of us will find his almost immediate conviction to make Summer fall in love with him charming. Tom punching a man in the face in order to protect Summer from harassment is supposed to be a grand romantic gesture, and we cheer when Tom dances to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-esque parade in the streets of Los Angeles.

But the problem is that Summer is not the manic pixie dream girl from the movies Tom watches, who is ready to completely alter her own personal dating preferences for Tom’s macho dedication to winning her heart. Summer states very early in the film that she does not want a relationship, and this sentiment is explained to Tom by another woman, after Summer already dumped him, only to be ignored. Summer is never willing to her change her beliefs about relationships, and Tom knows this; he even tells his sister that telling Summer about the strong feelings he has for Summer will potentially “rock the boat”. Tom is probably right, because Summer is honest with herself and her emotions throughout the film. And if Summer knew how deeply in love Tom was with her, she probably would have dumped him earlier to save him the heartbreak and reclusiveness that Tom will go on to experience during the, after Summer dumps him.

Summer’s refusal to obey Tom’s relationship standards, is a rejection of the manic pixie dream girl composite, and a wake-up call for heterosexual men who believe that women will whimsically seek the approval of and bind themselves to the hearts of men. Furthermore, Tom’s love for Summer is not built on anything meaningful, as demonstrated by his ability to only list Summer’s physical features and music preferences as justifications for his supposedly deep-love. The very romance that Tom obsesses over for the entirety of the film turns out to be extremely shallow and self-serving.

The disconnect between Tom and Summer is clear throughout the film and is a reflection of many of the heterosexual relationships that are depicted in the idealized Hollywood and French New-Wave versions of romance. While the film takes place in present-day Los Angeles, there is a dystopian element to the male characters’ behaviors and attitudes. In fact, the only person that the male characters can think to recruit to give sound relationship advice is Tom’s pre-teen sister played by Chloë Grace Moretz, who tells Tom that “just because some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap that you do, that doesn’t make her your soul-mate”. This sound advice is juxtaposed with that of the male characters who have an intense inability to understand their own shortcomings and commit to healthy relationships, directly because of the media that they had consumed for decades. Their normalized sexism and homophobia, (for example, one of Tom’s friends drunkenly assumes that Summer is a lesbian because she doesn’t want to enter a relationship), is partly formed by the male-centric and heteronormative nature of the media that they consume. The film centers around men who live in a world where the media they take part in controls nearly every aspect of their judgement and inter-personal relationships.

(500) Days of Summer is a movie about the expectations of consumers in American society. These presumptions are born out of centuries of sappy Valentine's Day cards, brazen male heroes banging on chapel windows to steal back “their girl”,  and pop-songs  about how a man dying by a beautiful woman’s side is such a heavenly way to die. But the film challenges these assumptions about relationships, by shattering our core conventions about love. n the final act, the film asserts that falling in love is a matter of circumstance and not about grand gestures which ultimately serve to deprive women of their agency. (500) Days of Summer knows that the manic pixie dream girl composite is born out of this misconception. So, Tom is rebuked when he tells  Summer, “you just do what you want, don’t you?”.  Somehow, to Tom, Summer not falling in love with him was is an awful crime. You should develop more about the manic pixie dream girl idea! That’s super interesting :)

(500) Days of Summer helped me understand that becoming an adult is about developing empathy. By the end, we can only hope, that Tom understands that Summer not loving him is not an attack on his manhood, but more of just a mere reflection of his inability to communicate or listen effectively. As I reflect (500) Days of Summer at age twenty, I realize that it wasn’t Summer who was the jerk; it was me.