He was in The Fault in Our Stars. He smiled a lot and was devastatingly handsome. He was fully committed to the female lead and only lived to make sure she felt better about herself. He was in Labor Day. He knew how to play baseball, be a perfect dad to the child of a single mother, and, after only about 48 hours, was able to completely heal the emotionally wounded woman he took hostage by running away with her. He was in Safe Haven. He knew how to fix bicycles, was conveniently widowed, and knew all of the most romantic spots in his small, homey town. He is always totally perfect, he is always incredibly good looking, and he is often wealthy. He is sexual, but not in a demonstrative way. More than anything, he lives to be devoted to a woman. His favorite thing is changing himself for a woman. He has no hang-ups, no weird fetishes, and no inner life or personality whatsoever. He is The Flawless Rescue Stud.
I have been trying to coin the phrase “Flawless Rescue Stud” for a few years now, because this type of character is appearing in more and more movies, and is quickly becoming an unfortunate stock character in just about every romance. We need some shorthand for this guy. One could refer to him as the male version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or MPDG, a term invented in 2005 by critic Nathan Rabin in response to the film Elizabethtown). He is also, I feel, one of the biggest and most obnoxious detriments to real romance the movies have ever seen. Oh sure, I will take the contrived stories of your average romantic comedy with ease and composure. I will take the teary public speeches, the vocal crazy proclamation, the bold romantic gestures, and I will easily take for granted the conceit that the two main characters are falling in love, even if the actors playing them have little-to-no onscreen chemistry. To be perfectly clear: I love a good screen romance, and I will weep openly over a warm and sentimental love story, even if it’s cheesy. But I cannot abide by the Flawless Rescue Stud. He is bad for movies, he is bad for stories, and he is bad for women. I will elucidate.
Here is the typical story of a romance film with a Flawless Rescue Stud: A woman who is emotionally wounded in some way – she is widowed, she just went through a divorce or a breakup – has reached a low point in her life. She is lonely and depressed. In an effort to cheer herself up (or sometimes at the behest of a friend, or sometimes in a desperate escape), she will do something new in her life, i.e. move to a new town. There, she will encounter a Flawless Rescue Stud. He is prefect in every way, and is instantly attracted to her, even though she is clearly depressed and “sealed off” in some way. His perfection will cause her to come out of her shell, and she will eventually come to fall in love with him. The crux of the drama in Flawless Rescue Stud movies will lie with whether or not the woman will reveal the source of her pain (the divorce, the dead spouse, etc.) and alienate this perfect new man with her baggage. Invariably, the Flawless Rescue Stud doesn’t care about her baggage, since he rarely has any of his own.
Just to offer a mirror of perspective, Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies are usually about withdrawn, self-centered males who have lived by their own rules their entire lives, and are lonely in their hermetic version of things. Sometimes they are victims of personal tragedy, sometimes they are just neurotic. A woman enters his life, usually forcibly, and offers a way of life wherein rules are bendable, and keeping things tidy is not a priority. She will dress weird, talk loudly, and have a lot of bubbly obliviousness. She will eventually teach him to loosen up and love life, etc. etc.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls and Flawless Rescue Studs represent a very real and totally unrealistic romantic fantasies for their respective genders. In the case of the Flawless Rescue Stud, they represent not just perfection, but a romantic longing for a man who will not exist without you. A man whose entire life is devoted to you. He’s cute, and he represents total and utter loyalty. Like a spaniel. I suppose I can understand this fantasy; what single woman (or man) doesn’t occasionally fantasize about that dream lover that will serve your every emotional and sexual need just for the sake of it? It’s a fantasy wherein one can stoke their own ego fires. Surely I’m worth it, the fantasy says. I’m secretly great, and all I need is a flawless lover to constantly reassure me.
But I think the increasingly frequent appearance of the Flawless Rescue Stud in movies is a detrimental thing, as the drama surrounding him proves to be anti-feminist in the worst possible way. When a Flawless Rescue Stud appears on screen, the female protagonist will swoon, surely, but there’s a weird kept-woman attitude lurking around underneath. Since the women in FRS movies are wounded and shy, they become capable of expressing themselves only when they have a man they can hold up as theirs. And when the drama finally rears its head, we find these weak-willed women fretting that they might lose their new boyfriend. These are women who are defined by whether or not they have a man, and the quality of the man they have is the whole of their personality.
The FRSs themselves are also largely without personality, making them into abstract romantic constructs. Hence, we have women defining themselves by whether or not men will fix their car and cook well. I would compare FRSs to MPDGs, but that’s not quite accurate. I think the female equivalent of the FRS is essentially a porn character. A porn woman (and I mean the characters, and not porn actresses who typically are rich and interesting people) lives to serve the male gaze, and has no personality beyond her sexual prowess. She exists as a fantasy construct, making sex into something easy and brisk. FRSs do the same thing with female romance fantasies. Everything is easy, everything is pleasurable, and everything caters to your basest and simplest whims. FRS romances are porn, only they use tears as the money shots.
The best romances are the ones wherein both the participants in the romance are complete and interesting people. We all can relate to romance and love. We can all relate to longing for a partner. We can all relate to the drama of getting together, the complexity of staying together, and the horrors of heartbreak. If we depict real people going through those things in a more believable fashion, then a film will become deeper. It will elicit empathy and teach us that we’re not alone in our romantic struggles. Just last year, we had The Spectacular Now, Blue is the Warmest Color, Before Midnight, and Her. All of these films were predicated on the real life drama of love, and not pandering to fantasy. Lloyd Dobler was never intended to be a template. He was just a lovelorn kid who wanted to he hurt. By the way, if you haven’t seen Say Anything… then do so immediately. It will blow the relatively schmaltzy The Fault in Our Stars out of the water, however much you loved it.
There are millions of great, moving, heartbreaking, optimistic, pessimistic, inspiring love stories in the world, some of which are our own. But we need to keep an eye on what’s a good love story, and what’s perpetuating bad ideas. If your film has a Flawless Rescue Stud in it, then you’re teetering on a bad romance. We need to have more self respect than to let these jejune FRS and MPDG fantasies rule our emotional expectations.