There’s a relatively long-running and fashionably chic criticism that Disney has ruined generations of girls’ romantic relationships by giving them unrealistic expectations about love. After all, in Disney movies the prince is handsome, falls in love with the girl, and everyone lives happily ever after. Love is sealed with a kiss, the camera fades, and there’s never fighting over whose turn it is to take the dog out, who cleared the dishwasher last, or which moral values should be passed on to the kids.
American culture is so built on the idea of “true love,” “the love of your life,” “soul mates,” or “The One” that children don’t blink at the idea of a mermaid gambling her soul against being able to make her true love fall in love with her in three days. They know how it will end. From The Notebook to a million Pinterest boards about love to the wedding industry juggernaut, the soulmate is at once a romanticized ideal and, for some, a genuinely held belief about love.
The idea that there’s one person out there that the universe has destined for you, the yin to your yang, is compellingly seductive. How pervasive is the idea of a soulmate? Rutgers University’s 2001 National Marriage Project Survey (also called, no joke, “Who Wants to Marry a Soul Mate?”) found that 94% of American 20-to-29-year-olds who had never been married agreed with the statement “When you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” 88% agreed with the assertion that “There is a special person, a soulmate, waiting for you out there” and a whoppingly optimistic 87% believed they would find that person when the time was right. For comparison, only 51% of adults under age 30 believe for sure that God or a universal spirit exists, suggesting paradoxically that young people are more certain of the existence of a preordained soulmate than the existence of the entity that would have ordained that soulmate.
The queer female community is no less immune to the siren’s call of the soulmate. Xena and Gabrielle spent six seasons flat out calling each other their soulmate and the queer female community responded by crowning them the OTP (One True Pair) of OTPs. Other fictional pairings since then have used the same sense of irrepressible inevitability to draw queer female viewers in and keep them watching. The idea of The One even shows up in songs like Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One,” which consciously or unconsciously play off queer women’s desire for a perfect partnership. Given women are more likely to believe in soulmates than men, it’s only natural that the queer female community is a sucker for a good true love story.
Many relationship counselors disparage the idea of soulmates. Studies have shown that believing in soulmates undercuts happiness in a relationship by reducing the willingness of people who believe in soulmates to compromise with their partners. In fact, a study of 1,400 married people in the Louisiana Marriage Matters project found that people who believe in soulmates are 150% more likely to end up divorced than those who do not. Citing the “Disney romance influence” as a factor in America’s rising divorce rate, these counselor recommend taking a practical, collaborative approach to relationships that allows for more flexibility.
So okay, maybe we should all temper our romantic expectations and stop expecting Princess Charming to turn up on our doorstep in real life (unless she already has for you, in which case well done), but it seems excessive to vilify completely the depiction of soul mates on screen. After all, it is called entertainment for a reason. And it is clear that a large percent of audiences respond positively to the idea of true love—as evidenced by the cult persistence of Princess Bride, for one—or, as a slightly more palatable step down, the idea of a character having a “love of her life,” which acknowledges the idea of one partner being empirically better than all the others in a person’s life without bringing fate or destiny into the picture.
Many fictional plots are representations of wish fulfillment. They are alternative realities and scenarios that might not happen in real life but which we enjoy because it pleases us to see them. We don’t have to believe in soulmates in real life to enjoy seeing them on screen, just as we don’t have to believe that a radioactive spider bite will turn us into web-slinging superheroes. At the end of the day, it is up to the individual viewer to interpret whether fictional characters are “soul mates” or just right for each other right now (with the possibility that they may split up at a later time, or that other characters would have been equally good fits in the relationship).
As a romantic, I personally support the idea of life loves in real life, even if my faith in soulmates has waned, and I strongly prefer that my favorite fictional queer female characters be given a “love of her life” as part of their storylines. I want to believe that I’m seeing the apex of a character’s romantic experience and live vicariously through that. But that’s just me.
What do you think? Are Bo and Lauren of Lost Girl “meant to be,” or is their relationship more mundane? Is Luisa and Rose’s relationship on Jane the Virgin “the greatest love story ever told” or is it just another soap opera gimmick? Was Allie the love of Bea’s life on Wentworth, or a flash in the pan? And more importantly, do you believe you have a soul mate out there, and if so, have you met her yet?