This month’s installment of Inkstick’s culture column, The Mixed-up Files of Inkstick Media (inspired by From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), where we link pop culture to national security and foreign policy, explores how analysis of the enemies-to-lovers trope in romance media could alleviate rising international tensions between the United States and China to finally attain the golden egg of an authentically multipolar world!
I know I’m not the first to note the United States’ on-again-off-again relationships with various international entities. But I was intrigued one night while scrolling through TikTok (again) when I came across commentary from one creator (@pagemelt) discussing how the enemies-to-lovers trope, specifically for heterosexual pairings, is fundamentally built off either the implicit or explicit belief that the enemy, female or otherwise, is equal and counterpart to the other member of the pairing. Pagemelt continues to describe what this means from the lens of gender dynamics, concluding with why the enemies-to-lovers trope may be particularly compelling for women or femme-socialized audiences who are rarely (if ever) seen or treated as equals to men in their real day-to-day lives.
This got me thinking about the rising international tensions between the United States and its arguably number one state enemy today: China.
WHEN DO ENEMIES BECOME LOVERS?
In the West, some of the most known examples of the enemies-to-lovers trope include “Much Ado About Nothing,” which spawned modern spin-offs like the movie “10 Things I Hate About You” or Miley Cyrus’s song “7 Things,” other classics like “Pride and Prejudice” or “Wuthering Heights,” pop culture classic films like “Dirty Dancing” or “When Harry Met Sally,” and recent stories like Hopper and Joyce from “Stranger Things.” Though some still roll their eyes so deep into the backs of their head that they catch a glimpse of what they think is their mega-sized galaxy brain that’s too Alpha Male to find pleasure in a trope as “predictable, overused, and lacking in substance” as the enemies-to-lovers trope or romance fiction at-large, as Scottish PhD student Cinzia points out on her YouTube channel “Lady of the Library”: “there is no greater payoff than the transformation of someone not liking someone to loving them.” When done well, the trope portrays such significant shifts in dynamics requiring enormous amounts of work from both characters and thus resulting in a uniquely sizeable emotional payoff to readers.
Now, though I’ve become comfortable enough with my specific flavor of middle school cringe, i.e., writing Bleach fanfiction for DeviantArt (that maybe two people actually read aside from myself), I’m not out here saying the solution for world peace is international relations fanfic about Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden or some personified versions of China and the United States (though between you and me, fanfic about world leaders and political figures is very much alive and out there and easy to find if you know your way around fanfic websites and tags).
Considering the sociopolitical implications of what a well-written enemies-to-lovers story looks like, though, as Pagemelt began discussing in their TikTok, I’m interested in what other lessons we may be able to pull from the trope that could indeed help us understand why the current MO for international relations might not be (is not?) the most effective for collaboration, multilateralism, and peace.
The real foundations underlying successful cases of the enemies-to-lovers trope are rooted in trust-building practices, even if forced and undergone reluctantly in the beginning.
But first: what does it take within fiction for enemies-to-lovers trajectories to come off as believable or satisfactory to readers? In a very formal and official poll of my friends via Instagram stories, the most recurring answers I got as to what makes the trope convincing (besides good writing) is primarily time and growth in mutual understanding. A transformation in the dynamic between two characters isn’t satisfying or believable if said transformation is rushed.
What’s the most effective way to build meaningful understanding between two parties initially working against each other? Forced proximity — at least according to fans of this romance dynamic. The real foundations underlying successful cases of the enemies-to-lovers trope are rooted in trust-building practices, even if forced and undergone reluctantly in the beginning. This is based on realizations of how preconceived misconceptions or projected insecurities differ from the reality of why a character is the way they are. “A lot of enemies to lovers start with people that only know a few surface level things…” as one friend put it.
“Trust-building,” “surface level understanding of the other party…” Perhaps the parallels I’m attempting to draw here are beginning to poke through the initial absurdity of the premise for this article. Many other connoisseurs of romance stories and the enemies-to-lovers trope point out myriad other considerations a writer must have when trying to craft the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy moment. Editor and author Hannah Bauman wrote in her blog, “In healthier depictions of the trope, the characters don’t manipulate one another. They become allies… Because they’re going to be working together for some reason and don’t usually get along, they may need to have a conversation about how their arrangement is going to work.”
Acts of good faith or extending an olive branch need not be large from the start. Consider President Richard Nixon’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy of the 1970s, named because the re-opening of US relations with China was ignited by an American table tennis player Glenn Cowan, who accidentally got on to the wrong bus and then exited alongside Chinese table tennis team captain Zhuang Zedong. Building (or rebuilding) rapport takes time, baby steps, and sometimes seemingly frivolous acts. President Donald Trump’s summits with Kim Jong-un held a lot of potential for progress toward Korean peace, even if they ultimately fell flat. President Barack Obama’s signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, followed by Trump’s reneging and now Biden’s attempts at revitalization, also show how foreign relations are truly just as fickle as men’s hearts.
Another writing blog “All Write Alright,” points out that writers must ensure “whatever inspired their hate isn’t unforgivable.” Most, if not all, hardliners on US foreign policy issues like North Korea, express the greatest vitriol at calls for peace because of human rights violations in the “enemy” state. But continuing to strangle a country like North Korea with sanctions or continuing to wage war — cold or hot or whatever else in-between — with a country like China has yet to reap any benefits for the very humans whose rights hardliners claim to want to protect. Either way, lives are at stake. So indeed, conditions as state “allies” or even as state “neutrals” could prove more conducive than state enemies to bettering the conditions of human lives.
CAN THE US AND CHINA BECOME LOVERS?
Although the differences keeping China and the United States apart seem intractable, perhaps the reason hot war hasn’t (yet) broken out between the two countries is because of the plethora of other reasons these countries are better off giving us readers that necessary character growth for the emotional satisfaction of a good ending. And yeah, romance might be asking a lot. Still, even reluctant amiability like Alex and Meredith from “Grey’s Anatomy” or, to an even milder extent Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth from “Game of Thrones,” would do wonders for global blood pressures, I’d wager.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents a chance for forced proximity and trust-building if the United States and China can carefully and strategically coordinate on how to tell President Vladimir Putin: “This ain’t it.” China’s relationship with Russia over the matter is precarious, but it’s clear they aren’t ride or die for what’s happening right now. Long-term issues for collaboration include addressing climate change (China’s CO2 emissions per capita are about half of the United States) or alleviating poverty and hunger (China did eliminate absolute poverty from its country in 2020, after all).
On a final note to those with lingering internalized misogyny who claim romance is all cookie cutter, drab, and nonsensical, it’s not the tools in one’s arsenal or the books on one’s shelves that make the artisan skilled or the expert credible. “Writing stupid ideas requires the best of masteries,” said Reddit user ChampValjean. So, feel free to call me Master Molly now that I’ve finessed my way into bridging my most passionate guilty pleasure of Hallmark holiday rom coms with the often dry foreign policy and national security talk.
Molly Hurley is a Master of Fine Arts in Community Arts candidate at Maryland Institute College of Art and a graduate with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Rice University. She currently co-runs this column alongside Lovely Umayam and works full-time for WombWork Productions, Inc.