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Is There a Gender Imbalance in Time Travel Romance? 

'Second chance time travel romance' might sound niche. But there are a surprising number of movies which fit that bill, and many have one thing in common.

Who hasn’t wished they could relive an experience in their life over again, using the hard-won lessons of the past to get things 'right' the second time around? Maybe some people never wonder what might have happened had they known then what they know now, but not me! And I expect I’m not alone, at least if the enduring trend of movies about time travelers trying to get It — and in this instance, ‘It’ usually means ‘romance’ — right is any indication.

'Second chance time travel romance' might sound niche, but there are some big movies out there which fit that very specific bill. The most recent is the Netflix Original When We First Met, which stars Adam DeVine as Noah, a young man whose passion for jazz is second only to his passion for Avery (Alexandra Daddario). 

When We First Met time travel romance
  • Photo Credit: Netflix

The movie opens in 2017. We see Avery delivering a heartfelt speech at her engagement party about the night she first met her husband-to-be. At the same time, we see Noah's memories of the time he first met Avery, at a Halloween party three years and one day prior. But Noah isn’t the one marrying Avery. Their ‘perfect’ first night together ended with Avery hugging him and thanking him for his friendship. Soon after, Avery met her fiancé Ethan (Robbie Amell), a well-adjusted dude who is everything Noah’s not. Noah is literally sick over Avery’s engagement. So when a magical photo booth at his favorite jazz bar transports him back in time three years to the day he and Avery first met, he uses it as an opportunity to get 'It' right this time and win Avery’s heart once and for all.

Even though it's obvious that Noah will eventually see the error of his ways, it's hard to sympathize with him when he spends the majority of the movie trying to manipulate his way out of the 'friend zone' and into the pants of his happily-engaged (at least in one timeline) friend. 

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When We First Met time travel romance
  • Photo Credit: Netflix

I expected When We First Met to poke fun at Noah and his myopic focus on Avery, which it definitely does. But I often wished it was more explicitly critical of Noah's overall attitude towards women. Instead, his entitlement and casual sexism is presented as hilarious.

For instance, at one point, Noah’s friend Max mentions getting drinks for two girls. Noah responds by referring to him as “Cosby.'’ Is it supposed to be endearing to hear the romantic lead jokingly call his friend a rapist? 

When We First Met time travel romance
  • Photo Credit: Netflix

In another scene, Avery, because of time travel complications, believes Noah is stalking her. When he arrives at her house, she starts literally screaming ‘rape.' He's not particularly apologetic. Ho ho, hilarious. Truly the stuff of both romance and comedy.

At one point, Max even teaches Noah how to neg a girl in order to get her attention. Consequently, Noah uses one of his trips to the past to be a raging asshole to Avery. And it works! She develops a physical passion for Noah and the pair start a years-long habit of hooking up. Of course, Noah eventually realizes he wants a more stable relationship with his dream woman and uses the photo booth to transport himself back to the night they first met, again. Even though Noah realizes that he wants a more meaningful, empathetic relationship with Avery, the sequence still underscores the misconception that women will be attracted to men who treat them horribly.

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When We First Met time travel romance
  • Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

  • Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

When We First Met has been compared by numerous reviewers to another movie that I'd classify as second chance time travel romance: Groundhog Day. Although I think Groundhog Day's execution is funnier, both movies involve a pretty immature guy reliving a momentous day in his life over and over until he can learn to be a reasonably decent person and win the heart of a much more emotionally and intellectually mature woman. Of course, in Groundhog Day, Phil is unwillingly trapped in a time loop, whereas Noah elects to live the day of the Halloween party over and over again.

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Both movies also reminded me of the British romantic comedy About Time, in which Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) learns on his 21st birthday that he comes from a family of time travelers.

when we first met time travel romance About Time
  • Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson in About Time

  • Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Tim uses his newfound capabilities to help his friends, reversing time to rescue one from a professional disaster. In doing so, he accidentally creates a timeline where he never met Mary (Rachel McAdams), a charming young woman whom he connected with at a restaurant. Eventually, Tim uses his extraordinary skills to recreate their meeting and re-save her number in his phone, which leads to a lifelong romance filled with mutual respect and adoration. Throughout their marriage, Tim often uses his powers to rewind and perfect moments without Mary knowing. But as he matures he realizes that even time travel is ultimately useless against much of life's cruelest inevitabilities. 

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Tim is a much different time traveling paramour than either Noah or Phil; he seems to have more native respect for others than either of them do. That being said, he does use his powers to change Mary's life, over and over, without her consent or knowledge. 

In Tim's shoes I would honestly do the same thing — after all, how would one even begin to reveal to a partner that you can reverse time? But there's one big similarity between Tim, Noah, and Phil that I find interesting. 

In the words of Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn't help but wonder: do we tell stories about female time travelers given a second chance to perfect their love story? Or are those narratives more often focused around men? 

time travel romance
  • Nicholas Cage and Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married

  • Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures

When We First Met, Groundhog Day, and About Time all center around a man who manipulates time (or is manipulated by time) in order to redeem himself to some extent. There are far fewer stories about women breaking the space-time continuum to improve their romantic life, but they’re not unheard of. 

For instance, Sofia Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married centers around a recently-betrayed woman who travels back in time to high school and explores the romantic options she didn’t take advantage of then. TV shows like Hindsight and Felicity also feature women traveling back to their past to rewrite their romantic history. So yes, women sometimes get to turn back the clock through some second chance time travel romance, it just seems to happen less often in film than it does for male characters. 

There's something inherently appealing about the idea of going back in time to erase our most lingering romantic regrets, and I for one am drawn to those narratives. However, I wish women got to take the fabric of time and space into our own hands more often — and I hope that any future narratives about male time travelers are a little more like About Time than When We First Met. Life's too short, with or without time travel, to watch another movie about an immature guy bending the fabric of reality to weasel his way out of the 'friend zone.' 

Featured still from "When We First Met" via Netflix.

Published on 21 Feb 2018

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