By Carson Mlnarik
Two hands touching through a windowpane. A late-night “wish u were here” text. Less than desirable sleeping arrangements — at first. What is it about quarantine that has us so hot and bothered?
Social distancing measures meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus might be keeping us away from each other, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up on love. Rather, now that physical intimacy isn’t an option for couples who live separately, it’s changing how we date, so much so that the “quarantine love story” has become its own meme, defined by dating apps, passionate roommate hookups, and the occasional human-sized bubble. But two pandemic-crossed lovers are not necessarily a new kind of romance; it falls in line with the universal obstacles that plagued Romeo and Juliet as much as it did Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson’s characters in Five Feet Apart: Can love overcome the invisible barriers?
In this new normal, TikTok user Jeremy Cohen overcame the setbacks by using a drone to ask out the “quarantine cutie” he spotted dancing on a rooftop in his New York neighborhood. But in 2017’s Everything, Everything, it was a note that new kid Olly (Nick Robinson) sketched from his bedroom window for Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) after noticing she doesn’t go outdoors. Their love story springs to life with the essential storylines laid out by other teen romances like Midnight Sun, The Fault in Our Stars, and A Walk to Remember: There’s a boy, a girl, and a medical problem that keeps their fling from blossoming into a fully-realized relationship. These romances may endure with varying success, but that first-love intensity draws viewers in every time, and it comes as no surprise that these movies were all box-office successes.
The quarantine love story can come in many forms, and we’re breaking it down to see how courtship fares in the face of challenge, why this long-standing formula isn’t going anywhere, and the reason it feels especially resonant now.
The Star-Crossed Lovers
The high stakes might be one reason why we have a proclivity towards star-crossed lovers, according to Dr. Amber Hutchins, a professor at Arizona State University who teaches a class on depictions of sex, love, and romance in the media. Hutchins tells MTV News that the Romeo and Juliet trope “mirrors the intensity of the feelings” many young people have in their first relationships where it feels “like life and death.” With the world going through a pandemic, the quarantine love story can have similar stakes. “What we are living in right now is literally life or death,” she says. “So, I think that makes it even more resonant with not just young adults, but everyone who’s experiencing this.”
Five Feet Apart becomes particularly relevant a year after its March 2019 release, given that its title references the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s “6-foot rule” that says patients should maintain 6 feet apart to avoid cross-infection, and the CDC outlined the same distance for Americans as part of physical distancing. The film follows Will (Cole Sprouse) and Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), two cystic fibrosis patients who are united by a shared love of art and breaking the rules, leading them to secretly date in the hospital. But for Stella to hug her boyfriend, or even her best friend, is to risk both their lives. “There’s a lot of invisible barriers to people being physically together and I think that’s even more obvious ... where there’s a complex medical situation that most of the audience probably hasn’t experienced,” Hutchins said. “Now, we feel like we’re all feeling this together, and I think that there were those challenges pre-pandemic, and these films kind of amplify that now.”
And They Were Roommates…
There is also the “And they were roommates...” trope, quoted by meme and fan fiction creators alike. Because of their collective living situation, two people are forced together to see if symptoms develop — and feelings, too. Such is the case in a Wattpad story by author AggressivelyFriendly (whose name is withheld for privacy), “The One Where Harry Styles Sneezed on Me,” which follows a female protagonist who’s quarantined with the “Adore You” singer after he sneezes on her at a Whole Foods. The fanfiction is just one of the over 12,300 stories tagged “quarantine” on Wattpad, with over 4,000 fics inspired by coronavirus on the site alone.
AggressivelyFriendly speculates that the trope’s appeal stems from the “prolonged intimate contact” that can often “bring down our fear of rejection and lower our inhibitions,” inspiring stories that move at quicker, more intense paces than we’re used to in real life. “It’s almost like a petri dish rather than a natural progression of things,” she tells MTV News. She was inspired to write a fic about a quarantine love affair with Harry Styles as a way of dealing with stress during the pandemic, as well as connecting with fellow fans of the former One Direction singer.
While she acknowledges quarantine is a “dream scenario” for a writer, she points to reality shows like Netflix’s Love is Blind that recreate the effect of a romance isolated from outside influences. “It’s almost a little bit like that, where these people chose not to see each other, but they were forced to get to know each other in a really intense situation,” she says. “Some, like Lauren and Cameron, had immediate chemistry and were allowed to lean into that.” A desire to find true connection might also be the reason why we get so invested in quarantine love stories. There’s usually a sacrifice involved to keep the relationship going, much like in successful relationships, which are often hard-won. “I think we all want someone to find us attractive but we also want to be wanted for who we are,” the author adds. “If this person is spending all this time but they can’t gratify or be with you like that, then they want you so much that they’re willing to sacrifice that aspect.”
What Can We Learn?
Relationships are already hard enough, and the additional barriers characters face in quarantine love stories show us that. “There’s already risk associated with being vulnerable and opening your heart to someone,” Hutchins says. “So putting this barrier on top of it can be really stressful and feel unnatural.” Five Feet Apart, in particular, focuses on “the natural expression” of touch in all kinds of relationships, and what it means to live without it. While many people worldwide are dealing with what it means to be physically distant from a loved one for a prolonged period, most of their situations will get better with time. But there’s empathy to be gained in dealing with challenges similar to those that people with real-life health conditions face on a daily basis. “If we’re able to develop some compassion for other people and situations through this experience, I think that that can be valuable,” Hutchins says.
Considering most affairs in the genre end with a break-up, it may sound like love is dead in quarantine, but that’s not the case. Dr. Hutchins muses that relationships can beat the odds with “healthy communication,” by “being honest with each other,” and creating “physical space” for individual interests and quality time. This could be either good or bad news for couples who are quarantined together and are now finding themselves spending more time occupying the same space. “I think that if you already had problems in your relationship, quarantine is obviously not going to fix that,” Hutchins says. “It’s going to add another layer to that, and some relationships may not be well-suited for that.”
What Are We Going to See?
While Hollywood is straying away from pandemic-related storylines right now, we will almost certainly see a rise in quarantine stories, both in movies and television as it continues to change the way projects are being filmed. As for love stories, viral threads about newfound virtual romances — like the “important quarantine love story” LA Times reporter Amy Kaufman created about her roommate — show that we’re more than willing to root for a romance in the face of coronavirus, even if we aren’t exactly sure what we’re doing on dating apps.
These stories might have a new coat, but Dr. Hutchins says they speak to our need to feel human connection, and the desire to be normal. It’s why audiences rooted for Bella Thorne’s Midnight Sun character despite her xeroderma pigmentosum just as much as they rooted for an immuno-compromised John Travolta when he played Tod in 1976’s made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.
“I think that ultimately (the pandemic) will be a backdrop for the kind of situations that we’ve already seen in these other films,” Hutchins says. “The idea of destiny putting you together, that love is worth the risk — whether that’s actual physical risk or emotional risk — and the obstacles and barriers that prevent people from being together, it’s good material.”