2019 marks the 10 year anniversary of the cult classic romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb, and I think that it’s time for us to take another look at what the film is really about. It tells the story of a relationship gone wrong between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). They meet at work and begin a whirlwind romance that they are never quite on the same page about. The film employs non-linear storytelling when painting the picture of their love story, jumping between showing us how they met, how happy they were during their relationship, and ultimately how crushed Tom is when Summer breaks his heart. On the first viewing, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Tom is the victim. From Tom’s point of view, he pours his heart and soul into the relationship and is completely blindsided by the breakup. Looking back on the film as the audience, however, we can see a more nuanced perspective.
(500) Days of Summer is often misinterpreted as a romanticization of the “manic pixie dream girl”, a character trope where quirky women are exclusively used to further a man’s character development. However, from a more modern perspective, we can actually interpret it as a criticism of this trope. Tom projects his fantasies and desire to find his soulmate onto a girl who, at the start of their relationship, makes it explicitly clear to him that she is not looking for something serious. Tom agrees to this but clearly convinces himself that he will be the one to change her mind on love, and convince her that soulmates are real. From the minute he meets Summer to the last time they talk, he never sees her in his mind as her own individual person. He creates a fantasy version of her in his head and then feels betrayed when she has needs and wants that don’t align with his. This is a fairly predictable response from someone who considers himself to be the “nice guy”; he believes Summer owes him an explanation and a relationship label because he has given her time and love. But ultimately it is not Summer who lets him down, it is his own unrealistic expectations.
Some people disagree with the idea of Tom as a flawed hero — it is easy to feel sympathetic for him after everything that happens. After all, he clearly does care about her and he only wants to be loved in return. Despite his flaws, Tom is not an unlikable character, nor is he entirely in the wrong. But when you really pay attention to the relationship and the dynamics, it is easy to see that Tom acts selfishly from the get-go. He ignores fairly clear signs from Summer that not only is she not particularly happy at the end of their relationship, but she was never looking for her soulmate, to begin with. (500) Days of Summer reminds us that women do not exist to be the fantasies of men, which is an interesting and refreshing perspective from a rom-com.
All of this brings up another point, though — is Summer without fault in their break-up? No, of course not. Relationships and break-ups are hardly ever that simple. There are definitely ways she could have handled things better, and there are moments when she is rather blasé about Tom’s desires and feelings. But she is certainly not responsible for Tom’s imagination of what their relationship could have been, and she is not responsible for being his dream girl. If this film had been released in 2019, perhaps it would have taken a clearer stance on how the “manic pixie dream girl” trope is harmful, or perhaps it would have been written from the perspective of Summer.
One of the main themes of (500) Days of Summer is expectations versus reality, and how harmful it can be when the two are not aligned. It brings forth a really interesting discussion on how these fantasies and tropes can damage relationships, and how women can be painted as villains because of them. Fans of the film will likely never totally agree on whether Tom or Summer was “more” wrong, but if you find yourself thinking that Summer ruined what was otherwise a perfectly good relationship, I recommend you re-watch the film with an open mind. (500) Days of Summer shows us that love stories are complicated, and the best thing you can take away from it is that if we allow people to be who they really are rather than what we expect them to be, you’ll be much better off. Tom certainly learns this by the end of the film, and his growth as a character is quite compelling and really makes you root for him. And although their relationship was deeply flawed, they both become better people because of it.