How Palm Springs breaks the problematic pattern of time-loop romances

Cristin Milioti’s character subverts the passive love interest trope seen in Groundhog Day and About Time.


Stefania Sarrubba


While spending what has sometimes felt like an eternity in lockdown might not seem like the ideal circumstances in which to enjoy a time-loop movie, Hulu’s Palm Springs succeeds not only in providing plenty of laughs but also in casting off the sexist shackles of the genre.

Max Barbakow’s directorial debut dares to do something all-too rare in time-loop romances: it entrusts its female character to find their own way out. The film may ostensibly centre around Andy Samberg’s Nyles, but its true hero is Sarah Wilder (Cristin Milioti), whose sarcastic, sassy nature belies both her emotional complexity and dramatic potential. By following Nyles into a mysterious cave, Sarah inadvertently enters a time-loop, but crucially she single-handedly comes up with a scientific solution to escape, thereby confirming her as not just another passive love interest.

Although one of the first notable time-loop movies, 1983’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, has a female protagonist, women have traditionally been excluded from playing an active role in time-travelling narratives. For these characters, freedom is typically earned through an emotional epiphany rather than scientific reasoning. This is particularly evident in temporal loop romantic stories such as 2017’s Before I Fall, starring Zoey Deutch.

It is interesting that a genre which has long been predominantly aimed at a female audience is quick to dismiss its women as soon as a scientific element is introduced. Sci-fi – just like science, given the low percentage of women in STEM – is very much still a boys’ club, and rom-coms featuring some form of time travel have historically contributed to reinforce this gender barrier rather than dismantle it.

Take Andie MacDowell’s Rita in Groundhog Day, or Rachel McAdams as Clare in The Time Traveler’s Wife and Mary in About Time respectively – all extremely passive characters. Indeed, in About Time, Mary’s agency is entirely removed from the equation; she is formally denied the chance of visiting different timelines on the basis of her gender.

In all of these films, the male protagonists choose whether to let their love interests in on their gift mid-plot, if at all. At best, the female character devotes her life to help the sensitive, troubled man carry this burden, as Clare does in The Time Traveler’s Wife, which makes up for it by featuring a daughter who inherits her father’s ability in the finale.

At worst, keeping the secret results in a carefully crafted web of deceits at the expense of the female characters. Worryingly, this type of time-loop rom-coms also romanticises the idea of using trickery to force sexual contact with a woman under false pretences.

Palm Springs is a step forward in this regard. Although Nyles tries to have sex with Sarah at one of her sister’s many, many wedding receptions, the interaction leading to that is rooted in mutual consent. Nyles doesn’t necessarily rely on information he might have acquired on Sarah in alternate timelines. However, it is revealed later in the film that he had lied to her about having slept together before she entered the time-loop. His confession prompts Sarah to walk away, an option hardly ever afforded by other female characters whose memory gets constantly erased.

Compared to Rita, Clare and Mary, Sarah exists at the opposite end of the spectrum of time-loop heroines. While Nyles displays a passive, nihilistic attitude, indulging in beer-guzzling on pool inflatables in a desperate attempt to conceal a fear of adulthood, Milioti’s character uses the loop to study quantum physics and talk to a (male) physics professor. Hers is a slow realisation that still goes through the usual comedic, absurdist phases of dealing with being stuck in a temporal loop, including slaying a dance routine at a bar in the middle of the California desert that, sadly, no patrons will remember.

After all, Palm Springs is a rom-com – and a hilarious one. It retains the basic elements of the genre, including a happy ending brimming with possibilities, while also hinting at the existence of a multiverse in pure sci-fi fashion. The film’s refreshing blend of love, laughs and science is its strong suit, proving that a gender-balanced world is possible, in one timeframe or another.

Published 26 Jul 2020

Tags: Andy Samberg Cristin Milioti Max Barbakow Palm Springs Rom-Com Time-Loop

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