Focus sur : Why we need justice for Love Actually’s ‘Office Tart’ in 2023

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Picture an “office tart”. Is she tall and slim with bee-stung lips? High cheekbones and come-to-bed eyes framed by a razor-sharp brunette bob? Sitting on an office chair, all Machiavellian smiles and legs akimbo? Thought so.

For 20 years, this is the image the nation has come to associate with “the other woman”, specifically if that woman is young, has a nondescript corporate job, and wears miniskirts. Yes, I’m talking about Love Actually’s Mia. You know, the smoking hot, red lingerie-wearing, inappropriately smirking woman who fervently flirts with her married boss, Harry (played by Alan Rickman), prompting him to surreptitiously buy her a gold necklace for Christmas. Compare it to the Joni Mitchell CD he buys his wife, Karen (Emma Thompson), and you get the idea.

To this day, the storyline surrounding Mia (Heike Makatsch) remains one of the film’s most compelling. This is, in part, due to the inimitable performance from Thompson, whose quiet sobs to Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” after receiving the CD – and not the necklace she mistakenly thought was for her – make for one of the most heart-wrenching moments in modern cinema. But it’s also because of Mia herself.

Love or hate her (though we suspect it’s the latter), she is a standout character. One who, more than two decades after Richard Curtis’s divisive film was released, people still talk about, albeit in rather unsavoury terms. There are always articles and memes about Love Actually around this time of year, mostly because watching the film has, for many, become an annual holiday tradition. Generally, they are fairly indistinguishable, picking apart scenes and stories that – shock, horror – would not be written today because of sexism, fatphobia, misogyny, or all of the above.

But this year I noticed something different. Because the articles and memes I saw were mostly about Mia – and there wasn’t anything progressive about them. In fact, they looked as if they belonged back in 2003. “The years may tick by but my outrage at Alan Rickman for buying that office tart a gold necklace and screwing over Emma Thompson never fades,” read one.

“BUY a necklace for an office tart instead of me and I’ll f***in’ kill ya,” read another that had been cartoon-ified and stamped onto a greeting card. “Annual reminder that slut-shaming is NEVER OK. Unless you’re talking about Mia from Love Actually,” read one tweet. There are many, many more. And while all of them express anger at Harry, they are equally – if not more – agitated by Mia, labelling her everything from “tart” and “slut” to “bitch” and “home-wrecking whore a** secretary”.

It makes sense. Always smiling provocatively, flirting outrageously, and doing her utmost to seduce poor old Harry, Mia is more of a cipher than a character. We know nothing about her aside from the fact that she is a conductor of sexual chaos. A woman for whom a biro is just something to dangle from her lips, an office chair merely a prop on which to spread her legs. She’s a siren in scarlet lingerie and literal devil horns.

In this office-come-Garden of Eden space, who can blame Harry for succumbing to temptation? What was he supposed to do? Ignore Mia’s brazen flirting and brush her off? Remind her that he has a wife and two kids? Don’t be daft.

The whole almost affair is all Mia’s fault. At least, that’s the general impression you get from the film and the way her character is spoken about today, which, let’s be honest, sits somewhere neatly in between sexism and slut-shaming. This despite the fact that Harry is the one who is married. The one who buys the necklace for her and not his wife. The one with young children at home. That’s not to diminish the crime of ardently pursuing a married man but why should Mia face more vitriol than Harry, who is not only reciprocating her come-ons but actively spurring them on by buying that goddamn necklace? Besides, if he’s that easily swayed, who’s to say there hasn’t been another Mia before, and that there might not be one or two more after?

We haven’t seen Makatsch in any other major films since ‘Love Actually’

(Universal Pictures)

And yet, people’s view of the character seems to have bled into their view of the actress playing her. Just last week, the internet was littered with articles about Makatsch, now 52, with a slew of headlines claiming that she “looks unrecognisable” today, which is not-so-subtle code for: young woman ages and is therefore no longer as attractive. This isn’t true, of course: with a blonde pixie cut and those same bright, doe eyes, Makatsch is just as beautiful today as she was then, if not more so.

It’s odd, too, when you consider that we haven’t seen Makatsch in any other major films since Love Actually. And out of everyone in the cast, she is one of the few whose names people don’t know. She is, for all intents and purposes, simply ingrained in our memory as “the office tart”. Could that be the reason why we haven’t seen her in anything else since? A character considered too heinous to ever detach from?

All this is a well-worn path on and off screen: in any kind of affair between a man and woman, it’s usually the woman who bears the brunt. Even when it’s the man who is married –  Rebecca Loos, anyone? But it’s almost a new year so perhaps it’s time for a new approach. Let’s take some of the heat off of Mia. She hardly behaved well but she was young. Naive. Horny. No one makes good decisions when all those things are combined. And let’s not forget it takes two to tango. Besides, when you think about what we do know of her character, there’s a lot to love. Audacious, tenacious, and sexually liberated? Sounds like my kind of woman, actually.

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Author: Maurice GLAIN