Writing this blog around the holidays, I realized that there are not many more comforting movie experiences than watching a good romantic comedy. It is difficult to reduce a genre to a simple summary but the dynamic of such movies rests on the central quest which is “the pursuit of love” and this quest almost always leads to a successful resolution. It is most often described as equal parts comedy in romance but I prefer to think of romance as the genre and comedy as the tone. This hybrid of romance and comedy has become a staple for Hollywood and for good reason. You get the laughs, the chills, the tears, the grand declarations of love and lastly the kiss which seals the deal on the “happy ever after”. What’s not to love?
“ You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie!”
-Sleepless in Seattle 1993
As it is rightly agreed, romantic comedy is cinema’s version of comfort food and inextricably linked with the release of oxytocin (the love hormone) in the spectator. The overall relaxed atmosphere of the genre, absolved of overly complicated plot lines makes it a more comfortable, stress free and feel good experience as compared to its more intense, dramatic and “Chris Nolany” counterparts.
Every Rom Com has a fairly straightforward formula: Person A,an adorably clumsy main lead meets Person B, a red herring love interest in a comical and erratic circumstance called a “ meet cute” followed by a dramatic misunderstanding. This plot coincides with a good dash of humor and an insightful commentary about love. And there you have it, the plot of almost all romantic comedies. There have been suspicious allegations that the genre died in the early 2000s which are strongly supported by statistical data of the box office earnings of these movies. The question lingers, what exactly put the nail on the proverbial coffin for the genre?
“I simply regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-if, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world”
– Mindy Kaling
It can be argued that due to rigid patterns, predictable plots, overly white and thin oeuvre of these movies, they have tragically lagged behind as the audience has overcome the laws of the genre. The genre became ossified as the cultural contexts and reasonably the expectations of the audience changed but not the plot mechanism. The conservative overtones, patriarchal and strictly heteronormative notions ceased to appeal to the spectators. These movies were romanticizing men who weren’t willing to accept rejections and their love declarations came down to banal manipulation and harassment. The protagonists’ obsession with a woman came to be wrongly glorified (Ahem, The Notebook). Rom coms began to be dismissed as “fluff” at best and “patriarchal wish fulfillment” at worst.
The conservative pull of these movies perhaps manifests itself most clearly in the way it represents the protagonist as a downcast single woman morphing into a seemingly more complete woman, all at the hands of their male counterpart. The romantic comedies also did the feminist movement very few favors as contrary to feminist values, it subtly reinforces patriarchal notions by insisting that a woman can only find happiness with a man rather than with her personal and professional achievements. For example in our beloved Bridget Jones Diary, Bridget’s boss tells her that she needs to get a boyfriend and not be so concerned with her job and her family constantly reminds her to settle down. Her character constantly worries that she would let a man slip away and be eternally alone and as a consequence unhappy. These movies also set unrealistic standards for relationships and define romance as the journey towards monogamy if not matrimony. The narrative in these movies diminish the protagonist’s professional concerns against the importance of the central romantic relationship and as consequence the heroine must give up a promising career in order to be with the man for whom the script intends her.
A lot of this was about to change with what I like to call “the Nora Ephron Effect”. The mind behind When Harry met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve got mail. What the three movies have in common despite Meg Ryan of course, is a strong career oriented female lead. Ephron, a staunch feminist was about to break the rom com genre. Her stylistic trademarks on the rom com genre have made a significant impact on the female protagonists of the 21st century. It is no news that When Harry met Sally set new standards for how a female lead should look and act in the genre. Unlike the protagonists before her, Sally Albright is no damsel in distress and she’s got a work ethic to prove it. She is a fast talking and overthinking woman who knows exactly what she wants. This characteristic appears in most of the characters in the “Ephron Universe” and her trademark has continued to make an impact on today’s female rom com protagonists. Without her the genre could have very well remained stagnant. While she is praised for her work, she should also be indicted for her overly white and thin oeuvre which has come to represent femininity and girlhood in Hollywood. Progress still needs to be made, but she did pave a way for women to break into a heavily male dominated industry and gave rise to the Mindy Kalings and Tina Feys of today.
Romantic comedies were and always will be a blessing to female spectators who do not fit into the narrow confines that the male domain film industry has drafted for them to ever truly identify with the art of filmmaking. These movies came to be positioned as the films about girls dealing with the trivial matters of love and thought of only as “Chick flicks for girl nights”. Critics have reduced them to a singular identity and so has the audience. But the resurgence in the genre with new rom coms challenging the formulas, tropes and representation of the former films has given us promising new films such as Crazy Rich Asians, To all the boys I’ve loved before and Juno. They have come to focus more directly on the female protagonist, her desires, and the community she has created for herself outside the heterosexual relationship, rather than the relationship itself as was the case with most rom coms of the 1980s and 90s. Perhaps they are not the most compelling pieces of media but are nevertheless wholesome and heart touching and fulfill the purpose of cinema that is to simply entertain. The interwoven tales of lives of the mundane being touched by the power of love will continue to shape how we see love, the expectations we have from it and everything in between. A woman watching and being moved by a romantic movie will always remain a very special, emotional and intense experience. I will forever vividly remember the first time I watched Pretty Woman, When Harry met Sally, Notting Hill, Love Actually and countless many and these will undoubtedly be watched and sobbed over in perpetuity. These movie experiences will always be our “safe space” nesting predictable, joyful and wholesome experiences unfolding stories that we have always loved. Such experiences have made me and many others the proud hopeless romantics that we are!