I am a serious journalist and as such, I recently undertook a project that has been months in the making. For 24 hours straight I would watch romantic comedies and see if, in so doing, I could figure out what what makes them compelling, what makes them awful, and if the one cancels out the other. In the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson in the seminal classic Jurassic Park (which is, I understand, NOT a romantic comedy) hold on to your butts.
To the casual and embittered observer this experiment might seem like a lame attempt on my part to parlay lying nearly comatose on my sofa, abloat with pizza and merlot and drooling in front of Netflix into a paid work opportunity. While yes, admittedly, those things did occur, they would have probably happened were I not writing the article, so, you know, there is my bias acknowledged and fully accounted for. JOURNALISM!
As a 31 year old woman, I would be lying if I said that a large part of my romantic vocabulary wasn’t defined by the romantic comedies I watched during adolescence. It took an exceptionally long time (and some brutal dating and relationship experiences) for me unlearn the stuff movies subconsciously conned me into believing was true.
To be clear, I don’t identify as one of the girls who believed in foot-popping kisses, in fate, in kismet, none of it. I have never actively wailed “Where is my prince charming?” or “Why isn’t life like When Henry Met Sally?” because I understand that movies aren’t real. The pernicious thing from the movies that I fell for was banter. That was my main takeaway watching 24 hours of the movies. Other women might have come away with a warped sense of what sex should be like, or felt an insane amount of pressure to get married and have kids, I took away this mostly false belief that other than your first fraught meet-cute, when you meet someone you want to jump into bed with, you’ll seduce each other with a torrent of words so great they must have been penned by a professional. Because in movies, you know, they are.
Because I am a human being with lungs and a brain and heart and stuff, I’ve seen a lot of romantic comedies. I don’t remember which one I saw first, but I know that Say Anything was the first one I watched over and over again, parsing it for quotes and deep truths about what it is to be young and in love. Thus it was included on the list — and so was 10 Things I Hate About You. To me, there is no greater panty moistener than witty repartee.
After seven or so hours of being inundated with enough badinage to glut every single host of the The Talk, I was overwhelmed with chills: Had I become a playwright because in writing dialogue I could activate that hormonal rush of hotness I felt watching a couple verbally banter on screen? I am ashamed to say that, a little, yeah, I did.
If you do anything for 24 hours straight without sleeping you will feel a little insane. I started at 5 p.m., and by 2 a.m. I was furiously doing crunches on the floor and trying not to overly identify with Angelina Jolie’s character in Playing by Heart, furiously chasing after something only she could identify as precious. That this thing she desired and sought was embodied by a truculent and AIDS-having Ryan Phillippe was of little to no consequence. It was now 3 a.m. and I had lost all sense of irony. When you love all sense of irony, it turns out what happens is that you watch The Broken Hearts Club and sob for roughly twenty minutes at the image of John Mahoney dancing and singing in drag. “H-h-his life must have been so hard!” I wailed, about a character who was not real.
Romantic comedies as a genre inspire a lot of eye-rolls, and this is at least partially merited. What a deceptive thing it is to present young women with a self-contained world where adhering (or not adhering) to a certain set of rules will make or break your future and eternal happiness — not to mention the fact that happiness in this world is defined as finding someone to make out with while a camera spins about you just prior to the credits rolling.
I will defend romantic comedies to the death, but I’m also aware that there’s a lot about them that’s problematic. I think you can be a feminist and love Notting Hill, but I know it’s not the greatest thing in the world that the movie-making machine presents one almost entirely heteronormative approach to happiness. I think you can acknowledge that real life and real love is more complicated than anything you’ll see on screen and still feel your heart grow three sizes when Cher Horowitz realizes that she is butt-crazy in love with Josh.
Because there’s something intangibly satisfying about hunkering down to watch Moonstruck and knowing exactly what you’re going to get. Cher’s Loretta is going to believe she has no luck. She is going to get engaged to a guy she’s not that into. She’s going to meet that guy’s brother and fall desperately in love with him. She is going to fight those feelings because she is terrified of love’s consequences, but then she is going to make him a steak, and sex him, and there will be a confrontation, and accordion music will play and everything will turn out right.
That’s what I love about even the worst romantic comedies (I’m looking at you Sweet Home Alabama and Forces of Nature). The central romantic protagonists could be played by two actors who have no chemistry. The story could be reductive and hackneyed. The writing could be borderline idiotic. But I am guaranteed a resolution and that is more than I can say for almost every other aspect of my life. Romantic comedies aren’t evil or warping our minds, they are reminding us that even at our most savvy and world-weary we crave sweetness and magic.
Women and romantic comedies are discussed constantly, but I’d argue after a 24-hour onslaught that men are impacted as well. We all have witnessed the riotous rise of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and many of us (myself included) have railed against such a reductive trope — because it is reductive.
But, if we promote the idea in film that we think it’s romantic for a woman to present herself as a whirling dervish whose sole merit is as a shiny object of fascination for broken men, it’s also kind of an inevitable characterization, right? Don’t blame your brooding psyches, dudes — blame rom coms. Holly Golightly crying in the rain as she hunts for the cat? She is a fucking mess, but that’s cool because Paul Varjak is going to make out with her.
I can be glib about it because I can also acknowledge to tearing up at the end — we’re broken people, making connections in an isolating world. But none of the beauty of that sentiment accounts for the reality of what it is to be broken and to count on another broken person to fix you, or even to balance out your sharper edges.
- How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days
- The Proposal
- Forgetting Sarah Marshall
- Imagine Me & You
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- Definitely Maybe
- The Ugly Truth
- When Harry Met Sally
- 10 Things I Hate About You
- 50 First Dates
- Romancing the Stone
- Sleepless in Seattle
- As Good As It Gets
- Say Anything
- The Wedding Singer
- Playing By Heart
- The Broken Hearts Club