Valentine's Day is a time for celebrating romance. But does that include rom-coms?
A writer who loves watching rom-coms and a writer who would rather watch anything else make their case.
Feb. 12, 2021
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Watching rom-coms makes the world feel less terrible
It's only in these sanguine stories that I feel safe as a viewer, where I know I won’t get an image of a bloodstained bride stuck in my head.
By Judi Ketteler
My husband and I try not to complain about each other, but if pressed, I’m guessing this is what he’d put atop a list of grievances about me: “Her taste in shows and movies is terrible!”
Personally, I don’t think my taste is terrible at all. I think it’s simply … limited. Limited to big- and small-screen productions that feature mostly likeable people, doing mostly unheinous things — like coupling, uncoupling and coupling again, and maybe solving some problems and being quirky along the way. These people may suffer and experience some emotional distress, but they do not lose children to terrible illnesses or accidents. Nor do they murder and torture each other, fight in wars, bake meth in the desert or do anything that people in, say, Quentin Tarantino movies do.
In other words, my viewing taste is limited to certain kinds of thinky dramas, to BBC period pieces about queens, country estates or sisters searching for husbands, and, of course, to romantic comedies. It is only in these kinds of sanguine stories that I feel safe as a viewer; where I know I won’t wind up having nightmares or get an image of a bloodstained bride forever stuck in my head.
The movies I like feature the admirable parts of humanity. Sure, the characters are flawed, but the best part is when you get to see them fixing their mistakes: When Tom Hanks’ ego-filled Joe Fox knows he’s got to make it right after hurting Meg Ryan’s spunky Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail.” When Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist and Colin Firth as the king make up in “The King’s Speech.” When Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse finally wises up in “Emma,” and Alicia Silverstone’s Cher does the same in “Clueless.”
We live our own best moments when we see characters have theirs. And when they wind up happily ever after? It’s a rush of much-needed endorphins.
“Don’t you want to be challenged?” my husband will ask me. “Don’t you want a story that sticks with you?”
No and no.
I’ve suffered through the horror and misogyny of “Apocalypse Now,” the toxic masculinity of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the warped punchiness of “Pulp Fiction,” the absurdity for no reason at all of “Magnolia” (seriously, why?). These are just a few of the oh-so-highly-acclaimed movies I have watched in service of making sure I appreciate “genius” and understand the awfulness of people. And I am done.
So here’s the truth: “When Harry Met Sally” is my favorite movie, though “Pride and Prejudice” (the Colin Firth adaptation) is a close second. And I wouldn’t kick “Love Actually” off the screen.
This is no longer something I am embarrassed about. I don’t cling to romantic comedies because I think they represent life. In fact, I understand that most of my favorite movies have major representation problems in that they are telling stories about mostly white, heterosexual, well-off people.
I also understand that there are feminist red flags all over the place, and I believe that making marriage the ultimate prize for women — “the marriage plot” — is a one-dimensional, highly problematic view of female lives and aspirations.
But to all of this I say: People are contradictions. Their political beliefs and ideological convictions do not always mesh neatly with their Netflix queue.
The thing is, when I’m watching fictional characters on the screen, I am the character. I am in it. Unlike when I’m reading, I can’t put what I am seeing into a special compartment that stays sealed. The gore and sadness and fear leaks out and washes all over me.
I’m not trying to run away from reality, though. In fact, I want to make sure I stay tethered, so I can fight for what I believe in and raise engaged children. Accordingly, this past Saturday I spent the day reading about the increasing threats from domestic terrorism, learning about the new ultracontagious strains of Covid-19 and searching frantically for a vaccine appointment for my 85-year-old mom.
And then lathering on the rom-com salve in the form of “The American President” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
I need a break from the heavy thinking and reading that helps me stay sharp and connected. For me, that break happens inside rom-coms. Hugh Grant will not solve any of the biggest challenges facing us today, but he will keep the bogeyman out of my psyche. At least for two hours.
Judi Ketteler (@judiketteler) is the author of WOULD I LIE TO YOU? THE AMAZING POWER OF BEING HONEST IN A WORLD THAT LIES. She often writes about the awkward truths of midlife.
There's a good reason rom-coms never age well
Even cynics like a happy ending once in a while. But we can do better than these smug, predictable and often sexist fantasies.
By Christopher Mosley
Sunday is Valentine’s Day — an annual explosion of pink hearts and red roses and romance. Closely associated, although not technically linked, is the classic film genre: the rom-com. Widely popular and yet widely reviled, there is an entire cyclical genre of critical essays devoted to announcing its death, performing its post-mortem and then announcing its rebirth. An astute piece by Jen Chaney in 2017 tracked the origins of this type of criticism back to The Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s. It likely started even earlier than that.
Dialogue-forward in their nucleus, early rom-coms were some of Hollywood's first talkies. Rather than tackle the era's most pressing problems — the Great Depression or the international rise of fascism, for instance — they instead focused on escapist banalities. We haven't necessarily evolved all that much since then.
The romantic comedies of the postwar era — much like the romantic comedies of the past few decades — similarly failed to reflect reality. You will not see many factory workers of color in the screwball comedy era. The rom-coms of the 1940s and '50s are so limited in their values — romance above all other concerns between strong-jawed men and the women who love them — that they almost feel like WASP propaganda, the America Dream as defined by white, heterosexual love.
These representational issues are not helped by the rom-com’s smugness. Not all dismissals of romantic comedies are fair — the films attract their fair share of sexists given how often they feature female leads. And yet, the genre is somehow bad for both men and women. There’s a reason many classics of the genre have not aged well. Take one of the genre's seemingly most influential minds, Woody Allen. While "Annie Hall" has long been considered one of the most artful examples of the style, modern critics have pointed out how condescending Allen’s character is, not to mention how unrealistic it is that a young woman like Diane Keaton would fall for a neurotic older man. This is male fantasy writ large, and it has played out over and over in rom-coms since. (And this is to say nothing of Allen’s "Manhattan," reportedly inspired by the director’s real-life romance with a New Jersey teenager; all those witty lines now immortalized as evidence of a man infatuated with young women and girls.)
Woody Allen is only one of many men whose rom-com behavior should set off alarm bells. Under the guise of "romance," rom-coms consistently show men at their worst. Many people would call the police on these would-be lovers, a mixed bag of low-key stalkers and slackers and players. And let's not get started on John Cusack’s unsolicited boom-box blasting of Peter Gabriel. It’s not troubling behavior, the movies assure us, as long as it's the name of love. It's a bankrupt message. Some progress has been, but even more recent romantic comedies have drawn controversy: "The Big Sick" made people "furious." "Crazy Rich Asians'' is "soulless." "Happiest Season" "shares ‘Crazy Rich Asian's’ fatal flaw." Is representation the problem, or have we simply grown tired of saccharine idealism?
Meanwhile, television’s proliferation of complex approaches to romance reveal there are better ways to tell love stories. Lena Dunham may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but even "Girls" gave us nuance alongside witty repartee, as did "Insecure" and “Pen15," their updated takes making feature-length entries such as "Long Shot" and "A Nice Girl Like You" seem silly by comparison.
Further threatening to the future of the romantic comedy is America’s growing class consciousness. Even canonized work by rom-com giant Nora Ephron is no longer safe from the revisionist critical take. And why should it be? Upon reflection, the corporate-friendly messages of the 1990s may not have done us many favors in the long term. Rom-coms are comforting because they’re predictable. Even cynics like a happy ending every once in a while. These films often were meant to be a distraction from the troubling eras from which they sprang, or arguably worse, revisionist fantasies of an imagined past that never really existed. The mythology is almost cruel — that life is a sweet love story solved in 90 minutes. Much like Valentine's Day, such expectations almost never live up to the hype. Perhaps the most loving thing we can do for ourselves is to stop perpetuating these hollow daydreams.
Christopher Mosley has been a writer and editor since 2006. His writing can be found online and in print at outlets such as The Tulsa Voice and The Dallas Morning News. He tweets at @chrisfmosley.