A romantic comedy film is classified as a film with two genres rather than just one. They are a hybrid of comedy and romance and very often will have a an element of screwball comedy. Over many years, this particular combination of genre has produced Box Office hits and is a modern favourite over a wide audience. However, there are many arguments to suggest that the very nature of this genre is creating unrealistic expectations of love and making the audience discontent with own real life relationships.
Don't lie - we have all been there. Walking out of the cinema or crying into our popcorn on the sofa, wondering...
Why can't my life be that perfect?
In a typical romantic comedy, the two characters meet in a ‘meet-cute’ situation. This is generally made humorous through awkwardness between the potential partner due to an initial difference in personalities, an embarrassing situation or a comical misunderstanding. Robert Ebert, a film critic, describes the ‘meet-cute’ as “when boy meets girl in a cute way” which depicts just how simplistic this generic inclusion into the narrative is. The peak of the classic ‘meet-cute’ in films was during the Great Depression in the 1930s when screwball comedy was also reaching new levels of popularity. The use of this convention was perhaps due to the fantasy nature of a real life ‘meet-cute’. With rigid class division and a declining class consciousness, cross-social class romances in films were far from reality. However, this style of fantasy romance started to fade in the 1960s, and the genre started to decline until ‘When Harry Met Sally’ became a Box Office hit in 1989, which triggered a rebirth for Hollywood romantic comedy in a more sexually charged way.
A main theme in Romantic Comedies is also the reinforcement of stereotypical gender roles. It could be argued that this is a main cause for the unrealistic expectation of love created by the genre. In many Romantic Comedy films, the female characters place the male protagonist as the centre of their narrative universe. Stereotypes that males should be masculine and intelligent whilst the females should be feminine and passive are often included as a main building block to the discourse of any rom-com. This type-casting and characterisation can reflect onto real life as women expect men to make the first move in a relationship and men are seen as the key to a woman’s happiness. This can cause real life relationships to suffer as too much pressure is put on the partnership to be like a Hollywood production. However, it could be argued that this viewpoint is contained within Western-culture and leads to the argument as to whether Hollywood ideals are reflected across global cultures as societies become more industrialised and individualistic.
Despite all of this, romantic comedy films are still so popular with women in particular across the globe, and I can’t deny I may have a soft spot for them as well. Two of my favourite romantic comedies of all time are ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘The Wedding Planner’. I can’t count the amount of times I have watched these films and thought I knew every angle an audience could take depending on mood and circumstance. However, once I discovered the patriarchal lens that could be applied, I discovered things I never really put much thought to.
Firstly, in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ the gender representation is arguably liberating for the female protagonist, Holly (played by Audrey Hepburn). Holly left her marriage in the West to become part of a high society in which she is financially independent. However, her means of income are questionable in terms of a feminist viewpoint – she gets money from ‘trips to the powder room’ and is ultimately an escort. Therefore, arguably she is still financially dependent on men for money and within the constraints of a patriarchy which keeps women oppressed. This theme of dependence on men is a common theme in Romantic Comedy films and although slightly more complicated in this case, it is definitely still present. On the other hand, the male protagonist Paul is a playboy being paid by a wealthy married woman and this subversion of generic stereotypes was new in the 1960s – the audience were not prepared for a male to be dependent on a woman. This similarity in dependence gives an equality to the two characters, rather than the typical patriarchy over women.
However, many critics have argued that this partnership between the protagonists is based solely on physical attraction and also focuses more on the male gaze than any on screen interactions. Capote has been accused of implementing the male gaze strongly into the film not only from the male protagonist’s viewpoint but also in the role of director and from the audience as well. Much of the focus is on the appearance of Holly, for example she is never seen without make-up. Even in the meet-cute moment she wakes up in a full face of make-up. This point is supported by the fact that Capote didn’t want Hepburn to play Holly, his first choice was Marilyn Monroe due to her high sex appeal at the time. However, she was advised against the role as she would be playing a “lady of the evening.” This advice demonstrates the societal viewpoints at the time and shows how daring the film was in challenging many gender roles.
In ‘The Wedding Planner’, many distorted views of love are portrayed, both to give an unrealistic expectation of love to the audience as well as perhaps causing them to question their own relationships. A study conducted at Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh studied the 40 top box-office films released between 1995 and 2005 to establish common themes. Then they asked hundreds of people to complete a questionnaire to describe their romantic ideals. There was a strong correlation between people who enjoyed ‘The Wedding Planner’ and people who failed to communicate with their partners effectively. This study could be used as evidence as to how people’s expectations are distorted through romantic comedies. In the plot of ‘The Wedding Planner’, Mary and Steve meet in a typical meet-cute moment – a damsel in distress is saved by a heroic male protagonist. However, throughout their first day together a lot of information is missed out on Steve’s behalf as he fails to give his real name and that he is engaged. This lack of communication is shown to reflect into personal relationships as the study suggested. The adultery committed also gives negative images of love and trust and the portrayal of this has been heavily criticised. Steve is shown laughing about his night with Mary with a male friend who said: “I’m in heaven, now you can fix me up with her.” This laidback attitude to an abuse of trust followed by the objectification of a likeable female protagonist is arguably sending negative images of self-worth to a female audience and could be influencing impressionable young men to think that this is a normal relationship.
Knowing that my favourite two Rom-Coms ever have these poor influential messages shocked me and it could badly damage a younger audience, even if it may be through their subconscious mind. New directors, especially for streaming services like Netflix, are pumping out endless amounts of romantic films to meet the demand for the genre. As these films are released, it is clear that moving into the next decade it seems undeniable that the sexist and unrealistic messages are being abandoned. For example, the recent film ‘How Romantic’ directed by Rebel Wilson, entirely turns all of these ideas around to show how ridiculous most films are when portraying love.
Overall, it is clear that generic conventions are still very prevalent in Romantic Comedies as it helps keep the films within their distinct genre with a guaranteed audience. The meet-cute is always included in the narrative, even in modern day rom-coms as it allows for an awkward comedic encounter and prepares the audience for the potential romance. However, gender stereotypes and representation of relationships have arguably improved a lot since the films of the mid 20thCentury with gender roles often being subverted and the ideal Hollywood relationship being challenged to show more realistic aims for young audiences.