Girls on Film is a weekly column, running Monday nights, that discusses the world of women in cinema.
It's all too easy to besmirch romantic comedy. What was once a solid basis of Hollywood fare, a genre that bred the likes of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, has become perhaps the most mocked genre that exists today. Modern romantic comedy is much like modern spoofs -- generally lazy regurgitating rather than clever collaboration that leads to a smart and fun adaptation of the theme. We live in a sea of 'Epic Movie' releases rather than 'Airplane,' seeing romance as an 'Ugly Truth' rather than the time 'When Harry Met Sally.'
As such, I have a tendency to mock romcoms, or at least the prevalent fare within the genre. But then reader Felicia brought up a good question. In the recent How Women Shaped Horror piece, she commented: "I have to ask, is it always necessary to put down more traditional female fare when talking about the lack of boundaries in female interests?"
In all honesty, I feel like I have to answer yes and no. We are, certainly, living in a time when it's essential to keep up a positive discourse about women's issues both in Hollywood and the world at large. There is a distinct backlash these days against feminism, it meaning different things to different people, rather than simply the desire to have equal rights for women. But I find it problematic to be positive about the world of romantic comedy, because while it might be "traditional female fare," it's also become a system for ridiculing and marginalizing women, reducing them to horrific stereotypical impulses rather than well fleshed out characters searching for love and laughs.
There is nothing wrong with romance, and with detailing it on the screen, but what type of romance does Hollywood put out on a daily basis? Sandra Bullock might talk about hating romcoms, but she's the queen of the genre who also helped solidify the mess-of-a-woman syndrome. It's not that her characters just want some romance -- they need a man to come in and reorganize and balance their lives, most especially in the case of Mary Horowitz in 'All About Steve.' While there's a flimsy twist that tries to make us see Mary's life as empowering, she's a socially inept girl who stalks a man who thinks she's crazy.
Katherine Heigl, meanwhile, has made a name for herself as the woman needing to be saved by a man, whether it's the slacker who teaches her about love in 'Knocked Up,' the pushover who needs a new man to tell her how to stand up for herself in '27 Dresses' or the mess of a professional woman who needs to learn 'The Ugly Truth' about women and men. Romance isn't situated as an organic and passionate experience bred out of respect, but a means for these women to become balanced and centered.
This all-too-popular trend led 'Sex and the City' to lose all of its charm once it was adapted into the big-screen romcom world. As Landon Palmer wrote over at Film School Rejects: "while the 'Sex and the City' films explicitly aim to continue in such a tradition by branching themselves off from the myths and structures of the fairy tale and the classical romantic comedy, they instead regress from the show, back into an embrace of the structures they originally wished to detach from."
The idea that these women forged their own paths, and weren't tied to classic notions of love and marriage was the original message, but with the advent of the films, it became nothing more than a means to elaborate on the changes of age. It was no longer a woman's right to sculpt her own unique life -- romantic and otherwise -- the girls were just able to do it for a few more years. The new message became that one could stretch out their single life a bit longer, but ultimately, they had to settle down and find a partner because they're too old for dating and nights out on the town.
I, along with many women, like a sense of fantasy fulfillment, and in the case of romantic comedies, love the opportunity to laugh and see a heroine get all of the romantic fervor she desires. But the format seems decidedly anti-feminist when a majority of the output insists on focusing on the idea that women must be saved -- from themselves, their actions, their work, their lives. Audiences aren't allowed to just enjoy the romance. They must do so at the expense of a real female character, and experience love in the most narrow ways. We must forgive the rampant stereotypes to enjoy the format, and I just can't do that.
There's no fantasy fulfillment when the heroines don't seem -- in any way -- like real women. If we cannot relate to these stereotypes, how can they give us a chance to fulfill our romantic desires? I disparage the format because I don't feel that it is female fare, or features about women (for the most part). If anything, it seems like a way to keep gender norms, not to challenge them, or offer women the chance to see people like themselves get the fairy tale life.
That said, there are gems, diamonds in the rough. I've even attempted to differentiate them in the past by using "romcom" to describe the abysmal and offensive fare, and "romantic comedy" for the worthy features. It doesn't quite work, but how else do you separate the two? Is it okay to love romcoms and hate where the genre has traveled? Is it wrong to put down the genre? How do we differentiate? ___ is to romantic comedy as spoof is to satire?
I don't have the answers, but I do have a list of recent and worthy fare, so check it out, weigh in with your own below and give us your two cents: How should we handle this world of good and bad romcoms? Is it okay to attack Romantic Comedy?
Recent Romantic Comedies That Defy Expectation
'Imagine Me and You'
Piper Perabo stars as a young woman who meets the love of her life -- her female florist -- on her wedding day to her long-time boyfriend. It's got many of the usual cliches (precocious kid, arguing parents, raunchy best friend), but the female characterizations are lovely, especially Lena Headey's Luce.
'Ira and Abby'
Jennifer Westfeldt has made a career for herself taking the romantic comedy format and imbuing it with her own romantic sensibilities. She hit the scene with 'Kissing Jessica Stein' and followed it up with 2007's 'Ira and Abby,' about a couple who find out that marriage might not be the best path to love. Along with twists in the narrative, Westfeldt's women are always diverse, intelligent and charming.
The sweet, final comedy of slain filmmaker Adrienne Shelly, Keri Russell plays a waitress stuck in a small town, with a terrible and sometimes abusive husband and a baby on the way. Utterly charming, its big strength comes with the fact that her happiness isn't tied to her romances or lack thereof, but herself and her child.
'Forgetting Sarah Marshall'
What's remarkable about this romcom is that it focuses on real, honest communication. Where most in the genre use ridiculous misunderstandings as a sign post for drama, 'Marshall' finds the humor and twists in the scenario rather than in poorly communicated romance.
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