In the infamous words of Hugh Grant in Love, Actually, ‘Love actually is all around’. We’ve been brought up surrounded by conversations about love – we read about it in our books; we know the lyrics to love-centred songs by heart (yes, Mr Brightside is a song about the complications of love) and we’ve all at one point or another, sat down and indulged in watching a romantic-comedy. Romantic-comedies (or rom-coms, as they’re more commonly known) get a lot of flak. Look, I get it. Sometimes these happily-ever-after tales are sickly sweet and the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling scorned by love is watch a story unfold with a positive ending that just doesn’t seem realistic (think Elle Woods throwing the box of chocolates at the TV in Legally Blonde). We’ve all been there. There’s even been sociological research on how watching rom-coms can impact negatively on our relationships. But, as a hopeless romantic, I just can’t stop myself from being taken in by the rom-com and I believe they have more subversive power and historical significance than they’re given credit for.
The story of the rom-com begins in the 1930s. After the Great Depression there was a desperate need for films that explored hopeful outcomes and high levels of social critique. In answer to these demands, the Screwball Comedy was born. The genre takes its name from the baseball term screwball, which is a pitch that’s designed to move in an unexpected direction. It reflects the way that the narrative in these films moved in unexpected ways, particularly when concerning the theme of love. For many, the earliest example of a rom-com was the 1934 Screwball Comedy, It Happened One Night. I won’t give away too many spoilers but the basic premise of the film is that two people from differing social backgrounds meet whilst travelling in the same direction, they fall in love and then they have to overcome obstacles in order to be with one another. It’s a good incorporation of the ‘meet-cute’ convention associated with rom-coms – basically, two people come together in a circumstance they wouldn’t ordinarily meet and experience a clash of values. It was an important film to contemporary audiences because it presented this idea that love could transcend social barriers; that it wasn’t discriminatory. It was a powerful means of escapism. In that way, I don’t think as a 21st century audience we’re too dissimilar.
Another really interesting aspect of the Screwball rom-com was that females dominated the romantic relationships and traditional notions of masculinity were challenged. Anyone familiar with gender history knows that the 1930s weren’t a particular high-point for Women’s Lib, so this reversal of gender roles suggests the subversive power of the rom-com.
These films explored the trials and tribulations of young love, incorporating the minutiae of teenage and female experience
Much like anything else, the rom-com has been subject to the influences of historical context. The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 70s saw sex becoming a bigger part of rom-com narratives. Rom-coms such as The Graduate (1967), explored the idea of women as sexual beings. The 1980s saw the rise of coming-of-age rom-coms such as Pretty in Pink (1986). These films explored the trials and tribulations of young love, incorporating the minutiae of teenage and female experience into the rom-com narrative with a strong sense of social critique, much like the earlier Screwball Comedy.
The 1990s onwards saw the rise of the neo-traditional rom-com that we’re all most familiar with. Think When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998) etc. But even these, with their mushy, soppy happy endings, provided a means of discussing really important issues. When Harry Met Sally explored whether or not men and women could just be friends, assessing both male and female sexual urges. Sleepless in Seattle explored a man’s grief, the loss of love and what it means to find love again. Providing an opportunity to explore male emotion has been a particularly powerful aspect of the rom-com. You’ve Got Mail looked at the role the internet can play in relationships and it presented a female character who equalled the male in terms of profession and esteem.
Some of you may recognise that the three films I’ve just referenced are all written by female writer Nora Ephron. A general criticism of the rom-com is that it’s a female genre; much like anything else associated with femininity in our society, it can be subject to ridicule, trivialised or presented as something that doesn’t pertain to male issues. In response, I offer you the stoner rom-com. Think Seth Rogan and films like Knocked Up (2007). The stoner comedy is a film that revolves around the use of cannabis. Knocked Up incorporates the use of drugs into the wider narrative of the rom-com, appealing to both male and female audiences.
Also, it’s 2018 and we need to stop assuming that feelings are a female condition. Admittedly yes, the rom-com has been an important space for female and male writers to explore female issues. Female liberation, sexual desire and the pressure to marry is explored in rom-coms like Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) and female companionship and solidarity are explored in rom-coms like Bridesmaids (2011). However, the rom-com primarily explores the trials and tribulations of love, which men are not exempt from. There is as much knowledge to be obtained about male experience from rom-coms as there is female. Think (500) Days of Summer (2009). In the infamous expectations vs. reality scene, it is Tom’s expectations that are presented, not Summer’s. It is Tom’s experience of that relationship and emotional developments that are explored.
Within its dealings with emotions, rom-coms can make a powerful contribution to the mental health conversation, with the success of films like Silver Linings Playbook (2012) demonstrating the power they have to convey experiences of mental illness to their audiences.
Whilst we can’t ignore the suggestion that rom-coms provide infuriatingly unrealistic expectations of love, I think the critical narrative surrounding rom-coms needs to be more complex than that. Rom-coms have made important contributions to discussions about gender relations, relationships dynamics, the role of class, youth cultures, technology, mental health etc. We shouldn’t underestimate the subversive power of the rom-com or the timelessness of its subject matter. Love is an emotion that at one point or another, we’ll all feel. The romantic-comedy provides a reference point through which to understand love’s complexities – and that is its beauty.