Do romantic comedies get a bad rep?
For years, the sub-genre has been criticized for setting unrealistic expectations of love, creepy-to-borderline abusive romantic leads, gender stereotypes, and lack of diversity. That’s only some of the regularly-herald reasons pointing at romantic comedies’ supposed inherent toxicity.
In the name of fairness, we have to admit many romantic comedies have aged poorly and do not always send the best messages about love. One of the reasons the criticisms mentioned above are so endlessly repeated is because there are truths in them. But that does beg the question: don’t other genres of film (like action) also engage in unrealistic fantasies paling in comparison to real life? Why is so much of the brunt of that specific criticism geared at a genre primarily targeting women? And are we so caught up in the negatives pervading the genre that we overlook its good points? Many movies, no matter how exaggerated or seemingly superficial, point out something true in our lives, and it’s why we can relate and look to them for comfort. Romantic comedies, more than anything, speak to the universal desire so many of us feel to find love with someone who understands us.
That more than any other is why the genre, despite peaks and wanting periods throughout the last forty years, has endured and still remains popular. And as the times change, so does the genre that’s actually not always sending the worst messages and concepts regarding romantic love. Ten examples? Well:
When Harry Met Sally…(1989)
This might seem like a strange example to start with, as Rob Reiner’s 1989 iconic romantic comedy (the blueprint for many modern romantic comedies, in fact) is now infamous for raising the question: “Can men and women ever be friends?” The idea that men and women can’t be friends is one obviously heteronormative and outdated. Because of this, it’s easy to dismiss When Harry Met Sally… as little more than a mass-market perpetuation in support of that harmful theory.
But When Harry Met Sally… isn’t arguing that men and women can’t be friends, as the main characters entitled actually develop a strong friendship for the majority of the movie’s second half. What When Harry Met Sally… proves is that the best love can come from meaningful friendships. We’re so ourselves with the other person that they see us for who they are, and genuinely love us for it. Harry’s famous speech to Sally at the end when he races to the New Year’s Eve’s party is so popular because he specifically talks about what he loves about her (“I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich.”)
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
Julia Roberts announced herself as a darling of romantic comedies in the 90s, one of the most popular and profitable decades for the genre. She was the leading lady who you knew was going to get the guy at the end – except in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Directed by PJ Hogan, it’s a movie that stays true to the spirit of romantic comedies (the serenading, the city cinematography, the hijinks) but upends the ultimate rule: the leading lady and the leading man must end up together.
Roberts plays Julianne, a woman who tries to ruin her best friend’s upcoming wedding when she realizes she’s in love with him. Romantic comedies (and romance movies in general) are known for their main characters who get away with exhibiting predatory, manipulative, and selfish behavior in the name of true love. But My Best Friend’s Wedding knows Julianne is in the wrong, and she nearly loses everything as a result of her self-sabotage. When she kisses Michael, he doesn’t feel anything. It just affirms that he’s in love with Kimmy.
It’s harsh and glaring reality often absent from romantic comedies, but it teaches a lesson that you can’t make someone love you. Julianne doesn’t get the guy, but she does – just maybe – become a better person.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of the fiercely intelligent sorority girl, Elle Woods, might be one of the most enduring female characters in pop cultural history (Kim K even dressed up as her for Halloween this year.) Calling Legally Blonde a romantic comedy might seem to be undermining its legacy with a movie that has a female empowerment lesson at its core. It’s important to remember, however, that not only does Elle get over and ditch her loser ex-boyfriend Warner (who thought she wasn’t serious enough for him), but the character of fellow law-student Emmett shows a deep and sincere appreciation of Elle for who she is. He’s one of the characters in the movie who never mocks her.
It can help send the message that the picture-perfect love we idealize isn’t right for us. If we stay true to ourselves and fight for what we deserve, we can shine on our own – and if someone recognizes that and loves us for it, well, that’s just fabulous.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
The movie that cemented Steve Carell’s star-status and comedic abilities, Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a much nicer and compassionate movie than its premise and title seemingly promises. The main character, Andy, is indeed an action-figure-and-comics-collecting virgin in his early forties. But the movie sympathizes with him rather than endlessly mocking him for it, understanding he’s just a man with some bad sexual experiences in his past that put him off. His overtly chauvinistic and macho male co-workers, who try to help him lose his virginity, are actually portrayed as unhappy and unsatisfied men partly because they view sex and love as a selfish commodity.
When Andy meets a woman he connects with, Trish, the fear that he’ll be judged for never having sex is there. But when she finally finds out, her reaction is lovingly understated and simple: “We love each other. How can it [sex] be bad?” Andy may have been waiting for decades, but he waited for the right person, and as a result, he can enjoy an intimacy with her that goes beyond sexual pleasure. He also, more importantly, grows up. In a culture that supports toxic masculinity, where sexual prowess is considered one of the benchmarks of “real” manhood, The 40-Year-Old Virgin feels surprisingly groundbreaking in that one respect.
The Last Holiday (2006)
Queen Latifah shines in this romantic comedy that is just as much about living life to the fullest then it is about romantic love. When meek and fearful Georgia Byrd finds out she only has two weeks to live, she decides to blow her money on an extravagant and expensive trip to the Czech Republic. With encounters from everyone to the working employees to a famous chief, Georgia changes the lives of people around her while mourning the fact that her own is being unfairly cut short – or is it?
The plot is formulaic and predictable (not necessarily a bad thing), but Queen Latifah adds charm and wit to her performance that elevates the movie into something it wouldn’t be otherwise. Georgia realizes the failings of waiting until she is about to die to let go of fear and allow herself to enjoy living on her own terms. She thought she had more time. It speaks to how so many of us put off doing what we really want because we think we’ll have all the time in the world.
Labeling Bridesmaids as one of the best romantic comedies of the decade might be a stretch, in only that the romance in the movie is a subplot shadowed over by larger themes of the enduring nature of female friendships and the pains of adulthood. But Paul Feig’s breakout comedy (that showcased yes, woman can be just as funny as men) is also a moving and cringey character study of Annie, the bridesmaids in her best friend Lillian’s wedding whose insecurities – about her failed business, being unmarried in her thirties, and being less glamorous than Lillian’s new rich bestie, Helen – cause many gross and hilarious shenanigans.
The movie repeatedly reminds us (in the words of Annie’s kooky but strangely wise mother) that hitting rock bottom is a good thing – because then there’s no way to go but up. In the course of the movie, Annie eventually learns that she’s the problem and the solution, and takes control of her life. One of the ways in which she does so is apologizing to her love interest, Officer Rhodes after she blows him off due to fear of inadequacy. He doesn’t forgive her right away, but the movie recognizes the moment is more about Annie’s own growth of character than it is about a happy ending. It’s only when she takes accountability that the possibility of lasting romance flourishes.
The Duff (2016)
Many teen-focused romantic comedies are, by invisible rule, pretty preachy. The Duff is not an exception. When an ex-childhood friend named Wesley “informs” her she’s the DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) of her girl group, Bianca goes through an identity crisis of sorts familiar to teenagers everywhere. Labels – even and especially the cruelest-but-most-meaningless ones – can seem like the end of the world in adolescence. And while The Duff’s ending message about how liking yourself is more important than subscribing to any labels is saccharine, it’s also one every young person needs to hear and absorb at some point in their life. Bianca learns to like herself for who she is.
The Big Sick (2017)
Michael Showalter’s romantic comedy (which is loosely based on the real-life romance of Kumali Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the former of which who stars in the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Emily) is a rare thing: a rom-com that explores contemporary themes of race, tradition, family, marriage, and interracial dating with depth.
Kumali, a struggling Pakistan stand-up comedian, falls for an American graduate student named Emily. His parents, who are traditionally Muslim, still try to introduce him to Muslim women they think would be suitable for marriage. Because he is torn between his own desires and the wants of his family, Kumali pushes Emily away only to later find out she’s in a coma. The romance between Kumali and Emily make up the first half of the movie, and the second is when he’s bonding with her parents and reconsidering his choices. Nanjiani brings Kumal’s dilemma to life with sincerity and truth, and it’s compelling watching him learn to assert himself and come to terms with who he is – even if that means potentially alienating others. It’s a hard lesson to learn growing up: that being true to who you are is not always going to fly with those who matter most. But living a half-life and a lie to appease others is no way to live.
Love, Simon (2018)
The first film by a major Hollywood Studio focusing on a gay teenage romance, Love, Simon is funny, sweet, heartbreaking, and empowering. It tells the story of Simon, a young teenage boy who is afraid to tell his friends and family he is gay. He begins communicating online with an anonymous closeted gay student – only to be blackmailed by another student who finds their messages.
Love, Simon was widely celebrated and embrace by the LGBTQ+ community for an honest and human portrayal of a young gay teenager coming to terms with his sexuality, and finding both rejection as well as love and acceptance. This movie is, above everything else, about Simon coming to accept himself as exactly as he is. It’s a story so many gay people can relate to, and it’s the type of story Hollywood has only finally started telling.
Always Be My Maybe (2019)
One of the best romantic comedies to come out of the Netflix Romcom Renaissance, Always Be My Maybe explores the adulthood and reconnection of two childhood friends who lost touch after tragedy and an awkward sexual encounter. The movie explores how the characters of Sasha and Marcus have lied to themselves in their decade apart – about who they really are and what they want from life. Their reunion reminds them both of the ways they have been hiding from the word.
Childhood friends growing up to become lovers (and discovering their roots) is a popular romcom trope. It can have unfortunate implications that growing older and going away from where you came from is a negative thing rather than a natural part of growing up – and that we’re all destined to be with our childhood sweetheart. However, Always Be My Maybe emphasizes how easy it is to be stagnant in routine regardless if we are unhappy with where we’re at in life – both personally and professionally. It’s not until Sasha reconnects with her San Francisco roots and Asian heritage, and Marcus branches outside their hometown, do both characters undergo a metamorphosis. It becomes clear a relationship between them can’t last if they’re still being held back by expectations and fears. Do they move past them and get together? Well, it’s a romantic comedy. What do you think?