The Needy Men and Liberated Women of 1970s “Radical” Rom-Coms

February 14th, 2023

Happy Valentines and welcome to a whole new era of romance! Last time, we delved into the ‘60s, examining a shift from the shared male/female points-of-view characteristic of previous rom-coms to a new, male-driven variation. In these, females were often demoted to secondary roles often portrayed as hapless victims or inconsequential playthings. But by the ‘70s, the rom-com evolved yet again, thanks in no small part to women’s access to reliable oral contraception (and soon thereafter, legal abortion), giving women more freedom over their bodies. They also gained more financial freedom thanks to the long overdue Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

Afforded these new freedoms, women began pursuing more demanding careers in law, business and beyond, leaving the men to adjust to a whole new gender reality, a conundrum poising itself front and center in rom-coms of the era. On the bright side, female love interest gains considerably more agency in the films. Less fortunate, however, she’s maligned for it, becoming the antagonistic force that prevents the leading man from getting his happy ending. And thus was born the manbaby: a needy, submissive, hapless  victim, pining after a whole new brand of female, a soul-seeking free-spirit one might argue is the earliest  incarnation of what would become today’s “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”

We see an inkling of her as early as 1961 in the free-spirited Holly GoLightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s fame, a bright-eyed underage waif who accepts her first marriage proposal for no other reason than the fact that she’s never been married before. Quickly bored with the domestic life, however, she abandons her older, widowed husband, along with his kids she’s expected to mother, to seek further adventures in NYC, where she earns a living in highly creative if not always legal ways. In no time, befriends her neighbor whom she calls “Fred” because he reminds her of her beloved brother. But when George falls in lover with her, anything but romance follows. Despite the far bolder ending in Truman Capote’s book (in which GoLightly remains independent, traveling traveling the far reaches of the globe in eternal pursuit of the new experience), the movie adaptation strips GoLightly of her conviction the moment George proclaims, “I love you. You belong to me” and hands her a ring. Accepting his words as gospel, it would seem, she finally becomes “mother” to her neglected, unnamed cat and falls into George’s arms, suggesting wifedom and domesticity are sure to follow. Sigh.

As disappointing as this otherwise charming movie becomes, it sets the stage for many 70s rom-coms featuring this new rom-com heroine and her beleaguered leading man as we can see in the following notable entries:

Barefoot in the Park (1967): Newlyweds, Paul and Corie, get along great in the sack, but in the real world, her frees spirit clashes with his conservative, uptight ways to the point Corie demands a divorce. In order to win her back, Paul takes extreme measures to prove, he’s a fun-loving guy, nearly killing himself in the process. It’s then up to Corie to rescue him, which she does, one might argue, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

Harold & Maude (1971) At age 19, Harold’s idea of living is to irk his mother by repeatedly faking his own death and attending funerals recreationally. But when he meets 79-year-old Maude, the original “force of nature”, she teaches him how to embrace life over death. Despite their vast age difference, he proposes, anticipating their happy ending together only to learn Maude has other plans. He fights her at first, but recognizing no good will come from it, he ultimately honors their relationship by following her lead and living his best life.

Butterflies are Free (1972) – In this variation, Jill, the free-spirit, wins the heart of her blind neighbor, Don, who’s newly left home against his overprotective mother’s wishes. Jill tames his shrew, so to speak, helping him shop for groovy clothes, loosen up and experience her take on free love much to the chagrin of Don’s mom. She demands Jill get out of her son’s life, convinced she’ll hurt her son, but Jill makes an equally valid argument to support how his mother is already doing that herself. In the end, both distance themselves from the needy fellow thus helping him discover his capacity for independence.

Annie Hall (1977) Perhaps the most iconic film of this subgenre, Annie Hall centers around a lovelorn male protagonist deconstructing his relationship in attempts to understand why the woman he still pines for has left him. Though the viewer gets insights into both characters’ perspectives, by story’s end it becomes evident that while Annie has moved on, having evolved into a wiser, happier person, whereas the protagonist rewrites their story in a play with an ending he finds more satisfying and settles down with a substitute to replace her.

Same Time Next Year (1978) – This one depicts an affair between a man and a woman, each married to other people, via a series of annual weekend-long rendez-vous spanning 1951-1977. Initially, the woman (Ellen Burstyn) behaves like one might expect from a 1950s rom-com heroine played by Doris Day and her lover (Alan Alda) a slightly more skiddish Cary Grant. Over time, however, the man becomes more conservative and needy as life’s hardships wear him down, whereas the woman grows more outspoken, free spirited and independent, rising to every new challenge. By the film’s end, he makes an ultimatum, to which she refuses to succumb, and he realizes if he wants to keep seeing her, he must accept her on her own terms.

10 (1979) – And we end the decade with a man who wants what he thinks he can’t have, another free-spirit whose beauty he rates as a perfect “10.” Through a series of disingenuous manipulations reminiscent of 50s rom-com male protagonists, he gets the girl, or so he thinks, but when she informs him it’s just a tryst that has no greater meaning, his hurt feelings and wounded pride sends him running back to his wife. He must then mend his manchild ways to win her back.

Film theorists often refer to these as “Radical Romantic Comedies” primarily because they are populated with characters who seem to focus more on connecting with themselves than with others and do not conform to the expected conventions, especially the happy ending. I personally find them radical because, while the men assume the leading roles in these films, it’s the women who call the shots. As such, it’s not surprising that this subgenre was short lived or that, like the second wave feminist movement, it inspired a backlash. The 80s as we know were all kinds of crazy. In romantic comedies that would inspire some of the best and worst films in the romantic genre yet. We’ll explore those next in a series of posts starting with the Neo-Traditional Romantic Comedies of the 1980s.





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