Tamar Jeffers McDonald, author of Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl, aptly defines any entry of the romantic comedy genre as “a film, which has as its central narrative motor a quest for love, which portrays this quest in a lighthearted way and almost always to successful conclusion.”
I urge us to do the same. Otherwise, we risk imposing unnecessary qualifications on the rom-com in regards to gender, class, race, sexual orientation and beyond—which would be highly problematic. After all, there are many ways two, or more, people, can find romantic love together. Rom-Coms should be open to celebrating them all.
Lamentably, the majority of them are not. In fact, if you look back at the history and evolution of the rom-com, you’ll note definite patterns in just who falls in love, how, and to what happy, or unhappy, end.
Film Scholars specializing in the genre often assemble and label these patterns in subgenres of the rom-com classified by era: the Screwballs of the 1930s and ‘40s; the Sex Comedies, or ‘Battle of the Sexes’ films from the ‘50s and ‘60s; the ‘Nervous Comedies,’ or ‘Radical Romantic Comedies’ of the ‘70s and early ‘80s; and the ‘Neo-Traditional Rom-Coms’ of the mid-‘80s and beyond.
We, too, will explore each of these eras in more detail in upcoming posts, but first I’d like to address why it matters, and it absolutely does—not just to women, fans of rom-coms or the people who produce them either. The popular rom-com genre matters to society as a whole because, as Jeffers-Mcdonald wisely states, “Films do not just reflect reality, they help to shape it too.”
Author Leger Grindon in The Hollywood Romantic Comedy expands on this idea, explaining that romantic comedies assume “a self-deprecating stance which signals the audience to relax and have fun, for nothing serious will disturb their pleasure. However, this sly pose allows comic artists to influence their audience while the viewers take little notice of the work’s pervasive power.”
And power it is.
In a society so easily manipulated by social media that it can dictate the outcome of a presidential election, we cannot afford to be so naïve as to believe fiction created for seemingly harmless entertainment purposes does not also sway our life views.
YA Author Laurie Halse Anderson learned that lesson in a rather alarming way, which she expresses most poignantly in an interview at the end of her powerful novel SPEAK. Surprising her most unpleasantly, many of her male readers asked her why Melinda, the book’s protagonist, was “so upset about being raped.”
“The first dozen times I heard this,” Anderson recounts, “I was horrified. But I heard it over and over again. I realized that many young men are not being taught the impact that sexual assault has on a woman. They are inundated by sexual imagery in the media, and often come to the (incorrect) conclusion that having sex is not a big deal. This, no doubt, is why the number of sexual assaults is so high.”
Our media consumption does indeed influence the way we see our world. And with our minds at ease as we laugh and enjoy the whimsical wonder of romance in a seemingly innocuous rom-com, we are especially susceptible.
As such, romantic comedies matter, and it behooves us all to pay attention and forge a better path to make them matter in a more positive and pro-active way. So, in the coming weeks, we’ll explore ways we can do just that.
Next up from me: The (un)Changing Roles of Women and Romance in Early Narrative Cinema
Cheers until then…
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