Trending Now: Romantic Comedies and Feminism

As a fan of both romantic comedies and feminism, it’s nice to hear so much positive chatter lately about subjects I have long been defending.

Much of this discussion about romantic comedies comes from Christopher Orr’s thought provoking piece for The Atlantic, “Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?”, and his follow-up pieces responding to his critics.

One of his points is that the problem with romantic comedies today is there are fewer clear cut obstacles to two lovers getting together (race, class, etc) which an audience would believe or even empathize with. Alyssa Rosenberg at Slate smartly argues in response that part of the problem is that modern love is simply more difficult to capture. Consequently, characters go inward for obstacles, like as in Bridesmaids and The 40 Year Old Virgin.

If, like me, you were raised on classic romantic comedies like Adam’s Rib, or those wonderful ’80s Goldie Hawn films like Housesitter and Overboard, you knew that there have always been high quality romantic comedies that you could watch endlessly and never tire of. If you are also like me, you knew this, but still tended to watch every terrible example of the genre ever produced.

Part of the appeal of the genre is that romantic comedies are shiny and fun, and often escapist in a somewhat realistic way. Another aspect of their appeal is that unlike almost every other genre, women run the show.

The truth is there are all kinds of romantic comedies, especially these days when most fall into some hybrid genre. Most recently, the bizarre, very funny and ultimately romantic Wanderlust with Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. Just like with every film genre there are really excellent films, and there are formulaic ones that are okay – if you’re at home sick and you’ve never seen it before, maybe – but probably won’t hold up in a few years.

There are also all kinds of feminists, as well as a lot of ways to interpret the word feminist. I think most people boil it down to equal pay for men and women. Lately there has been a lot more positive reclaiming of the word feminist by younger female stars. Lena Dunham thinks Girls is a feminist show. Keira Knightly had to defend her choice to think of herself as a feminist to reporters who wanted to speak about it jokingly. Zooey Deschanel equated the term to being able to do what she wants and wear what she wants.
John Legend thinks it’s cool. He’s obviously not a girl, but that’s not required.

In her response to Orr, Linda Holmes at NPR said: “What’s most profoundly wrong is the terrible, mean-spirited scripts that are getting made, that are making people feel justified in using ‘rom-com’ as an eye-rolling insult, and we’ve got to stop that first. Stop saying ‘chick flick’ like it’s ‘pile of rotten meat’ and stop saying ‘chick lit’ and ‘chick book’ and ‘chick movie’ and anything else that suggests that love stories are less than war stories, or that stories that end with kissing are inherently inferior to stories that end with people getting shot. Or, if you believe they are and you want to continue believing that they are, stop pretending you’re open to romantic comedies getting better.”

At its core, the romantic comedy is about just those things, romance and comedy. Some are sexier, some are funnier but they are surely changing, just like absolutely everything else is, at an alarmingly fast rate.

A lot has changed in the world since I saw Sweet Home Alabama with my girlfriends, and it seems like a lifetime ago that I went to see Legally Blonde with my mom and sister. I understand that the form of the romantic comedy is changing and I’ll admit, I don’t know what it’s going to turn into. Maybe that’s what has fans of the genre truly worried. Post world changing dramatically every five seconds, post Nora Ephron, how can a movie possibly capture the quirks and hilarity of love and make it all funny and interesting without resorting to cliche plot lines we’ve long since grown out of? Who knows. But thankfully, Hollywood is now populated by women who understand that feminism is cool, as are romantic comedies. Besides, legendary feminist Camille Paglia loves The Real Housewives. And why wouldn’t she?

Photo by Caitlin Hall

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