SHAH: Romantic comedies are evolving, increasing value
Opinion Column: The Progressive's Hot Take
Just this past week, Netflix released the next in its growing line of original romantic comedies “Someone Great,” which follows an aspiring music journalist Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) who has to move cross-country for her dream job. It means leaving not only her two best friends and New York, but also her boyfriend of nine years, Nate. The movie centers on “one last epic night” among the three girls, each fitted with their own emotional arc about growing up and into a new phase in their lives set to the backdrop of a New York music festival.
It is certainly not a profound concept. Regardless, I felt myself entranced from the moment I saw Jenny dancing drunkenly to Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” right up to when Jenny chooses herself over the guy, just as I would have expected her to. Romantic comedies are not known for complicated, unexpected endings with unrelentingly harsh realism. They are known for their ability to make you laugh and cry and keep watching despite knowing how it is all going to end, which is a pretty skillful feat in and of itself.
Still, the genre is seen as nothing more than a "guilty pleasure" or "chick flick," marketed to and adored by women, which somehow makes them less worthy of our time, attention and analysis. If that is not a subliminal message about how women and their art are treated in our society, then I do not know what is.
When the romantic comedy ends predictably — and exactly how we want it to — it is seen as tired, overdone and unrealistic. But that is the purpose of storytelling. To inject larger-than-life magic to our ordinary, everyday experiences. Romantic comedies do not promise to be a blueprint toward true love. They are simply movies that explore our desire to love and be loved.
Nobody watches a heist movie to learn how to rob a bank. Asking romantic comedies to encapsulate all of the nuanced complexities of a romantic, intimate relationship is not just unreasonable, it is simply impossible.
Throughout cinematic history, romantic comedies have served as stories that reflect contemporary attitudes toward women, love and relationships: the good and the bad. In the 1930s, the birth of the genre gave women an unprecedented space to be the protagonists of their own stories. The 1960s — marked by Playboy’s launch, relaxed production code and a famous report by Alfred Kinsey which found that a little more than half of American women were having premarital sex — popularized the “sex comedy” which largely became retaliatory in nature, seeking to soothe and exploit anxieties about society’s shifting morality.
During the sociopolitical upheaval of the 1970s, the “radical romantic comedy” broke from tradition and fixated on existential cynicism, focusing on plots that highlighted the realistic challenges in modern relationships, heightened self-consciousness and challenged the idea that romance and satisfaction are mutually inclusive values. The 1980s gave teenage girls a spotlight with films like “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink.”
Quite curiously, though, the 1990s reverted back to earlier themes of love, compatibility and a happy ending, bursting with nostalgia of simpler times. Movies helmed by Nora Ephron, like “When Harry Met Sally ... ” and “Sleepless in Seattle," became the golden standard for romantic comedies. They were romanticized perceptions of love, but certainly not shallow.
But the 2000s marked a moment of fatigue. After the successes of movies like “The Wedding Planner” and “Sweet Home Alabama," romantic comedies helmed even by leading actors and actresses began to flop due to an oversaturation of the genre by studios seeking blockbusters. More traditional romantic comedy ideas moved to television, with shows like "New Girl," "The Mindy Project" and "Jane the Virgin" indulging in romantic storylines by using them as vehicles for the female protagonist’s growth and to deconstruct the ease of romance with a serialized format.
Movie actresses that were iconic for their romantic comedy work began to move to roles that were more traditionally empowering, and romantic comedies became Judd Apatow’s “brom-coms,” exploring male vulnerability while making fart jokes. And while the traditional romantic comedy blockbuster seemed to die for the time being, pop culture began to embrace and promote the idea that love stories onscreen did not have to be centered on white females seeking salvation in a white, heterosexual relationship.
Men, too, seek love and feel vulnerable in doing so. People of color, too, seek love, but must deal with the cross-cultural conflicts that tend to arise.
Inclusion of historically excluded identities in the search for love has become the central theme in the current revival of romantic comedies. "Crazy Rich Asians," a classic romantic comedy with a fully Asian ensemble, became the highest-grossing romantic comedy in the past decade. Movies like "The Big Sick," "Love, Simon" and "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before" reign with the help of diverse directors, writers and ensembles.
Romantic comedy has been invented and reinvented over the course of film, and its most current iteration tells us that audiences are desperate for stories that may follow the same loose, unrealistic formulas but simply look far more realistic than they ever have.
As our current romantic comedy renaissance begins to take shape by updating and revitalizing a genre to an increasingly mindful audience, we must handle these movies with the power they have as artistic records for our shifting interpretations of love, relationships and intimacy throughout time. Let us usher in an era of romantic comedies in which creators make serious considerations about diversity and inclusion in a genre that is a reflection of the most human thing of all: love.
Over the course of 90 minutes, we watch a beautiful, ordinary, diverse leading couple fall in love and fall apart, and our hearts sing when they kiss and hurt when they part, even though we are perfectly aware that no one looks that good hungover. And is that not the whole point?
Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School sophomore, contemplating her primary major but minoring in political science and philosophy. Her column, “The Progressive’s Hot Take,” runs on alternate Fridays.
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