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Image / Living / Culture

Why pretty much every rom-com ever needs to get in the sea (and five actually good ones to watch this V-Day)


by Sophie White
13th Feb 2021
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Why is the hugely dated rom-com notion still our guilty pleasure? 

So much about the rom-com just shouldn’t fly anymore.

We all know the score: Quirky Girl is adorable but clumsy and has a great job at a woman’s magazine, despite her apparent lack of competency and excessive falling down.

Sidebar: The depiction of working in a women’s magazine in these films has nearly single-handedly sent a whole generation of impressionable young women down the dark hole of careers in media.

Quirky Girl meets Boy, Girl doesn’t like Boy, Girl thinks Boy’s goofy charm is irritating. Throw in some unlikely obstacles, a frustrating will-they-won’t-they story line, the Sarcastic Friend and, ultimately, a fairly ridiculous declaration of love on the part of Boy (because woman cannot be the architects of their own destiny, they must be chosen by men obvi) and a wedding.

The traditional rom-com format is largely misogynistic. The female characters are completely two-dimensional with one insultingly reductive motivation: to get married. They tend to be unambitious regarding anything not related to getting married; some of the older beloved 80s rom-coms are even mildly rapey. Feminist writer Lindy West famously wrote a comprehensive take down of Love Actually.

So why do we still love them? And are there any that would even pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, which states that a movie has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something that isn’t a man?!

Neda Ulaby, the American culture critic said of the test that it is key because “it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns”. Amen. Still there are some rom-coms that I can’t stop revisiting no matter how problematic. I think Bride Wars – in which best frenemies conspire to ruin each other’s weddings – might be my ultimate hate-fave – don’t judge me.

On Valentine’s last year we did our usual tradition of stuffing ourselves with Chinese and watching the romantic classic, The Silence of the Lambs. It was a revolt against the tyranny of the rom-com and I felt damn good watching Clarice Starling turn audience expectations upside-down and inside-out by simply not, at any point, talking about a man in a wistful way.

Silence of the Lambs was made in 1991 but even now nearly 30 years later, how often do we ever get to see this? Women in films doing things that have nothing to do with landing a man and fulfilment through matrimony. Thinking about it now, it’s kind of amazing that The Silence of the Lambs got through the net at all? I can only imagine the producers gave the script a passing glance and presumed it was a rom-com; it is, after all, the story of a young woman obsessed with catching a man. And what other reason would a woman be in a lead role for?

Rom-coms are fun and they can be done well (see below) but the fact is they have slowed progress for female-lead stories. Historically, female characters have been scarcely more than set decoration. They provide an object, a catalyst for the action, as in the ancient story of Troy. Or if they are not providing a decorative function, a woman’s best hope in story-telling is landing the role of the female villain – a role usually characterised as physically repellant and therefore exacting twisted revenge on the younger beautiful woman. There’s so many examples of this that it is actually depressing to list them but think Ursula in the Little Mermaid, Snow White’s evil stepmother, Cinderella’s ugly sisters.

When the rom-com genre came to prominence in the 1930s, it must have felt like progress to watch Katherine Hepburn raining chaos down on Cary Grant’s straight-laced scientist in Bringing Up Baby and verbally sparing with any man who shared the screen with her. However, 80 years later, we haven’t made massive strides by any stretch.

In recent years, we’ve seen male tears over established franchises like Ghostbusters and Oceans 11 being re-imagined with female-dominated casts. This kind of approach seems to go beyond lip service and manages to still miss the point altogether. We don’t want gender segregation or gimmicky, ironic reversals. We want to claw back space in the culture for the stories of people who are not straight white men. Rant over.

Here’re five rom-coms that actually pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test and won’t make you vom in your mouth

Obvious Child

Young stand up comedian, played by Jenny Slate, gets pregnant by accident.

Notable quote:

“I remember seeing a condom, I just don’t know what it did.”

Drinking Buddies

Olivia Wilde is that unnervingly hot girl friend that every guy has in this fun off-kilter rom-com.

Notable quote:

“Let’s get weird.”

Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion

Forget bromance, this one’s a Ho-mance. We will never stop loving you Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow.

Notable quote:

“Well, who lost their virginity first?”

“Oh big wow with your cousin Barry, I wouldn’t brag about it.”

Bridesmaids

Kirsten Wiig has a 1/4 life crisis during the lead up to her best friend’s wedding and it is hilarious.

Notable quote:

“Help me, I’m poor.”

Safety Not Guaranteed

It’s a time-travel rom-com with Mumblecore heartthrob Mark Duplass and the legend that is Aubrey Plaza. Need I say more?

Notable quote:

“Okay give me the lesbian and the Indian and we’ve got a story.”

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