I am in no way an expert in the romantic comedy genre, in fact, I wouldn’t even call myself a fan of them (with some exceptions). However, I have a few friends who are big rom-com fanatics and I find it so interesting having conversations with them and hearing that there hasn’t been a good, classic rom-com in ages, and that the genre is somewhat dying.
I would argue that this is similar to western and musical genres, in that they’ve had their heydays and a few get made as one-off occasions, but they are mostly dead as current-day genres. Mid 1980s to the 2000s was the golden age of the romantic comedy. They produced new stars (e.g. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, Runaway Bride; Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates), allowed for female directors (e.g. Nora Ephron for When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail; Nancy Meyers for What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give), and even had some nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Jerry Maguire, Shakespeare in Love). Many rom-coms of this time weren’t amazing, but they defined the genre with adorable meet-cutes, overcoming obstacles, grand gestures, and happily ever afters: A classic cesspit of stereotypes and heteronormativity. I’m still not trying to diminish it; every genre has clichés and straight people.
So, what killed the rom-com? I’m going to look into the different factors as to what caused the genre to get pushed to the side and how it is now evolving.
During it’s peak, rom-coms would be the amongst the highest grossing films of the year. In 2016, there was not a single romantic comedy in the year’s highest 50 movies. A few articles have written that the rom-com has suffered due to the collapse of the “mid-budget movie.” Hollywood used to churn out these mid-budget blockbusters (rom-coms fall into this) that wouldn’t cost much to make, but always make a profit. Now, as the cinema has gotten more expensive and less of a special experience, people are more likely to watch films like rom-coms if they appear on TV, or streaming them online. This is the time we live in: films now have to be a big spectacle/event to convince audiences to attend the cinema. The mid-budget movies that have survived are now steered towards Oscar potentials and rom-coms currently have the reputation of being far from Oscar-friendly. Russell said about his Oscar-winning film, “When people called Silver Linings Playbook a romantic comedy, my head snapped,” showing that it’s now an embarrassment to be associated with rom-coms despite making use of the tropes (more on that later). Nowadays, Hollywood churns out superhero movies, reboots, and sequels: rom-coms fall into none of these. Rom-com movies don’t have franchises. Rom-com movies don’t have merchandising. Rom-coms don’t have sequels; what can happen after happily ever after other than stasis or deterioration? Franchises are making all the money at the moment: Finding Dory, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Captain America: Civil War were the top grossing movies of 2016.
Romantic comedies used to be a way for stars to rise into A-list actors, but now, the hottest female actresses have little interest in the genre and take different routes to fame. Take the current two highest paid actresses, Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone; they both have potential to shine in a rom-com in the ways of Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan and have both shown their abilities to have adorable chemistry, yet it is clear that this is not a direction they want to go. The romantic comedy is now more of a dead end than a feasible route. New rising female stars such as Margot Robbie and Brie Larson don’t even have a romantic comedy in their filmography.
Why are women bypassing the rom-com? Well, look at the most recent rom-com star, Katherine Heigl. When she was leading the genre, the genre became dishonourable with the films 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth, and Killers. These films were poorly scripted and lazy. It’s harsh to blame Heigl for the whole decline of rom-coms, but other actresses in the rom-com scene at the time such as Anne Hathaway, Rachel McAdams, and Sandra Bullock all fled to dramas. Female actresses now have to find male-centric films as their big opportunity to shine.
A male example would be Matthew McConaughey. From 2001 to 2011, he did The Wedding Planner, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Tiptoes, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The romantic comedy was such a curse to him that when he turned to serious films afterwards, it was coined “The McConaissance” as if to say there is a sudden surprise that he can ‘actually act,’ which shows the extreme stigma towards romantic comedy acting.
GENRE FOR WOMEN
My opinion aside, the romantic comedy was very much a genre for women. Women bought a majority of the cinema tickets and mostly made up the fanbase. Although they were often problematic, there was at least a genuine attempt to create a female movie network. However, since this genre is aimed at women, it never got treated seriously (unlike genres such as action movies are) and Hollywood has settled into to the idea that they should aim at men because women are more flexible and will see anything, but men are stubborn and will be deterred if it’s too women-centric. Hence, a male “no, thanks” poses more importance than a female “yes, please.” This shows in the recent rom-coms being more male-centric (Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin, I Love You, Man, The Wedding Ringer). The sad truth is that women buy 51% of all cinema tickets, but “certainly not 51% of movies are centred on women,” says Nancy Meyers. The new female-driven films are raunchy comedies, such as Bridesmaids, which was a massive success and should have changed the game and shown Hollywood that bringing in a predominantly female audience is something worth pursuing, but instead, it’s treated as an unexpected success. Director of Bridesmaids, Paul Feig, was begged to start making movies about men based on his success of female-centric comedies (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, Ghostbusters), he said that “I’ve been lectured so many times by producers and people in power, ‘You don’t want to get pigeonholed in the whole woman thing.'” I can guarantee that has never been said with the genders reversed. There have been many superhero movie flops, but they keep giving them so many chances to succeed, that the genre gets to flourish in ways that female-aimed films do not get the opportunity to do so. Female audiences are not taken seriously: you are judged to have a ‘lowbrow taste’ if you say you like romantic comedies and Hollywood has let this reputation happen.
HOW THE GENRE HAS DEVELOPED
Romantic comedies, even the respectable ones, have a tendency to use sexist tropes and define women as one-dimensional objects driven by the need for a man to complete their lives. Reporter Chris Eggertsen wrote that “Mostly, I think we just got tired of living the baby boomer fantasy of ideal romantic love, propagated in large part by the society’s unprogressive cultural expectations regarding gender roles.” These days, rom-coms are being looked at through a harsher lens, and that, mixed with Hollywood allowing the genre to become disreputable, has meant that films have to use rom-com elements ‘secretly’ to avoid scathing. This usually involves subverting initial expectations such as Trainwreck with a female protagonist as the comic character who is afraid of commitment and sleeps around; How to Be Single ends with the idea of not needing a man; (500) Days of Summer letting you know the ending won’t be happy from the get go; My Big Fat Greek Wedding centring around a specific eastern European culture; Silver Linings Playbook dealing with how mental illness affects love; most recently The Big Sick showing the Pakistani-American cultural differences. These movies all have familiar rom-com beats, but they’ve been hidden in unfamiliar premises, so as to avoid being associated with the infamous genre. This is true of films like Bridesmaids that has a romantic comedy sub-plot between Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd, but since the overall film is about female friendship, it is seen as just a comedy, rather than a romantic comedy.
Another interesting way the genre has evolved is in the grey market. Hollywood often aims towards teenage boys, but their influence is exaggerated. Teenagers have less disposable income and are more likely to illegally stream/download. Senior citizens buy about the same amount of cinema tickets as teenage boys and they have created this micro-system of elderly romantic comedies, with Because I Said So, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, Hope Springs all doing well in the box office.
TV has always been kinder to women and the idea of female audiences than cinema. Currently, that light-hearted romance missing from the big screen is thriving on television. There have been many TV shows centred on female protagonists pursuing relationships. Mindy Kaling, creator and star of The Mindy Project, has often unapologetically stated her love for rom-coms. In her book, she says “the genre has been so degraded in the past 20 years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity…. I simply regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world.” Therefore, it’s no surprise that her show fully embraces romantic comedy culture and I think it says a lot that, even though Kaling is passionate about the rom-com genre, she has not attempted to do one on the big screen, probably due to TV allowing women to write for women. Other current shows such as Insecure, You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend all explore the rom-com routes.
I am not convinced that the rom-com is beyond resuscitation; in fact, it’s not even dead, just in disguise. What we need is to evolve the definition and stop being so ashamed of them as an audience and also, lessen the relentless Hollywood pursuit of a young male demographic. We can’t keep calling rom-coms too lowbrow whilst producing endless cookie-cutter superhero and action films. I am not convinced that people have got tired of love stories.
By: Freyja Pakarinen