Written by Joyelle Ronan
I’ve found that with romantic comedy films, people tend to fall into three camps. The first being you openly love rom coms. Maybe you are a hopeless romantic. You cry when Anna says “After all, I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” in Nottinghill. You swoon when Patrick serenades Kat in 10 Things I Hate about You.
Or maybe you despise romantic comedies. You think they are unoriginal, cliché, or perhaps even cringy. You find them anti-feminist and think they poorly represent women. If you secretly love rom coms but are embarrassed by their disdainful reputation, you are in the third category.
After spending the semester studying romantic comedies, I’ve concluded that all of these perspectives are valid. The genre is polysemic, a term coined by Stuart Hall in 1980, which means that texts or films have different meaning to different people. What might be disempowering to one woman may empower another. Plus, let’s not forget that men watch rom coms too, even if admitting so may wound their egos.
While every genre features some recurring tropes, for some reason with romantic comedies, these tropes are dismissed as overdone, unoriginal cliches. In his 2020 article Romantic Comedy and the Virtues of Predictability, author Kyle Stevens defends the narrative predictability of rom coms. He states that not only are there many pros to the genre’s predictability, such as rewatchability and emphasis on performance, but the cons are often only seen as cons because of masculine and political normatives.
Angela MacRobbie in her 1991 book Feminism and Youth Culture: From “Jackie” to “Just Seventeen,” points out how these texts, when consumed by women, can be empowering by allowing women to explore their sense of identity away from male-dominated, patriarchal texts. It allows women to reclaim power over the gender roles they have been bound to and to resist ideologies in the text that they might feel unable to resist in real life.
In contrast, The Postfeminist Mystique: Feminism and Shakespearean Adaptation in 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man author Jenifer Clement argues that films some view as empowering women actually are harmful and discredit feminism. We see this by women only finding happiness when they reject feminism, women being punished for taking agency over their sexuality, and being made to feel unhappy for characters that embrace second-wave feminism attributes like being career oriented.
It is also important to note that rom coms in the past have been mostly of white, heterosexual, cisgendered couples. This is very slowly changing. We are starting to see more diverse love stories being told like with 2018’s Love Simon or 2019’s Always Be My Maybe. The impact the genre has on women and underrepresented groups needs to be considered when looking to the future of romantic comedies.
While the genre may have its issues, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value. A study entitled From Love at First Sight to Soul Mate: The Influence of Romantic Ideals in Popular Films on Young People’s Beliefs about Relationships found that there was a relationship between viewing romantic comedies and endorsing romantic ideals like soulmates/ belonging to only one person, idealization of the other person, love conquers all, and love at first sight. This study and my research shows that rom coms likely have a larger impact on women’s beliefs and ideals than previously thought and therefore the portrayals of gender and romantic relationships in them should not be so easily dismissed.