I’m not much of a romantic comedy enthusiast myself, but I occasionally enjoy switching off from reality to enjoy a feel-good film from this category. While rom-coms generally aren’t meant to be intellectually stimulating, they still serve as mirrors to society, which is why we continue to see this genre and its motifs evolve with time. When you assess rom-coms from this perspective, they can actually be quite revealing, especially in terms of normalised behavioural patterns. And the further back you go, the more problematic these patterns become – aspects of older rom-coms that were taken for granted, now stand out like a sore thumb. Growing up with rom-coms of from the 90s and early 2000s, here are five lessons I have had to actively unlearn as an adult:
Women should strive for validation from men
It seems ridiculous when I put it so bluntly, but the fact remains that this is a key aspect of a plethora of rom-coms – often involving a ‘misfit’ who then undergoes a drastic makeover (both inside and out) just for some man’s approval. Moreover, these women only become ‘eligible’ to find love once they achieve societal beauty (and behavioural) standards.
I will show a little leniency to films that focus on more superficial elements (a makeover in terms of clothes and hairstyle, for example), as I suppose we could allow for this to be interpreted as a confidence booster designed to improve overall outlook on life. But what is really unsettling is when these makeovers become psychological, in that the woman alters her core beliefs and personality for a man’s approval – and this is rewarded.
Worse still, is the active removal of qualities that are considered positive, especially in men (independence, assertiveness, intelligence, etc.). In the film The House Bunny, the woman giving the makeover to the misfit tells her that ‘boys don’t like smart girls’, and therefore said misfit immediately stifles her intelligence to appear more attractive to some frat boy with half of her IQ.
When my friends and I watched this film a few years ago, this specific scene resulted in a collective cringe. Now that I am an adult, I am able to use a discerning perspective when it comes to things like this, but a child (especially a pre-teen who is beginning to craft an identity for themselves) probably won’t be able to do the same. And while they may not register the significance of dialogues like these, a subliminal message still comes through: always come second to the man. Pander to his preferences and you will be successful and happy.
Horrifying, is what it is.
Women must compete for a man’s attention
My Best Friend’s Wedding is the perfect example to illustrate this point. Julia Roberts’ character, Julianne Potter, has been in love with her male best friend for a long time, but never worked up the courage to tell him. Only when he gets engaged, does she decide to take action (being blatantly disrespectful to this friend and his fiancé’s relationship). And even then, she doesn’t just talk to her best friend – she hatches a manipulative scheme to sabotage his wedding and ‘win’ him (I couldn’t watch more than 30 minutes of this film).
Moreover, the unknowing fiancé is nothing but kind to her throughout (at least in the first 30 minutes), buying her a lovely dress, trying to get to know her, etc. But Julianne Potter completely ignores this kindness and goes behind her back to ruin her marriage before it even begins. Even if the fiancé turned out to be not so kind later (I wouldn’t know), that still doesn’t justify the scheming, manipulation and sheer disrespect on Julianne’s part.
Countless rom-coms that projected this as normal behaviour resulted in an ecosystem of adult women who felt unsafe and alienated around each other.
If you are a single woman, you are sad
Rather than portraying this as just one of the many possibilities, rom-coms from the ‘90s and early 2000s declare this as an absolute truth. No matter how successful or happy a woman seems, she is always ‘incomplete’ without a man, and therefore either sad or unnecessarily aggressive and defensive. Take The Proposal, for example. Sandra Bullock’s character is successful in her career, but she is bitter, aggressive and unhappy. Only when she encounters Ryan Reynolds’ boyish charm and falls in love does she become a seemingly calmer, more balanced human being.
What films like these tell young girls is that this is what will happen to them if they choose a career over marriage. It appears that during this period it was utterly unfathomable for a woman to make her career a priority and still be a healthy, happy human being. Today, many women have proven that to be untrue.
Genders can be generalised
Lots of rom-coms (ex: Hitch) involve one gender confidently listing out character traits of another gender, whether in seemingly insignificant details (boys like blue, girls like pink) to deeper character traits (women get emotionally attached easily, men don’t cry). As we are slowly learning, this is incredibly unhealthy, and needs to stop.
Humans come in all shapes and sizes, with different personalities and interests, and bullying them if they don’t fit into a socially condoned archetype needs to stop.
‘Like a girl’ is a valid insult
This is an issue that isn’t contained within rom-coms alone. I recently watched a few seasons of Supernatural (genre: action/thriller) and flinched every time I heard lead character Dean Winchester repeatedly insult men by comparing them to women or girls.
For too long, women have been subjected to this subconscious belittling to the point where phrases like ‘run like a girl’ or ‘throw like a girl’ have become commonplace insults (even among women), as it is automatically assumed that girls are bad at these things.
To be ‘like a girl’ is to be weak, superficial, unintelligent, and incompetent.
(In reality this could not be further from the truth, as women, by nature of existing in a patriarchal society, have had to find strength in ways our male counterparts cannot imagine, just to stay sane.)
While many may think that I am reading too much into this phrase, and that it is meant as a light-hearted jest, I ask those people to think of what this could do to the self esteem of a young girl, when she is constantly spoken of as a failure (and now has to work twice as hard to be taken seriously).
In many ways, rom-coms of today are progressively becoming more egalitarian, focusing more on the protagonists and less on what gender they are. That being said, there are still some behaviours that are normalised when they shouldn’t be (ex: Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018) is about a girl who literally steals another girl’s identity to catfish a boy into paying attention to her – as if this wasn’t unnerving enough, when the boy finds out, he forgives her because ‘her heart is in the right place’. Good Lord.)
In short, there is still much room for improvement.