Who remembers going to Blockbuster, picking out a rom-com with your friends, and getting more than enough snacks for your sleepover? It feels like eons ago, but that was such a formative part of my life. In my friend group, romantic comedies were always the go-to movie because as young girls it felt like we were watching an experience that we’d one day encounter.
We would all joke about how unrealistic they were, or the cheesy lines that Matthew Mcconaughey would spew; but, deep down we were internalizing them. They were teaching us about what womanhood means and what ideal, romantic relationships look like.
Which, frankly, is a problem. Rom-coms are fun, but not only portray highly unrealistic situations but often borderline toxic relationships and contribute to internalized misogyny. Which, in case you are not familiar with the term, means that people who identify as female subconsciously project harmful sex and gender ideologies onto themselves and other females. The subjugation of women, and especially women of color, is so subtly integrated into our lives that we are often unaware of this behavior. The media tends to use it to their advantage in their plots.
So, on that note, let’s take an honest look on how romantic comedies affect us.
Romantic comedies utilize heteronormativity to a fault. This is the belief that heterosexuality is the only valid sexuality or the “default” if you will. It assumes that everyone is cisgender without regard to any other gender. This creates an abundance of issues. We can see this in the media we consume; romantic comedies typically only feature cisgender male/female relationships. While yes, we do now have Love, Simon (a very sweet movie that I 100% recommend), I can easily name twenty heterosexual romantic comedies in a minute, but I can’t the same for queer movies.
Impact on the LGBTQIA Community
And while we may be able to search and find LGBTQIA stories in entertainment. Ask yourself what messages are they sending. Are they following any harmful tropes? A common trope is a romantic partner cheating on their significant other or dying. What does this say about the validity of queer relationships? To audiences, it says that members of the LGBTQIA community are promiscuous, non-commital, and have no self-control. The overused writing tool of killing off romantic partners, says that LGBTQIA members are not deserving of happy endings. So the lack of proper representation of community members in the romantic-comedy field makes their experiences feel invalid. Especially because many young people are now learning behaviors that are not helpful in the realm of relationships.
Rom-coms also play into overused queer stereotypes. The protagonist often has a gay best friend who is effeminate, sassy, and will come in with weird, kind-of predatory one-liners about men that are icky. These stereotypes reinforce the idea that there is a certain way queer people act. Which, I think we know by now is far from true. However, what this does is create a particular way to be queer. So when someone does not align with that viewpoint, we tend to code them as “not really gay”. As if a gay man can only truly be gay if he loves musical theatre and will go shopping with his female friends. That’s a thumbs down from me!
There are many other tropes deserving mention that you can read about here.
Gender Stereotypes in Rom-Coms
Due to heteronormative beliefs, we have structures in place of how women and men can behave in a space. I’m sure you’re familiar with them. There are behaviors that we have coded “typical” for females and males. For example, men should be assertive and women should not. The male should be the provider. People should strive to get married and have kids. And even something as simple as rendering colors (boys must be blue and girls must be pink).
Romantic comedies use typical gender stereotypes to their advantage. It is an easy way to set up plot devices and character traits. For example, in the movie Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl’s character is Type A, uptight, and judgemental. Heigl said in a Vanity Fair article “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys“. The audience is meant to believe that the woman is in the wrong for displaying this type of behavior. However, we are meant to laugh at Rogen’s character’s lack of maturity and responsibility.
It should also be noted that Heigl’s critique (in addition to critiquing Grey’s Anatomy) cost her the successful career that she built. She was marked as a diva for expressing her grievances. And yet, people like Mel Gibson who damage their reputation in a very different way, still have careers. But that is a big conversation for another day.
A Closer Look at Knocked Up
I’m not definitively saying that Heigl should have publicly stated her stance without ever discussing it with director Judd Apatow privately. Hollywood is political. She has apologized for the statement. However, she was correct about the film’s sexist behavior.
Heigl, although a funny woman, was never the one setting up the joke. Her character was meant to laugh at all of Rogen’s jokes. Even Leslie Mann’s character, was written as an uptight mother and wife who was meant to be put in her place.
Anna Menta at The Decider puts it nicely “Knocked Up’s thesis is not that Rogen needs to grow up and meet Heigl on her level—it’s that they both have to learn to accept each other. Rogen’s character gets a real job and apartment, and thank god for that. But in return, Heigl is expected to loosen up and lower her expectations.“
This idea that women shouldn’t have standards or should be more malleable is used in many romantic comedies. Sandra Bullock in The Proposal is a businesswoman who is assertive. But instead of empowering a woman in a position of power, she is cold and downright rude. She only learns to loosen up after falling in love with Ryan Reynolds, her co-worker. This teaches young girls that being assertive is scary and intimidating and seems to do the opposite of empowerment.
Woman on Woman Hate
There is also the stereotype that women are out to get each other. We can see this in the movie Bride Wars. These two women, who have been best friends their entire lives, sabotage each other after wanting to have their dream wedding on the dame day. While this film displays woman on woman hate between friends, romantic comedies usually create enemies between the main female protagonist and another female perceived as a threat. For example: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Just Go With It, The Kissing Booth, the list continues. These films pit women against each other and frame it as normal. When in spaces that are already difficult to enter as women, we should be building each other up, not tearing each other down.
These stereotypes aid add to the “I’m not like other girls” culture that is pervasive in our lives. This is the idea that each woman has to set themselves apart from other women to define themselves as unique in order to gain approval from a man. This has also been known as the “pick me” attitude. This attitude places a disdain for femininity and yet aims to please men.
Abuse in Relationships
In the article “Green on the Screen: Types of Jealousy and Communicative Responses to Jealousy in Romantic Comedies” by Jessica R. Frampton and Darren L. Linvill, the researchers watched fifty-one romantic comedies released between 2002-2014. The researchers analyzed each scene in each movie for instances of romantic jealousy and communicative response to that jealousy. They found 230 instances of romantic jealousy. The most common being reactive jealousy (58%); possessive jealousy (31%); and anxious jealousy (11%).
Jealousy is not a behavior to idolize in a relationship and is unhealthy if it is experienced constantly. It isn’t a rom-com, but let’s look at the famous couple Ross and Rachel from Friends. Ross is constantly jealous of Rachel’s co-worker Mark, causing massive amounts of distrust in their relationship. He is also very dismissive about Rachel’s feelings. And don’t even get me started on the “We were on a break” (in short they were both wrong). And oftentimes forms of lying and manipulation that often stem from jealousy in romantic comedies, are actually…borderline abusive.
Let’s look at some examples!
Don’t hate me for this one: Ryan Gosling’s character in The Notebook threatens suicide if Rachel Mcadams’ character does not go out with him. Not okay behavior and not romantic!
We can see other toxic behaviors in movies like Hitch, which reinforces the belief that women don’t actually mean ‘no’.
[A woman] might say, “This is a really bad time for me.” Or something like, “I just need some space.” Or my personal favorite: “I’m really into my career right now.” You believe that? Neither does she. You know why? Because she’s lying to you, that’s why. You understand me? Lying. It’s not a bad time for her. She doesn’t need any space.Hitch, 2005
I am sure that I speak for many women that many times our answers are definitive. Especially ‘no’.
There is often also casual stalking in romantic comedies that we tend to blow off. The cue card guy from Love Actually crosses a major line. Imagine if you found out that your partner’s best friend (who never talks to you) was in love with you because you found an up-close tape of yourself that he filmed. And then to make up for it, he professed his love to you while your partner was in the other room. It’s odd, to say the least. But the writing rewards the cue card guy with a kiss, nevertheless.
This rom-com trope enforces the idea that women don’t really know what they want. And it also subtly implies that obsession is equal to love. Please know it is not. There are people much more educated on this topic than I am so I recommend taking a look at the channel Pop Culture Detective for more helpful information!
The end goal
We are starting to finally see a change in how movies are made. I will stand by that we need more than white, cisgender, straight actors telling the same story we’ve heard a hundred times before. I have seen many people say that Crazy, Rich Asians was nothing more than a political move by Hollywood, rather than a step in the right direction.
I’m not going to write this and pretend I don’t watch romantic comedies. That’d be unfair. I’m a stickler for nostalgia and I love Thirteen Going on Thirty. We all need a low stakes movie every blue moon to save us from heartbreak or when we are in need of a good laugh. But moving forward we need to watch with a critical eye and ask ourselves if and how we internalize this information in our own relationships.
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