Why Is Romantic Comedy Considered A Dirty Word?
by Mandi Harrison
The words Romantic Comedy are often groan-inducing. If someone dares to say they like romantic comedies, the declaration is often started or followed with “I know they’re cheesy….” For a film to be labeled as a romantic comedy is seen as losing credibility. Considering they have been around since the beginning of Hollywood, why and when did romantic comedies become a bad thing?
The definition of a romantic comedy is a movie or a play that deals with love in a light, humorous way. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Two people meet, have a conflict that separates them, and then they are reunited for their happily ever after- or right now. A to B to C. The formula started with Shakespeare and continued through Jane Austin and the Bronte Sisters and into the modern age. Regardless of a happy ending or heartbreak, there are the same pieces of foundation holding the story up together. If it was established by such distinguished storytellers, why is it considered a cliche now?
A part of the problem is in determining what actually MAKES a romantic comedy. There are certain elements that make up a romantic comedy, and if other movies contain any of these elements, especially if they have a female protagonist, they are slapped with a rom-com label. Movie studios seem to have a hard time marketing comedies with female protagonists as anything other than romantic comedies, so everything gets dumped here.
Here are a few of the requirements for an actual romantic comedy; the order in which they are used in a film can determine if the film will have a traditional happy (Hollywood) ending or end in heartbreak or hope.
two characters, seemingly opposite
the chance meeting where they are drawn to each other despite their differences, aka the meet-cute
the montage of them falling for each other
the obstacles that end up separating the pair
the individual realization of their love
the big moment of declaration
the tone- the majority of rom-coms use bright colors and pop songs to set the mood, Indie rom-coms use a muted pallet and songs you’d hear at your local coffee house; either way, it’s a total mood.
Banter- during the early days of Hollywood, with morality clauses in place for filming, witty banter was a way for characters to have sex without having sex. The back and forth dialogue, the flirty bickering, just a way to bring the characters together without physical contact.
So now, let’s look at some movies that are labeled Romantic Comedies- but aren’t.
The Princess Bride- I know- I’m shocking you right off the bat. How can a completely romantic movie that is hilarious NOT be a romantic comedy? Because Wesley and Buttercup’s love is so pure, you know that even though they are apart in the movie, they will be together in the end- no doubt about it. This a hero’s journey, fighting the evil Humperdinck and avenging wrongs. There is definite love in the movie- grandfather/grandson, the old couple, Inigo and his father, Inigo and Fezzik, and yes, Wesley and Buttercup. But it’s not a romantic comedy.
Legally Blonde- Not a Rom-Com. The bright colors and pop music might confuse you into thinking you’re watching a rom-com, but NOPE. Elle’s original quest to win Werner back is GONE the minute she leaves the non-costume party. And LOVE Emmet, but he’s not needed- Elle has her girls to give her support as she continues her true journey. (I have lots of thoughts on Elle, as you can see)
13 Going On 30- This one is hard, because Mark Ruffalo is at his dreamiest here, but NOT a Rom-Com. Again, bright colors, pop music, montages, but it’s the story of how Jenna Rink realized that getting what she wanted wasn’t going to make her who she needed to be.
Bridesmaids- Revolves around a wedding, but not a romantic comedy. It’s a love story between friends- the men in their life are barely thought about. This about what friendship becomes as your lives change and how things can be better than you thought they could be if you are open to change.
These are just a few examples of movies mislabeled as Romantic Comedies, movies referred to as the eye-rolling “chick flicks“, comedies with female protagonists. The movie genre that is closest to romantic comedy is actually the Buddy Comedy, movies like Lethal Weapon, Turner & Hooch, The Heat, and Toy Story- an unlikely duo, brought together through unlikely circumstances and obstacles work to keep them apart from their goal- will they make it work? That is the exact formula as a romantic comedy. These movies have more in common with Pretty Woman than Legally Blonde does.
Romantic Comedies have been around since the silent film days, having to rely on the actors expressions and title cards to replace the bantering. As the film industry evolved, so did romantic comedies. Each period in Hollywood history has romantic comedies that have helped shape film history, creating moments and techniques that are still in use today. The silent film era led way to City Lights, the Charlie Chaplin classic, which is one of the American Film Institute’s top movies of all time. The silent era led into my personal favorite era, the screwball comedy. Screwball comedies are a satirical view of love, in which the woman often the protagonist and the hero, and is full of slapstick scenes and fast-paced banter. Many of the tropes used in rom-coms now came from this era, starting with the 1934 classic It Happened One Night and going through the 30’s and 40’s with Irene Dunn, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, in The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby and many more.
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy led the way into the 5o’s with battle-of-the-sexes comedies. Movies like Adam’s Rib played up the differences between men and women and ambition and love and all the messiness in between. The 60’s brought the Rock Hudson/ Doris Day movies that slowly started making the genre into a cliche. The 70’s were filled with filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola and the romantic comedy looked like it was fading from site, until 1977 with Woody Allen’s radical take on love, Annie Hall. It was an unlikely way to bring the genre back to life, but that is just what it did. After Annie Hall, more romantic comedies were being made, with more misses than hits, until 1989 and Nora Ephron saved the genre from permanent extinction with a little movie called When Harry Met Sally. This led to a resurgence of romantic comedies of the 90’s, some great (Four Weddings and A Funeral), some good (Pretty Woman), and some we just shouldn’t talk about.
The romantic comedies of the 2000’s to today are an eclectic bunch, but at their heart, they all possess the same fundamentals as their ancestors. Movies like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Knocked Up, 500 Days of Summer, Hitch, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Made of Honor, The Big Sick & Trainwreck range from Indie Darlings to big studio productions, but are alike in their faithfulness to the formula that was created so many years ago.
I love romantic comedies for the reason I believe most people like them- they are hopeful. In a world where there is so much chaos and so much to bring you down, it’s a lovely feeling to know that you can escape for 90 minutes or so to a world where there is hope. Even if the duo doesn’t get together or it isn’t clear that they get together, there is still the possibility that something wonderful can happen. That might be cheesy, but life could use some more cheese.
My Favorite Romantic Comedies
City Lights- I never would have thought Charlie Chaplin could be so romantic. A tramp, mistaken for a rich man, falls for a blind girl trying to sell flowers for a surgery to help her see. He trains to be a boxer to win the movie for the surgery, meanwhile she doesn't know who he really is. This movie just makes me swoon.
It Happened One Night- Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled heiress running away from an elopement and Clark Gable plays the reporter trying to track down the story. Hijinks ensue, they are stuck on the road together and of course they fall in love. But can it work? There are so many things that are still being used today that came from this movie (like showing a leg on the side of the road for someone to pull over) and the dialogue is just spectacular.
Holiday- When I think screwball, I think Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. It’s almost like a symphony, watching them play against each other. Holiday is my favorite
Annie Hall- This really is a brilliant script and a lot of filmmakers today have taken from it, whether they want to admit it or not. Alvy’s quest to uncover what went wrong in his relationship with Annie ends up being a eye-opening look at all his past loves. Annie is loosely based on Diane Keaton and she is just perfection. It has some of the most brilliant dialogue ever written. It’s another movie that is on many “best films” lists.
When Harry Met Sally- This is just a given.
Pretty Woman- Pretty Woman is considered to be a modern retelling of Cinderella, but to quote the end of the movie “What happens when the knight saves the princess?” “She saves him right back.” A lot of people like to talk crap about this movie, saying it promotes a bad image, blah blah blah, but this is just a really fun movie to watch, with a lot of great quotes and a killer soundtrack.
500 Days of Summer- One of my favorite Indie romantic comedies. It’s along the vein of Annie Hall- we know the relationship doesn’t work out, but it’s really interesting to see Tom’s perspective of what happened with Summer and what actually happened. I go through periods where i’m super annoyed by this movie and periods where I’m obsessed with it, but I always think about it when i’m thinking about how to tell a narrative.
Just Go With It-Confession: I enjoy an Adam Sandler movie or two. Or three. Okay, there’s a few that I like a lot. (But never Jack & Jill.) Just Go With It is his best non-Drew Barrymore movie; it’s sweetly ridiculous. It’s a comfort watch.
While You Were Sleeping- This technically could go either romcom or family comedy, but I’m going with romantic comedy, because Sandra Bullock did find her true love Bill Pullman… through his family. It’s a classic tale of Girl saves Man from a Train and is mistaken for his fiancé while he’s in a coma and ends up falling for his brother. You know that old chestnut. This movie has the banter and slapstick humor of a screwball but is still sincere. I love Sandra Bullock and this is the movie that started it all for me.