Elizabeth Sankey's Romantic Comedy (2019) is showing on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
If I find myself home alone on a Saturday night, I bake a frozen pizza and lie in bed eating two or three cheesy, cardboardy slices accompanied by swigs off a nine dollar bottle wine. I open up Amazon and type with a single greasy finger, trying to find something new, perusing the “movies based on your viewing” section, all the while knowing I’ll settle on the comfort of the familiar. Bridget Jones Diary. Sabrina from the ‘90s. You’ve Got Mail. Rom-coms all. Not even the good ones.
For me and nearly every woman I know, romantic comedies are tools, adult comfort objects that soothe. We talk about them like junk food—empty artistic calories that are no good for us. And we are happy to tell you everything you already know that is wrong with them: The characters are almost always exclusively white. Queer people only exist as goofy sidekicks or foils. They are formulaic—adhering to strict genre conventions whose narrative faithfully refrain from surprise. They reinforce a dispiriting, teleological view of a woman’s life, filling little girls’ heads with nonsense of what a female experience can hold. Everything is heading towards marriage, which will solve all your problems. All other possibilities are outside of the frame.
And yet we watch them. Friends of mine who run radical feminist organizations become giddy at the prospect of watching My Best Friend’s Wedding on a plane. A friend with a PhD in critical theory loves the entire oeuvre of Nancy Meyers. I’ve been on an ongoing text thread with three women about Sex and the City for almost a decade. We throw increasingly difficult trivia questions at each other: “How old is Carrie when they hold her birthday party at the belly dancing restaurant in season two?” There’s little suspense—we all know every answer. “I hate romantic comedies,” a friend tells me. “And yet I think Princess Bride is the best thing ever.” When I ask her why she still likes them, she simply says, “It’s impossible to deprogram.”
The common critiques of romantic comedies are real, and important. Romantic comedies—particularly those from the 1990s, when the genre was at its most formulaic and most cynical—do harm through lack of imagination, by not allowing the female experience to be as robust or strange as it actually is. And yet those critiques are never quite enough. If the only thing that was true about romantic comedies is that they are harmful, why would so many smart, thoughtful people enjoy them? This is a question that is taken up again and again: by Vogue, by the New York Times, by Glamour, and by Elizabeth Sankey’s recent documentary, Romantic Comedy. It is a question tackled even by romantic comedies themselves: in a recurring plot point in Sleepless in Seattle, Rosie O’Donnell and Meg Ryan endlessly watch An Affair to Remember and critique that they are watching it, asking one another what something so seemingly shallow and unrealistic could possibly offer them. The romantic comedy seems to require justification in a way that almost no other genre does – it is the most guilty of guilty pleasures, the genre most likely to inspire shame. I can almost hear the voice of Carrie Bradshaw, the cursor of her Mac blinking: “I couldn’t help but wonder, how can we enjoy something so much that we know is bad for us?”
My favorite romantic comedy of all time was written by Nora Ephron’s parents: Desk Set (1957) is a late-era Hepburn/Tracy romp. Hepburn, acting her heart out, plays a librarian in charge of the research department at a television station. She has multiple degrees, a commanding presence, a fantastic job, and a slimy upper-management boyfriend that takes her for granted.
Enter a barely coherent, seemingly tipsy Spencer Tracy, casually portraying a bumbling computer scientist trying to install an “electronic brain” that might make Hepburn’s department obsolete. A will-they-or-won’t-they romance is set alight when Hepburn aces an IQ test Tracy administers to her over a rooftop roast beef sandwich. In the end, after much zaniness and screwball antics, Hepburn proves she is smarter than a computer and everyone in her department is allowed to keep their job, Tracy turns out to be a swell and thoughtful guy, and the slimy boyfriend is transferred to California. And, of course, Tracy and Hepburn end up in each other’s arms, engaged to be married.
I’ve watched Desk Set every Christmas Eve for at least fifteen years. I’ve watched it on train rides and cross-country flights, I’ve watched it alone in bed, and I’ve watched it with friends and lovers who find it boring and baffling. That is all to say: I love it. I love that Hepburn is a librarian in her mid-forties: I love that the movie finds a way for smart women to exist and thrive inside the weird and strict post-war patriarchy, and that Hepburn’s character wants love, but wants other things, too—money and meaningful work and friendship. And I love that, in the end, Hepburn doesn’t only get a man. She gets everything.
Romantic comedies, like superhero films and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, are fantasies. Their comfort comes from making order out of the senselessness of life. But romantic comedies don’t resort to the supernatural or preposterous spectacle to enforce a sense of moral order. There are no caped crusaders or elven heroes fighting evil in When Harry Met Sally... Instead, they are earthbound—the order comes on a domestic, quotidian scale. The fantasy isn’t that good will triumph over evil. Instead, we’re provided a fantasy that is equally far-fetched: that, in the end, women get what they are owed. Hard work pays off; the nice girl triumphs; after much frustration and humiliation, the world ultimately recognizes the hero’s value, and rewards her.
In many ways Desk Set is singular, which is perhaps why I love it so much. Hepburn’s character—a woman who went to college at a time when few women did, had a fulfilling and exciting career, and stayed single well into her forties—does, in fact, get to fall in love, but she gets so much else besides. The nerd is redeemed, a woman triumphs over machine. It is a movie about love and career where the smart, awkward spinster is proven to also be sassy and desirable.
And although few romantic comedies allow their protagonists quite so much complexity, strength, or intelligence, we see a version of this structure again and again. It is part of the formula of the romantic comedy that the female lead is rewarded in the end, that in the best way she gets what she deserves. In Something’s Gotta Give, Erica Berry (Diane Keaton) is already a successful playwright with a famously deluxe Hamptons summer getaway when she uses her breakup with Jack Nicholson to write a popular musical, humiliating her former lover while enjoying the attentions of a hunky younger doctor played by Keanu Reeves. By the end of the movie, her life is an embarrassment of riches: she has a blockbuster career, a strong relationship with her daughter, a ton of money, and two men who are in love with her. In the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the tension is not whether Nia Vardalos’ character will get a man, but whether she will be forced to lose her cultural identity and her family in order to be with the man she loves. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t have to lose anything! She is ultimately able to maintain a career, a non-Greek husband, nourishing roots in the Greek community, and a close relationship with her family. Even Bridget Jones, the perennial mess-up who keeps a tally of her failures, ends up with much more than her Mr. Darcy in Bridget Jones’ Diary. By the end of the film she is on the rise as a cheeky television personality and has told off her ex-boyfriend and former boss publicly, providing the audience and her coworkers with a cathartic scene of a humiliated woman taking back control.
In many romantic comedies, the final scene offers a buoyant fantasy beyond even the material second-wave dream of “having it all.” It is in the last moments of the film—which so often take place outdoors under extreme climatic conditions (in the rain! in a snowstorm!)—that the protagonist is finally truly seen in all her supposed complexity. It is here that she is finally, truly loved and appreciated despite her foibles, or even because of them, and it is here that the man who dismissed her—and there almost always is one—comes to see his mistake. It is here that the greatest fantasy of all is put forth, a fantasy never articulated but always craved: that patriarchy itself might allow for women to be complicated, imperfect creatures—or at least appear to be so—and that those complications and imperfections will not be punished but indeed celebrated: that there might be justice after all.
The kind of justice offered in romantic comedies is admittedly small. It is not a radical justice that can imagine real happiness or success for a woman outside of the bourgeois norms of marriage, career, and children. It is a justice that seems to ask permission from men and stays inside the lines. And, until very recently, when more diverse offerings have made their way into mainstream romantic comedy, it is a justice seemingly not on offer for everyone. In the early aughts, when I first came out as queer, I felt that exclusion potently as I longed for a version of the traditional romantic comedy featuring two women, bumbling and sparring their way to a swoon-worthy happy ending. I wanted to see some version of my own romantic misadventures represented on screen, to see my love life represented on screen at all, no matter how formulaic the outcome.
And yet, I watched them. I still watch them. Because somewhere inside the capitalist, heteronormative, white-supremacist nonsense, I find a sliver of a world where women can be recognized and appreciated in the end, where they get everything they want. And that world is a fun place to visit every now and again, especially when accompanied by guzzles of wine and the gooey delight of a cheap frozen pizza. Or maybe, as my friend said, it’s just impossible to deprogram.