In Defense of Rom Coms
Picture this: on your tiny little laptop screen, two strangers meet and engage in some flirty (often antagonistic) banter. By some happenstance, they are forced to remain in each other’s lives: a new job turns them into begrudging coworkers, a fake relationship keeps someone’s parents from commenting on their devastating singlehood, etc. They become great friends. Finally they get together, or come close, but then, for lack of better words, shit hits the fan: someone messes up or fate intervenes with a misunderstanding. Just when it seems like it might not work out, someone apologizes with a sincere or grand gesture, and the film ends as the camera zooms out on a dramatic kiss.
This thrillingly predictable formula is at the heart of romantic comedies (from now on referred to by the world’s greatest abbreviation, rom-coms). Rom-coms tend to garner no critical acclaim and frequently get called “cheesy,” “predictable,” or “chick flicks,” as if these labels are where good movies go to die. But in them we find both the most delectable escapism and the most hopeful messages about love. For these two qualities to shine, however, the writing and the journey between each predictable milestone matters; the chemistry and romance must be believable.
As much as rom-coms get a bad rap for simply offering happy endings without any other substance, the best ones offer a compelling journey that makes the viewer feel invested. Izzy Essman is a senior writing her thesis on Nora Ephron, the American journalist and screenwriter who wrote the 1989 rom-com classic When Harry Met Sally. In her paper, Essman argues that “modern rom-coms need Nora Ephron because she [knows] how to tell a story and not just give you an ending that would make you happy.”
In the best rom-coms, the real joy is not the happy ending, but the road towards it. Essman continued, “When Harry Met Sally is a 13 year journey of two annoying people who find out who they’re going to be and then find out that a person they thought they hated is the person who they want to spend their lives with. It’s funny, it’s interesting, it’s weird, and it’s really well written.” The movie follows the pair from when they first meet and spend an entire drive from Chicago to New York talking and finding out they hate each other to reconnecting ten years later and attempting to be platonic best friends, all while falling in love.
Junior Maeve McGean agreed that the writing is key to a rom-com’s success. They said that sometimes writers are “relying on the fact that you as a viewer want [the protagonists] to fall in love. You as a viewer know it’s a rom com, so you know that they’re going to end up together. But the writers aren’t actually doing the work to convince people that they like each other.” For a genre rooted in chemistry and romance, the characters actually liking each other is essential.
When this chemistry and romance is believable, you can escape into rom-coms, not just use them as a distraction. You can experience what you wish you had said or what you hope to find in the future. Senior Owen Lasko said, “Movies are a really good way to recapture emotions that you had, but you don’t get to access without experiencing them [again]…you [get] to see the relationship that you want to have even if you don’t quite have that.” Essman echoed this idea. She said that rom-coms “[make] you look at the relationships in your own life and find the magic in them…[movies can] show you two people who are finding love with someone they never expected to find it with. And they drive each other crazy. And it’s beautiful.”
Rom-coms may receive criticism for being overly idealized portrayals of life and love, but idealism can inspire us to hope for better. They can prompt us to reflect on the ways that we give and receive love, and the dawn of pandemic life in 2020 called for that idealism. As the world went into lockdown, our collective college coming-of-age story—a montage of late night pizza, hungover dining hall breakfasts, and library Red Bulls—came to an abrupt halt. In lieu of living out our own adventures, we naturally turned to those on the screen. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that overall, subscribers for streaming services were expected to skyrocket over 50% in 2020. These streaming services, Netflix in particular, release a constant stream of original rom-coms and boast a large catalog of the classics.
In all their happy ending glory, rom-coms offer sunny messages for dark times. They are simple fantasies that take us out of our lives where we mask up everyday and can no longer fixate on a stranger’s smile across the lecture hall. “There’s a lot of uncertainty not just right now but just in general when you’re growing up,” said McGean, “and the formulaic set up that rom-coms have is comforting.” Essman agreed, “When things aren’t going your way, like [when] your sophomore year of college has been turned online because of the global pandemic, then you just want something to feel predictable. [You want] to feel like, ‘Oh, these two people are okay, maybe I’m going to be okay too.’”
While the comforting and predictable formula defines the genre, rom-coms that play with certain elements of this formula create a different experience. “There is always a gray area. Forgetting Sarah Marshall and When Harry Met Sally, are obviously down the middle rom-coms; they follow the formula. They’re great,” Lasko said. “But somewhere there’s a line, and obviously it’s not a hard line… some [movies] lean further into the drama aspects, and some lean further into the comedy aspects.” We might label these movies “Romance, Comedy” rather than “Romantic Comedy.” Lasko listed 2011’s Bridesmaids as an example. “Part of the reason that we love [Bridesmaids] is that she [Kristen Wiig’s Annie] ends up with the cop in the end and we get to feel warm inside instead of what would really happen, which is that that hilarious woman ends up incredibly sad and alone because she ruined her friend’s wedding.” The ensemble comedy is the defining feature of Bridesmaids, but the rom-com elements provide a satisfaction in the ending that would be difficult to obtain otherwise.
Other rom-coms, however, free themselves from the shackles of the systematic formula. These movies have more room to delve into the darker sides of love or make social commentary. Lasko offered Broadcast News and Drinking Buddies as examples. They might end up exactly where they started, with a non-linear and meandering plot line that is more thought-provoking than satisfying. Lasko categorized these as “firmly not escapist.”
This kind of darker realism is not the only thing that can interfere with the escapism of a rom-com. The vast majority, and all I have highlighted here, feature a conventionally attractive white, cisgender, heterosexual couple. Though there are exceptions, they are often unfortunately rife with misogyny—the woman’s sole purpose is to find love, characters make disparaging comments about other women’s bodies (of course, our protagonist’s is perfect, no matter how insecure she may be), and the main man and his buddies spend most of their conversations objectifying women (and we are supposed to find this endearing). If rom-coms can teach us about love, then movies like these are really only teaching us about one type of love. Essman said, “People want to see themselves represented on screen so badly that I think they’ll be asked to accept less than the best… I believe that people who are looking for more diverse and more relatable stories still need to find that love and that part that makes it more than a crappy love story.” What makes it more than a crappy love story is a well-written, believable romance.
As insufferably problematic as rom-coms can be, wouldn’t it be nice if someone ran for several blocks across New York City because they wanted to start the rest of their life with you, as soon as possible? After all this, who wouldn’t mind their post-pandemic life resembling a rom-com? As Essman said, “It’s not that I have unrealistic standards. It’s just that I have an idea of a good way my life can turn out.”