There is no medicine on earth that has the power to heal me in the way romantic comedies do. OK, well that statement is probably completely medically inaccurate, but I just completely and utterly adore this wildly underrated genre.
For many years, I was somewhat coy about my adoration of this genre. In my early twenties, I wouldn’t admit to friends that I’d watched Notting Hill for the umpteenth time, but would instead gush about some arthouse film that I’d barely understood, let alone enjoyed. At university, I’d hide my DVD copies of My Best Friend’s Wedding, When Harry Met Sally, Bridget Jones’ Diary. Looking back now, I wish I hadn’t done that. But I also know that I did that because of a palpable cultural snobbery surrounding the genre of film I love the most. Whenever I did talk about the genre, it was always met with disparaging comments that it was a lesser art form, that it wasn’t high-brow. Ugh.
This year, with the release of Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, I decided it was high time we reclaimed this wonderful genre. But, in order to do so, we need to fully understand the reasons behind the reluctance to recognise the cultural value of the romantic comedy.
“If you think about women located as consumers within the 20th century, using the supermarket is concatenated with women’s reading.”
According to academics, the romantic comedy has been a genre associated with women since its inception — and it’s because of this association that it’s considered inferior. Dr Stacy Gillis, lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Newcastle University, says that the romantic comedy has been a “staple of Hollywood since the 1930s” but it’s always had a “very specifically gendered marketplace” that it’s been aimed at.
Gillis says this gendering coincides with the rise of “romance fiction as we know it today” from the 1930s. “At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, romance was a term often used to refer to adventure romance, scientific romance, it meant popular storytelling,” says Gillis.
Some of the most commercially successful books from the ’20s and ’30s were actually romance fiction written by women, but they weren’t considered the best of the best. “Any university syllabus of the 1920s will say, James Joyce one of the most seminal authors of the 20th century, but actually one of the bestselling novels in 1926 is Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades,” says Gillis. “This is what people are reading, they’re not reading Joyce.” In the 1930s, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca “sold very well,” says Gillis, but “wasn’t seen as the pinnacle of a certain kind of fiction. This is because “mechanisms” like university syllabi and book prizes “valorise a certain kind of reading,” according to Gillis.”What often happens is writing by women and about women — and I’d extend that notion to the romantic comedy — gets pushed to the peripheries,” she says.
The product placement of romantic fiction also plays a role in how we culturally view romance as a genre. When publisher Mills & Boon began investing in romance fiction in the 1930s, that’s when romantic fiction became “synonymous with formulaic plots.” “They had a distribution cycle that often saw them placed in supermarkets, so this goes hand in the hand with the dismissal of a certain kind of literature that you’re reading quickly and not reading critically, that has the same kind of plot,” says Gillis. “If you think about women located as consumers within the 20th century, using the supermarket is concatenated with women’s reading.”
Another genre that follows a kind of formula — and could be labeled “formulaic” is the Western. But, rather than being dismissed as low-brow, it’s revered as the acme of cinema. Double standard?
“Because we live in a patriarchy, [romance] is dismissed as being inconsequential or ephemeral whereas something like science-fiction or the Western are not,” says Gillis. “Actually, the Western in Hollywood cinema had a very long and well-respected history whereas the romantic comedy is just seen as froth.”
This use of the term “formulaic” to dismiss romantic films as “froth” is actually a completely invalid argument. As Dr Faye Woods — a lecturer in film, theatre and television at the University of Reading — points out: ” romantic comedy is often described as ‘formulaic’ or ‘unrealistic’, but genre is a formula.”
“Horror, westerns, war films, and sports movies don’t get described as formulaic, but romcoms and musicals are.”
“Horror, westerns, war films, and sports movies don’t get described as formulaic, but romcoms and musicals are,” says Woods. “These are genres built around pleasure and require great skill in creating. A well-built genre follows a formula and that’s why they are emotionally satisfying.”
So, what exactly is it about romcoms that makes people slap on the “formulaic” label? Well, the answer is, in part, rooted in misogyny.
“Romantic comedy, as with much culture created for women, is not creatively and culturally valued,” says Woods. Does society have a problem with the way it views films about women’s lives and emotions? “We might think about how, socially, the lower status genres are female focused. The way that soap or melodrama is used as a descriptive term in a negative way, when they are genres that value complex emotion-focused storytelling,” Woods adds.
But, this devaluing of art about and for women stems from the way we view women’s pleasure and emotions. “As a culture we look down on and devalue emotions that are seen as feminine, in the same way that we devalue and mock female pleasure (Magic Mike XXL, Book Club, 50 Shades),” says Woods. “How pleasure is framed as ‘guilty’, and what kinds of genres and forms fall into this — romance, pop, weepies.”
In the same way that our emotions and desires are dismissed, so too are our feelings pertaining to the books and films we like. Gillis says that the “narratives in which women’s desires” — not just the sexual and emotional ones — are dismissed, also dismiss our “reading desires” and movie ones as “worthless.”
For this reason, it’s extremely important we show pride in the books, movies, and TV shows we love, Gillis says. “I think it’s really important that we stand up for these movies, novels that we really believe in,” she says.
That’s why it’s important to celebrate the films we’re actually watching on repeat — not the ones our culture tells us are smarter or superior in some way. “How many times have people seen Sleepless In Seattle versus insert-name-of-arthouse cinema?” asks Gillis.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell film Overboard,” she says. “I think it’s one of the funniest movies ever made but it’s never gonna win any awards for high-brow filmmaking.”
I too can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Julia Roberts tell Hugh Grant that she’s “just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.” But, I can tell you that I am ready for each and every one of us to start celebrating the movies we can’t stop ourselves from watching. The ones we’re ashamed to admit we like.