"I hope the irony isn't lost on you," my sister said to me one day last February, "that this would make for an excellent start to a romantic comedy." I threw a pillow at her and went back to sobbing.
It was not lost on me. On the morning of January 3rd, I had started my doctoral research, a feminist analysis of romantic comedies, skipping off to the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center brimming with excitement and pride. And barely six weeks later, on the night of February 13th, the man I was madly in love with, a great guy with –- it must be said –- a less than perfect sense of timing, broke up with me.
I was a wreck. More than that, I was a wreck whose job it was to watch a minimum of half a dozen rom coms a week. I spent my days at the library, reading about the genre and taking regular weeping breaks that attracted pitying glances from the circulation desk clerks. I spent my nights in bed with my laptop, watching as Kate and Katherine and Meg and Julia and Drew all found true love, taking notes and nursing my very broken heart.
My life had very quickly started to resemble the very genre I was studying. A feminist rom com scholar is dumped by her wonderful boyfriend on the night before Valentine's Day and has to spend the next year (or three) studying movies in which love always –- always -– conquers all? My sister was right: it was a perfect set up for a romantic comedy.
Of course, in many ways, my life looked nothing like a romantic comedy. For one thing, in a romantic comedy, I would weigh about thirty pounds less than I currently do. I would be clumsy, in an endearing, humanizing sort of way. My apartment would be impeccably decorated, not to mention unrealistically large for someone living on a grad student's meager stipend. Perhaps I would have a wise Black doorman, and a hilarious gay roommate -– or, to check all the token boxes at once, a sage and sassy gay Black roommate who has no job or love life of his own and no purpose on earth except to comfort and advise me. My wardrobe would be full of flattering dresses and snug designer jeans that, in real life, I could only afford if I eschewed buying groceries and paying my ConEd bill.
If this were a romantic comedy, in the aftermath of the breakup, my life would have become a montage lived to the music of Ingrid Michaelson or Sara Bareilles. I would have walked sadly down the streets of New York, in slow motion, watching happy couples canoodling as I walked alone in a chunky knit scarf. I'd have gone to dinner with my friends and faked laughter, or gone to dance or yoga class and gazed miserably at myself in the mirror (this would have been a great chance to demonstrate that, though I was heartbroken, I still looked really good in spandex).
Sad montage over, I would get back to work on my dissertation. I would read books about romantic comedies, go to screenings and take copious notes, all the while rolling my eyes at the endless stream of happily-ever-after resolutions, the grand take-me-back gestures, the running through airports to catch The One before he/she gets away. Comparing my own love life to Drew Barrymore's and Reese Witherspoon's, I would become bitter and cynical.
And then, one day, as the weather was becoming visibly more spring-like, I would meet a man. Based on my now quite extensive knowledge of contemporary rom coms, I'm pretty sure he would be a boorish, misogynistic film critic –- played, to quote Tina Fey, by "Gerard Butler or a coat rack with a leather jacket on it." We would keep showing up at all the same screenings, and he would be even more cynical about the genre than I was. He would scoff at how "chicks" are "so lame" and about how romance is for suckers. I would hate him instantly.
We all know what would happen next. Misogynist McGee and I would be continually thrown together, and over time I would melt his cold, hard, asshole exterior –- because in romantic comedies, men who appear to be misogynistic pigs are simply waiting for the right woman to prove to them that women deserve to be treated like human beings. We would fall for each other. My ex would realize the error of his ways, and ask me for another chance. Torn between the two men, I would decide to escape to insert-fantastic-international-destination-here to focus on my dissertation. And then, just as I was about to leave New York… Airport chase, key kiss, etcetera. This thing writes itself.
None of this actually happened, of course. Well, I did listen to a lot of Ingrid Michaelson, and I did, with some difficulty, carry on with my research and writing about romantic comedies. And, I do look pretty great in spandex. None of the predictable rom com stuff happened, though, because my life is not a romantic comedy, and neither is yours.
But in the aftermath of the breakup, as I carried on with my research, some small part of me allowed for the possibility of meeting, say, a charmingly awkward floppy-haired Englishman, between the shelves of the reference section. I didn't really expect it to happen, of course, but I didn't rule it out completely. And the more rom coms I watched, the more appealing it seemed to become. Despite my cynicism about the genre, despite the fact that I was writing a critical analysis of the romantic comedy, on some level I was expecting my love life to play out like one.
It's easy to dismiss romantic comedies as fluffy, mindless cinematic dreck, and some of them are just that. In every genre there are some well-made movies, and many more middling and awful ones. But there is such a thing as a good romantic comedy, even the most ardent chick flick-hater will agree. In fact, some of the most-loved movies of all time are romantic comedies: It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally... It is true that in the last few years, the awful rom coms seem to outnumber the good ones, but that's not why people love to hate romantic comedies. They love to hate them because they're "chick flicks," made for and about women.
That's not why I dislike romantic comedies. Romantic comedies are made almost exclusively for and about women –- in fact, they're the only genre that is. I dislike them because regardless of any fluffiness or mindlessness, they are powerful pieces of popular culture. Rom coms furnish us with ideas and expectations about some of the most important things in life: love, work, friendship, sex, gender roles. And some of those ideas are worryingly sexist and regressive.
To say that the romantic comedies of the last decade have been noticeably sexist and regressive is an understatement. Movies like The Ugly Truth and The Proposal upped the ante on the well-worn trope of the highly strung and socially incapable single career woman. It is nothing new to suggest that a humbling at the hands of a modern-day Petruchio is the only cure for this particular disease. But in recent years, the shrews have become higher strung, the Petruchios more chauvinistic, and the humbling more humiliating than ever before. Remember how in The Ugly Truth, Gerard Butler's character reduces Katherine Heigl's character, a competent, professional and authoritative adult woman, to curling up in the fetal position in the closet of her office? And how she then she falls in love with him? Tamed, indeed.
More recently, romantic comedies have given us a great deal of graphic male nudity. Male nudity is a growing trend in the genre: in the last two years, we've seen the barely-clad bodies of Justin Long (Going the Distance), Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs), Ashton Kutcher (No Strings Attached) and Justin Timberlake (Friends With Benefits). In What's Your Number, Chris Evans' naked butt got more screen time than most of the supporting cast put together. This taste of a future in which we objectify men as we have for so long objectified women is not the kind of gender equality we were hoping for. Furthermore, from the neck down, these men all look remarkably similar –- white, very lean and extremely muscular –- and it would not be unreasonable to wonder what repeated exposure to these kinds of images is doing to women's ideas about the ideal male body, and to their expectations of the real men in their lives.
Last year's double feature of movies about casual sex -– No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits -– is perhaps the best example of how romantic comedies tap into larger cultural conversations about gender politics. In the last five years, a vast amount of ink both, real and digital, has been spilled in arguing about whether sexual activity outside of a committed monogamous romantic relationship is bad for young women (no one seems to care that much about the effect on young men). In both these movies, casual sex doesn't work: people develop feelings, people get hurt, and in both instances, people conclude that the best sex happens within a committed, monogamous romantic relationship. Sex and love, they decide, are inseparable, and bad things happen when you try to have sex without love. It is no coincidence that these movies came out when they did, and it is certainly no coincidence that they ended the way they did.
You might think you're above the influence of these movies, that you're too savvy and cynical for your expectations and ideas to be shaped by them. I certainly thought I was, and maybe you are - but you're probably not. Romantic comedies shape the beliefs and expectations of even the most cynical and media-savvy among us, especially when they catch us at our most vulnerable.
This wouldn't be a problem, of course, if romantic comedies depicted women and men, and sex and love, in a positive and realistic way. But they don't. Romantic comedies teach us that a woman's life is empty and meaningless without a man, and that any woman who believes she is happy being single is simply lying to herself. They teach us that love is only for straight white people –- skinny, beautiful straight white people, at that. They teach us that men are sex-crazed, commitment-phobic animals who have to be manipulated into romantic relationships, and that when a man really loves a woman, he'll demonstrate his feelings with grand gestures that barely skirt the line between love and stalking.
It took my life very nearly turning into a romantic comedy to realize just how powerful this genre is, no matter how much we dismiss and belittle it. I understand now why so many women (and so many more men than will own to it) love this genre, and feel that it speaks to them, even if they know it's shamelessly manipulative or politically problematic. As emotionally grueling as it was, the time between this Valentine's Day and the last has made me a better scholar of the genre.
And, as brutal as the irony was, it could have been much worse. I could have been studying slasher flicks.