Over the first lockdown, my family developed hobbies: sourdough (my dad), piano (my brother), learning German (my mum), and running (somehow my other, cardio-averse brother). These are all fairly harmless hobbies – although the running really did start to grate when every morning I was confronted with cirque-du-soleil stretches in my kitchen. Mine was slightly more fun: I fell into a rom-com hole.
I devoured the genre. I went through a phase of watching one a day as a form of serotonin intake after mind-numbing days on glitching Teams calls. I watched Richard Curtis films, everything Hugh Grant has been in, Katherine Heigl playing the same character in four different projects, as well as innumerable others that have melded into a vague haze of warmth in my mind.
I remember telling my brothers of this new quirk of mine at the time, and their reactions of mingled disgust and embarrassment. It was like the entire genre was taboo to them, and my admission that I – God forbid – enjoyed it was bringing shame on the family by association. My family started joking about me being bitterly single or becoming a swooning heroine. My dad was suddenly worried I was not going to end up the Beauvoir-on-the-beach feminist daughter he wanted because of this new hobby.
But what was I doing wrong? The genre is vapid and over-saturated, but it’s still a very popular one. It has entered so deeply into the cultural zeitgeist it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t recognise lines such as ‘I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy’, or ‘TO ME, YOU ARE PERFECT’, even if they haven’t watched the original films. The genre has indisputable cultural capital.
There are valid criticisms to be made, of course. The dialogue is usually bad and almost nothing will be remotely surprising: if the film were a pop song, it would hit the same chords over and over again until your ears bled. If you watch a rom-com from before about 2016, the main characters will almost certainly be white, cis, and straight. The girl will always have whatever the current fashion deemed ‘perfect’ proportions, the guy will probably have a six-pack. She is quirky and clumsy and unable to look after herself. The guy will be funny and emotionally repressed. They will treat each other terribly and demonstrate characteristics that should send any sane person running for the hills.
Take, for example, beloved teen film Ten Things I Hate About You: as attractive as young Heath Ledger is, making money off tricking Kat is disgusting. Four Weddings and a Funeral shows Andie Macdowell and Hugh Grant repeatedly cheat on their respective partners with each other. In How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Kate Hudson makes Matthew McConaughey’s life a living hell, whilst he tries to manipulate her into falling in love with him.
Whilst there may be some third act drama based around this behaviour, the message of these films is not “This person seems insane; I must leave,” but “Now we’ve been through these trials we will be stronger than ever”. If you grow up with these films, you internalise some of the rhetoric they spout that no one is too broken for you to fix. Even if Heath Ledger lies to you, as long as he buys you a guitar it’s probably fine to take him back, because this time will be different.
Is there nothing worth saving, then?
Recently, rom-coms like Crazy Rich Asians, The Big Sick and Palm Springs have moved the genre beyond these questionable tropes, with more diverse characters, inventive storylines, and more realistic portrayals of love. Crazy Rich Asians, for example, starts with the main couple already together, and follows them struggling with prioritising relationships and communication over familial expectations. Palm Springs explores the fear of making yourself vulnerable, and how much more comfortable emotional isolation is. The Big Sick shows its audience how cultural differences can cause real problems for love, and what you have to be willing to sacrifice to make a relationship good. These films are good. Not just good rom-coms, but quite good films.
Admittedly, they are not the only rom-coms I was watching. I mean, I was scraping the bottom of Amazon Prime’s selection, not cruising award tables for new options.
I still think those other, less fashionable films are defensible, too. They aren’t Great Films. They probably won’t be sweeping the Oscars any time soon, and indie film critics probably aren’t going to suddenly change their minds and fall in love with Justin Timberlake’s performance in Friends with Benefits. But if you look close enough they show a lot of facets of modern-day womanhood, and the pressures of growing up in it. There is no other genre that revolves so much around the female gaze, and that is their hidden strength.
Take a look at 27 Dresses, a fairly typical late-2000s rom-com. The story revolves around Katherine Heigl’s attempt to unlearn the people-pleasing mechanisms that have come to govern her life. Leap Year is about a woman who realises that constantly seeking perfection is not going to make her happy. Even My Big Fat Greek Wedding shows the pressures that are put on single women to fall in love and settle down.
And most importantly – they’re fun. They are joyful films to watch. I hate-watched Something Borrowed with one of my best friends a year or so ago, and we still quote lines from it back and forth. I have (badly) reenacted the singing scene in Ten Things I Hate About You so many times I think I could probably play the part in a sequel or unnecessary reboot. Just because these films aren’t doing anything new doesn’t mean they don’t make people feel good. Curled up in front of my laptop screen after a day of tearfully boring online school, I felt better when I watched rom-coms. And I don’t care if that’s for some reason a cause of embarrassment, because I think we might need to grow up from that.
Why is there such a double standard here?
Yes, some rom-coms set bad examples for women, but how many action films set terrible examples for men? If I made fun of my male friends for their enjoyment of James Bond or Jack Reacher, I think I’d be labelled judgemental and snobbish. They’re just having fun, and granted (as with everything) you consume the content mindfully, the films are fine. As far as I know, no guy really gets shamed for going to watch the new Marvel film, or for enjoying the Transformers universe. And I think that’s great. I don’t think they should be shamed. But somehow we have convinced ourselves that traditionally ‘masculine’ films are allowed to be flawed or mediocre. Yet if women enjoy the films that are explicitly marketed towards them, they’re being silly and embarrassing themselves.
Rom-coms deserve to be valued on their own terms, as films that can be good and bad and mediocre. They don’t deserve shaming, and neither do the people who watch them.
Artwork: Wang Sum Luk