Apart from my rather lacklustre sense of style, bad jokes, pseudo-intellectual commentary, and pretentious indie playlists, one constant, throughout my childhood and adolescent life were probably the many romantic comedies I watched. The characters in these movies would even grow to take on real-life forms later on. They would soon help me understand and dissect love and life. Yet, like most things in the world, there was the good, the bad, and even the ugly.
As I grew older, I learned to take a lot of what I saw in rom-coms with a grain of salt as I realised the lofty words of the many iterations of Prince Charming in these movies. Sometimes, love and romance were often tested by the realities of life. In their own unique way, they played a major role in shaping my own understanding of myself and how I deserved to be treated.
There is also no denying the fact that these movies would play a huge role—especially when it came to the internalisation of gender norms in a relationship—to shape my self-worth and my self-image. Some of them were even cautionary tales about toxic love and manipulation that guided me and set the standards of loving and healthy human friendships and relationships. I also realised the murky undertones in some of these happy endings and how incredibly one-sided they were a majority of the time.
An Evolution Through Rom-Coms
Along with my many mistakes, unrequited crushes, rom-coms remained a companion as I learned from both the lofty idealism as well as the realism some of them carried. When I was young, the seemingly archetypical happily-ever-after worlds of Disney movies, The Notebook, Love Actually, and countless others made me see some of those awkward childhood crushes through gigantic rose-tinted glasses. I would soon learn from these later on in my teenage years.
As I grew up, movies such as 500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind and even Before Sunrise guided me along with my mistakes and would help me shrug off those pretender glasses and see the world with greater clarity. Then came the anti-heroine, Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, who transformed and probably led an age of enlightenment in romantic comedies, introducing us to the many follies and misconceptions of the eponymous, cool girl so to speak as well as the silent surge of female rage.
In spite of her less than perfect character and blatant sadism, Amy warned us against the vices of simply ‘going with the flow’ and merely serving a role in an unfulfilling marriage. She famously puts in the book, “You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.“
On that note, it is notable how a majority of women in rom-coms continue to be written by male writers and thus, remain mostly told and visualised primarily through the male gaze. Movies like There’s Something About Mary showed us how stalking women can be casually treated as comedic fodder which gives the so-called ‘nice guy’ a pass because he is infatuated with a girl.
I also noticed some of the recurring tropes of women we seem to associate in many of these romantic comedies, from the manic-pixie-dream-girl, women-in-refrigerators, as well as the cool girl. In Eternal Sunshine, Kate Winslet’s character, Clementine, memorably says, “Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to ‘make them alive.”
This once again points to how rom-coms continue to remain chiefly focused on the development of the main male protagonist and his character arc, rather than an equal exploration and assessment of the female love interest’s emotions and backstory. We see women taking on these submissive roles where they lower their standards or change and reduce themselves into the cookie-cutter roles created for them by their male love interests.
Cynicism and Pessimism
Today, I see myself finding more solace in sad stories of tough love, and realistic endings as they give me a greater sense of comfort. They help me come to terms with the heartbreaks and I am made to answer in my own life. At the same time, they also continue to remind me about the trials and tribulations that come with falling in love and making relationships work.
I do believe that as idealistic and dreamy as those early rom-coms were, they didn’t prepare us for the messiness that comes from being a young adult, trying to navigate adulthood as well as personal life. In fact, childhood and young-adult movies have not only given us these aggressively high standards to live up to but have also taught women that love comes easily for those of us who compromise and commit.
Now, when I think about love, I am constantly reminded of what Jo March says in Little Women, “’They have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.” I am inclined to believe the same.
When I think about how Sandy changed completely for Danny in Grease, how Rachel gave up her dreams of going to Paris to be with Ross in Friends, I am reminded of how many times movies make us think that career and love are mutually exclusive and how achieving the former is somehow more desirable and acceptable. Young girls need more than romance stories that make them play a mental tug of war between their minds and hearts as well as their ideals. These stories fall into a trap of presenting myopic stories of women and reducing their positions and roles.
Above all, rom-coms make me believe that it is possible to be confused and conflicted about desires and ‘matters of the heart.’ I am at a place when I remind myself that my heart and mind are both open to new possibilities—be it the butterflies of first kisses as well as those of letting go and moving forward.
Perhaps, one of these days we might have more enlightened rom-coms that make us the protagonists of our own whirlwind romances and stories.
Featured Image Source: Well Worth It