April 26, 2013

Romantic comedies: Self-indulgent vs. other-focused

After watching this review of What's Your Number by the folks at RedLetterMedia and a female guest, I think I've finally solved the mystery of why some romantic comedies are good and others make your brain want to vomit.

In an older post, I took an in-depth descriptive look at how the somewhat enjoyable genre called the "romantic comedy" has devolved into another one called the "chick flick." This reflects the larger social trend away from guys and girls getting along with each other pretty well, and toward the re-segregation of the sexes, not last seen since the mid-20th century.

One way to see that is looking at the IMDb ratings according to sex of the voters. For the most successful rom-coms, those made from 1979 to 1992 were less polarizing between men and women than those made in the past 20 years. Yeah, sure, who doesn't like Big or L.A. Story? But Sleepless in Seattle, Amelie, What's Your Number, etc. make your eyes roll.

OK, but what is it about the movies of the '70s, '80s, and early '90s that make them palatable, even enjoyable, compared to the junk of the past 20 years?

In the good romantic comedies, the protagonist and perhaps also their love interest undergo some kind of personal, emotional, social growth. That growth makes them worthy of the love interest by the end, when at the beginning they were not worthy. In the bad rom-coms, the protagonist doesn't change in any deep way, and so their hooking up with their love interest by the end is more like a trailer park denizen winning the Powerball lottery.

The current state of romantic comedies actually includes more than the chick flick -- there's the schlub underdog movie too. In either case, the point of the movie is to massage the rightfully anxious egos of a target audience that is seriously flawed but wants to hear that everything's going to work out all right, and without them having to make any real changes in their personality, outlook, or behavior.

For chicks, they get to indulge in a juvenile fantasy that they're already a worthy princess, and it's only a matter of time before Santa Claus delivers their dream present. And not because they're going to improve themselves, be a better person next year. But because Santa just didn't get around to it this year. Just be patient, stay the way you are, and you'll get your dream present after all.

For schlubs, their fantasy is no less juvenile: they spend so much effort feeling sorry for themselves that, somehow, cosmic fate hears their whining and decides to take pity on them, and delivers an attractive woman who's willing to look past all of their pathetic self-disgust. Schlub guilt-trips Fate, so Fate hooks him up with a steady pity-fuck partner.

It's that same mindset like when you're six years old, and instead of earning something you want from your parents, you hesitantly address them ("Mom..."), then show some fake humility and cut yourself off ("Nah, nevermind..."), and after being prompted to continue, unload with the self-pity as well as feeling sorry for yourself because you have such an unforgiving parent ("No, really, nevermind... you'll probably just say No anyways...") If they actually do say Yes, it's like, wow, jackpot! -- easy money.

Now, if it's just some first-grader trying to squeeze a couple bucks out of their parents, there's nothing too degrading about that way of getting what you want, at least every now and then. But a romantic relationship, or any kind of enduring social bond, is way more serious than scoring some money to hit up the arcade (or whatever they do with it these days). One of the necessary steps is to dial down your individual concerns and change yourself to better mesh with the other person (or persons if it's a team, community, etc.).

The present obsession with "don't judge me" and "don't worry, it'll all work out in the end" reflects immaturity, as though they haven't even adapted to adolescence, when social bonds are supposed to form more naturally as juvenile egocentrism begins to erode. And so, watching these chick flick or schlub underdog movies can't help but make normal people disgusted -- the protagonist refuses to grow and yet gets rewarded all the same. It stings like a failure of cosmic justice.

And that's precisely why the romantic comedies where characters grow feel more satisfying -- they took at least some responsibility for their situation, tried to change things as best they could, and achieved their goals. The cosmic justice system works. Plus you naturally feel like cheering on someone who has earned their great reward, an urge that is wholly lacking when it's just some bum who happened to buy the right lottery ticket. And isn't that one of the most basic reasons for watching movies -- to resonate with the protagonist?

If the good rom-coms are more mature in their characterization, it shouldn't surprise us to find out that they overwhelmingly feature male protagonists, which might seem odd for a genre associated with chick flicks. Women are just too good at rationalizing, not to mention catty and stand-off-ish, for the average female movie character to take a long hard look at herself and decide to grow toward meeting others' needs.

Um, why would I need to do that when it's like blatantly the other person's fault? I mean, like, blatantly.

Guys are more likely to err in the other direction, wallowing in self-pity. Still, that shows that their general tendency is to be more honest with themselves and take more personal responsibility.

I can only think of three of the enjoyable set of romantic comedies that have a female protagonist -- Hannah and Her Sisters, Heathers, and Clueless. Mean Girls is an OK teen comedy about antagonism among same-sex peers, but there's little interaction between the sexes and hence no real romance going on.

All the rest have a male protagonist: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Big, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Barcelona, Coming to America, L.A. Story, Groundhog Day, My Cousin Vinny, The Princess Bride, Splash, Weird Science, When Harry Met Sally, and so on.

There could be a few others that I haven't seen with female leads (does Moonstruck fall into the enjoyable category?), but you can say the same for ones with male leads.

My hunch is that rising-crime times lead to more of the personal-growth rom-coms, and falling-crime times to more of the I'm-already-a-princess / schlub-underdog type. That's not to say that Audrey Hepburn's character doesn't change at all in Roman Holiday, but not in a transformative way, being broken down and built back up. It leaves you with a similar feeling as Amelie.

But I haven't seen too many of the classic rom-coms of the mid-century, so I can't say for sure whether they're more like those of the Millennial era. Already by 1960, though, they were starting to move in the direction of personal growth and taking control of your life, since that's when The Apartment came out.

You'd think that a movie genre that focuses so narrowly on one of the most important types of relationships would naturally include characters who grow or transform, given that the couple's needs are not the same as the individual's needs. Yet for the last 20 years, and perhaps during the mid-century as well, romantic comedies have starred self-indulgent protagonists instead. That would appear to be part of the broader cocooning trend, not trusting others enough to re-make yourself in light of what their needs are.


  1. "earning it" is more of a masculine mentality. And I don't really agree with it either. Two people like each other, why shouldn't they hook up?

    In most romance novels, the hero and heroine fall in love right away, but they have to overcome obstacles created mostly by those around them.


  2. In general, "personal growth" and "earning" love also seems to be more in line with conformity and the whole bodybuilder/fratboy/bromance culture.

    You rarely ever see characters fall in love at first sight with each other in modern movies. And you brought up how strangers don't hit on each other anymore.

    "angry at cosmic fate" is more like some immature teenager. "How could you be with him (and not me)???" That other guy didn't get the approval of the fratboy fuckfest, or the girl didn't get the approval of her hanger-on cockblocker.


  3. As agnostic says, growth, change and transformation are everything in these movies. "Overcoming obstacles" is just a video game unless during the overcoming of the obstacles one or more of the characters comes to understand him or herself better and makes new choices based on that understanding. I just saw "This is 40" in which a group of characters who've made poor life choices get to stay just as they are at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning -- only they seem to be arguing less so it seems to be a kind of happy ending. In real life, people like those in the movie would be in some deep doo doo -- psychologically, financially, legally. They'd be gulping medications and one or more would be alcoholic. But there's none of that. The scriptwriting Santas reward them all with good moods and bogus reconcilliations going into the final scenes.

  4. "As agnostic says, growth, change and transformation are everything in these movies"

    In the ones he cited, yes. But not most women's romance in general.. which depicts two perfect people who must deal with all the losers who want to rain on their parade.

    I think that, if its true romantic movies in the 80s focused on personal growth, its because men and women were likely to see the movies together, so the movies were designed to appeal more to men. Men like the idea of winning a woman's love through a quest or trial, "becoming a better man", whereas romance geared solely towards women rarely depicts that. Rather, women fantasize about Fabio, who's secretly descended from royals, etc.


  5. I really hope the culture becomes better again :(


  6. Did you watch Silver Linings Playbook?


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