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A happy ending for the romcom?

The romantic comedy as we know it is dying – and it fills my feminist heart with joy, writes Jessie Thompson

February 25, 2015
7 min read

There was a time in film when boy met girl, thought she was fit, forgot to ask if her feelings were reciprocal (or what her surname was, or what she did for a living – just anything, really), and finally bludgeoned her into a (presumably) loveless marriage.

Remember how Hugh Grant fell irredeemably in love with Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings, seemingly based on nothing more than the fact she was wearing an absolutely huge hat, and despite the fact everyone else around him had things like personalities? Or when Richard Gere literally bought himself a lady-slave in Pretty Woman? The same old romcom plots have been re-hashed time and time again.

However, we’ve known for a few years now that women’s intellectual and emotional capacities are somewhat greater than a lobotomised Shetland pony. So the boy meets vacant, unprotesting woman plot and keeps her as a prize is looking a bit anachronistic. Finally, it seems that the cinema is becoming a better place to be a woman.

The Bechdel test drew attention to the problem, and now feminism has collided with the romcom. The result is that we’re finally seeing smart and funny female characters with minds of their own. The problem is, women with agency tend to make the whole time-honoured structure of the romcom go kaput. Can you really call it a romcom if, by the final scene, the woman isn’t so paralysed by Love/Hugh Grant’s curtains (not a euphemism) that she can no longer identify the weather?

500-days500 Days of Summer: not following the traditional template

Houston, we have a problem

Take 500 Days of Summer. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl. But Houston (Whitney), we have a problem! Girl doesn’t want a boyfriend. To indicate how annoyed men get when women don’t do what men tell them to do (in this case, loving them forever against their own will), Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character says, ‘Either she’s an evil, emotionless, miserable human being, or she’s a robot.’ Do they get together at the end? No.

Conventional romcom wisdom would have it that when girl is dumped by boy, she will endure a wardrobe montage, a melancholy bridge scene, and a Norah Jones soundtrack, all safe in the knowledge that in 45 minutes the man who previously thought she was repulsive will change his mind and love her forever. However, in Obvious Child, girl is dumped by boy, makes a joke of it even though she’s dead inside, gets pissed and shags randomers, and then ends up having to have an abortion. To be honest, this is far more aligned with reality. Do they get together at the end? All I know is he soothed her while she suffered cramps from aborting their lovechild.

And then there’s Don Jon, where boy meets girl, except the boy is pathologically obsessed with bashing one out to porn, and the girl has been brainwashed by romantic comedies, meaning that both are doomed to disappointment when the artificial doesn’t live up to the real. Do they end up together? No, and Julianne Moore saves the day by showing just how disconnected protagonist Jon has become from genuine human beings; she challenges him to masturbate without porn. He can’t.

Even Blue Valentine, which is about as funny as Mel Gibson creep-fest What Women Want, offers a photo-negative of the romantic comedy, by daring to show you what life might be like after the final credits have rolled. Do they end up together? No.

Radical lines

Who would have thought that, by 2014, those four films would have given us some of the most radical lines to be uttered in cinema: ‘I don’t want a boyfriend’, ‘I’m having an abortion’, ‘I want a divorce’ and ‘Turns out shagging a 53-year-old bereaved woman is much better than porn’ (I’m paraphrasing).

Admittedly, not everyone’s a fan. If you dare to go into the cesspit of misogyny that is the discussion boards of the Internet Movie Database, you’ll find the following topics: ‘She wouldn’t have needed that abortion if she wasn’t such a slut’, ‘Did anyone want Barbara to get hit by a car at the end?’, ‘I hope Summer gets cancer’ and ‘Cindy is a sad, retarded, pathetic woman’.

But through disrupting the normal conventions, these films are challenging and rejecting conservative ideas about love and relationships. There’s the basic stuff: women can say no, women are not property, women have brains, etc. Most crucially, in portraying women as complex human beings rather than flawless, passive, feminine creatures, the fixed, iron-clad ‘happily-ever-after’ ending is rendered as ludicrous as it is impossible.

And at first, that’s terrifying – we’ve been trained as audiences to be soothed and assured by the incontrovertible union of the protagonists. We find it comforting, because having been led to believe that our happiness and fulfillment is dependent on one perfect, idealised person, we don’t necessarily want to be reminded that sometimes people can leave you or reject you.

Deconstructing these endings explodes the myth of the perfect relationship, as well as the idea that your entire life is dependent on it. And once you know that, you’re free to find other things to do with your life, that don’t necessarily involve staying at home and cooking your husband dinner.

Getting wise

But romcoms are getting wise to these women with their own opinions and bank accounts and hobbies. Knowing that any woman with faculty for critical thought would run a mile from any of these scenarios faster than you can say ‘you had me at unequal division of domestic labour’, male screenwriters have decided to throw some obstacles in our way so we will always be their concubines.

There’s About Time, in which Rachel McAdams’ emotions and vagina are ruthlessly manipulated by Bill Weasley as he travels back in time without telling her so that he can regurgitate an opinion she expressed three hours ago and appear to be the most lovely, sensitive, perceptive man that ever lived. Then there’s One Day, where the intelligent and funny Emma is punished for being from Yorkshire and putting Tracy Chapman on as a prelude to sexual intercourse (I knew I was doing something wrong) by being mown down by a lorry. And who could forget Spike Jonze’s Her, otherwise known as My Digital Kept Woman Got A Life Of Her Own And I Didn’t Like It, The Fucking Bitch Whore Slag Bag.

The romcom isn’t dead yet, but it’s gasping its last breaths. I’d like to think feminism could be a bit like CGI by being ubiquitous in every single film, and making everything a lot more realistic. And if you don’t think the way women are portrayed in films can alter whether we are better or worse as a society, please provide me with some cold, hard, scientific evidence that women kill rabbits because men don’t love them.

Is it still raining? I’ll go and get my umbrella.

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