Romantic comedies are the bread and butter of the film industry. Probably because Romance is the most “classical” of narratives, therefore highly familiar. The narrative concept of Romance was refined in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe.
Tristan & Isolde
Probably the most famous tale of Romance during this period was the love between Knight Sir Lancelot and King Arthur’s Queen, Lady Guinevere in The Death of King Arthur. While this might sound pretty fucked up by modern bro standards, this was actually quite common. If a knight loved a lady that was taken, he could still express his affection through prose and gifts. This is one of the aspects of “chivalry”, which encouraged knights to be this bold in their feelings. One would think that such actions would inspire many angry beatdowns from husbands (which it probably did), but chivalry had the added bonus of motivating knights to be badasses. Being a knight wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, especially in the sex department. How many women can be tupped with impunity in a theocracy? Not a lot, in fact.
Those in power recognized a useful outlet for this sexual frustration was the chivalric code, which forced men to demonstrate their value to women, which in turn forced them to perform several other tasks that would allow for said value to be observable. Here lies the real “point” of Romance: women serve as object to be worked for, which forces a man to actify himself. While this is fine and dandy in theory, the lengths men went through in order to prove this value could be fucking ridiculous, and often had horrible outcomes.
In the aforementioned The Death of King Arthur, Lancelot’s love of Guinevere culminated in an affair. When Arthur finds out, his distressed state causes the fall of Camelot to the evil sorceress Morgana Le Fey. Mind you, Guinevere serves NO purpose in myth other than causing this calamity, so Lancelot’s romantic striving is entirely destructive. Whereas The Death of King Arthur is cognizant of the downfalls that Romance often brings, most romantic films are not nearly as savvy. Most romantic films portray chivalry as not only necessary for being in a meaningful relationship, but also for having a meaningful life at all. In addition, they encourage gendered ideologies with very unfortunate consequences.
One of the most disconcerting aspects of romantic films is that they often support the idea that disparities in relationships are always obstacles to be overcome and not red flags. What’s so bad about that? I’ll illustrate: in the film Knocked Up (2007) an overweight unemployed stoner gets an attractive E! correspondent pregnant, which leads them to forge a relationship. Hilarity ensues and they get married because love conquers all social barriers. Except no not really. Sure, they are shown to have a similar sense of humor, (loosely) but the fact is that their lifestyles are woefully incompatible. Katherine Heigl’s character interacts with celebrities on a daily basis, meaning that she’s exposed to the elite of masculinity. Is Seth Rogen’s man boobs always going to do it for her? Probably not. In addition, Rogen JUST gets a job at the end of the film, after spending most of his adult life unemployed. Mind you, he probably wouldn’t have even gotten a job if it wasn’t for his relationship, meaning if things go south, guess who he’s going to blame. In addition, Heigl’s character claimed to not even WANT kids; is that something that she will just get over as a mother? Will she resent Rogen for getting her pregnant against her wishes?
To be fair, most fictional stories contrive in order to achieve a happy ending. They’re not supposed to be ‘real’. The issue with romance in films is that the aesthetic remove between artifice and actuality is rarely acknowledged. Many people still rely upon the traditional dynamics between men and women: men ask women out on dates, women are less interested in sex, etc. We accept the narrative of Romance more readily than most other fiction (most wouldn’t accept a real life ‘cowboy cop’ for instance).
Many people actually hold the belief that significant others should change drastically in order to be part of a relationship, sometimes including job, residence, even religion. In essence, the role of significant other becomes more important than the actual person; the parties involved become players rather than partners. Rationally, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl have no business being together, but their union affirms the “power of love” (as Huey Lewis and the News would say). While i actually enjoy Knocked Up as a comedy, (and as a fat guy) I recognize that it is part of a culture of Romance that doesn’t really exist. “Love conquering all” works well as a tagline, but not in a practical world where 50% of marriages end and almost 50% of children are unplanned for. I’m not saying we’re less romantic, i’m just saying that the seams of Romance are beginning to show.
Officer and A Gentleman (1982)
If both parties are meant to make a change in order to maintain a relationship, it would make sense that the party often charged with being more proactive (men) would have to provide the most in the initial transaction. Most films center on male leads, therefore men are always meant to actify before they can obtain a significant other, just like the knights of old. Without dragons to slay. men have to find a different show of assertiveness. In an action film, that isn’t hard to do. James Bond has enough demonstrable value to make women yield immediately to his charms. If a hero doesn’t have that kind of cred, by film’s end he’ll have accomplished enough to earn some sex. In a romantic comedy, there aren’t as many avenues to demonstrate such value, so the only way to truly actify are INSANE ACTS OF LOVE!!!
No matter how ridiculous, rude, or lethal, a man who shows his love in a drastic manner will always come out on top. In 1967’s The Graduate (featured above), Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) realizes that he’s been in love with Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) throughout the film (despite fucking her mother). Of course, she’s getting married to Carl Smiths, the stereotypical douchebag who’s meant to finish the love triangle. So how does he resolve the situation? He breaks up the wedding, and starts a brawl with EVERYONE IN THE ROOM!!! WITH A CROSS!!! Of all the crazy last ditch love maneuvers, rushing the altar is probably right up there with airplane chasing in terms of ubiquity. Given the fact that courtship is by definition a competition, there’s no better checkmate than stealing another man’s bride. In reality, marriage is generally a mutual contract between two adults, and the idea that a dude just shows up and basically rips it up is pretty subversive. Mind you, that’s not what is concerning about the cliche (tropes are necessary for any story); what IS bothersome is the implied amount of confidence a man is supposed to have in order to make this a justified action.
One of the most famous American photographs is V-J Day In Times Square, taken in 1945 after the American victory against Japan. To elaborate, a sailor, feeling randy after killing several men, decided to grab a lady and smooch the hell out of her.
Probably while shouting “YOLO” into her throat
The facts of this event have caused much controversy recently. At first held up as a captured moment of romance, it turns out the two didn’t even know each other. The sailor was drunk and basically forced her to kiss him with his “vice grip” (as stated by the woman, Greta Friedman). What looks to be a romantic gesture was actually non-consensual. Some have even gone as far as to compare this to rape! What would ever give this young man the impression that such a thing would be acceptable?
Oh yeah,that’s right…
The fact is most women WANT the man to make the first move in regards to kissing. I once heard a female coworker weigh in emphatically that “I don’t want a man to ask me, just kiss me!” to the approval of many others. Arguably the most famous cinematic kiss in Gone With The Wind (1939) features Clark Gable grasping Vivien Leigh around the waste and pulling her close, which she yields to happily. He doesn’t inquire, he acts. A man who hesitates loses the girl, so there isn’t much room for second guessing .
While I definitely wouldn’t hold what the sailor did as romantic, one could argue that it fell in line with already accepted ideas of romance, specifically that men have to take control of women in order to win them over. If the methods resemble an “assault”, it’s more of a logical consequence of expected male assertiveness. Men pursue and women are pursued. Men, as the pursuers, are supposed to make the bulk of the decisions in courtship. Who initiates the date? Men. Who makes the first move on the date? Men. Who sets up subsequent dates? I think the pattern is obvious. This dynamic is a bit of a double-edged sword: men are always to blame for terrible relationships, and women are impotent in relationships.
In the film The Wedding Singer (1998) Adam Sandler is the titular hero who eventually pursues his engaged client. The groom in the film is hilariously awful at every given turn: in his first scene he calls his fiancee’s best friend slutty, muses on his desire to have sex with as many women as possible while married, and when the protagonist confronts him on his philandering, he BEATS HIM UP IN FRONT OF SEVERAL WITNESSES!!! I’m surprised he didn’t eat a baby as well. Of course, Sandler woos her at the end, and she wises up and dumps her fiancee, who she realizes is a douche.
He looked like such a nice guy
This trope is disturbingly common in mainstream romance films; the douchebag boyfriend, as seen in Wedding Crashers (2005) and Can’t Hardly Wait (1998). This archetype is probably the closest thing to a dragon of myth, as they stand in the way between a hero and his reward. Almost none of these films seem to ask the obvious question of WHY the love interest chooses these terrible men in the first place. In The Wedding Singer, Sandler implies that she likes her fiancee because he’s wealthy, which she angrily objects to. The film paints the question as more a symptom of his bitterness rather than a logical conclusion; why WOULD she go out with a man so brazenly unsavory unless it was money? Doesn’t that call into question her standards, or at least her competency when it comes to judging others? The implication is that women have no ability to make decisions such as these, and are in essence at the whim of whatever man controls them. Within the same film, Sandler’s character is dumped at the altar by his fiancee who, while clearly meant to be awful, is used as a foil to reflect what’s wrong with Sandler himself. If he wasn’t so immature, he wouldn’t have been in a relationship with an immature woman. Of course, is never applied to his love interest.
A much darker version of this dynamic occurs in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger where James convinces the titular Goldfinger’s henchwoman (subtly named “Pussy Galore”) to defect to his side. Does he accomplish this through rational persuasion?
Naw, he fucks that girl
As in The Wedding Singer, James actually does attempt to ask why she works for Goldfinger in the first place, to which she responds “for the money”. Mind you, Goldfinger is a guy who once killed his girlfriend for making him lose at a card game. The film doesn’t portray Pussy (tee hee) as being evil at all; she just hadn’t found the “right” man to guide her in the right direction. Women can’t be evil because being evil requires autonomy. While one could look at the Goldfinger example as a product of “less enlightened time” this trope appears in modern films such as 2011’s Immortals, where the virginal heroine, blessed with the gift of prophecy, at first lectures the hero about how retaining her visions justifies her abstinence. His response?
You already know this, maaan
Once again, the guy doesn’t even convince her of anything, it’s his dominance that actually brings her around.
Just from these these examples we can see an argument being made with mainstream film, women are unable to make decisions when it comes to who they date and men have to make all decisions in regards to their interactions with women. Women are objects adrift in the wind who need an assertive man to anchor them.
As one could note, these are all films marketed mostly towards a male demographic, meaning that they do cater to masculine outlook, just like the chivalric tales from the Romantic Era. Despite the target audience, it’s important to remember that Romance is always about indoctrinating both sexes. Men need to actify in order to gain each others respect, which includes having sex with women. These women “benefit” by only having sex with the cream of the crop and thus perpetuating a strong patriarchal society. In essence, a woman is a passive observer whereas a man is an active performer. One could say this dynamic is an odd twist on the theories of Laura Mulvey, famed film theorist known for her landmark essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). While I can’t quickly describe her seminal essay, in short: film is inherently “phallocentric” with a proposed viewer who is male.
Peeping Tom ( 1969 )
Women contradictorily exist as “flat” images meant to service as grabbers of male gaze. As such, the audience, no matter their gender, only identify with the male characters. I would personally add that the identification with the male has a more lasting effect on actual men, who appropriate the narrative journey that the protagonist embarks upon, which is supposed to result in money, power, and women (as Tony Montana would say).
This journey is necessary because men don’t as often share the same inherent narrative value women do. For example, in the film Machete (2010), the killing of the hero’s wife (who doesn’t even have a name) is enough to fuel our hatred towards the antagonist. In comparison, a man has to be accomplished in order to garner the same level of impact upon death (Obi Wan, for example). Or a baby. This is why theories on narrative overwhelmingly suggest a boy has to journey to manhood, since otherwise he would be worthless. Women, on the other hand, occupy more intrinsically valuable roles in classical narrative that remain static (The Goddess, The Muse, Mystical Aid, etc).
Probably one of best unintentional commentaries on the performance dynamic is the film Anger Management (2003) (Yes, another Sandler film. I guess he just has a thing for this). In the film Sandler plays a shy man named Dave Buznik who, after an unintentional show of aggression on an airplane, ends up in anger management courses with Buddy Riedel (Jack Nicholson).
During the course of his treatment, Riedel attempts to drive out the wimpiness that is central to the character. At the midpoint of the film Dave, not yet unwimpified, fails to summon the courage to propose to his girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei), who immediately afterwards requests taking a break from their relationship in the same scene. After he consents, she immediately starts dating Riedel. This breaks the last levee in his mind and he begins a roaring rampage of manliness, beating up his romantic rival, insulting his domineering boss, and of course, going after his girl. As in The Graduate, it’s insufficient for him to just propose to her normally, so he actually shows up at a Yankees game (where Riedel plans to propose to her) runs onto the field (knocking over several players) and proposes in front of an entire stadium. What makes this scene so important is that Dave planned to propose to her at Yankee stadium in the first place, which for a man as shy as him would have been quite terrifying. Proposing to her in front of the entire stadium shows just how far he’s willing to go for her. She of course, accepts his proposal, sticking it to Buddy Riedel. Except that, Riedel planned the whole thing. Why? At the behest of LINDA.
The film plays this revelation as quite minor, she exposits the entire charade during a casual barbecue epilogue with Riedel himself. Everything that he’s gone through, which includes fighting a monk, assaulting a coworker, and having the threat of arrest looming over him, was an elaborate plan by his girlfriend to get him to nut up.
This gives new light to many of the film’s events. In the beginning of the film, Dave is quickly coded as an impotent man in all respects. The film’s prologue shows him getting his pants pulled down while talking to a crush, while everyone in his neighborhood laughed at his small penis. This is never mentioned again, but is implied to be the impetus for his later sexual shyness. Despite being in a relationship with his girlfriend for years, he is still uncomfortable with PDA, much to her chagrin. Assuming that she began her plan a little before the film opens, one could extrapolate that said shyness was the driving factor for such drastic measures. This is ‘warranted’ because, lets be honest, a shy man is an oxymoron to most people. Given Riedel’s stealing of his proposal idea, she even knew that he planned to propose and decided to basically needle him into giving as grand a proposal as possible.
This brings us back to “performance”, it’s not important how much Dave actually cares for her (which could arguably be discerned through the length and intimacy of their relationship), it’s important that he performs his love in the way that best suits gender roles. It doesn’t matter how great their relationship is, what’s important is that HE proposes to HER, especially in as spectacular a manner as possible.
After grudgingly agreeing to the break, a scene follows where Dave is talking to her on the phone, his emotions barely restrained. He does his best to affect an accepting tone and even says he’s ok with her going out on a date (he then launches a calculator at a coworker). While many argue on the effectiveness of “breaks” in relationships, it’s clear that Dave desperately wants to respect her wishes, despite his feelings. The scene portrays this as another example of wimpiness; “If he was a REAL man he’d take her back” “A REAL man wouldn’t stand for that”. So even though he puts what he thinks are her desires over his own, he still hasn’t “earned” the right to be her husband.
What makes his proposal so important isn’t that he communicates his affection for her (he already does that), it’s that he has literally cowed himself as much as possible in the process. He became the “masculine” man she wanted, he succumbed to her desire for PDA, and he put himself in personal and physical danger for her.
He also saw a transvestite’s penis
Despite the outlandishness of its premise, Anger Management literalizes the performance of Romance beautifully (albeit unintentionally). Romantic striving is often the impetus for creating gender roles; for example, if a woman is unattractive to men, she ceases to be object to quest after and thus would not be considered feminine. On the other end, if a man fails to please a woman, he isn’t a man. While many would claim the problem here is that it causes inequality, I would actually say the problem is that it undercuts most intimacy. Masculinity as an ideal, while still important to other men, becomes even more important when around women, who need it as a necessary counterbalance to femininity. As such, roles become more important than people, as both parties care more about performance than players. It could be asserted that attitudes like this, while useful in short term scenarios, become an issue in the larger world of gender dynamics, where women are constantly relegated to object and men constantly forced to perform. Mainstream romantic fiction perpetuates and affirms these roles more than any other medium.
For most posts on Romance;
Don Jon Review
The Lois Lane Effect
For more insights into gender dynamics:
Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema