Written by James MacDowell.
Romantic comedy - particularly modern (i.e.: post-70s) romantic comedy - has often been considered a purely escapist and conservative genre, accused of unquestioningly presenting unrealistic romantic fantasies for passive audiences. I’m interested in trying to complicate this view, in part because of my innate distaste for any such banally generalising statements, but also because I believe romantic comedy to be a fascinating genre that is able to interrogate, often rather movingly and amusingly, dominant ideologies of love and romance.
Although often dedicated to finally reinforcing the notion that romantic love is essential to personal happiness, it is the particularities of that love, and the stresses and strains shown within it, that makes these films especially interesting. What follows in no sense aspires to be a full account of romantic comedy - not even of the modern romantic comedy, which is its main focus - but is merely the beginning of a discussion, asking what can be learned by looking at the inherent tension between the genre's premise that love is transcendent and eternal, and the manifestly precarious status of love in the modern world. It necessarily leaves much unsaid, but equally it opens up some areas that are frequently ignored in discussions of the genre, and which I hope I will be able to pick up on again at a later date.
In her excellent book Beyond Genre, Deborah Thomas proposes a useful approach to distinguishing different kinds of Hollywood movies. She suggests that there are two basic modes that a Hollywood film is likely to operate within - the comedic, and the melodramatic - and that these modes present different kinds of worlds that work in different ways. Put simply, she proposes that the comedic mode will create a world which seems to be mainly benign, helpful and liberating, offering possibilities for characters to positively transform themselves and their situations. The melodramatic mode, meanwhile, constructs a claustrophobic world that appears antagonistic to its characters, is likely to frustrate their desires, and denies them the possibility for significantly bettering themselves. Thomas also makes the nice distinction between the kinds of forces that seem to be at work in such worlds: while a melodramatic world might seem to be inextricably ruled by fate, a comedic world more often feels as if it is being run according to destiny.Once we’ve identified a film as a romance, then, we need to ask ourselves whether it’s mainly a romantic comedy or a romantic melodrama - or indeed whether it seems to traverse the possibilities of both kinds of world.
Given this, I think it might be helpful to delve briefly here into the history of love in order to help place the modern romantic comedy in some perspective. This is important for one thing because it is very common in romantic comedies - and indeed in western culture more broadly - for romantic love to be treated as something eternal and unchanging, something stretching back into the mists of time. Yet the romantic comedy has also survived, and managed to remain one of the most reliably successful Hollywood genres, only by adapting to changes in social and cultural conceptions of love and intimacy. This tension between love as something that is both somehow eternal or “old fashioned”, but is also a central and evolving part of modern life, is absolutely fundamental to the genre as a whole.
Romantic Love: History, Structures, Ideology
The conception of love as eternal and unchanging, of course, simply isn’t true. Romantic love as it exists now is a concept with a specific historical and cultural lineage that dates back only till around the mid 18th Century, which is when in Europe it began to be connected with marriage. Before then, the dominant form of heterosexual love was seen as being passionate or sexual love, and tended not to be practiced between man and wife, but rather in adulterous relationships. Even the tradition of medieval courtly love, so idealized from 18th century art onwards, was reserved exclusively for extra-marital romances. Marriage, meanwhile, was - at the very least until the late 1700s - seen primarily as an economic arrangement.
The second thing worth keeping in mind is that the development of the concept of romantic love coincided more or less exactly with the birth of the novel and the new forms of narrative that came with it. This is hardly a coincidence, since the new notions of identity that brought about this particular concept of love also understandably began a fashion for a new kind of fictional narrative - one that put more emphasis on characters’ insight, self-awareness, and motivations. These were characters, with character developments, who felt and behaved like modern people were beginning to, that is: searching for self-improvement, wholeness, and meaning. However, what’s particularly significant is that stories of love and romance became hugely popular during this period - indeed, they were the first genre of novel to reach a mass audience. And this too is not at all surprising, since the very concept of romantic love absolutely required you to make a narrative out of your own life: one in which you could cast yourself as a character on a quest for completion, who met another person, perhaps experienced love at first sight, and entered into a marriage that saw you complete this personal project. As Anthony Giddens says in The Transformation of Intimacy :
Many other explanations of love also contribute to this combining of love with narrative; for instance, the concept of romantic destiny, in which we are fated to be with one particular person, and Freudian ideas of neuroses that can theoretically be overcome by the right love match. These different forms of cultural narrative are often placed in opposition (sometimes more broadly as a ‘heart’ vs. ‘head’ dichotomy), something we can see in a recent romantic comedy like Sleepless in Seattle (1993):
ANNIE: Why did you get married? Was it all trumpets and fireworks, and…?
DENNIS: I got married because Betsy said that we either broke up or we got married; so we got married.
ANNIE: But when you first met her, did you know that she was the only one for you - that in some kind of mystical, cosmic way it was fated?
DENNIS: Annie, when we’re attracted to someone it just means that your subconscious is attracted to their subconscious - subconsciously. So what we think of as fate is really just two neuroses knowing they’re a perfect match.
Even though psychoanalysis and destiny are being contrasted here, we would do well to note that they actually in some sense come from similar impulses and serve similar functions, both contributing to the narrativising of love, and to the notion of the ‘healing relationship’. This idea of love being inextricably bound up with forms of narrative will be important to bear in mind later when we start to look at the idea of intertextuality.
Finally, though, the last element of this new form of romantic love that we need to remember is that the 18th century also saw love and romance become increasingly considered particularly the realm of women, in no small part because it was women - of a particular class background - with whom the new romance novels were most popular. In 1773 a high-end women’s publication called The Lady’s Magazine wrote that “There is scarce a young lady in the kingdom who has not read with avidity a great number of romances and novels”. We can see here the beginnings both of the linking of romance with femininity that continues to this day, and the beginning of the female audience for romance narratives that we see in a different form all the way up to Sleepless in Seattle’s female characters’ obsession with An Affair to Remember (1957).
So those are - if you like - some of the psychic and historical foundations of love, but with this point about romantic love being particularly tied to women, we’re now entering the more ideological or political issues surrounding romance.
Since its inception, marriage was considered essential to social stability because it, in theory, produced all future members of society. Until very recently, it was also an institution that was purely catered towards men - being, essentially, the main accepted means by which they could procreate and continue their line. Women’s function was for hundreds of years to give birth and serve their husbands - a fact that understandably caused feminists to reject marriage and romance as patriarchal constructions, as well as be contemptuous of the texts that apparently promoted it. For example, in 1973 Jill Johnston described romance as being "dope" for women, and monogamy as a means to trap them into passive domestic slavery. This conception is summed up by her anti-romantic-novel aphorism that: "It begins when you sink into his arms, and ends with your arms in his sink." This brings us neatly on to thinking about the question of the ideological role of genre.
I have already suggested that romantic love is tied up with cultural depictions of it in novels, and that these depictions influenced its developments. This can absolutely be seen to have continued to this day, and it is often said that Hollywood’s treatments of romance have had a major role to play in, not just reflecting, but creating conceptions of romantic love in the western world (and increasingly beyond). Using the sociologist Nicklas Luhmann as her starting point, Virginia Wright Wexman says that:
“‘Taking a chance on love…is only possible if one has cultural traditions, literary texts, convincingly evocative linguistic patterns and situational images - in short, if one can fall back on a timeworn structure of semantics’. In the modern world Hollywood cinema may be seen as constituting such a semantic structure.”
Again - this is important to remember in relation to understanding intertextuality, as I’ll get onto in a moment.
So - if we understand romantic love as now being the cornerstone of marriage, and marriage as being inherently repressive, then it is understandable that feminists might see cultural objects that perpetuate the notion of romantic love as being innately reactionary. Yet, as later feminist writers like Tania Modleski have pointed out, romance fiction is absolutely about, for, and quite often made by, women - a fact that potentially makes it of great interest for feminist analysis. As well as this, it also usually does not in fact feature a passive female protagonist waiting around for a man to sweep her off her feet, but is rather more usually about very active women on quests. Romantic comedy in particular is in fact one of the few Hollywood genres to conssitently foreground female agency. It doesn’t tend to follow the pattern usually stereotyped as the quintessential Hollywood narrative - ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl’; instead, in romantic comedy the opposite is usually the case: the pattern tends to be ‘girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy’.
As well as this, the romantic comedy genre doesn’t just perpetuate an unchanging view of romantic love - indeed, it has been able to survive only by continually adapting to new developments in the concept throughout history. For example, the screwball and “remarriage” comedies of the 1930s and 40s, like Bringing up Baby (1938) and The Awful Truth (1937), with their emphasis on strong women and mutual game-playing, are often seen as positively reflecting new notions of “companionate marriage” that were developing at the time, and thus as communicating a relatively progressive view of equality between the sexes. The 1940s saw a rise in “career woman” romantic comedies, which negotiated the changing position of women in the American workforce following WWII. In the late 50s and early 60s there was a popular cycle of ‘sex comedies’, most famously those featuring Rock Hudson and Doris Day like Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961), which flirted with the idea of sex before marriage, and in which marriage is increasingly seen as repressive; these films wouldn’t have been possible without the growing prevalence of discussions of sexuality within public discourse following the Kinsey reports in the 50s.
It is largely this that has created the public perception of romantic comedies all sharing the same standardized, stable, conservative 'happy ending'. It is in fact nowhere near true that every classical romantic comedy shared the same ending, or that they were all unequivocal in their affirmation of marriage. To illustrate this we need do no more than invoke the ending of a film like The Palm Beach Story (1942), which ends with an inordinately rushed double-wedding ceremony followed by the intertitles: “They Lived Happily Ever After…” / “Or Did They?...” While an ending like this lets us know that classical Hollywood was by no means always dedicated to bringing about uncomplicated ‘happy endings’, the perception of the romantic comedy as always ending in essentially the same way is important to keep in mind, if only because this conception is something that later films would then navigate in different ways. Besides, it is certainly true that it would have been impossible for a classical romantic comedy to imply that a couple would go on living happily and unmarried after a film’s end.
After the death of the production code in 1968, however, it became possible for a romantic comedy to deal in depth with love and relationships outside marriage. The films of Woody Allen are particularly important in this respect. The fact that the collapse of the production code allowed this is an important point to remember, because - as with everything else to do with the period of the late 60s and early 70s in Hollywood - there is sometimes a tendency to attribute any ‘progressive’ elements of films to either daring auteurs, or the rise of liberal and left-wing politics in America. We should keep in mind that, while both these narratives have elements of truth to them, industrial factors are at least as - if not more - important.
However, the changes in American society during this period are nevertheless real, and are important to understanding the genre. The rise of second wave feminism during the 60s and 70s helped bring about great changes for women: the increasing availability of contraception allowed them to become far more sexually liberated and thus not necessarily tied down by a family; they were also becoming more financially independent through the slow acceptance of equal pay for equal work, meaning that they didn’t need to rely on men and marriage in order to survive. Consequently, there was a growing skepticism among many about the value of romantic love, asking what its status was now that it wasn’t necessarily tied to marriage or children, but was rather primarily a matter of self-fulfillment. Incidentally, it is important to bear in mind that divorce rates in America reached their highest peak ever in the late 70s.
Its final moments take place after Alvy and Annie have broken up, and Alvy has written a self-confessedly bad play based on their relationship, which ends happily in the way that their love affair did not; as Alvy says: “You know, you’re always trying to get things to turn out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” Accompanied by the strains of Annie singing “Seems Like Old Times” on the soundtrack we then see a montage of moments from Alvy and Annie’s relationship, followed by the end of their last (platonic) meeting, which culminates in a shot of an empty street. In voiceover, Alvy tells us:
“I was reminded of that old joke: this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother's crazy: he thinks he’s a chicken’. And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would - but I need the eggs.’ I guess that’s now pretty much how I feel about relationships: you know, they’re totally crazy, and irrational, and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.” (Watch the ending here)
Significantly, what seems to be being said here is that the ideal of permanent romantic love is still very much desired - “we need the eggs” - but, for whatever reason, it may not be achievable. In other words, the changing status of intimate relations in America brought about (in large part) by feminism has not made romantic love appear less attractive, merely impossible or improbable.
The late 70s saw commentators speculating whether conventional romance fictions like romantic comedy would in fact survive these changes in conceptions of romantic love. In 1978 Brian Henderson predicted the death of romantic comedy, saying that transformations of relationships in western culture were starting to throw the entire central notion of the genre into question. Similarly, in 1976, John Cawelti said that “No doubt the coming age of women’s liberation will invent significantly new formulas for romance” (and perhaps with a film like Annie Hall we were on the verge of just such reinvention). However, it has been argued that, in fact - following this period of nervous romantic comedy in the late 70s - almost the opposite occurred.
The 80s and 90s saw the rise of a kind of romantic comedy that has been termed (again by Frank Krutnik) the “New Romance”. These films, including movies like When Harry Met Sally (1989), Pretty Woman (1990), Romancing the Stone (1987), Splash (1988), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), are generally considered to mark a return to older, more conservative notions of romance and romantic love. They are often spoken of as being part of a general backlash in American society against the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s - a backlash that viewed the emphasis on permissiveness and non-monogamy in sexual relations to be excessive and dangerous. The argument is that they are linked with the general swing to the right in American politics and society following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, who placed the concept of family values firmly at the centre of his political agenda (although he was, incidentally, the first American president to have been divorced himself); the rise of AIDS in the 80s also gave conservative commentators the opportunity to attack sexual promiscuity and non-traditional relationships.
Although we should always be sceptical of drawing too neat links between a period’s historical context and the films made during it, it is certainly true that the nervous romances of the 70s can be seen to have been phased out in the 80s and 90s, and replaced by films that place far less importance on sex, whilst emphatically tapping into older forms of romance. As Celestino Deleyto and Peter William Evans say, these new romances can be seen as “self-consciously establishing a link with their own tradition, insisting on the validity of its conventions and suggesting an unbroken line of continuity with the filmic and literary history of the genre”. It is also true that these kinds of romantic comedies continue to be made right up until today. Pretty Woman is a quintessential New Romance partly through the way in which, although about a prostitute, it manages to downplay the importance of sex by having Vivienne (Julia Roberts) only truly fall in love with David (Richard Gere) when she kisses him. The end of the film sees David arrive at Vivienne’s apartment in his limousine, opera blaring from car stereo and flowers in hand, before climbing up the fire escape to ‘rescue’ her with a kiss, just like one of the princesses in the stories she has said she loved when she was a little girl. (Watch it here)
An ending like this seems very far from the end of Annie Hall, in no small part because it is apparently a very enthusiastic, and proudly ‘old-fashioned’ (the somewhat meaningless proviso that after he rescues her "she rescues him right back" not withstanding) 'happy ending'. However, what also can’t be missed is the extent to which it is drawing on different established discourses of romance: the bouquet of flowers links to notions of courtly and chivalric romance, the opera music connects to La Traviata (which, not coincidentally, is about a prostitute who falls in love with a wealthy man), the climbing of the stairs resembles a knight ascending a tower and, finally, a chorus-like L.A. local walks by, saying to himself, “Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? This is Hollywood - land of dreams…” This kind of extensive citation of different discourses of romance clearly brings us onto the issue of intertextuality.
This overt intertextuality has been suggested to be another main strategy of the New Romance. It is certainly true that since the beginning of the 80s it has become an absolute staple for romantic comedies to reference older discourses of romance. The intertexts or discourses referred to may be quite general, like ‘fate’ in something like Serendipity (2001), or broadly ‘old-fashioned’ notions of romance (e.g.: Alex and Emma ); or equally it can be more specific - for example, particular romantic novels (e.g.: The Jane Austen Book Club ), or fairytales (e.g.: Ever After ), or pop songs (e.g.: Music and Lyrics (2006), or movie trailers (e.g.: The Holiday ), or specific Hollywood movies (e.g.: Sleepless in Seattle), or perhaps Hollywood in general (e.g.: America’s Sweethearts ). The points of reference can even be very recent indeed, making the self-reflexivity sometimes seem to double up, as in She’s All That (1999), when Rachel Leigh Cook tells her new boyfriend “I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman”. I would in fact say that it is now actually harder to find a romantic comedy that doesn’t do something like this at some point than to find one that does.
What are we to make of this intertextuality? The particular strategies vary from film to film, but there are certainly a few broad ways in which we might look at the trend.
Firstly, on one level, using an intertext acts to distinguish the film we are watching from that intertext. So, for example, in Pretty Woman the idea of the fairytale is first used to contrast with the more modern and supposedly more ‘realistic’ portrayal of 20th century love that we’re watching. So, when Vivienne says that, in all the fairytales she used to imagine when she was young, the knight who rescued her never said "Come on, baby, I'll put you up in a great condo," the old-fashioned nature of the fairytale is being used in a manner that makes Pretty Woman seem less idealized by comparison.
However, the use of this intertext also acts to draw a tacit line of continuation with this tradition of romance, especially since, at the end of Pretty Woman, the ideals of the imaginary fairytale are adapted to fit in with modern life when Gere climbs the fire escape. This might imply that the film is reaffirming these old ideals, saying that they stand the test of time and can still have validity for romantic love today.
Yet we also need to consider the fact that, by practicing essentially the same fantasy as the fairytale, the film is also throwing in its lot with that fantasy - even if it is simultaneously acknowledging that it is indeed a fantasy. This is how Krutnik assesses this strategy of New Romance when he says that they “present the fulfillment fantasy of heterosexual union, while underscoring that it is only wish fulfillment after all”.
This can also illuminate another difference between the nervous romances and the New Romances. In Annie Hall we can plainly see that a nervous romance may very well invoke romantic intertexts too: in its last few minutes alone, for instance, we have the play reading, and “Seems Like Old Times” on the soundtrack. However, the difference, Krutnik says, is that Annie Hall draws a clear distinction between the fantasy of these intertexts and the real world: hence Allen’s look into the camera to say, “You’re always trying to get things to work out in art because it’s real difficult in life”. While the nervous romances of the 70s betrayed a wistful longing for the old, less ‘complicated’, forms of romance, the New Romances basically collapse the distinction between old and new, and between fantasy and reality.
So, what we can see from these various potential meanings of the intertextuality is that these films seem to exist on something of a knife-edge between indictment and endorsement of the fantasy of “old fashioned” romance, staking a position that oscillates between irony and sincerity. We might ask: why are these films are practicing this kind of approach?
One possibility is that these films are simply postmodern, in the sense that they assume their audiences to be cynical to an extent about romantic love because of how familiar they are with its clichés, and so they therefore provide them with a sort of get-out clause by putting their romance in quotation marks. This is very reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s famous definition of postmodernism:
“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman, and knows he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’ because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’ At this moment, having avoided false innocence, he will nonetheless have said what he wanted to the woman: that he loves her, but that he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past… both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony… But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love.”
Something that might back up the idea of this trend being a postmodern strategy is the fact that we have seen a very sharp drop-off over the last twenty or so years in the number of romantic melodramas being made by Hollywood. By its very nature a romantic melodrama tends to ask that we take its treatment of love very seriously, while a romantic comedy allows more scope to laugh at the depiction of romantic trials and tribulations, and potentially even take it with a degree of irony.
While it’s almost certainly true that postmodernism has a role to play here, another possible way to think about this intertextuality to equate it with another kind of post-ism: post-feminism.
Post-feminism is the term that has been most widely used since the early 80s to help describe a kind of modern woman who ostensibly believes in and enjoys the equality and sexual liberation that feminism strived for, but is not particularly politicized, not dedicated to continuing to fight for women’s rights, and ultimately believes that the battle has, for the most part, already been won. (Incidentally, this notion has to be understood absolutely in relation to the afforementioned backlash against the sexual revolution and second-wave feminism that occurred in the 80s and 90s.)
The term post-feminist has also recently been famously applied to modern texts aimed at women, such as Sex in the City, Ally McBeal, and Bridget Jones’ Diary. The major distinguishing feature of postfeminism in these cases is that they are all about moderately independent, single modern women who have successful careers, but ultimately believe that not until they achieve romantic love and marriage will they be truly fulfilled. These are very much texts made in the shadow of feminism, but which stand in an anxious and guilt-ridden relationship to it. In Ally McBeal, for example, Ally describes herself as a “failed feminist” because of her overriding desire for romance, and says “I’ve let the sisterhood down so badly the National Organization of Women has a contract out on my head”. A perfect illustration of post-feminism also comes in Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary after Bridget feels pleased with herself for telling off Daniel for being such a fuck-wit:
5p.m. feeling very empowered…think might read a bit of Susan Faludi’s Backlash.
5a.m. Oh God, I’m so unhappy about Daniel. I love him.
“Maybe that whole love thing is just a grown up version of Santa Claus, just a myth we’ve been fed since childhood so we keep buying magazines, and joining clubs, and doing therapy, and watching movies with hip-hop songs played over love montages - all in this pathetic attempt to explain why our Love Santa keeps getting caught in the chimney.”
Equally in Definitely Maybe (2008), we have another nice example. Here, Ryan Reynolds’ character has just told his female friend Ilsa Fischer that he’s going to propose to his girlfriend, and her response (while playfully embodying the girlfriend to help him rehearse the proposal) is:
“You're asking me to give up my - my freedom, my joie de vivre, for an institution that fails as often as it succeeds? And why should I marry you anyway? I mean, why do you want marry me? Besides some bourgeois desire to fulfill an ideal that society embeds in us from an early age to promote a consumer-capitalist agenda?”
We often see such moments as these, when an almost feminist voice seems to break through; yet these films ultimately go on to provide these women with essentially the exact romantic love fantasy that they momentarily reject. We might wish to see romantic comedy’s intertextuality, then, as diffusing some of the distasteful naivety often assumed to accompany romantic love, in order to allow - particularly women, the films’ primary audience - the option of treating the concept with a degree of self-consciousness or irony, even if they choose to ultimately accept it. In this sense it could be seen as being used to assuage the guilt felt when longing for romantic love after feminism has exposed some of the concept’s inherent iniquities.
However, while both postmodernism and postfeminism are undoubtedly useful to keep in mind when thinking about intertextuality, it might be worth asking how these explanations tally with the fact that romantic love itself has always been something that was inherently tied to notions of narrative.
Equally, we could consider the use of previous romantic narratives as constituting a fairly honest engagement with the ways in which we truly do learn about romantic love. As I have said, a concept like romantic love can only survive if its passed down and learned, and one of the major ways in which this happens is through songs, plays, novels, and films. In one sense, this is absolutely what the classic New Romance Sleepless in Seattle is about: the influence of romance texts on our conceptions of love. The character Annie is so indoctrinated into the ideal of love offered by An Affair to Remember that she structures her whole life around it, leaving her fiance and traversing the country in search of destined love. In a very telling remark, its director Nora Ephron has said that “Our dream was to make a movie about how movies screw up your brain about love, and then if we did a good job, we would become one of the movies that screwed up people’s brains about love forever.” No single statement could better sum up the current state of romantic comedy.
There is finally no reason why we necessarily have to choose any one explanation for these strategies of modern romantic comedy: different films go about it in different ways, for different reasons, so it seems likely that, while each possible explanation will contain some truth, each will be either more or less useful depending on what film we are looking at.
However, two things that the approaches of the New Romances I have been discussing might suggest to us are that, first, the ‘nervousness’ of romantic comedy certainly can’t be said to have been entirely erased by the advent of the 80s by any means. And, secondly, there is a case to be made for the proposition that - rather than merely being fantasy or escapism - the romantic comedy genre is often very much about fantasy and escapism.
This article was published on February 15, 2009.
Post your views
Article comments powered by Disqus
Share this article
- Jump to the comments
- Print friendly format
- Email article to a friend
More from this writer
- Before Sunrise after Before Midnight: genre and gender in the Before series
- Before Midnight
- Against 'Ambiguity': On the Ending of The Dark Knight Rises
- John Cazale: Stepped Over
- Moonrise Kingdom