Kelly Bertrand takes a trip down memory lane to the glory days of her VHS collection and asks – why did we stop making romantic comedies and is the rom-com actually back?
It’s 2002. You and your low-rise jeans and your Paul Frank wallet (lucky) have just got back from the video shop, your plastic bags weighed down by VHS tapes, packets of Maltesers and the promise of the perfect afternoon. As you adjust your plastic choker necklace and turn your attention away from trying to figure out just how Nelly was supposed to text Kelly back on Microsoft Excel, you’ve got a tough choice.
Maid in Manhattan? The Sweetest Thing? Sweet Home Alabama? Or Two Weeks’ Notice?
Welcome back to the golden age of the romantic comedy, where life was simpler and more problematic at the same time.
Since the late 2000s the rom-com has died a quiet, predictable death as Hollywood turned its back on the genre, favouring big blockbusters and anything to do with Iron Man. But there are whisperings, stirrings and even stilted attempts to resurrect the rom-com – but why did they die in the first place, and are they even a thing anymore?
Why don’t they make rom-coms anymore?
In the 90s and 2000s you couldn’t escape the romantic comedy, such was its hold on the box office. You remember the classics – Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, My Best Friend’s Wedding – and the later ones like 27 Dresses, The Proposal, Monster-in-Law, The Holiday and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
(God, they truly were the glory years, weren’t they.)
But when the world eventually moved on, the romantic comedy never really did – and movie studios didn’t have the desire to bring them along for the ride.
Says Scott Meslow, author of From Hollywood With Love: The Rise and Fall (And Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy, rom-coms first got left behind because of one big factor – money.
“While rom-coms typically make money, they don’t make Marvel-sized money – a problem in a Hollywood increasingly fixated on home runs instead of base hits (and willing to accept costly strikeouts in the pursuit of those billion-dollar grosses),” Scott told Parade.
“Romantic comedies largely disappeared at the studios for the same reason most mid-budget movies started to disappear: Hollywood favoured… massive blockbusters or traditional awards fare, with very little happening between those two poles,” he added. “I do think rom-coms were uniquely disadvantaged by this trend, because they [also] don’t tend to draw the kind of awards attention that can make a studio less nervous to greenlight, say, a mid-budget drama.”
Legendary rom-com director of The Holiday and Something’s Gotta Give Nancy Meyers agrees, and says the influence of big-budget superhero flicks killed her beloved genre. “Once superhero movies really became the only movie studios cared about, the experience of making a movie like mine changed,” she told Vulture. “I remember when I finished The Intern, I thought, ‘I think this is it.'”
Oh would you look at that, here’s some sexism.
But more than just the studios’ attitudes towards budgets was at play here – it was Hollywood’s attitude towards women in general that began to wear thin, as the ‘romantic comedy’ was becoming less and less a film with both romance and comedy, and more thought of as trashy, tired entertainment aimed at women, but often produced by men (you know, that old chestnut).
There’s still a massive under-representation of women in powerful studio roles, while women who were making rom-coms found themselves pigeonholed, to their careers’ detriment, such as Kate Hudson, Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Lopez (somehow men such as Hugh Grant and Matthew McConaughey were… fine?)
Rom-com darling Sandra Bullock, who purposely left the genre because of the risk of typecasting and the deteriorating attitude towards rom-coms as a whole, says they were “bastardised and so undervalued”.
“Anytime someone said ‘chick flick’ or ‘rom-com’, it was just disparaging,” she told the New York Times. “I think when everything swung toward the very masculine action-adventure, women got relegated to the arm piece, or the damsel in distress. Then, when rom-coms came back in it was always like, ‘oh, we’ll let the women come back in, but it’s going to be this formula that we like, and it can’t be too edgy.”
We, the people, demand more.
In the era before #metoo, and as the traditional ‘rich (white) boy meets quirky (white) girl with a gay best friend’ trope began to tire, studios became unsure of what audiences wanted and rom-coms stopped being the sure-fire bets they used to be. It would take until 2017’s The Big Sick and 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, the biggest rom-com hit in almost a decade, for studios to cotton on to the fact that audiences were in fact craving diversity and originality.
The rom-com’s biggest appeal is escapism – which, by all accounts, should mean the bloody genre should be KILLING the box office right now, because, you know… the world!? But for people to truly buy into escapism, there needs to be some root of reality – the one per cent chance that ‘this could happen to me’ fantasy – and for that to happen, people need to see themselves reflected on the screen.
Has feminism killed the rom-com? I mean, kind of. Gone are the days of the traditional storyline of the girl’s just hanging out waiting for a prince charming to sweep her off her feet and let’s be honest, that was the backbone of about 25 years’ worth of rom com classics. Plots like that simply wouldn’t fly today, and we as an audience want more for our money and our time.
“Nobody wants to see two traditionally beautiful Hollywood people dragging out the process of falling in love while the world is quite literally on fire,” Danielle Henderson co-host of the I Saw What You Did podcast, tells Parade. “It’s been impossible to ignore the realities of life; our former escape hatches are not providing the same relief. I don’t think anyone really buys into the ‘meet a person, something bad happens, something good happens, and you live happily ever after’ model anymore.’”
Rom-coms are back though… right?
Kind of. In the last few years we’ve had hits like Trainwreck, Crazy Rich Asians, The Lost City and this year’s offering from the queen of the rom-com herself, Jennifer Lopez’s Marry Me. The movie industry is like fashion – cyclical – but the films being made now are inherently different for a new generation.
Edgier, darker and more unique, we’re not going to get a new The Wedding Planner anytime soon, and while it feels like the world needs both more representation and more laughs, this week’s box-office failure of Bros, a well-reviewed gay rom-com, will send shivers up the spines of studio executives – and infuriated the film’s star Billy Eichner, who tweeted the blame at “straight people, especially in certain parts of [the USA who] just didn’t show up for Bros… everyone who isn’t a homophobic weirdo should go see Bros tonight.”
Perhaps the future of genre relies in a merging of rom-com and action, such as JLo’s upcoming flick Shotgun Wedding with Fergie’s ex Josh Duhamel.
Streaming platforms have been giving it a go too – Hulu’s Palm Springs and Amazon’s I Want You Back have been hits, but we’re still waiting for the big guys to come back into the rom-com light.
Is it possible to stage more meet-cutes without subverting back to a straight, white, stale stereotype? The evidence is in the history – the biggest rom-com in the US box office’s history remains, to this day, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
We’re ready for real, raw, funny rom-coms. I’ll even bring back the plastic choker in celebration. I’ll leave the low-rise jeans in 2002, though.