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Timeless or Toxic? Why The Rom Com Hasn’t Aged Well

By Emma Line

Lockdown 3.0 may have seemed the perfect opportunity for a nostalgic binge of that timeless classic: the romantic comedy. But chances are, some familiar scenes may not quite be how you’d remembered them. Post-#MeToo, we’re re-watching many ‘timeless’ films in a completely different light.

Blink and you might once have missed them; instances of sexual harassment abound in romantic comedies. Whilst remaining a genre consciously recognised as fantasy, these films do ultimately reflect real life. That’s precisely their appeal. Any toxic behaviour portrayed is therefore also a representation of many people’s lived experience. Bombshell (2019), which charts the high-profile sexual harassment allegations made at Fox News in light of #MeToo, proves that it’s often subtle hard-to-define behaviours that combine to form a larger picture of abuse. With a heightened sense of the danger posed by leaving these behaviours unchallenged, it’s hard to ignore their presence in our ‘timeless’ favourites any longer.

Just as the MeToo movement proved you needn’t look far to find someone affected by sexual harassment, toxic behaviour can be found everywhere in romantic comedy. Whether it’s Kevin’s refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer from Jane in 27 Dresses (2008), or Noah threatening to kill himself if Ally declines to date him in The Notebook (2004); these films encourage us to celebrate relationships founded on harassment and manipulation. Instances range from the unnervingly subtle to the immediately questionable. Yet, they are all swept aside in the wake of developing romance – and the guy almost always still gets the girl.

Take The Ugly Truth (2009)a film aptly titled. On the surface, it may seem obvious where its offences lie. From a minor character joking about whether the women he’s slept with were “conscious”, to protagonist Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler) claiming that men “stick around because of what [women are] willing to do with [their bodies]”; ‘the ugly truth’ which gives this film its title, is chauvinism in action. We could perhaps just put the film down as a relic of its era (albeit only a decade ago). However, watching female protagonist Abby (Katherine Heigl) ultimately fall in love with Chadway makes this much harder to do.

A thriving TV producer, Abby is nevertheless consistently undermined at work, harassed, and painted as neurotic. And her happy ending? A relationship with a raging misogynist. As we watch Mike gaslight her into believing that she’s taken his declaration, “I’m in love with you, you psycho”, the wrong way, we too are being gaslit by the film. We’re not supposed to focus on the toxic elements of their relationship. We’re persuaded that Mike, who follows the timeless trope: bad guy with a sensitive side, is right for Abby, despite our very valid reservations. The problematic love interest once again rides off into the sunset, their toxic behaviour left unchecked.

Another thing you may be finding harder to swallow, upon re-watching these old favourites, is their regressive portrayal of female sexuality. In The Ugly Truth, Mike’s dating advice unequivocally removes Abby from the equation of pleasure. Besides hearing him refer to her “orifices”, and instructing her how to dress, we are confronted with his views on the climax *ahem* of misrepresented female sexuality: the fake orgasm. In a line that needs a disclaimer all of its own, Mike claims, “a fake orgasm is better than no orgasm at all.” While we can hope that in 2021 Abby would have promptly left him with his cold cup of coffee and run home to give herself a very real orgasm, in the film she wholeheartedly buys into his advice.

Then, there’s What’s Your Number? (2011), a film whose plot hinges on a young woman convinced by a magazine article that sleeping with more than 20 men will ruin her future. We watch her friends reinforce this with their wide-eyed shock as she reveals her ‘number’. Slut-shaming her, one of them even suggests that “when you’re too sexually available it messes with your self-esteem.” Their reasoning ringing in her ears, we watch Ally (Anna Faris) spend the whole film returning to ex-partners in search of ‘the one’, desperate not to risk spinsterhood by sleeping with anyone new.

Just when we think she’s escaped these toxic restraints on her sexuality – by dating her neighbour Colin (Chris Evans), lucky number 21 – the film reneges on its redemption. A plot-twist voicemail in the final scene explains that one of Ally’s past sexual encounters never really happened. So, her ‘number’ remains at 20. Celebration of this ends the film, along with any chance of it defeating the toxic narrative it could so successfully have challenged.

In Bombshell, Margot Robbie’s character suggests that sexual harassment “condemns you to questions.” Survivors constantly find themselves questioning what happened and whether they should report it. The supposedly ‘timeless’ romantic comedy is leaving us doing a not so dissimilar thing. Inordinately romantic soundtracks accompanying uncomfortable scenes frame them as unquestionable gestures of love. And we’ve been conditioned to crave the happy ending. Given a narrow narrative scope within which to find it, we too are condemned to questioning. If the end goal is the main characters’ union, and they both seem blissfully content as the credits roll, then was their previous behaviour that problematic? We’re gaslit into believing that a relationship built on harassment, sexism or deception is healthy and ultimately aspirational.

Many creators for the screen have started to actively counter these ‘timeless’ narratives. Michaela Coel’s TV series, I May Destroy You (2020), has truly set the bar for the representation of relationships and abuse on screen. Under Coel’s direction, the same toxic behaviour blithely skimmed over by romantic comedies is uncovered and scrutinised in heart-wrenching depth. Instead of the false-perfect partnerships offered by the rom-com’s supposedly timeless narrative, I May Destroy You paints relationships in all their honesty. Its characters ultimately find much healthier endings, in love with themselves and their friends. The Independent claimed: “it is Coel’s ability to intersperse the darkest of issues with bursts of joyous sunlight that makes the show so singular.” In short, she gets the balance right. Add to this the intersectionality the show presents, we’re left wondering: why can’t the romantic comedy do better?

Whilst many recent rom coms have sought to break the mould – think I Feel Pretty (2018), Isn’t It Romantic (2019), How To Be Single (2016) – they nevertheless remain direly lacking in diversity and bound too tightly to the narrative structure of rom coms old. Protagonists must still find a happy ending within around a 90-minute run time – often with a particular romantic partner. So, has this timeless genre simply reached its expiration date?

I don’t think so. The ambition of the genre to be feel-good, aspirational, and comforting is more valuable than ever during this period of pandemic isolation. While we might be giving some of our ‘timeless’ favourites the same wide berth we give most of our exes, we can still demand better from future productions. A shift in narrative, greater complexity and diversity, alongside accountability for toxic behaviour are all desperately needed to reinstate this genre as timeless. And that’s the ugly truth.

Featured image courtesy of Gaspar Uhas from Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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