For so many, no film genre defines their teenage years like the romantic comedy. With their aesthetic idealism, warmth, and promise of a fairy-tale ending, rom-coms often forge lifelong relationships with their viewers, to be watched over and over from adolescence and throughout adulthood. This is true for Elizabeth Sankey, who begins Romantic Comedy (2019) by confessing to her ‘obsession’ with the genre. She describes an infatuation ‘so powerful’ that it would become part of her identity, informing her experiences as a young woman and providing reference points for love, fulfilment and success. Sankey’s ‘uncomplicated’ relationship to romantic comedies would endure until her marriage, the point to which all rom-coms aspire but also end. Without the guidance of the films she loved, Sankey began to reflect on the imperfections of the genre that had so shaped her life. In response, she created Romantic Comedy, a comprehensive meditation on the genre’s history, problematic gender politics, and why it is that we just can’t stop watching.
As a genre romantic comedies are incredibly formulaic. Even the casual viewer will recognise well-worn tropes like the declaration of love, the big white wedding, and the Hollywood kiss but to name a few. What Sankey is interested in are the equally present, but decidedly more subtle, themes of misogyny, heteronormativity and whiteness. Romantic Comedy’s structure, consisting of over 100 moments from romantic comedies aided only by voiceover is essential to the persuasiveness of her argument. At every turn Sankey supports her analysis with carefully selected moments from well-known and highly popular romantic comedies creating a strikingly didactic style.
Sankey begins her exploration of female representation in romantic comedies with the films of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, a moment which saw the genre explode in popularity thanks to the success of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Pretty Woman (1990). As such, it is the female characters from this period that provide Sankey with her the most effective material. She argues that women in romantic comedies can largely be understood as belonging to one of the following categories; The Clumsy Career Woman (see Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Proposal etc), The Muse (see Garden State, Forgetting Sarah Marshall etc), and the most enduring of all The Cool Girl (see Miss Congeniality, How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days or any Cameron Diaz movie). Within these character tropes, which Sankey demonstrates are commonplace within the genre, she finds the troubling reinforcement of gender roles built upon misogynistic ideals.
Sankey’s acknowledgment that romantic comedies are often written by men, produced by a patriarchal industry, and marketed almost exclusively to women and young girls, prompts a turn to the history of the genre. Is misogyny part of the DNA of romantic comedy? Her brief exploration of romantic comedy’s history forms perhaps the films most interesting segment. She traces the ebb and flow of liberalism and conservatism in gender roles from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the present day, armed with rich moments of archive. Her momentary discussion of the progressive impact of Marilyn Monroe on sexual politics and the effects of her comparatively chaste successor Doris Day is particularly thought provoking.
Sankey’s analysis of male characters, although less extensive, is also fruitful. Here she presents only ‘The Tenacious Man’, a character whose sexual aggression and relentless pursuit of women is rewarded and coded as a willingness to ‘do whatever it takes.’ What is common to both male and female characters however is their whiteness. Sankey exposes the overt absence of non-white characters in romantic comedies and suggests that their exclusion implicitly signals an incompatibility with the Hollywood ideal. The same can be said for LGBTQ+ characters through the lack of same sex love stories, and the presence of dangerous stereotyping. Romantic Comedy’s exploration of the issues of sexuality and race gain strength from Sankey’s acknowledgment of her own white, heteronormative perspective, as well as the film’s diverse set of contributors which include the likes of Cameron Cook, Simran Hans and Eleanor McDowall. Where Sankey’s analysis is self-consciously wanting is on the representation of Trans identities in romantic comedies. This makes the documentary Disclosure an important companion to Romantic Comedy through its comprehensive exploration of Trans representation on screen.
So why then do we continue to watch? The answer, for Sankey, is simple. Because it is pleasurable. Because beneath the genre’s flaws she finds an opportunity to watch characters fall in love, to escape the everyday and forge human connection. The coexistence of both critique and celebration within Romantic Comedy form perhaps Sankey’s most effective reflection on the genre. Despite the film’s lecturelike quality and sharp criticisms the magic of romantic comedies manage to endure. Romantic Comedy emerges, like its subject matter, as a warm and pleasurable watch. In more practical terms, Sankey also extends her analysis to the popularity of the genre. She argues for the powerful influence of romantic comedies upon some of the most commercially and critically successful films of recent years (citing La La Land and God’s Own Country) and looks to the growing diversity of contemporary rom-coms like The Big Sick for the promise of a more progressive future for the genre. Romantic Comedy is then not an instruction to stop watching, but a reminds us of the power of film to inform our reality.
Watch the trailer here:
Where can you find it?
You can watch Romantic Comedy for free by signing up to Mubi’s 7-day trial.
More like this?
Sam Feder’s Disclosure which is available on Netflix tackles a full history of transgender representation in Hollywood.