To be fair, she is reciting lies that other people wrote.
I watched 27 Dresses, one of the romantic comedies in which she stars, over the 4th of July weekend. This movie genre interests me, because even the most cliched, asinine offering reveals something about how love is being marketed to women. People are paid large sums of money to figure out how to entice us to sit through 90 minutes of fake people with amazing apartments navigating predictable plot lines. Watching romantic comedies to deduce what mythical version of love is being marketed to us is a fun game to play.
Here’s one thing I’ve noticed. Romantic comedies present a set of criteria for evaluating love that can only be attained through longevity, but in the context of the movie, these criteria are met instantly. And this is presented as proof that the lead characters have found true love.
For example, in a romantic comedy, the female character can tell she’s found the one when her romantic partner:
- knows her preferences and needs with minimal communication on her part
- approves/accepts her flaws, typically regards them as “quirky” or “adorable”
- understands her better than she understands herself and offers meaningful insights into her life (she works too much, she doesn’t stand up for herself, she loves cats but can’t talk to humans, she lets other people’s expectations govern her life, etc.)
- is able to imagine and execute romantic gestures with perfect accuracy
The coating that makes this implausible pill a little easier to swallow is that sometimes, these qualities do appear in healthy, long-term relationships. People who have been married for years are more aware of each others needs and preferences. Spouses learn over time what kinds of romantic gestures will communicate love. Couples can provide each other with honest, helpful feedback and offer loving correction. The big lie that romantic comedies tell us is that these things can and should happen instantly, when in fact, it takes time to learn how to confront, help, love, and woo someone.
Since romantic comedies have to sell their stories in one sitting, they find ways to circumvent the role that longevity plays in relationships. To speed things along, the following tropes are often employed:
- the potential couple gets drunk together
- the potential couple accidentally sees each other naked
- the potential couple finds out they share a musical bond
- the female character makes a big mistake or perpetuates a big lie
- Interestingly, it’s much less common for a male character to embarrass himself, lose a job, or ruin a relationship and for that incident to become the main catalyst for love in a romantic comedy. If this happens, it has more to do with how the actor is typecast than norms within the genre. For example, failure is a catalyst for love in Adam Sandler’s movies and often for Steve Carell. But in a romantic comedy, the female character’s flaws make romantic relationships more possible, rather than making them more difficult.
Music, drunkenness, nudity, and failure move relationships along at an alarmingly fast rate in romantic comedies. Characters who can’t stand each other go through one of the above experiences and then have an epiphany about their relationship. Instead of enduring the long, boring process of building a friendship through increasing vulnerability, shared experiences, mutual interests, and growing trust, romcom couples accidentally bump into each other in their underwear. Next comes an adorable montage set to an upbeat song, and compatibility, which seemed impossible before, now seems effortless.
But everyone knows these movies aren’t intended to be realistic. We gather our girlfriends, pour some wine, laugh a little, and there’s no harm done as long as we don’t take them seriously. However, it’s all too easy for real women in their real lives to apply the criteria listed above to their real relationships. If you’ve paid any attention to women chatting at coffee shops or offering advice on Facebook, you’ve seen reflections of romcom doctrine in their conversations. There is an expectation that a romantic partner who truly loves us will know what we want with little communication on our part. It’s annoying when a guy doesn’t realize that all of his girlfriend’s flaws are actually attractive. And a man should have an innate sense of what makes a woman feel loved and should not be the least bit clumsy in carrying out gestures that reflect this knowledge. If he falls short, he’s simply not the one. If the couple has to work at compatibility, it isn’t really love. Love should be easy, like popping in a DVD and pouring a glass of wine.
Women who rely on the classic romcom conventions to spark romance or move relationships along are all too common. If you haven’t been the drunk, flirtatious girl at the bar, you’ve seen her and felt sorry for her. Other women seem to be stuck in cycles of failure, looking for a man to rescue them, and some hope that taking their clothes off will help. Outside the imaginary realm of movies, none of these scenarios look romantic. They look terribly sad.
I’m not saying romantic comedies are the sole reason women are dissatisfied with men and ill-equipped to develop better relationships. I don’t think action movies are the reason some men behave violently, either. I do think we should regard movies as a form of modern mythology and realize that as such, they provide inadequate explanations for why life is the way it is. What rings false about romantic comedies is not that they are romantic, but that they present romantic love as attainable with little time, communication, or effort. Women who allow their expectations of relationships to be shaped by these movies or who rely on the conventions they present are as misguided as the ancient Greek girls who sat at the marble feet of Aphrodite, wondering why good men are so hard to find.