It’s easy to spot a rom-com. There’s always the protagonist searching for that one true love. Then they meet someone by chance. They may hate this person at first, but add in a couple of comedic unlikely scenarios making them stuck with each other and they will slowly — but surely — fall in love. Then, a conflict ensues and threatens to kill the blossoming love. This is where the quirky friends come in to make them realise how much they actually love their partner. Finally, a big romantic gesture solves it all. A Stevie Wonder song plays and the credits roll. You’re left with fuzzy feel-good feelings and... maybe some level of expectation that this could also happen to you in real life.
A rom-com, which is defined by Merriam Webster as “a light, comic movie or other work whose plot focuses on the development of a romantic relationship”, mainly tells the funny story of how two people fell in love. It’s not to be confused with other “chick-flicks” (movies that are made to appeal to women) that may have romantic plots but focus on another theme. Think coming-of-age films such as Clueless (1995) and comedy-dramas like The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Nor is it a heavy drama like The Notebook (2004) and Call Me By Your Name (2017).
There’s something about rom-coms
In a world full of woes, watching romantic comedies is essentially an escape. It’s a time-out from reality; it plunges us into a new world where magazine how-to writers can afford a huge apartment in Manhattan.
Although formulaic, romantic comedies often have very witty memorable dialogue that keeps us engaged. Admit it, you’ve ironically used Julia Robert’s line in Notting Hill (1999) at least once.
The genre also gave us iconic rib-tickling scenes that make us laugh years after their release. With women protagonists at its centre, rom-coms have the ability to break the stereotype that ladies aren’t funny. Who could forget Meg Ryan’s performance in When Harry Met Sally (1989) when she faked an orgasm in a restaurant?
But the main thing that keeps us coming back to rom-coms? The warm fuzzy feels. Few genres can deliver “feel-good” vibes better than romantic comedies. When we’re down, these kinds of movies make us believe that maybe not all is lost — maybe we can overcome conflicts and find our happily ever after.
In a nutshell, romantic comedies embody the two things we want the most in life: happiness and love. Now, how did something that sounds so earnest on paper become seen as a guilty pleasure at best, and toxic at worst? That brings us to the question: are rom-coms really bad for you?
Is it love, actually?
These days moviegoers seem to have turned on rom-coms. Even popular culture has shifted with stories like You — a story of a murderer-stalker that thinks he’s a good guy just doing things in the name of love — deconstructing the rom-com genre. Left and right, you’ll find people detailing why romantic comedies are toxic, and the arguments are valid. Rom-coms are filled with toxic “love” concepts that, when applied to real life, could produce disastrous results.
One of rom-com’s most offensive tropes is its tolerance — and even glorification — of cheating. This plot device ruined some of our beloved movies like 13 Going On 30 (2004). Even modern rom-coms are guilty of this. In Set It Up (2018), male lead Charlie has a girlfriend that he ultimately cheats on with his newfound crush, the adorable hardworking Harper. But it was framed as okay because the girlfriend is just a shallow model anyway; we can just forget about her. However, in truth, romancing someone else while you’re committed is a very hurtful and selfish move. Yet, rom-coms very often downplay this.
Another toxic idea perpetuated by rom-coms is equating constant pining to genuine love. Daydreaming, stalking and manipulating their love interest in hopes that they can one day win their affection. What’s disturbing is this kind of behaviour is framed as quirky like in Amelie (2001) where the titular protagonist stalks a guy she likes and sets up creepy obstacle courses just to meet him.
More often, this manipulative behaviour is excused because one is socially awkward like Amelie or because they’ve gone through some trauma like in My Sassy Girl (2001) where the “girl” beats up, makes fun of and is just overall abusive to the person she’s dating.
Rom-coms are also guilty of harmful plot points like “the right woman” transforming the emotionally constipated playboy, toxic will-they-won’t-they fighting, women as natural hopeless romantics, and many more.
Now, it’s clear that rom-coms share ideas that are not actually about how to love but about getting your way no matter what — but so do other genres. Some rom-coms may have bad writing but are they necessarily bad for you?
Are rom-coms bad for you?
Definitely, maybe. It’s easier to differentiate fact from fiction for other genres. We know that dragons aren’t real and that we’re not living in a simulated world. But with rom-coms, it’s easy to believe the toxic love concepts we get. In fact, it has already done real-life damage and has normalised stalking. One study found that women who watch rom-coms are more likely to excuse stalking and other aggressive behaviour from suitors, seeing it as just a normal part of courtship.
Rom-coms are also suggested to aid in the idealisation of a partner or a potential partner, according to another study. Putting someone on a pedestal and having unrealistic expectations can be detrimental to a relationship. It can lead to feelings of disappointment and betrayal, which can lead to an attitude of no one being “good enough”. Interestingly, another study published in the same year has found that individuals who actively look for love lessons in rom-coms are the ones most likely to be affected by their toxic takeaways. These people are more likely to apply them in real life and consequently suffer the repercussions that rom-com characters don’t face.
So yes, sadly, rom-coms can be bad for you if you treat them as romance bibles. Take it from Mindy Kaling: “I simply regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world.”
To all the romcoms we loved before
With everything said, romantic comedies are not all bad. It just depends on how we look at them. Just as how you wouldn’t give a mouse a broom expecting it to help you clean, we shouldn’t treat real-life people like rom-com characters. Rom-coms are not guides, they are works of fiction. You shouldn’t look for romantic cues from them. However, all the romcoms we’ve loved before can give us valuable insight by helping us identify toxic behaviours.
Rom-coms in their true form — not as parodies or deconstructions — are also getting upgrades. Sweet tales like Love, Simon (2018) have proven that rom-coms can be funny and feel-good without toxic love concepts. At their core, rom-coms are about going through a journey of self-development in order to be ready to love someone. This part just isn’t always emphasised, but that’s changing now. Recent releases emphasising self-realisation of flaws and strengths as part of the process of falling in love are now more common. This is why most romances and romantic comedies now have some themes of coming-of-age as seen in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018-2021), the latest remake of Emma (2020), and Korean-drama True Beauty (2021).
Rom-coms can and has been toxic, but it doesn't mean that it's going to be that way forever. Slowly but surely, romantic comedies are going back to the essence of its tale — depicting genuine love, not infatuation nor obsession and giving us lots of laugh along the way. In the end, romantic comedies can also be meaningful and good for you.
(Cover photo from: Tirza van Dijk via Unsplash)
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