Most of us don’t think of romantic comedies as serious cinema — but should we? Features writer Alicia Devereaux suggests there is more to these “guilty pleasures” than meets the eye, thanks to a new wave of diverse romcoms that could change the genre — or cinema overall — for good.
It goes by many names: romcom, romedy, chick flick, date movie. Its monikers prescribe a specific function and audience to the genre, telling you who can watch it, and when. But one name in particular tells you exactly how to feel about the romantic comedy: “guilty pleasure.”
Whether it’s The Notebook or 27 Dresses, these movies provide us with a much-needed dose of escapism and comfort; they are the cinematic embodiment of mint chocolate chip ice cream or footie pajamas. They only wind up with this unfortunate nickname because they’re fun and light, which translates to “vapid,” and more importantly, because they are targeted towards a female audience, which translates to “dumb.” The genre’s complex reputation and conventions may have far greater implications in cinema and in society overall, going beyond the mere sexist condescension which deems romcoms as pop culture fluff. And it is transforming in front of our eyes.
Birthed by Shakespeare and shaped by screwball, the romcom has graced our lives for decades. The John Hughes films of the eighties used the Brat Pack to reckon with adolescent angst, the nineties turned up the crude humor with its raunchy teen sex comedies, and the aughts began making their weak mark with star-studded ensemble casts and interconnected storylines nobody really cares about (cough, Valentine’s Day). But in recent years, the genre has shapeshifted yet again– this time, beyond simply switching out John Cusack for Freddie Prinze Jr. Instead, it’s swapping out old voices for new ones.
There’s a reason Crazy Rich Asians, which premiered this August, is the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the decade. It’s practically bursting with style, features a sensational cast, and is incredibly watchable. It also serves as additional proof against the antiquated theory that films starring people of color don’t perform at the box office. People of every race came out to watch Crazy Rich Asians, and Asian moviegoers could look up at the screen and see faces, lifestyles, and worldviews that may be closer to their own than anything they’ve seen in mainstream American cinema. And despite its diverse cast and cultural backdrop, Crazy Rich Asians has something for everybody.
It also serves as additional proof against the antiquated theory that films starring people of color don’t perform at the box office.
But is Crazy Rich Asians just a blip in the romcom timeline? I see Jon M. Chu’s film, along with several others from the past year, as emblematic of something bigger. We’ve clearly come a long way since Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong and Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Mr. Yunioshi. We might even be experiencing the romcom’s rebirth first-hand, thanks to a new wave of films that want to have it all: diversity, style, and watchability. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy your favorite Ashton Kutcher flick because of its 18% score on Rotten Tomatoes — watch what you like, and don’t feel bad about it. But the genre deserves to have some Certified Fresh ratings, too; it deserves respect, acclaim, and variety, just like any other film category.
Variety is the key word here. The female-directed, teen sex comedy Blockers subverts the sex pact trope by telling a story of four female friends taking control of their bodies while struggling to overcome sexist double standards. Summer box office hit The Spy Who Dumped Me flips the bromance movie on its head by showcasing female friendship; it is also directed by a woman. Ocean’s trilogy spin-off, Ocean’s 8 (which, while not technically a romcom, shares a target audience), challenges the male-dominated world of heist films by letting ladies run the show, and Love, Simon puts queer identity and romance at its forefront. Meanwhile, Netflix has churned out POC-centric hits like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Nappily Ever After. Note that all of these films are pretty formulaic; their classic storylines are well-tread ground. What elevates each of these “new wave” romcoms is not a fresh plot, but a fresh perspective.
What elevates each of these “new wave” romcoms is not a fresh plot, but a fresh perspective.
These changes in the romantic comedy genre are part of a larger movement to bring more points of view to film in general. Whitewashing scandals grace our news feeds on a regular basis. There is a constant debate over cis actors playing trans characters. And earlier this year, 82 women gathered on the red carpet at Cannes to represent the shockingly slim number of women who have screened films at the festival since its was first held in 1942. Luckily, 2018 has brought an onslaught of female-directed and female-centric mainstream films like A Wrinkle in Time and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which features a lesbian protagonist.
In the wake of this newfound diversity, we might initially ask: Why now? Why are romcom filmmakers suddenly putting in the extra effort to be inclusive? Maybe it’s simply for a profit and a pat on the back. Despite colorful casts, for the most part, the same circle of establishment white males is still in power, commodifying minorities. It’s unclear whether romcoms are diversifying more than or ahead of other genres, but if they are, is it only because the genre is taken less seriously and, therefore, poses less of a threat?
But that’s just it: we can’t really tell which genre is the most diverse and in what order they became that way. However, there is one apparent distinction between romcoms — at least, recent ones — and other genres, like dramas. In drama films, a minority character’s race is often a driving factor in the plot, while in romcoms, it’s more often a footnote. If we look at dramas from the past couple of Oscar races, like Get Out, Moonlight, Mudbound, Hidden Figures, Loving, and Fences, we see a pattern of explicit racial themes. Meanwhile, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before focuses on an Asian American protagonist without making her ethnicity central to the narrative. The racial identities of the characters in Ocean’s 8 are mentioned but not integral to the story.
It’s important to remember that this phenomenon only applies to media made here in the U.S. Americans already watch plenty of diverse films and TV from abroad– one example being the Korean drama, or “K-drama.” K-dramas have been widely popularized in the U.S. thanks to the “Korean Wave,” the recent global enthusiasm for Korean culture. Obviously, American dramas don’t hold a candle to the Asian representation in this inherently Korean-led media. Although K-dramas have become a major chunk of our pop culture intake in the States, they can’t be considered a part of this diversification trend because they are not made in America. Diversity in what we watch may not be new, but diversity in what we make is.
Diversity in what we watch may not be new, but diversity in what we make is.
Even if Caucasian film execs are diversifying romcoms in their own self interest, maybe the joke is on them. If white corporate bosses are under the impression they are merely throwing minorities a bone because romcoms are amateurish and unserious, then they could be underestimating the genre. In many ways, the lighthearted accessibility of romantic comedies doesn’t make them irrelevant — it makes them the most relevant. The ordinariness is powerful. When underrepresented groups are cast in something as commonplace as a romantic comedy, it proves that representations of people of color don’t always need to be extraordinary or political to be valid.
Consider commercials, which — certainly, if we consider romcoms to be insubstantial — are basically void of meaning. There has been an uptick in depictions of interracial couples in advertisements in the past several years. If varied representation can reach something as innocuous as a laundry detergent ad, then shouldn’t it be able to reach everything else? The idea is this: if the most basic, everyday visual recordings of human beings feature a diverse group, it will lay the groundwork for total normalization, and diversity in all visual arts will follow.
Perhaps this is the goal, but it is not the reality. Plenty of what we see and watch is still dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual figures. In the end, we can’t be sure that diversifying romantic comedies will diversify cinema overall. This doesn’t mean the romcom “new wave” isn’t promising — it can still do plenty for itself as a genre.
Let’s not forget why we’re drawn to romantic comedies in the first place: for the escapism. It’s a chance to spend approximately ninety minutes in a world where everything works out in the end and to project ourselves onto the inhabitants of that utopia. For too long, and for too many of us, that projection has forced us to sacrifice parts of who we are for the sake of imagining ourselves as the character getting swept off their feet. If this trend continues, maybe we can all see a little more of ourselves in these celluloid fantasies. Until now, the romcom has been the guilty party — not its audiences — but it might be on the path to becoming guilt-free.
Art by Sarah Morgan. Originally published in ROCKET Volume IX, Issue 1.