RomCom rage

Lately I’ve been talking with many of my film-obsessed friends about romantic comedies. Specifically we’ve been trying to come up with one made by Hollywood in the last five years which wasn’t misogynist rubbish. We’ve been failing.

Sarah Dollard, a dear friend, wonderful writer, and fellow romcom addict, pointed me to this excellent Guardian article on the problem. Kira Cochrane agrees with us completely:

It’s not only women who have noticed the shift in the romantic comedy genre. Peter Travers, a film critic for Rolling Stone magazine described He’s Just Not That Into You as “a women-bashing tract disguised as a chick flick” and Kevin Maher has written in the Times that the “so-called chick flick has become home to the worst kind of regressive pre-feminist stereotype”. Dr Diane Purkiss, an Oxford fellow and feminist historian, feels that we have reached a nadir in the way that women are portrayed on screen, and says that there’s been “a depressing dumbing down of the whole genre. That’s not to say that I want all movies to be earnest and morally improving. But I think that you can actually have entertainment with sassy, smart heroines, rather than dimwitted ones.”

As many of my readers know I’ve spent the last year watching heaps of movies from the 1930s. I find it shocking that so many of these movies are less sexist and appalling than the ones being made now. The female leads in so many of the 1930s movies are smarter and more interesting than any of the mostly deeply stupid women in the likes of Made of Honour, Confessions of a Shopaholic, License to Wed, He’s Not That Into You, Bride Wars and 27 Dresses.

These movies fill me with rage. There is no equality between the romantic leads which has been the heart of a good romance ever since Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy first met. In recent Hollywood romcoms the women are insecure, neurotic, needy, obsessed with marriage, and neither witty nor fun. The men are bemused by the women as one would be by a naughty puppy dog. That is not my idea of equality nor is it my idea of romance.

As Cochrane points out “the people making these films” seem to “genuinely dislike” their audience. Which I think is a good explanation for how stupid, insulting, and dumb so many recent romcoms have been. They’re made by men who hate women. Wow, does it show. It’s why I’ve stopped seeing them. It’s too painful.

For some additional romcom rage, check out the wonderful Robin Wasserman’s rant about The Family Stone.

Sometimes all the research I’ve been doing on the 1930s gets me down, because it forces me to realise that there are so many ways in which our current world is every bit as sexist as it was seventy years ago. And in some ways it’s worse: Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn never ever played stupid women. In their movies the audience was invited to side with them just as often as we were supposed to side with their male sparring partners.

What the hell happened?


  1. Cat on #

    I agree with all. No, I do not know what happened but I have stopped watching romantic comedies or going to the movies. I will check out a movie first before I rent or buy. I LOVED the women in 1930s movies…they were and still are so cool. THAT is the kind of woman I want to see a movie about. I have not seen The Family Stone because I did not like what I saw in the commercials. Is this all a backlash to women striving for their place in the world? Maybe…or not…could be so many different reasons for it. I like seeing human characteristics being shown in a movie and I can tolerate a lot and find something positive in almost anything but there really is a point where there is just too much hatred towards the movies characters or stupidity shown that just makes it too hard to watch. Maybe it is because I am older now that if I do not want to waste my time with something like that I won’t. Just because we are told we should watch this movie or read that book does not mean I will. If I do not like what I see now I will pass. Seems to make my life I little better. Wonder what others will think. I hope your book tour goes well and have to say I enjoy reading your blog and have passed it on to others.

  2. robin on #

    The saddest part of that article was how shocked all the teenage girls were to watch a ro-com where the woman was actually the equal of the man — “Bronté was surprised by Annie Hall, in which the female character was ‘almost portrayed in a better light than the man – she was the one who let him down, whereas quite often now you just see a poor woman on screen who everyone feels sorry for, who’s let down by her lover’.”

    (Well, actually the saddest part is that When Harry Met Sally is presented as a slice of ancient history, but that’s another story.)

  3. Q on #

    People started buying into these kinds of movies. They can make money, so Hollywood keeps making them. However ideologically wrong they are, people are still paying for them.

    Follow the money.

  4. Karen on #

    I remember thinking Definitely, Maybe was better than most recent romantic comedies in its treatment of the female characters (and the male). It came out last year — it’s not a perfect movie and I can’t guarantee it as a panacea for all RomCom rage, but it’s certainly a glimmer of hope.

  5. Sarah on #

    Clumsy. You forgot clumsy. In the last few years female romcom* leads have been endlessly walking into doors, getting lost, losing important stuff, falling off/over/into things, and stuffing up big time. Behaving like helpless little girls, basically.

    Even romcoms featuring a half-way together chick feature at least one A over T moment, usually in the presence of the male lead.
    Don’t get me wrong – I love me some slapstick and physical comedy. Love it to the point of silliness. What I have a huge problem with is when it’s used to cut a sassy female character down to size or humiliate her for cheap laughs. My romcom rage comes on especially strong when it’s clear the writer could think of no other way to make their female lead warm or likeable. Apparently everyone loves a klutz, so she need have no other redeeming qualities or complicating flaws.

    At least when Katherine Hepburn’s Susan had a wardrobe malfunction in a restaurant in Bringing Up Baby it was Cary Grant’s fault. Bloody hilarious scene and yet Susan retained her dignity because she was written and performed with respect. Likewise, when she (repeatedly) crashed a car she did so with great aplomb and absolutely no sense of shame. Shame is the key word. Recent romcoms are full of chicks being shamed. Katherine Hepburn’s women could fall over and be funny while retaining their status in the scene and – most importantly – in the eyes of the audience.

    I used to think this recent romcom trend was a product of Hollywood (mistakenly) trying to make the beautiful female leads less threatening to the “average woman” in the audience. Now I’m fairly sure the female leads are made to behave like fragile simpletons with inner-ear infections so that they won’t intimidate the “average man”. Yuck.

    A vomit-triggering case in point is the trailer for New In Town. Every scene snippet features Renee Zellweger making a fool of herself, often in front of a man, or a crowd of men. I suspect the studios think women will rush out and see any old rubbish with romance in it, so their real task is to pitch the romcom to men. Roll up blokes! Have no fear of letting the little lady pick the movie because we’re writing them for you these days! Nothing to see here but a dumb pretty girl running into things! There might even be a scene of two hot chicks having an all-out hair-pulling, face-slapping cat fight! Over a man! A man just like you! Come laugh your arse off! Only one super-quick lovey-dovey scene right at the end, we promise!

    I really don’t think most blokes will go for it, and I sure as hell hope women won’t.

    *I reckon the term romcom is where this whole discussion has gone wrong. Most of the movies in the genre I’ve seen lately have been neither romantic nor comic. New term – vomcom. Because honestly, who can keep their lunch down? Not Renee Zellweger, apparently.

  6. Justine on #

    Q: I think you’ll find that that’s not entirely true. Many of the films we’re talking about were either box office flops or performed well below expectations.

    Sarah: Vomcom! I LOVE it!

  7. Julia Rios on #

    I agree about all of the movies you just mentioned. We saw Made of Honor last year and left the theatre feeling horrible. I like the romantic comedy genre, but the good ones seem to be few and far between. In the last couple of years, I think the least misongynistic ones I’ve seen have featured teens (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Sydney White, Juno), which is encouraging in that it’s great that teens (at least sometimes) want strong, smart female leads, but discouraging in that apparently adults are happy without them.

  8. Kate on #

    I really enjoyed reading those links and your conversation here – it is such a relief to find likeminded people on the subject of romantic comedies (and yes, it is much more accurate to describe these recent films mentioned as vomcoms!). I grew up on a steady diet of romantic comedies from the ’30s and ’40s, and I’m always hoping against hope that I’ll sit down with a recent romcom and find something worthy of description. Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Doris Day – they played strong women, women who felt good about themselves, who respected themselves. I liked what Kira Cochrane said about the sense of shame the modern female characters feel – we don’t respect them, we feel embarassed for them, humiliated and ashamed for them, and then are supposed to feel a sense of relief when the male lead comes along, props them upright and validates their existence. it is enraging.

  9. Q on #

    But the point is that the production company thought they would make money, therefore they invested money and made them. We should be grateful they flopped–maybe we’ll get some better (i.e. less sexist) movies as a result of that. Eventually, they might get the message. We can hope.

    And until then, there’s no reason to support those films, is there?

  10. Justine on #

    Q: Tragically the mostly male execs in Hollywood see it as proof that movies with female leads don’t make money and thus the failure of every romcom is used as a reason to make fewer movies about women, rather than better romcoms. It’s very depressing.

  11. Sir Tessa on #

    At a guess, I’d say they’re working on the theory that we silly gels will flock to the concept of a heroine that is made of fail, yet is loved by Mister Handsome in spite of this. Thus we, with all our insecurities, must CLEARLY empathise with FailHeroine, for she lives out our most sekrit dreams!

    (Which is not a theory I respond to.)

  12. Carbonel on #

    Does “Mama Mia” count as RomCom? Because that was a bit dippy, but didn’t strike me as misogynistic. I’d have added “and The Middleman” but (sob) it’s cancelled.

    My theory viz the Nick-and-Norah/Juno brigade vs. the Shopaholic crew is that we’re seeing the last gasp of a particularly asinine brand of late-Boomer era “feminism.” You know, the one that goes: golly, it’s not fair that men get to do X and we don’t (true) where X = sexual and materialistic irresponsibility ala Playboy. As my grandma used to tell me, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you’d want to.”

    I mean, sure James Bond can be fun, but only because he’s ultra-super-dooper-competant. Without that he’s just a loser and a cad.

  13. Justine on #

    Carbonel: Tv shows don’t count. Is a movie category. I have not seen Mamma Mia though the Guardian article counts it as a romcom I would have thought it was more of a musical.

    PS I too am in mourning for The Middleman. Don’t cancel it, you bastards!

  14. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Mamma Mia pissed me off. You have it set up that you have this totally enlightened young woman that, when disappointed in love, is like, whatever, there are more cute boys in the world, let me sleep with two of them, too, then buy a gorgeous hotel, then raise my awesome daughter all by myself and travel the world with my girlfriends singing pop songs… and I was totally on board.

    Then, two songs in, she’s whining about how the only way out of her troubles is to marry a rich man? And then she proceeds to pratfall and cry, and stumble around her hotel room and cry, and lie in bed and cry, and then run into the bathroom and cry, and then walk offstage in the middle of a performance at her daughter’s party and cry, and then almost miss her daughter’s WEDDING because she’s standing on a mountaintop crying to her ex lover…


    I know they were constrained somewhat by the ABBA songs, but I found Streep’s character to be the most annoying in the film by far. I was like, lady, snap out of it.

    The other thing I hate is this new trend of pushing so called romantic comedies on us where it’s really some schlub guy’s fantasy of romance — loser loved by a series of successful, beautiful, clever, funny, sexy, stunning women who are mystifyingly totally lost (not to mention bitchy and/or shrewish) without him. See Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, almost every TV sitcom, etc. they might be coms, but they aren’t roms.

    Shrek was pretty good as a rom com. Does that count? I found it both romantic and funny.

    I also refuse to watch romantic comedies anymore (except nick and norah, which I actually thought was quite good). the last one I saw was Something New, which I thought was interesting in that unlike the stupidity of the usual “we are going to make a bizarre and pointless bet” conflict, there was a real conflict (the heroine’s racism) underneath the humor. But after a while, I couldn’t figure out what the hero saw in her or why he kept fighting for her affection.

    Last Holiday was also pretty good, though it was more about Queen latifah’s character than the romance. Um, also, I’ll watch anything at all with her in it, because I have a big old crush.

  15. Cat on #

    Oh, I am unhappy if The Middleman has been canceled…tell me it is not true!?! I loved the highly intelligent banter. Hopefully Season one will come out on dvd soon…too many times while watching it I would get called out to work so I still have some episodes to catch up on. I enjoyed this blog article and the resulting comments.

  16. Cat on #

    PS…I love the new word vomcom…says soooo much!c

  17. Kate Elliott on #

    Thank you for writing this, Justine. I linked to it on my blog, because I was thinking about writing up something re: that article, but now I don’t have to because you’ve said what I would have wanted to. How kind of you!

    Except, please, Carbonel, don’t put this at the feet of late boomer feminism (whatever a late boomer is). This is a male vision, I think, not a female one, one which I would tend to attribute to the skewed demographics of Hollywood management and perhaps the inward turned view within the industry which strikes me as having lost touch with, well, how most people actually are.

    I admit I never liked When Harry Met Sally, but that’s perhaps because I have never liked Meg Ryan for some unknown and irrational reason.

  18. Gizmo10 on #

    This is all true (I’m a big fan of classic movies myself, the stories are much tighter, and the leads more interesting that most of today’s plastic dolls, male and female). But… I don’t think women are the only ones maligned in modern flicks. Check out the guys! In trailers for any number of comedies, romantic or otherwise, men are portrayed as dumb, slovenly, neurotic losers.

  19. Lauren on #

    You’re right, Justine. It’s tragic and horrible and there’s no real logic to it. Hollywood remains a boys’ game. They don’t get women and they don’t want to get women. They are obsessed with breaking audiences up into market categories and, for some reason, they see “women” as one of those categories. When they decide it’s time to start trying to squeeze some cash out of that market segment, they produce pieces of utter misogynist rubbish featuring either beautiful klutzes or sad-sacks who they assume “real women” will relate to. The films tank (deservedly) and they decide they’re not going to bother making “women’s films” any more.

    Just a few months ago, I was approached to write a “women’s film” based on this wretched story about a group of sad-sack rejects who decide to open a winery. The studio behind it wanted to make a chick film because Sex and the City was so successful. Only problem was this story had absolutely nothing in common with Sex and the City other than the fact that there were women in it. They wanted me to “freshen it up” and make it “witty and sharp.” I knew I’d have to completely revamp all the characters and come up with a new story line, but I was willing to do it, because honestly, the money was good, and I find these kinds of writing assignments pretty easy. Then a few weeks into the process, both Jodi Foster and Nicole Kidman came out with flops (in the thriller genre) and the studio behind the film I was working on pulled the plug. Why? “Chick flicks don’t make money.” Never mind that a bunch of dudes came out with flops that month too. Nobody sees a male-lead flop as any indication that “dick flicks” don’t work. Brain dead? You betcha. Universal? Nearly.

    My advice? Stick to Netflix and load up on the classics. When you want some modern rom-com, pick up a book. There’s tons of great stuff out there.

  20. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Gizmo, I agree — a lot of times the men aren’t coming off too well either. They are generally either portrayed as the super savvy dream guy with no personality of his own — the “goal” the heroine gets if she does everything right…

    Or they are losers that don’t deserve the girls…

  21. --E on #

    Diana Peterfreund @ #14: “Shrek was pretty good as a rom com. Does that count? I found it both romantic and funny.”

    –>I confess to having a little hate on for Shrek. On the one hand, it is charming and funny. It’s message is, on the surface, that “it’s what’s inside that counts.”

    But I cannot get past the fact that when Fiona is an ogre, she’s considered hideous and ugly…but it’s code for “fat.” She’s adorable! She may be green, but it’s a lovely smooth, even green–I should have so good a complexion. Her eyes are still big and blue, her nose is wee and cute. Her only “flaw,” aside from being green, is that she’s packing a few pounds.

  22. Diana Peterfreund on #

    You know, I’ve heard that argument before, about the “ogre” = “fat” thing, but I didn’t read it that way at all. I read that she was horrified by how she looked because she was an OGRE — shrek’s not bad looking either, by “big green ogre” standards, but people are terrified on principle because he doesn’t look HUMAN. She didn’t look human.

    TO me, it wasn’t so much the “inside is what counts” bit as the “true nature is what counts.” Fiona’s true nature was that of an ogre. She exploded birds, she kicked ass, she was smart and snarky and liked to get down and dirty. She was an ogre, even if she looked like a princess.

  23. john cash on #

    What happened? The audience for movies changed; TV became a competitor, and now we have dumb-woman movies or dumb-guy movies of blow-stuff-up movies. Katherine Hepburn and John Wayne — even the Westerns went the way of their older audiences. Grump, grump. Pass me the Geritol.

  24. Diana Peterfreund on #

    “However, Fiona–by night, entombed first within a phallic tower and then within a vaginal cave–takes the form of a matronly and docile ogress; the natural partner of the hero Shrek…[snip]… when she marries Shrek, forsaking the illusions of ‘femininity’, fairytales, fascism and feminism (all confused under the sign of the letter ‘f’, the emblem of the anti-hero Lord Farquaad) for ‘love’s true form’.

    Um, you weren’t kidding? I think that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. “Phallic tower” and “vaginal cave” Ha! I think that there is such a thing as reading a bit too much into the story. The images are so confusing. And to equate the fact that the villain’s first name starts with an “F” as being somehow emblematic of the rejection of femininity? Um, Fiona starts with an F, too.

    I read Fiona as a girl who was raised to think a very particular thing about herself: she was a princess who HAD to be saved by a prince — and discovers, over the course of the movie that she actually was nothing like that, didn’t want to be, and what’s more, didn’t HAVE to be to be happy. Just as Shrek discovers that he doesn’t have to b misanthropic and isolated and hated.

    Though I will say I’m more in the camp of disliking the “stick thin” human princess Fiona (that the article called her), than the more evenly-matched ogress Fiona of the end. I didn’t think the ogress Fiona was fat. I thought she was ogre-size, like Shrek. It would have been too weird to think of them being together when she was such a tiny little match stick of a thing as a human.

    Then again, I also thought the beast was way cuter than the bland blonde prince he turned into, even though he was similarly bigger, as a beast, than skinny little Belle (who, everytime I rewatch that movie, I’m impressed by her strength of character). Oh, and I like Holly Black’s troll Rav heaps more than than gorgeous faery Roiben, to boot.

  25. Justine on #

    –E & Shveta: I’m with you on Shrek. In addition to your complaints I was also intensely annoyed by the movie’s shift at the end where Fiona goes from being able to look after herself to being a wussy princess. Annoyed the crap out of me.

    Gizmo10: Problem is the guys get to be smart in lots of movies. Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man, Sean Penn in Milk etc etc. But there are almost no movies being made now where a woman carries the film and where she also gets to be smart. The vast majority of lead roles across the genres in Hollywood are male. This was not true in the 1940s at the height of the woman’s picture. It depresses the hell out of me.

  26. Carrie V. on #

    May I go out on a limb and recommend “Enchanted”? It’s very silly in some respects, but Amy Adams really carries the film, and at the climax Giselle picks up a sword and rescues her bloke. Then she starts a business designing princess dresses for little girls. She may be surface ditzy, but she really comes through with common sense and heroic qualities by the end of the film.

    There’s a parallel thing happening with women heroes in adventure films. In the 80’s we had this whole slew of really capable, functional women heroines: Ripley, Sarah Conner, Officer Lewis in RoboCop, April O’Neill in TMNT, even Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone. Now, we have women heroines who are mostly designed to be sex symbols for men rather than role models for women: Lara Croft, the characters in the Underworld movies, etc.

    I, too, am sad and frustrated by this.

  27. Kevin J. Maroney on #

    Is The Forty-Year-Old Virgin misogynistic? I don’t trust my own instincts on that question, for a variety of reasons; but it’s a romantic comedy* with a strong, smart, self-assured female lead.

    (I realize it’s not really a genre rom com. But then, neither are the Shreck films, for pretty much the same reason. Not every comedy with a romance is a rom com. Perhaps it’s just the genre that has gone into rigor and then rancid, and the way to rescue romantic comedy is to stop making rom coms?)

  28. Diana Peterfreund on #

    The Forty Year Old Virgin was the only Apatow comedy that didn’t leave me wanting to hurl rotten tomatoes at the screen. Both characters were severly flawed, but in a way that actually worked well together, I thought. They had a pretty sweet romance — though it’s probably good she didn’t know about all the nonsense going on with the chick in the tub.

    Carrie, I liked Enchanted, too, though I think in general I am uncharmed by Dempsey as a romantic lead. He seems too smarmy.

  29. Laurel on #

    Now, who can imagine a modern remake of The Lady Eve, where Barbara Stanwyck completely bamboozles Henry Fonda, not once but repeatedly? Could that even be done now?

  30. Shveta on #

    @Justine, I was wondering what you thought about the movie. 🙂

    @Diana, I definitely don’t agree with everything the article said. I remember in grad school that I thought a lot of the symbolism stuff was sheer crap. 🙂

    But the reason I brought it up was that it reminded me of how we’ve internalized some ideas to the point that we can’t see them anymore–in this case, a lot of subtle misogyny we aren’t even always aware we carry with us. Unfortunately, I hear that a lot–from other women, even!–and it breaks my heart. So for me, the article reminded me to question the archetypes we as a culture hold dear.

    And about this, I just have to grin.

    Oh, and I like Holly Black’s troll Rav heaps more than than gorgeous faery Roiben, to boot.

  31. Karissa on #

    someone said “dick flick” haha
    we should try to get that into the common vernacular cuz there are so many movies out there that fit that category.

    one movie i liked with a good message for girls is “penelope” starring christina ricci. i don’t want to spoil the ending but it sure made me smile because it’s something you don’t see often. unfortunately, it didn’t get a wider release, and it makes me angry that something as asinine as “27 dresses” and “the wedding date” did ugh

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