When we think of the cinema of the 90s and aughts, we always think of romantic comedies. During that time – which is considered the golden age of the rom-com– the genre featured big names and dominated Hollywood both critically and commercially, reaching a box office and critical peak by 2000, with movies like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Jerry McGuire, and Four Weddings and a Funeral getting nominated for Oscars.
So when did their sudden decline start?
Romantic comedies have always been one of my favorite genres. Of course, revealing this in conversations would always get me sarcastic comments or at the very best, incredulous looks. And I can see where people are coming from, considering the genre’s decline in recent years.
Or, as Mindy Kaling put it, “the genre [of the romantic comedy] has been so degraded in the past 20 years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity.”
However, romantic comedies are not completely dead. There’s a myriad of explanations for the massive shift in our current movie scene, the most obvious one being the disappearance of the mid-budget film. Production houses go for either big-budget blockbusters or small indies, with the high demand for the former and the niche appeal of the latter.
It’s worth noting that the genre itself shouldered some of the blame for its decline. Filmmakers relied on the same clichéd stereotypes, ignoring the rapid shift in culture; any attempt to adapt meant tinkering with the original, successful formula without adding anything of substance. This prompts a comparison between rom-coms from the late 2000s and films by Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers — both cast big stars from their respective eras, but only the former stories stood the test of time.
Most romantic comedies follow (or try to follow) the rom-com formula, which usually starts with two characters meeting at an awkward point in their lives, realizing they have a problem, reaching a point of strife, and transitioning into a honeymoon phase. There’s a climax at the end of act two, a grand gesture, and resolution.
This formula made movies (and books) like Pride & Prejudice, Bridget Jones’ Diary, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle work. It’s timeless, and it was never the problem, but its components didn’t yield the desired result with more modern works, because studios relied on big names instead of good stories. But while the formula wasn’t to blame, the audience wasn’t either – they had to watch the same thing over and over, with all the stories blending into a stereotypical haze. Where the real focus should lie is on the mistakes the industry made.
For a successful comeback, modern romantic comedies need more diversity, with stories featuring characters from different ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, and ages. Movies like Enough Said, The Half of It, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before resonated with audiences for a reason. It just gets repetitive to watch two attractive rich white people fall in love, because in the end, what’s really at stake?
Oftentimes, the characters aren’t likable on their own, or, at best, they’re not at all developed. It’s obvious when writers don’t like the characters they write. The audience has to root for the characters separately before they can root for them together.
One of my favorite examples of this is Sleeping With Other People (SWOP). It’s about Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) in what’s essentially a modern When Harry Met Sally. They decide to be friends and not get entangled after they confess their flaws to each other, choosing instead to try and guide each other through their respective affairs. SWOP worked because director and writer Leslye Headland used the strength of the individual characters, making the audience sympathize with both Jake and Lainey separately first and foremost, allowing us to see them through the eyes of the other because you can’t be in a relationship with someone you wouldn’t be friends with.
This gap after the mid-2000s allowed audiences to reexamine romance as a genre, and, with it, the romantic comedy. We’ve seen all the criticism, looking at the 90s through rose-colored glasses; people either long for it or think it was too shallow, naïve, and at odds with “real cinema.” Beyond that is criticism that the romantic comedy is sexist, that it features depictions of women having no other aspirations other than falling in love, or that the genre can’t be charming anymore because the lack of technology in its earlier films gave them a certain beauty.
One popular criticism is that romantic comedies are unrealistic, but it could be argued that it’s one of the most realistic genres. The concept of love is as universal and relatable as experiences come, and a lack of realism never stopped movies from performing well at the box office, as proven by the success of the horror, sci-fi, and apocalyptic genres.
(Well, maybe there’s some realism to apocalyptic movies, but that’s not the point.)
These discussions prompted the era of the working girl/girlboss in film – also known as the “good for her” cinematic universe – which encouraged the need for women to change their goals and priorities and implied that love is a weakness to be weeded out before one can unlock one’s full career potential. This did absolutely nothing for female liberation – it just shifted the expectation of women off of child-bearing wives and onto corporate machines. And it proved that most arguments against the genre are rooted in misogyny, because of the amount of backlash against one of the few genres that doesn’t exist to exploit female suffering.
As for the future of the genre, only time will tell – but it’s looking promising so far, with movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Happiest Season, and the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy breaking streaming records. Maybe the genre will make the full switch to television, allowing more time for character development and audience connection. Shows like New Girl, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Superstore, and The Mindy Project managed to pull that off. And, as proven by romantic K-dramas topping Netflix charts, there will always be demand for romantic series.
In order for the modern rom-com to have a successful and widespread resurgence, it needs to adapt and show us well-written stories of people with whom we can identify while also acknowledging that love is no longer something women happen to fall into; sometimes, it’s a conscious choice that reflects their morals and autonomy. The absence of rom-coms has left a gap in the market like no other, and the only way to bring it back is to allow it to grow and evolve – and, oftentimes, to simply exist.