First, let’s have a closer look at why they could be bad for you. Heriot Watt University's Family and Personal Relationships Laboratory in Edinburgh has released a study of 40 Hollywood romantic comedies released between 1995-2005. They found that problems typically reported by couples in relationship counselling reflect misconceptions about love and romance depicted in Hollywood films.
Relationship counsellors often face common misconceptions in their clients — that if your partner truly loves you they'd know what you need without you communicating it, that your soul mate is predestined. We did a rigorous content analysis of romantic comedies and found that the same issues were being portrayed in these films- says the university's Dr Bjarne Holmes.
I guess we all experienced how romantic comedies have messed up our conception of LOVE. We have a whole right to hate them! They show impossibly pretty people living in hip apartments, who after some obstacles find their other halves and are going to be happy F O R E V E R! It gets even more annoying when you see the characters falling in love from the very first sight in clubs, hospitals, bookstores or dropping groceries on the streets. Let's face it, we all tried it and it never worked. Ordering a glass of wine and waiting for some hot guy to appear by the bar stand, suggesting to pay for a next drink and then turning out to be super-smart, hilariously funny, caring, kind, but also a bit distanced and mysterious, knowing all your needs/worries/dreams/favourite ice-cream JUST DOES NOT HAPPEN!! And it sometimes takes a heavy bucket of painful disappointment to realise that.
Moving from personal experiences and emotional bummers to some serious debates on rom-coms. Scholars have been criticising the genre for being inherently conservative: affirming monogamous and heterosexual relationships, representing women as their lives revolve mainly around romance, and finally showing an infantile image of love as a mystical force which triumphs over all kinds of obstructions.
But it doesn't end there. There is also a highly problematic institution of HAPPY ENDING. All problems in relationships, starting from differences in social status (Notebook, Love Actually, Dirty Dancing) and ending with physical disabilities, seem to be simply solved by this last kiss at the end.
The ultimate example of an idealised, fairy-tale portrayal of LOVE could be the closing scene of the absolute rom-com Pretty Woman. Richard Gere's prince-like-character effectively climbs a tower to rescue the ex-prostitute-now-princess. After Gere overcomes his fear of heights and kisses Julia Roberts, a street person pronounces the film’s final words:
“This is Hollywood, land of dreams. Some dreams come true. Some don’t. But keep on dreaming. This is Hollywood. Always time to dream. So keep on dreaming.”
However, Pretty Woman’s happy-ending so explicitly embraces the conventions of romantic comedy that it might appear as a self-parody. It almost shouts to your face: "This is Hollywood what else did you expect?! It had to be a perfect happy ending."
So, basically it’s about having a cake and eating it too. With a a passionate and yet ironic embrace of romantic possibilities, there is a space for indulging in idealised fantasies and be critical about them.
And plenty of romcoms started going this path. They don’t appear to be naive anymore, and sometimes significantly even challenge rom-com conventions.
There have been multiple examples of romantic comedies being self-conscious about its generic codes. Starting with the most critically acclaimed rom-com, Annie Hall which shows yearnings for old-fashioned romance, but the protagonist Alvy (Woody Allen) smashes romantic clichés for their irrelevancy in real life.
Although most contemporary rom-coms don’t embrace such a critical deconstruction , they still highlight the inappropriateness of romantic conventions in a modern society. Career-driven Emma (Natalie Portman) and wacky Adam (Ashton Kutcher) who make the couple in No Strings Attached, significantly reverse traditional relationship dynamic when their romance starts with regular sex meetings, while the emotional elements come into play later on.
Apart from a bold portrayal of sexuality, No Strings Attached involves a scene of women being on their periods and eating lots of cupcakes. There are not too many occasions to see the recognition of female menstruation on a screen, so I guess this film deserves a thumbs up for it.
Bridesmaids takes a popular trope of masculine oriented gross-out comedy and translates it to the most feminised scenario which is a wedding preparation. The film wittingly shows that women’s life doesn't revolve solely around fairy-tale romance, but that they are the equal to men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, and overdrinking. Bridesmaids also breaks one of the best kept secret and cultural taboo in human history, it shows women farting. It’s scandalous, I know.
And finally, last year’s hit Silver Linings Playbook makes the statement that happy-ever-after isn't built on sugary idealised notions, but on something more down-to-earth, or even destructive such as mental illness.
All these examples and many other, embrace while at the same time explicitly depart from romantic comedy conventions. They've got these two, white, super-attractive, heterosexual protagonists kissing at the end of the film, but the characters challenge traditional paradigms with a realist perspective of modern times. They say: people have sex before marriage, women fart and bleed every month, and some of us have problems remaining mentally balanced in the 21st century anxious times.
But yes, a great deal of rom-coms have the super-improbable, utopian, and according to Heriot Watt University' research, destructive happy ending.
To make it straight, except a very few cases, romantic comedy without a happy ending, ain’t romantic comedy any more. The rom-com narrative is organised solely around the coupling problem, so imagine the frustration after seeing 90 minutes of Harry and Sally trying to get together but they don’t.
There is so much emotional investment on the viewers’ part to see these two kissing at the end, that when we can’t experience the cathartic happy ending, there is some sort of eternal emptiness spreading in our mind and body. OK, maybe some people get over it easier, I suffer physically. And don’t lie, deep in your heart ... no, deeeeper, you also want this all to end well. As romcomcentral blogger accurately puts it:
Hello, I asked for the rainbow cupcake with pink frosting, not the decadent chocolate fudge cake. Both are delicious, but I was counting on that cupcake!
But, why the happy ending is so desired by the audience ?! Practically, a predictable ending doesn’t make sense as a storytelling device in film, because from a logical stance viewers would have been bored to death after seeing the same story all over again. However, against the sound reasoning (not that it’s ever helpful when talking about Hollywood films), this is what actually happens. Most films we see end well, and it doesn't concern only romantic comedies, but is also heavily present in other genres, especially action films.
To me the most appealing explanation is, that watching a recurring pattern of a couple falling into each other, then having a crisis, but overcoming it with a happy-ending, resembles something of a mystical ritual taking place during Catholic mass or similar kinds of spiritual practices. The same conduct is consistently repeated for the sake of contemplation, satisfying immaterial needs of our psyche.
Indigenous tribes do a similar thing, when there is a tragic event falling on an individual or a whole group, they reenact it in a form of ritual-theatre through dancing, singing, shadow puppetry, or simply acting out incidences of the event , in order to experience it again, accept the fate, and find an inner peace. Maybe a more familiar example, are people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who through repetitive behaviour, such as hand washing, create for themselves an impression of security.
And finally, cinema is there not only for solving existential problems and achieving aesthetic orgasm, but also for escapist pleasure. After experiencing the dreads of reality, it’s therapeutic to leave everything behind, and immerse ourselves in a fantasy realm where life problems work out just fine.
So, maybe rom-coms aren’t that bad for us. In an answer to the already mentioned Heriot Watt University' research which blames rom-coms for our distorted image of love, Phillip Hodson, a fellow at the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy says:
We need to live by stories that help us deal with tough realities. Idealism has a role to play — it can convince us that no matter how misshapen, decrepit, or dull we are, there is someone out there for us. And you know what? There is! Walk through any shopping mall and you see the most extraordinary pairings," he says. "We all need hope in our lives. And Hollywood trades on hope.