Like so many people, my favorite romantic comedy is the 1998 Nora Ephron film “You’ve Got Mail,” because it celebrates books, fall, email anxiety and misunderstandings that ultimately bring soul mates together.
However, a moment of clarity occurred recently as I watched an MTV-produced YouTube video called “If Famous Movie Romances Were Feminist,” which skewered various classics. Young actors parodied the final scene in “You’ve Got Mail” in which Kathleen “Shopgirl” Kelly (Meg Ryan) realizes that her nemesis-turned-love interest, Joe “NY152” Fox (Tom Hanks), is indeed the man whose company forced the shutdown of her independent book store — but he’s also the one who has been wooing her online.
“Don’t cry, Shopgirl,” fake Tom Hanks says lovingly.
“I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly,” fake Meg Ryan responds dreamily.
“Really?” fake Tom Hanks asks, full of hope.
“F--- no!” fake Meg Ryan shoots back. “You ran my business into the ground, and you lied to me for weeks! I’m going to find someone who respects me and my career.” She storms off.
Fake Tom Hanks pauses. “Yeah, that’s fair.”
As much as I adore that final scene in “You’ve Got Mail,” it is a twisted turn of events — so I found the parody hilarious. But the video also speaks to the current generation’s cynical view of romantic comedies. That’s why when people go on tangents about how Hollywood can’t make a good rom-com anymore and the genre is dead, I’m secretly relieved.
As the parody shows, we now live in a thinkpiece era, and frankly, none of the wildly popular, cult status-like movies of the 1990s — otherwise known as the peak rom-com period — escape unscathed. Romantic comedies are fueled by an idealized version of love, while modern sensibilities about gender roles and romance have increasingly caused audiences to see these films through a much different lens. Some suggest this could be one of the reasons for the genre’s slow demise over the past two decades.
“An increase in irony has helped to drive a stake through the genre’s traditionally unabashed earnestness, and a rise in feminist critiques — much of it fueled by online culture — has also certainly been a factor in tearing down the sexist tropes that dominated the genre,” HitFix.com reporter Chris Eggertsen wrote in a 2015 piece that counted down 11 “offensive cliches” in rom-coms. “Mostly, I think we just got tired of living the baby boomer fantasy of ideal romantic love, propagated in large part by the society’s unprogressive cultural expectations regarding gender roles.”
In the past few years, the Internet has delighted in ripping rom-coms to shreds for similar reasons. In Jezebel’s popular 2013 story, “I Rewatched ‘Love Actually’ and Am Here to Ruin It for All of You,” writer Lindy West runs down details of the beloved 2003 holiday movie that prove more disturbing than charming: That supposedly sweet scene when Andrew Lincoln holds up those cue cards declaring his love for Keira Knightley? She’s married. It’s creepy. Or as West calls it, “nice-guy emotional manipulation reframed as ‘romance.’ ”
So in addition to the fact that rom-coms have a tough time at the box office — and studios are hesitant to produce anything that doesn’t have a built-in audience — I firmly believe these films should stay a relic of the past. After all, when it comes to nostalgic, escapist movies, I would prefer not to think about how gross the “date a girl for a bet” premise is in “She’s All That” or the excellent “10 Things I Hate About You.”
I just want to watch “Bridget Jones’s Diary” without considering the cultural implications of how everyone in her life was obsessed with her finding a man. Let me cheer at the final scenes of “While You Were Sleeping” or “Never Been Kissed” without analyzing why these women had to hide their real identities to find true love. Can I please just view “My Best Friend’s Wedding” in peace without thinking too hard about the disaster that is Julia Roberts’s character?
Of course, as I’ve grown up and considered the problematic themes in these films, they’re impossible to ignore. That may be why filmmakers are largely moving away from the rom-coms of the past, instead turning to “raunch-coms” like “Bridesmaids,” “Knocked Up” or “Trainwreck,” which challenge ideas about how women need a man to be “complete.”
While traditional romantic comedies have seen a demise on film, there’s still an upside: The dearth of these stories on the big screen has led to creativity on TV. Sharp series like Hulu’s “The Mindy Project” or CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” feature female protagonists who grew up internalizing all the backwards lessons of the romantic-comedy fantasy, and consequently struggle to build healthy relationships.
Mindy Kaling, creator and star of “The Mindy Project,” frequently talks about how much rom-coms have influenced her life and the show. In her memoir, she’s unabashed about her love for them, even though “the genre has been so degraded in the past 20 years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity.”
“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,” she writes.
Kaling’s sci-fi comparison is certainly apt, though it’s hard to deny that rom-coms truly are influential and informed a generation of viewers who loved those movies. Still, I think it’s best to treat them as strange (if not much-loved) artifacts of the past — and let them stay there.