Pop culture is having, as they say inside the Beltway, a political Moment.
On television, there’s “Homeland,” “Scandal” and “State of Affairs.” “House of Cards” and “Alpha House” are online hits. On the silver screen, we’ve seen everything from sublime drama (“The Ides of March” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) to ridiculous action flick (“White House Down,” “Olympus Has Fallen”).
This trend has garnered critical attention, too: “House of Cards” received 13 Emmy nominations this year. Four of the six women nominated for Best Actress in a Drama star in shows about politics. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was dubbed Best Actress in a Comedy for her role in “Veep.”
One genre, though, is untouched by this trend: the romantic comedy. Why?
It’s not that this kind of film has never been done before. They were big in the ’90s.
Take “The American President,” a 1995 rom com written by Aaron Sorkin. In it, a widowed president (Michael Douglas) falls in love with an environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening. Conveniently, she doesn’t work for the “other side,” but instead tries to pull Douglas farther to the left. Instead of being his rival, she’s his better, more idealistic half. Eventually he chooses her – and by extension, his core principles – over political expediency.
“The American President” was a hit, garnering Golden Globe nominations for best director, best screenplay, best actor and best actress. It took in $60 million at the box office.
Even in 1995, it required the suspension of disbelief.
Then there’s “Speechless,” a 1994 film starring Geena Davis and Michael Keaton as speechwriters for rival candidates in a New Mexico senatorial campaign. She works for the Democrat; he for the Republican. Both are committed to the political beliefs of their respective candidates – after all, the audience can’t be expected to root for mercenary political operatives.
Yet when the movie ends, the two end up together. Love conquers all, and politics fades into the background.
In 2014, it’s hard to imagine a Republican and Democrat going out for dinner, never mind strolling down the aisle. And at their core, rom coms require compromise: a “battle of the sexes” that must conclude with a sexy cease-fire. In recent politics, there is no such spirit of compromise: There’s no happy ending, just the beginning of a new election cycle.
Today, the division and the vitriol we see in our real-world politics make the notion of a political romantic comedy almost unthinkable. American politics is unprecedentedly polarized in 2014, with the 114th Congress looking to be more reactionary and bellicose than ever, and with Americans increasingly disaffected with their elected representatives in D.C. and with the president. Convincing audiences that it’s possible to fall in love in politics – that it’s possible to cross the aisle in the name of love – is a pretty tough sell. If Romeo and Juliet couldn’t make it work in a town divided by ancient grudge and new mutiny, why would we imagine that your standard rom com couple could make it work in Washington, D.C.?
There’s another factor that makes it hard to imagine a political rom com in 2014: a likeable heroine. As Hank Stuever recently pointed out, the current spate of political heroines in pop culture are all damaged, slightly deranged and, in some cases, dangerous. These are not the makings of a rom com heroine, who must be likeable enough for women everywhere to imagine themselves as her.
She must be relatable, which is why rom com heroines are forever falling over (so clumsy, just like us!). But this year, congressional approval ratings hit a record low. We have yet to reconcile, as a culture, these two supposedly contradictory notions: a woman who wields the power that comes with elected federal office, and a woman who is likeable and relatable. As a result, our ability to connect with the protagonist of a gender-flipped version of “The American President,” or a story about a woman politician falling in love, is limited. A heroine who is competent enough to have a shot at winning an election, and likeable enough for us to care about her love life, is just too unrealistic – even by rom com standards.
The romantic comedy, though some would like to declare otherwise, is going strong. But so, too, are political division and the kind of sexism that makes imagining women in politics as simultaneously capable enough to lead and likeable enough to stand in as a proxy for our own romantic aspirations. Until that changes, a political romantic comedy will remain impossible. Which is a shame, because audiences love a good, frantic chase to the airport to catch The One before she or he gets away. Now, imagine how much better that chase would be if The One were getting on Air Force One.