Once upon a time, romantic comedies (or rom-coms) used to be synonymous for greatness and success. Back in the good ol’ days, it was almost impossible to walk into a theater and not see at least one poster of the latest hot release of the genre. But now, the term ‘rom-com’ has to be uttered in hush tones, quiet enough so no one hears you. It has come to mean nothing more than ‘silly, air-head movies that are only good for background noise’. Why? Let’s find out.
Personally, I have always been a sucker for romantic comedies. Ever since I was little, I have been an avid watcher of rom-coms, in all its nuances and time periods. Didn’t matter whether it was a sappy feel-good love story set in the ‘90s, or a tragic tale dating back to the 1940s… I was simply in love with the genre. Judge me all you want, but I don’t think there is anything that hits like a cheesy romance with a splash of comedy!
But even I (i.e. the textbook definition of a hopeless romantic) find it a bit hard to get through rom-coms that have been released in recent years. Of the few that are still being made, quality has gone down, and viewership, even further down – but why did that happen? Where have all the rom-coms gone?
The Rom-Com Story
First, let’s go through the history of rom-coms.
Defining romantic comedies is a pretty easy job – it’s there in the name, they are movies or plays that deal with romance (love) in a comedic, humorous way. That sounds simple enough, right? However, drawing a timeline of rom-coms is much more complicated.
Solely going by the given definition, rom-coms have actually been around for centuries – maybe millennia, even! But the formula that makes up the genre as we know (and love) it, can be dated back to William Shakespeare and his plays such as Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is – two people meet, have a conflict of some sort, and then reunite to live happily ever-after.
However, romantic comedy movies have only been around since 1924 (with the silent films Sherlock Jr. and Girl Shy), and they have evolved numerous times over the last century, before becoming what we know right now as ‘rom-coms’.
In the genre’s very beginning in the ‘20s and ‘30s, a very popular rom-com style was the one of “comedies of manners”. That is, when a rich person falls in love with someone who is not wealthy, and suddenly sees the beauty in life without money, such as the 1934 classic It Happened One Night. This trope was particularly well-liked in the 1930s, as those were the years of the Great Depression (i.e., the worst economic downturn of the industrialized world), and those stories were giving people hope as they faced many financial struggles, by saying that money isn’t everything after all.
In the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, the genre evolved and the most popular style became “screwball comedies”, a name referencing screwballs in baseball (i.e., balls that move in unexpected directions). Similarly, screwball comedies would unfold in unexpected ways, intertwining fast-paced slapstick scenes and witty dialogue. Additionally, this subgenre would see the female protagonist as the hero and main driver of the story, rather than a mere supporting character, such as the 1940 hit A Philadelphia Story. This is also another nod to the social situation of the time, since the 1930s were a period of much turbulence for women’s rights advocates and the feminist movement.
Next up, there were the so-called “sex comedies”, which spanned from the ‘50s to the early ‘70s. These movies focused on the differences between men and women, usually by casting them as professional rivals who were in a fierce competition with one another until sparks started flying (e.g., the 1960 film, The Battle of the Sexes). In short, it was the early days of the ‘enemies-to-lovers’ trope in cinema. The advent of this subgenre relates to the societal climate of that period, as those were the decades when women’s sexuality was being more thoroughly explored. Society was becoming more acceptant of women as beings with a sexual appetite, Playboy magazine was beginning its journey in 1953, and the film industry was becoming more lenient with censorship… The world was ready for the next step.
Alas, the sexual revolution of that time brought another style in the 1970s – “radical romantic comedies”. The ‘happily ever-after’ was no longer a requirement, as people were beginning to look at romance with a more cynical and sex-driven eye, and wanted to focus on self-love and -fulfillment. A popular example is Annie Hall (1977), a movie focusing on personal happiness, rather than one derived from romantic love.
However, in later years the genre did a full-180, and made way for “neotraditional romantic comedies”. These movies were the complete opposite of the radical comedy, as they focused primarily on compatibility and forgo the emphasis on sex. Romantic love was once again put on a pedestal, but with much firmer stress on the importance of compromises and communication compared to previous films. Furthermore, it was common for movies of this subgenre to include references to past romantic comedies, such as the self-referential moments of An Affair to Remember (1957) in Sleepless in Seattle (1993).
Nowadays, most rom-coms still fit into the neotraditional category, but it is becoming increasingly frequent for these films to have a more cynical spin on the love story. Compromising and communicating are still very important values, but it is far more common for romantic comedies to not end in the classic ‘happily ever-after’.
Moreover, rom-coms are overall getting less and less popular, so much so that it is hard to find more than one in any list of upcoming movies. And what’s even rarer is finding a good one. At the moment, the cinema landscape is vastly dominated by Oscar-bait movies and big-budget franchises – particularly of superhero blockbusters. By now, films signed “Marvel” are where the real gold is at – they are the ones breaking box office records left and right, and drawing in millions of people of all ages and backgrounds to the theater. Meanwhile, rom-coms have disappeared from the public agenda almost entirely. As barely anyone is still going to see them in theaters, the number of studios making and investing in romantic comedies is decreasing day by day. But why exactly is that?
When Feminism Met Rom-Coms…
For starters, the main audience of rom-coms has changed drastically over the last few years.
Women have usually been the target group of romantic comedies, but changes on the social level in the 2000s and 2010s have impacted how well they welcome this genre, particularly due to the evolution of feminism over the last two decades.
as rom-coms usually rely on gender stereotypes for comedic relief and toxic tropes to drive their story, they just don’t cut it for the contemporary “enlightened” woman.
The 21st Century Feminist Woman wants to feel empowered, independent, and self-sufficient. She doesn’t want movies that tell her finding Mr. Right is what will ultimately make her happy. Furthermore, as rom-coms usually rely on gender stereotypes for comedic relief and toxic tropes to drive their story, they just don’t cut it for the contemporary “enlightened” woman.
For instance, beloved romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) was successful in its glory days and has become a genre classic since then. But if it were released now in 2022, I think things would have turned out a lot different. The movie perpetuates the worst stereotypes about women, and basically suggests they should depend on men and their love for happiness. As it was released 20 years ago, we surely can’t expect it to be a champion for feminism, but I don’t think it would be received well if it debuted in the present day.
And so, most film studios now prefer to simply steer clear of rom-coms, and focus on other genres which supposedly leave more room for feminism to prosper, such as superhero movies with a female heroine. However, that can also be a topic for discussion, particularly because those films usually represent a very narrow and not-intersectional wave of feminism, one that is more about appearance rather than substance.
Meanwhile, as rom-coms decreased in ratings and audience, they only got more unfeminist and problematic (whilst the quality only went down).
Take The Kissing Booth (2018) as an example. The movie features sexual rhetoric, casual slut-shaming, the awful trope of ‘he is mean to you because he likes you’, and basically all the worst and most problematic elements of rom-coms. Yet, the film still got the green light, and so did its sequel and the sequel’s sequel… and none of them got any less problematic or any better in quality.
But that’s possibly due to the fact that as studios were seeing the rom-com audience get smaller day by day, they realized that investing hundreds of millions of dollars into making rom-coms was just not worth the money, as they were going to lose more than gain anyways. The Kissing Booth cost around $10M to make, which might seem like a lot, but is actually nothing if you compare it to predecessors in the genre. For instance, Notting Hill (1999) had a budget of $42M, and… well, you can definitely see a leap in quality.
In fact, film studios have been investing increasingly less in rom-coms since 2004, likely when they began to see a downward spike in the revenues, viewerships, and market shares of the genre. This sadly led to an unfortunate vicious cycle – since less people tune in, studios invest less, which deteriorates the quality, leading to (once again) less people tuning in… and so on and so forth.
All things aside, rom-coms do still live on, just not on the big screen…
You’ve Got TV Shows
TV shows have gone through a strong renaissance in mainstream media in the last few years (particularly in the years of the COVID-19 pandemic), and romance series are among the ones taking the public by a storm.
Sitcoms usually include elements of comedy in their stories, so when you add romance to the mix you get… romantic comedies. That is why I think romance series may represent a glimmer of hope for the future of rom-coms – they have all the elements of the genre, are usually good, and people actually watch them. For instance, the show Never Have I Ever (2020) most likely classifies as a rom-com sitcom, and it managed to snag 40M households globally in the first month of its release – an impressive number for any genre. Another good example is the Netflix show Bridgerton, which (albeit not officially being categorized as comedy) includes humoristic elements intertwined with the romance, and has staggering viewership numbers.
Additionally, Korean Dramas (or K-Dramas) are another excellent contemporary version of rom-coms. They are undoubtedly romantic and, nine times out of ten, include several moments of comedic relief. Furthermore (and most importantly), they are usually up there in terms of quality, with their stunning cinematography, interesting dialogue, amazing soundtracks, and detailed and innovative plots.
Plus, another aspect of K-Dramas that I personally find commendable is that they’re not afraid to take the romance to the next level – they’re not scared to come off as corny and cheesy. As more and more movies and shows are nearing cynicism when it comes to love, I find it refreshing to still have outlets for us romantics.
And the good thing is that people actually watch them! Let’s use Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (2021) as an example – not only did the show score high in viewership in South Korea, but it quickly became one of Netflix’s most popular non-English shows of all time. Clearly, there’s demand for this genre, and thankfully the quality can be there as well.
The End of It
Nevertheless, once in a blue moon there is still a new good rom-com movie being released. It’s rare, sure, but it still happens sometimes. But the good thing about contemporary rom-coms is that they are becoming increasingly open to telling the stories of minorities.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018) is a good example – the film features an all-Asian cast, and made a whooping box office gross of $239M against a $30M budget. That is an impressive record in itself, but it gets even better when you consider how most other rom-coms are performing nowadays. Another title which comes to mind is The Half of It (2020), a coming-of-age rom-com by Alice Wu which follows the trials of romance of a young LGBT+ Asian-American girl.
99% of existing romantic comedies deal with a cis heterosexual couple, where both counterparts are often white. As society is evolving, it’s very nice to see diversity becoming more common, both in front of and behind the camera.
Both these movies constitute big steps forward in the matter of representation within rom-coms, which is a huge problem the genre has had to face. 99% of existing romantic comedies deal with a cis heterosexual couple, where both counterparts are often white. As society is evolving, it’s very nice to see diversity becoming more common, both in front of and behind the camera.
All in all, even though the genre of rom-com movies may have died, it is not very likely that rom-coms in general will ever completely disappear. They may exponentially decrease in quality (though, God forbid) and they might transfer entirely to the series format, but odds are that it will continue to live on in some way.
So, if you’re a hopeless romantic like me, don’t despair yet! There’s still a light (albeit feeble) at the end of the tunnel! After all, as good rom-coms taught us – love conquers all.
Edited by: Pritha Ray