And I think they do this in two ways:
- The Nora Ephron/Nicolas Sparks-style (see disclaimer below) stupid, over-the-top, unrealistic, schmoopy love stories that make us devalue what we actually have and yearn for something completely unattainable in order to find love.
- The stereotype-reinforcing-style rom-com that box men and women into pre-conceived, impossible ideals of what we are supposed to be like and make us feel like we have to conform to or look for a completely unrealistic person to find love.
Are you rolling your eyes? Okay. Ask yourself this: have you or do you know someone who has convinced themselves that the jerk they are attracted to would no longer be a jerk if they fell in love with you or the someone you know? You have. You do. I have. I do. And where did that idea come from? Rom-coms. Where else would we have come up with the idea that our love could change someone we just met? That the power of our particular brand of loving someone would eradicate all the years of their character building/destroying life experiences and turn them into the puppy-love person we desire?
That’s dumb. It’s totally and utterly dumb to think that love can change a person. But we see it in rom-coms all the time. It’s the very premise of many of these films. Let’s use the second type as an example, or what I call the Katherine Heigl/Gerard Butler “The Ugly Truth”-style film:
- Man is stereotypical charming, successful, rogue comfortably/easily finding companionship through meaningless sex with younger, large-breasted women who look at him like he just gave them the biggest orgasm of their lives (important: these women do not have speaking parts). But, regardless of how happy his character seems, he is lost because he doesn’t know the meaning of love (!) and needs the right woman to turn him into the perfect gentleman.
- Woman is stereotypical busy careerist trying to find “the one” through a hyper-specific list of characteristics that include “must be doctor” and “must love poetry and dogs and balloons and white fluffy wedding dresses” (barf) and “must look like he lives at the gym but can quote Socrates.” In other words, regardless of whatever Barbie-style career she has in the film, she still needs a man (and quippy, less attractive best friend) to show her the way.
- Man meets woman and they hate each other.
- Woman shows tiny sign of humanity (she cries or something) and then man falls deeply in love with her (we know this because he seems confused by “feelings” and no longer pursues big breasted women).
- Woman meets, in the very next scene, the doctor of her dreams.
- Man is jealous/sad and attempts to rekindle previous lifestyle, though he can’t get it up anymore/it doesn’t fulfill him the way it used to, and shows tiny sign of humanity (loneliness)
- Woman falls madly in love with him, and realizes doctor is “nice,” but she wants a real man.
- Man and woman are in love and both intend to tell the other but then something happens (usually, they witness something that isn’t what it seems) and they get scared/angry.
- Man and woman deny love and part ways after a caustic interaction they both immediately regret.
- Some truly stupid occasion (in the case of The Ugly Truth, a hot air balloon event) brings them back together and they are forced to reveal that they love each other.
- They kiss (in the case of The Ugly Truth, in a hot air balloon – it’s so fucking contrived!).
- They live happily ever after, she with a real man (now a lovable rogue) to show her the way and he with a beautiful woman (now less career-oriented) to show him the meaning of love.
Role the credits. Who was the sound boom guy in this amazing film? Who wrote the totally realistic dialogue? Who coached the actors to understand the motivation of their characters? Who picked the green M&Ms out of the lunchroom M&M’s bowl? Who fucking cares?
Stereotypical guy and stereotypical girl fall for each other after contrived, sun-setty circumstances and make each other better people, which is to say for him, monogamous, and for her, less career-oriented. So, yes, I think rom-coms have the power to ruin real-life relationships. All relationships for all people? No. Of course not. But I think the insidiousness of our monkey-see-monkey-do-natures means we are far more apt to fall victim to subliminal messaging than we’d like to believe. And rom-coms are rife with subliminal messaging.
The cure? Stop it. Stop watching rom-coms. Right away. Cold turkey. And slowly rid yourself of the archaic, formulaic Hollywood version of what romance is. Watch something else, because I’m not saying all romantic comedies are terrible. They aren’t. I will defend Say Anything, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Punch Drunk Love, High Fidelity, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Lars and the Real Girl, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, (500) Days of Summer and a few other romantic comedies.
The distinction is this: rom-coms are contrived pieces of romance-crushing crap and romantic comedies feature highly-relatable, befuddled potential lovers who must overcome real issues like time or travel (and sometimes time travel) to find love. One genre deserves the extra letters; one does not.
Disclaimer: I love The Notebook. I know it’s ridiculous that a man would wait that long for a woman, that he would devote his life to her without her actually being in his life. I know that in real life this would be creepy and borderline crazy, but it’s Ryan Gosling, so it’s okay. My argument is totally weak, I know, and I don’t care.
Unintentionally poignant movie poster from horrible, horrible movie The Ugly Truth.