Whenever I tell people what I’m writing my doctoral thesis about — romantic comedies — I expect, based on three years of experience, one of two reactions. The first is some variation on, “Oh my gosh, how fun!” Which is not the f-word I usually employ when describing my doctoral dissertation. The second reaction is less enthusiastic, and is often accompanied by an eyeroll. “Ugh, why?” is something that I’ve heard a lot in the last few years, and as much as it makes me want to roll my own eyes – because it’s often followed by a sneering comment about how Christ, you really can get a degree in anyfuckingthing these days, can’t you? — it’s not an entirely unreasonable question.
Why study romantic comedies? They’re formulaic and predictable and light and fluffy. Everyone knows how they’re going to end. They don’t mean anything. Why devote years of my life to them when I could be studying The Odyssey or David Copperfield? If I’m going to study modern texts, why not “serious” ones like Citizen Kane or Breaking Bad?
Well, for one thing, I’m interested in stories about women. And all those abovementioned stories, those stories we take so seriously, those “real” texts, are about dudes. In contemporary film, there’s only one genre that’s made for and about women, and that’s romantic comedies (and these days, many of them are made about men and with the men in the audience in mind). This is the only genre we get, so it behooves us to understand what it’s saying to and about women. And if it is indeed formulaic, predictable, light, and fluffy, a claim I don’t necessarily agree with, shouldn’t we try to explain why that is, so that we can make it better?
I’m certainly not the first person to study romantic comedies, though there’s far more scholarship about the “golden era” of the genre, the screwball era of the 1930s and 1940s, than there is about, say, the Apatovian canon (that’s what scholars of the genre call movies made by Judd Apatow. We are a pretentious lot sometimes). And I’m certainly not the first person to study media directed at women: there’s a wealth of scholarship on women’s magazines, “chick lit,” and soap operas. Among people who believe in taking pop culture seriously, I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that some of it – Mad Men, comic books, Kubrick — deserves to be taken seriously, while other parts of it — The Real Housewives franchise, teen soaps, Britney Spears — don’t deserve that. What I mostly hear when people make unconvincing arguments to that effect is the veiled claim that stories about men that are consumed by men or by white and upper-middle class people are superior to stories that don’t fit that description. And on that, to use a phrase I’m not permitted to write in my dissertation, I call bullshit.
What can’t be denied that even though its imminent death is declaimed every few years, the romantic comedy is a very popular genre, and has been since the very birth of the film industry. While I wouldn’t argue that everything that is popular is good, I would argue that anything that’s popular is worth understanding. What we like as a culture tells us a good deal about ourselves, and if at this moment we like romantic comedies about uptight, controlling, heartless career women who can only find husbands by blackmailing their underlings into pretending to be married to them (that’s The Proposal, a 2009 Sandra Bullock rom com that made serious box office bank), then I want to know why. Do I think some popular culture, including some romantic comedies, is stupid? Good lord, yes. But I want to know exactly what kind of stupid it is, why it got so stupid, and how we might go about making it less stupid.
There’s another reason I find it worthwhile, not to mention interesting, to study romantic comedies in particular, and it’s this: because it’s a genre made mostly for and about women, the Hollywood romantic comedy can furnish us with real insights into how our ideas and our ideals about gender roles, love, and sex have changed over time. That’s what romantic comedies are about, at their core: what it means to be a man or a woman. Because until each member of the couple figures that out (and most Hollywood romantic comedies, to my dismay, center on straight couples), they can’t come together. Which means that by watching Hollywood romantic comedies, and figuring out what they have had to say about what it means to be a man or a woman over time, we can trace the shifts in gender relations in the US over time — and the culture’s reaction to those shifts. Are these movies fluffy? Sure, but they’re historically helpful, politically powerful, socially significant fluff.
I study romantic comedies for the very same reason I studied country music the first time I had the chance to spend an extended period of time on a piece of academic research. Like country music, romantic comedies are descended from a long cultural tradition dating back hundreds of years — in the case of rom coms, it’s a heritage that includes Shakespeare, Austen, and Wilde. Like country music, romantic comedies are immensely popular and, in their best incarnations, are deeply invested in telling compelling stories. And finally – and it took me a long time to make this connection – both these forms of popular culture are widely and deeply reviled, often in an unthinking, knee-jerk sort of way. When I first moved to the East Coast of the US, I was surprised at how often I would hear the response, “Anything but country,” in response to queries about a person’s favourite music (really? I thought to myself. Anything but country? Even, like, Gregorian monk chants?). And when I questioned them further, they revealed that of course they liked Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash, just as reflexive detractors of romantic comedies, when prodded, will concede that of course they like When Harry Met Sally… and Groundhog Day and Annie Hall and Knocked Up. When people talk negatively about country music, there’s often a class component to their distaste, and it doesn’t take a degree in Sociology to figure that out (I got one anyway). Similarly, when people talk negatively about romantic comedies, they’re passing judgment on much more than the perceived quality of the movie.
I’m fascinated by romantic comedies, and deem them worth studying, not only for what they tell us about our ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman, or because I believe that making better rom coms begins with understanding why rom coms are so often, well, stupid. I’m also curious about why we purport to hate this genre so much, why we admit our enjoyment of it with such reluctance, and what our supposed distaste for it says about us. Or perhaps I just want to defend popular culture that everyone else detests. Maybe next time I should study Nickelback.