For the last three years, I’ve been writing my doctoral dissertation, on romantic comedies. I’ve watched more “chick flicks” in the last few years than even the most devoted of rom com enthusiasts will in a lifetime. I’ve watched The Ugly Truth more times than I can count, partly because watching The Ugly Truth attacks your brain cells to the point where you can no longer count.
Part of the goal of a romantic comedy is to make the audience imagine that this story could happen to them. They could find the love of their life just around the next corner — watch out, you’re going to bang into that unusually handsome man and spill coffee all over him! In order for audiences to relate to the characters in that way, we have to be able to see ourselves in them. Kate Hudson/Drew Barrymore/Meg Ryan/Jennifer Lopez is just like me! Except, none of these characters is like me. In fact, one of the strangest things about getting my PhD in romantic comedies is the realization that very few romantic comedy heroines have PhDs.
The two most highly educated Hollywood rom com heroines both appear in movies that are over a decade old. First, we have How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’s Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson), who has a Master’s in journalism. Throughout the movie, between trying to get Matthew McConaughey to dump her, Andie is frustrated by the frivolous, limiting assignments she is handed at the women’s magazine where she works (Composure? Really? That sounds like a brand of adult diapers). Eventually, she takes an out-of-town interview for a “real” journalism job, where she’ll be able to write about war and politics and other serious topics — you know, men’s stuff. But she never makes it, because McConaughey chases her down on his motorcycle and declares his love and blah blah blah. Basically, Andie’s attempts to move into more “serious” journalism are, it’s implied, abandoned, because she has to stay in New York City with the love of her life. A life that she’ll spend wasting that Ivy League Master’s — again, her implication, not mine — at a women’s glossy.
And then, of course, there’s Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), who over the course of the movie gets her JD from Harvard Law School (some scholars of the genre would argue that Legally Blonde isn’t technically a romantic comedy, but I disagree, and besides, guess how many scholars of the genre read Thought Catalog?). Elle defies cultural expectations for pretty girls and stereotypes about blondes, wins the big case, graduates top of her class, and lands the guy, all without messing up her manicure. In other words, she gets her big fancy degree, but without sacrificing a mite of hotness or conventional femininity.
And that’s it. Those are the only two recent Hollywood rom com heroines who have professional or doctoral degrees.
Obviously, a tiny proportion of real American women have professional degrees or PhDs. About 9 million women have a Master’s, the highest raw number and the highest proportion of women the country’s ever seen. About 1.2 million women have doctoral degrees, and the same number have professional degrees. Those of us who have the opportunity to pursue education at this level are terribly fortunate indeed, which is something of which I try to remind myself when I am tearing out my hair trying to answer questions like, “what would Michel Foucault have to say about The Bounty Hunter starring Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler?”
So perhaps romantic comedy heroines don’t have higher degrees because they need to be relatable characters for the millions of women who are watching them, very few of whom have higher degrees themselves. But when one considers all the other unrelatable, unattainable things that romantic comedy heroines have — their faces, their bodies, jobs, wardrobes, apartments, and boyfriends — that argument doesn’t hold a lot of water. I’m certainly not the first person to remark on how unrealistic it is for romantic comedy heroines to eat the way they do and stay a perfect Hollywood size triple 0, or dress the way they do when they don’t even earn enough as assistants or editors or morning show producers to cover their stupidly huge and recently renovated Manhattan apartments. Rom com heroines have lots of things that very few American women have in the real world.
But if romantic comedies are supposed to be aspirational, which is what people always say when they’re defending them — relax, they’re not supposed to be realistic, they’re escapist, aspirational fantasies! — then why aren’t viewers of these movies, most of whom are women, being told to aspire to higher education?
It could be that we find highly educated women threatening, and find it hard to root for them. It could be that the American tendency toward anti-intellectualism makes it hard to like or relate to characters with PhDs (hot hard scientists like Natalie Portman’s Dr. Jane Foster in Thor, and Denise Richards’ Dr. Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough being obvious exceptions). It could be that, even though we love quirky nerd girls, we don’t love them when they’re MA-level or JD-level nerdy. I don’t have an explanation, though I’d sure love to sit down with some romantic comedy screenwriters and get one.
But here’s what I do know: there’s no good reason why we can’t have more highly-educated romantic comedy heroines. There’s no good reason why we can’t invest in characters who are demonstrably intelligent. There’s no good reason why we can’t root for characters who are smart, who are even smarter than we are — that’s why we love Sherlock Holmes, after all. There’s no reason why we can’t make highly educated women into the heroines of our grown up, modern day fairytales — without making them hide behind a perfect manicure of the cover of a glossy women’s magazine.