As regular readers know, I’ve spent the last few years studying romantic comedies; my doctoral dissertation, the results of almost four years of work on the genre, is due in a few weeks. If I had to reduce my dissertation to a sentence — like they do over at lolmythesis — I’d say something like this: “Rom coms are currently mad sexist and I can explain how and why they got to be that way.” Alternatively: “200 pages of dense, unreadable academic analysis of rom coms and 30 pages about Jason Segel’s penis.”
When I tell people this, when I explain to them that I’ve spent several years watching and thinking about this genre that I find deeply problematic, they have some questions. First, they want to know if I’m a masochist. I am, but you knew that already, because I’m a graduate student. Secondly, they want to know if there are any rom coms I can stand to watch any more, and I tell them that despite myself, I will probably never stop enjoying Notting Hill. And then they ask me if there are any rom coms that I can stand to watch from a gender politics standpoint — that is, they ask me for feminist rom com recommendations. Are there any rom coms out there that won’t require you to completely switch off your brain and/or your devotion to ending sexism in order to enjoy them?
The answer is, I’m afraid, almost certainly not. But that’s not unique to romantic comedies. There’s no such thing as a perfectly feminist piece of popular culture; not even Saint Whedon himself has given us that. And if a perfectly feminist rom com does exist, it was made on a budget of $3 and a piece of gum, and it was released in the smallest theater in one cinema in Estonia, because Hollywood doesn’t bankroll perfectly feminist popular culture. If you’re looking for a rom com that gets the official feminist seal of approval, just stop. It doesn’t exist.
Sure, some rom coms are worse than others in the gender politics department (have you seen Kate & Leopold?), and some have moments of pure feminist brilliance — by all accounts, Obvious Child, which is out in theaters today, has a few of those. But generally speaking, even feminist-ish rom coms, mainstream ones, at least, are hard to come by. Here is my very short, almost-Doctor approved list of feminist rom coms that you and your killjoy feminist friends can enjoy without having to say too many Hail Glorias afterward.
Romeo and Juliet, but with zombies instead of Montagues and gun-toting apocalypse survivors instead of Capulets. They save each other’s lives, repeatedly, they effect political change together, and you also get to watch Dave Smarmyface Franco get eaten by a zombie, which is pretty satisfying.
She’s Out of My League
Yeah, I was surprised, too. The trailer is a mess. And I swear to god, if I have to watch Krysten Ritter wasted as the mouthy best friend one more time, I’m going to break someone’s legs with a collector’s edition of You’ve Got Mail. But this movie does a decent job of breaking down the notion that physical attractiveness can be measured on an objective scale, and it asks some questions about the ways in which we reward and punish the women we rate highly on that scale. That said, the average looking guy still ends up with the smoking hot girl, making this one more movie that feeds the sometimes overpowering cultural sense that men are “entitled” to hot women. Like I said: there’s no such thing as a perfectly feminist rom com.
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Rashida Jones co-wrote this movie, and hustled, big time, to get it made, and I’m so glad she did. It’s a surprising plot — even for someone who has seen a lot of rom coms — and it isn’t afraid to make its characters unlikeable. They’re also surprisingly complex, and Jones’s character is devoted to her work, but not in the usual she’s-so-devoted-to-her-work-she’s-forgotten-to-have-a-real-life (that is, a boyfriend and/or a baby) kind of way. Also, Chris Messina dances. What more do you want from a movie? A zombie dancing to Bruce Springsteen? See point one.
My Best Friend’s Wedding
This movie is a rom com about how ridiculous rom coms are. Julia Roberts spends the entire movie acting like a rom com heroine — lying in the name of love, meddling in the name of love, cheating in the name of love — and in the end, it doesn’t work. She’s called out for the lying, meddling, and cheating shitty friend that she is, and she doesn’t “win,” that is, she doesn’t get the guy. There is a bittersweet ending, but not a happy one. You can count on one hand the number of big budget rom coms that end that way. How the hell did this movie even get made? Easy: it was 1997, and Julia Roberts could make any damn movie she pleased.
Kate & Leopold
I know what I said, but hear me out here. I struggled to think of a fifth movie that wouldn’t make Bella Abzug roll in her grave, but I couldn’t think of one. It’s hard enough to come up with four such Hollywood romantic comedies — a fifth is nigh on impossible. But then I thought about Kate & Leopold, a story about a woman who feels so oppressed by financial independence that she’s willing to go live in 1861, thereby giving up the right to vote, the right to own property, and birth control and tampons, to escape it. It’s a prime example of just how sexist rom coms can be, of just how hostile to women’s rights and how invested in traditional gender roles, they have become. So if you’re looking for a really feminist rom com, this is the ticket: the movie itself isn’t feminist, but watching it will probably make you one.