By Sara Radin
Historically, our relationship with romantic comedies has been complicated. Though the popular film genre has been known to give the loveless a healthy dose of hope, these movies have been predominantly written and directed by men, thus spreading harmful stereotypes and warped, patriarchal perceptions of relationships. Films such as Annie Hall (1977), Sixteen Candles (1984), Jerry Maguire (1996), Runaway Bride (1999), and Failure to Launch (2006) have mirrored the ways in which society has been wired to see a woman’s worth only through the eyes of cisgender men: men may pursue women, but women may not pursue men; women have no agency in relationships; women are simply not enough when single, unmarried, or without children.
Take Hollywood's damsel in distress complex, in which only a man can save a woman from a poor circumstance (or turn her from a tomboy or nerd into a sexually attractive woman). Or the hopeless romantic guy who falls for the beautifully quirky, manic pixie dream girl but gets his heart broken because — though she’s portrayed as being emotionally unavailable — she’s probably just not that into him (see 500 Days of Summer). And while a guy can make a grand romantic gesture, if a woman did so, she’d probably be seen as obsessive or overbearing (see Friends With Benefits). Then, there’s the prevailing notion that being single is a problem in need of fixing (see How to Be Single).
More than this, while some programs — such as Big Little Lies and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — have begun addressing sexual assault in the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the numbers show that it can still take time to develop new film and TV projects untainted by the patriarchy or sexism. Only 18 percent of people behind the scenes, including directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers, were women according to research done by Women and Hollywood in 2017.
"You'll never get representative stories if [diverse] people are not at the table making decisions in Hollywood, whether it be writing, directing, producing or acting,” says Brianna Rader, a sex educator who co-founded Juicebox, a mobile resource for sex and relationships.
Though famed female directors Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers have created wildly successful, cult classics such as When Harry Met Sally and The Holiday, these movies were still encumbered by outdated gender norms that painted women as submissive to men. Yes, Ephron and Meyers paved the way for more feminist-leaning media — for example: Netflix’s Russian Doll, co-created by Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler, and Natasha Lyonne — but we're still lacking a spectrum of media that is more true and empathetic not only to the complex female experience but to that of a younger, queerer, more multicultural audience.
Rebel Wilson stars in Isn't It Romantic, a film she also executive produced
In Isn’t It Romantic, a newly released romantic comedy about romantic comedies, Rebel Wilson, who also executive produced the film, plays an insecure architect named Natalie who has become jaded about love songs and Hollywood love stories. Then, after she’s attacked by a mugger and knocked unconscious, Natalie’s world is turned upside down. When she wakes up, she’s entered an alternate universe where she’s the leading lady of all the romantic comedies she’s despised for so many years.
As the story unfolds, Natalie — alongside her best friend, Josh, (Adam Devine), and his stunning yoga ambassador fiancée, Isabella (Priyanka Chopra) — comes to a powerful conclusion about love: She realizes that she’s the only person she needs to be happy.
It’s Natalie’s ability to develop self-love that ultimately frees her from the dream world. Though satirical and fantasy-like in its approach, the movie champions a somewhat realistic message, and one that many earlier rom-coms have failed to promote — there’s real value in establishing love and acceptance of ourselves. But the film does not address the real work it takes to unpack our insecurities and develop self-love, while it also perpetuates the unrealistic notion that if we do love ourselves, it will seamlessly yield the perfect relationship we deserve. Though humorous and clever in its approach, the film’s message is still limited.
Like so many other recent rom-coms, such as Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Set it Up (2018), Isn’t It Romantic doesn’t capture the full view of what it means to be a Millennial dealing with the realities of dating and relationships today. Largely fantastical in their approach, these movies are not necessarily grounded in the reality of Millennial life when swiping left and right has become the norm. Though these films were wildly entertaining — who wouldn't want to be whisked away on a first class, all-expense-paid trip to Singapore, or somehow find love while also working 80-hour weeks for your demanding boss? — Millennials crave authenticity and want to see stories on screen that they can actually relate with. But what else are rom-coms still missing or getting wrong?
According to Kryss Shane, a licensed mental health professional and LGBTQ expert, we’re at a critical juncture where people are figuring out that there isn’t one straight path to romance or love, which makes it harder to create relationship stories that everyone in an audience can relate to. With this, it’s time for a rom-com renaissance that properly speaks the Millennial love language.
Nick Robinson stars as closeted teen Simon Spier in Love, Simon
For example, in 2017 GLAAD found that nearly 20 percent of Millennials identify as LGBTQ, but in a separate report published that same year, they discovered that of the 109 film releases from the major studios in 2017, only 14 contained characters who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. Though aimed at a slightly younger audience, Love, Simon (2018) was one of the first mainstream blockbusters to tackle a queer romance story line. Directed by Greg Berlanti, the openly-gay filmmaker who fought to broadcast primetime television’s first romantic gay kiss the film grossed $40 million and was hailed by critics as a “genuine groundbreaker.”
“We need more representation in the media for all kinds of people,” Shane adds. “Those in minority racial or gender groups, those who are disabled, those who battle mental illness, those with kinks, those who are non-monogamous, those of multi-ethnicities, and every other combination of people!”
Based on the true story of its screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, 2017’s The Big Sick brought the complexities of navigating interfaith and interracial partnerships to the big screen. In the Oscar-nominated film, Kumail, an aspiring Pakistani comedian falls for Emily, a chronically-ill Caucasian grad student, but struggles to tell his traditionally religious parents. While recent data has revealed that both interfaith marriages and interracial relationships are rising, most romantic comedies do not generally depict the wide variety of lifestyles they enjoy, claims Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a psychologist who helps young people on relational challenges. So while Millennials embrace the concept of diversity and being unique, Hollywood is still playing catch-up. “The world is not what it was 20 or 30 years ago,” says Manly.
Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick
Going one step further, Millennials have also grown up in a time when more marriages are ending in divorce. As they’ve watched their parents and their friend’s parents deal with broken marriages, and been forced to navigate the complexities of nontraditional or blended families, this generation is staying single longer, settling down later in life, and more skeptical of love and marriage. Research in 2018 by Gallup found that only 27 percent of Millennials are married while nine percent of Millennials are in a domestic partnership (a relationship between two people who are not married but live together and receive critical benefits such as health insurance and rights of survivorship), which is the highest rate ever recorded.
Ticking the "single" box is no longer something to be ashamed about — instead, it’s something to feel inspired by. While being unpartnered once was seen as a sign of personal failure, rather than a personal choice you could make for yourself, Millennials and Generation Z'ers are redefining what singleness means today. In 2018, a survey by Tinder found that young people are intentionally and unabashedly choosing the solo life, with 72 percent of its participants saying they’ve made a conscious decision to be single for a period of time. On top of this, it found that 81 percent of those surveyed saw singleness as beneficial to their love lives and careers.
In a time when Millennials are engaging in different kinds of relationships, they’re also meeting partners in distinct ways. As reliance on technology has grown in recent years, according to a survey by online legal marketplace Avv, 43 percent of current online daters are Millennials — few movies have captured how digital dating has impacted young people's thinking patterns and behaviors, including the ways we're overloaded with options, are often more focused on sex, and tend to ghost people instead of breaking things off through face-to-face conversations. In fact, Jennifer Musselman, a marriage and family therapist and executive coach who once worked for MTV and Nickelodeon, believes that technology and dating apps have made it easier than ever to discover and dismiss people with reckless abandon, causing us to show less consideration for one another's feelings.
"This type of behavior leads to more low self-esteem and opens up the floodgates for people to create stories in their minds about why they were ghosted: 'I'm not pretty enough,' 'Was it something I said wrong?' and so on." Musselman says, adding that ghosting creates a cycle of insecurities, isolation, and fear of rejection. "These were all variables in the human condition well before the existence of dating apps, but technology's ability to keep a constant stream of options makes humans, and human connection, dispensable commodities. We lose touch over the touch of a button because the investment wasn't necessary in the first place."
In our age of modern romance, there are no rules or guidelines for navigating these situations, which can impact our self-esteem, make us feel isolated, and cause us to take rejection personally. "Since these apps are still relatively new, we can’t ask our parents how to navigate this new world or look to them as role models because they never had dating apps," says Rader.
If today's rom-coms can tap into these key areas and mimic real world experiences, movies and television shows will not only be more relatable but they will also normalize experiences that may have been previously considered taboo. Ultimately, there's a massive opportunity for more media that illustrates the diverse realities of Millennial relationships, which could help young people of all different walks of life feel more seen and empowered.