What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say rom-com? Perhaps a serenade on a football field from Heath Ledger; an intense kiss in the pouring rain from Ryan Gosling; or, by chance, a speech about how “it had to be you” from Billy Crystal. No matter the image conjured, the romantic comedy is a staple in the film industry. Media has consistently popularized this genre on various platforms, advocating for all our favorites: 80s classic films, early 2000s cheesy movies, and current Netflix flicks. Movies about loving and being loved have always cycled through networks and movie theaters. So what is it about these films that keep people coming back for more?
Each month on TikTok, a new favorite fictional love interest is announced and there is a collective agreement to obsess over them until it is time to move on. In a digital and sometimes proclaimed ‘loveless’ society, finding significant others that fit the status quo set by these romantic comedy characters is increasingly difficult. “I have high expectations,” we claim—even if those checklists are often filled with basic human decency (aka: the bare minimum).
Everyone wants to be loved, or, really, everyone wants to be treated as if they matter. Oftentimes, rom-coms depict a main character whose love interest is someone who grows to appreciate them in their entirety, or has always loved them for who they are. Just as in real life, having a significant other boils down to being desired and respected. Still, so many women outside of romantic comedies often settle for people who do not meet these standards. The claim of “too high expectations” arises in these scenarios. Our idealizations are too far from the truth; our romanticizations are too unrealistic; our expectations are too excessive. Simply put, a lot of men in real life are not like the Henry Goldings and Hugh Grants of rom-Coms. In that way, these movies offer an escape for women to put themselves in the shoes of the main character and determine that their “right person” will align with the attributes of their favorite leading man.
But these movies and shows do not serve to create impossible standards for significant others. While it is slightly—and sadly—unrealistic to expect reenactments of iconic moments like the notecard scene from Love Actually, it is not unreasonable to have a set of standards for the people we engage in relationships with. Romantic comedies function as media to remind women of what they deserve in relationships. Rom-coms aid in building a foundation of self-worth. Take Pride and Prejudice for example. Whether the focus is on the novel, the 2005 version, or the original movie adaptation, the principle of the love interest changing themself for the better is always relevant. Mr. Darcy becomes infinitely more attractive after undergoing self-transformation in order to become a better man because of, and for, Elizabeth. She inspires him to be a better version of himself, and to become worthy of her, he took the steps to correct his own problematic ways. To him, Elizabeth was deserving of someone who treated her right, or maybe even someone who checked the boxes on her list of expectations.
Infatuation with these grand, cinematic scenes of love do not translate to expecting men to become replicas of rom-com love interests. Rather, adoration for this genre of film comes from its implications of self-worth. The meet-cute, heartfelt speech, and—almost always guaranteed—kiss in the rain are moments we either cherish or laugh at. But behind it all is the layer of humanity that often gets hidden behind the attention to attractive actors and cringy scenes. Romantic comedies are, on the surface, very shallow, but the impacts they have on the female population run very deep. Our expectations and self-worth are all somewhat dictated by the actions of the people in these lovey-dovey films. In the end, however, we all deserve the dedication these on-screen lovers have for each other. Elizabeth was worth the change for Darcy, and so are you.