The early ’90s to mid-2000s is what most consider the golden age of romantic comedies, where classics such as You’ve Got Mail, Never Been Kissed, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, were born. But, in today’s age, romantic comedies are getting produced fewer and fewer by the year, and many that are produced have failed to gain traction or adoration from viewers. Why is that?
It is important to recognize how outdated older romantic comedies are viewed as the standard of romance. While a lot of them have strict gender roles enforced within them and a plethora of sexist and racist jokes that modern audiences, rightfully, don’t want to see. The perception of romance has changed with the audience; many formulaic aspects of rom-coms are no longer appreciated or are downright seen as problematic. Starting with the makeover montages, which are well-known in movies such as Miss Congeniality, Pretty Woman, and She’s All That. These movies feature scenes in which the woman is seen originally as average, boring, and unattractive to the males in that world, and gets a makeover at some point in the movie. The dedicated scene has her using a straightening iron and makeup, making everyone fall in love with her on sight including the male lead who had originally overlooked her, all while still looking mostly the same in the eyes of audiences at home. The main defense for this type of trope is that it is supposed to show how an awkward and self-conscious female lead has now become confident in herself and her worth. But to the modern audience, it promotes the idea that without an acne-free face, naturally glowy makeup, straightened hair, and a slim body, you aren’t the standard of beauty and will never get the dream guy.
So am I saying it is all “makeover scenes” fault? No, many romantic comedies don’t include a “makeover” but it is a very popular trope that is shared around often and has a very negative connotation in connection with its respective movies. I would say there is a bigger more common trope that could take a majority of the blame and can be seen in almost all romantic comedies, which is the “enemies to lovers” trope. Now how this trope plays out, is that the romantic comedy will have two characters who, through some circumstance, hate each other; which is where the comedy aspect comes into play. Now, this can be executed well and has through other mediums such as books, but a common occurrence in this genre of film is that the male lead banter is ridden with sexism and misogyny. They will make comments about how the female lead needs to get laid to relax, she would actually have guys’ attention if she “put in the effort,” and constant comments starting with phrases with “women like you…” and “women are…” which is soon followed by a misogynist generalization about women. To make it worse, it is as if the movie itself wants the audience to agree with the male lead because, alongside his comments, other women characters who are close to the female lead will tag along. They will tell the female lead that “she needs to put herself out there” and make it seem like a bad thing to put her career above finding love, all while being framed as “friendly needed advice.” Which of course, is another misogynist idea that a woman’s main goal in life should be to find love, and then her career comes after that, and if you don’t do that formula then you are a workaholic and prude. Another problem about this troupe is that the character development of the male lead is that he stops calling the female lead names and making sexist remarks (for the most part) but that is just because he develops feelings for her. This is problematic for obvious reasons, one being that you’re developing feelings for someone shouldn’t be the catalyst to stop making sexist “jokes” and start respecting a woman, and just because you stop making them doesn’t mean you’re abandoning that mindset.
Looking at this, if we remove all these aspects, is it even a rom-com anymore? Well, yes, there are still rom-coms that avoid these aspects and are still classics. One prime example is The Wedding Singer, but that is where the last main component of older rom-coms comes in; which is all of the classics have two white people in a heterosexual relationship, and that is no longer interesting to the audience. People want to see diversity and have seen the same straight white couple falling in love hundreds of times and are bored of it.
Does this mean that no one has created a rom-com since 2010? No, but are there many rom-coms that have been created that compare to before 2010? No, and those that have been created, were unable to have that much success at the box office or streaming, so why is that? Well, when people started speaking about how many films were problematic, how poorly written the female leads were, and how toxic their relationships were portrayed. This created what is familiarly known as the “girl boss” movement. This movement covered other aspects of life besides film with the goal of empowering women, but in the film industry, this movement not only caused some positive changes but some heavily negative ones. It ended with some directors taking it at face value and as a result, a lot of romantic comedies or just any movie including a female lead was overtly “woke,” and it came off as unnatural, and even in some instances, it was so overdone that it made the character unlikeable. They started to go on long rants about the patriarchy, having a hatred for men, and would keep proclaiming how they were independent, which is fine to incorporate into a character, but it felt shallow and awkward when spoken. Audiences picked up on this, and it further pushed people away from the genre in newer media.
So if that is the case, then why do movies like The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I Loved Before have found such success today? I would say it is because these movies have found what truly makes a romantic comedy that a lot of directors miss. It is not only the tropes and the characters that make a romantic comedy, it is the music, filming angles/scenes, and color grading as well. Finding music that reminds you of young love and is reminiscent of older rom-coms creates a fuzzy feeling. Music that reflects the scene as well, such as when the two leads are falling in love through a montage with an upbeat love song attached. While during a break-up, the song becomes sad and reminiscent. It is the wide shots filmed when introducing the character and the close-up shots of each individual when talking in an intense scene or important scene. The color grading is yellow, the sun is shining directly on the actors, and it just feels familiar. To top it off, it has that cheesiness, the things that make you want to scream and giggle while watching without going over the top from secondhand embarrassment but without it being so lackluster that the characters lack chemistry. Finding a way to incorporate these things without sexism, misogyny, and racism while having two well-developed leads is what makes a modern rom-com.
Romance in today’s society is no longer something that the majority feels they have to prioritize in life, especially for whom rom-coms are marketed towards, which is people who identify as women. They no longer want the jerk male lead just because he changed with the help of the female lead. They want healthy relationships or relationships that develop into healthy ones with each character making the effort themselves without major help. They don’t want a makeover scene for the benefit of male attention, but they also don’t want face-level feminism that feels incomplete and forced into the script. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to see romance, but they want it done right, and while The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I Loved Before have problematic aspects, it has the feel of a rom-com and with a bit of tweaking it can show love in an unproblematic way. So directors evolve with us in the perception of love.