How One Woman Changed the Romantic Comedy

Today, hopeless romantics have their pick of romance films to watch. Between Netflix and the one or two films that are always in theaters, romantic comedies are abundant. And in a way, they have been abundant for a long time. Since before Shakespeare’s plays were written, stories have included romance and comedy side by side. But between the 1940s and the 1990s, there was a death of the rom-com as we know it. No longer did people want “unrealistic” romances like It Happened One Night or the many Audrey Hepburn vehicles — they wanted something they could relate to their daily lives. Enter Nora Ephron.

Nora Ephron was a well-established reporter and writer before she penned her first screenplay. She had fought for women’s right to write at Newsweek, she had been at countless newspapers since, and was a thorough feminist all throughout her career. She broke into the screenwriting scene with Oscar-nominated Silkwood starring Meryl Streep, but the turning point for the rom-com happened in 1989 with Ephron’s smash hit When Harry Met Sally… This film wasn’t a complete departure from the already well-established rom-com conventions, but it had enough modern sensibilities that it finally vaulted the genre back into popularity.

The film revolves around the central question of whether a man and a woman ever be just friends. In 2019 this seems a bit antiquated, implying that friendship is inferior to romantic relationships and screaming of heteronormativity. But compared to the “come here, baby” and vaguely condescending relationships of previous rom-coms, it was a breath of fresh air to '90s audiences. And honestly, if you can get past the premise of the film, it really is fantastic (and perfect for autumn with its orange leaves and big-band soundtrack). Harry and Sally are on equal footing throughout, and the progression of their relationship is subtle and somehow still surprising even as the movie tells you the end in its title. Besides, we all know that the scene in the diner is still one of the funniest scenes in any movie ever

So what came after When Harry Met Sally…?  If you go to the Wikipedia list of rom-coms, the number per year increases significantly after Harry/Sally’s release in 1989. There were more Ephron-penned blockbusters like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail along with teen vehicles like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, both feminist in their own right and based off of classic works (Emma and The Taming of the Shrew respectively). Another classic-based hit was the Pride & Prejudice retelling Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was so popular it spawned two sequels and practically a whole genre of P&P spinoffs. Then came more rom-coms trying to shirk the cliches of movies past, with (500) Days of Summer deconstructing the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope, The Proposal introducing gender-swapped character stereotypes, and The Fault in Our Stars revolving around a disabled (albeit still in a Hollywood-acceptable way) couple. 

In 2019 the question is no longer “will rom-coms survive?” but “how can we make them better?” Recent films have taken the biggest strides in this area: Love, Simon was a teen LGBTQ+ romance with no “bury your gays” trope, Crazy Rich Asians focused on diverse Asian characters with a lush backdrop of wealth, The Big Sick deals with illness and an interracial couple, and Always Be My Maybe, also Asian-led (along with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) features a female protagonist whose less-successful love interest supports and loves her because of her ambition, not in spite of it. With almost all of these films, there’s a return to the formula that made Nora Ephron so successful; particularly the banter, the plot points and the spot-on soundtracks. But we’re changing the formula, slowly making rom-coms into a genre that reflects not only our fantasies of romance but our realities of diverse and interesting relationships. To All the Boys 2, anyone? 

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