The Misogyny of Romantic Comedies

Prompted by: Playing it Cool

Sometimes I’ll be watching a movie and something will occur to me regarding the genre or the character or the style or whatever else the case may be. Sometimes I’ll do a google search to see if anyone else has noticed the same things. Sometimes there will be an article or a blog post about the same exact thing I noticed… sometimes there won’t be. And sometimes I think to myself “I should write about it.” But I never do.

But I am today! And today I’m going to talk about how rom-coms are so misogynistic.

When Harry Met Sally

Okay so this is a classic, right? I mean, it’s up there with You’ve Got Mail and Pretty in Pink. I had  never seen it, so when it was playing during a plane flight a few months back, I was excited to watch it. Except that I hated it. I hated it from the moment Harry propositions Sally even though he is dating her friend… which is about three minutes into the movie. I hated how smug Harry was, how his self-absorbed monologues wouldn’t let Sally get a word in edgewise, and how he’s aggressive in his pursuits. I hate that he ghosts Sally after they sleep together, that he won’t stop harassing her after she tells him she wants him to leave her alone, and that he publicly announces all of her shortcomings as if she’s only acceptable once he’s said so. For 12 years, Harry shirks responsibility and demeans commitment, and yet we’re somehow supposed to buy that he magically changes and is ready to settle down and live happily ever after? Yeah, right. I hated it so much that I had to look it up when I landed and make sure I had even watched the right movie. I couldn’t fathom how so many people have found it endearing and romantic over the years.

Worthwhile moment: Sally publicly demonstrates how easy it is to fake an orgasm to prove that Harry really isn’t as good in bed as his monstrous ego would lead him to believe.

harry met sally

Play it Cool

This movie is an actual train wreck. Chris Evans plays the lead, and his character is just as sexist as his portrayal The Human Torch, if not more so. With a great line-up featuring Topher Grace, Aubrey Plaza, Michelle Monaghan, and Luke Wilson, I was pretty excited to see this pop up on Netflix. Unfortunately, the cast is really the only good thing about the movie. This sorry excuse for a romance features:

  • a scene featuring a sexy babysitter seductively dancing for a young boy.
  • a line about Malaysian women being the best to sleep with because they’re used to undersized appendages and you can “rip them up.”
  • a main character who continues to show up at the house of his love interest and drunkenly shout up at her window despite her repeatedly asking him to stop.
  • a girl whose consolation prize for not being loved by the main character is ending up with her ‘friend’ who previously forced himself on her.
  • a cliche attempt to stop a wedding because our white male lead simply can’t fathom that someone genuinely isn’t interested in him.
  • repeated racism, sexism, and narcissism.

Worthwhile moment: Topher Grace’s character leaves copies of his favorite book at cafes and coffee shops with a hand-written inscription about how the story changed his life and he hopes it can do the same for the stranger who picks it up.

play it cool 2

27 Dresses

Another airplane viewing, this is one I didn’t even finish. 27 Dresses relies so heavily on stereotyping and sexism to further the plot that it’s shameful. Girl is wedding-obsessed, girl wants her own wedding so badly because that is what gives life meaning, girl is jealous over her sister stealing her romantic interest (instead of just talking about it like grown women should). I turned it off at the part where James Marsden steals her planner and starts plotting about how he is going to use her personal information to get her attention… after she already told him in no uncertain terms that she wanted him to leave her alone. There’s a TV Trope for this plot device called Stalking Is Love. I’m not sure when we started presenting not taking no for an answer as something that’s romantic and endearing. What it is is creepy, and oftentimes borders on harassment. No means no.

Worthwhile moment: none.

27 dresses

So what’s the deal with the misogyny in romantic comedies in the first place? From women being expected to change in order to land the guy of their dreams (a la Sandy in Grease) to men creepily following women around to woo them (a la Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey), there’s just something off about what these popular romantic movies are selling. My frustration only increases when I realize that all this sexism exists in movies made for and about women. What are women retaining, consciously or not, as they watch these movies? Do we start to think it’s okay to be followed by a man even when we’ve told him to stop? Do we start to believe that our life doesn’t have true meaning unless we’re spending it with a man? Do we start to think that men can treat women however they want as long as there’s a grand airport/ballroom/sidewalk-in-the-pouring-rain apology? In her must-read article about what she learned from a year of watching rom-coms, Chloe Angyal summarizes it nicely:

“In romantic comedies, men who appear to be misogynistic pigs are simply waiting for the right woman to prove to them that women deserve to be treated like human beings.”

-Chloe Angyal, The Crappy Lessons of Romantic Comedies

The problem isn’t that this genre is often fluffy and predictable, and it’s not that they’re sappy or corny. The problem definitely isn’t that women want love or are interested in marriage. The problem is that, like or not, what we view impacts us. And the impact of consistently viewing love, sex, and relationships in an inaccurate and unhealthy light cannot be good. Angyal says that “romantic comedies teach us that a woman’s life is empty and meaningless without a man, and that any woman who believes she is happy being single is simply lying to herself. They teach us that love is only for straight white people –- skinny, beautiful straight white people, at that. They teach us that men are sex-crazed, commitment-phobic animals who have to be manipulated into romantic relationships, and that when a man really loves a woman, he’ll demonstrate his feelings with grand gestures that barely skirt the line between love and stalking.” And she’s right. These movies are sending the wrong messages, and they’re sending them relentlessly.

I’m not sure what the solution is. Maybe take viewings with a grain of salt? Maybe don’t be shy about turning off a rom-com that has even less redeeming qualities than most? Maybe add a few indie romances to your lineup: ones that feature healthy relationships with real characters and believable storylines (or just watch anything with Leslie Knope/Ben Wyatt or Morticia/Gomez Addams). Whatever the case may be, there’s no shame in rewatching Made of Honor for the fifth time if that’s something that makes you happy. But while watching Patrick Dempsey race through the Scottish countryside on horseback, remind yourself that, corny as it may be, the best love out there is actually the love you have for yourself.

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