The Demise of the Romantic Comedy and the Female DemoMarch 7, 2012 • By Sasha Stone
All one need do is watch the latest season of ABC’s The Bachelor to start hating on the female demo, the girls who were raised on Disney princesses and the Oprah-fied notion that we “deserve” to have it all — the romance, the love, the passion, the sex, the marriage, the prince charming, the happily ever after — oh, girls. Life is far too brutal and ugly for such high gloss ideals, don’t you think? But that is what sells. Even Bridesmaids, which told a very realistic depiction of how some women allow themselves to be used by men who treat them with indifference, at best, had to morph into another version of happily ever after. It always has to end that way — girl is swept off her feet and off they go into the sunset.
Over at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir digs into this notion and mostly unfairly blames Nora Ephron for this modern phenom of nonsensical third act “happy” endings:
I never thought I’d be holding up the 2009 “(500) Days of Summer,” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, as some kind of cinema breakthrough. At the time, I thought it was charming and exceedingly slight. But, dudes and dudettes, how many other American-made rom-coms of the last decade have devised a happy ending that openly flouted the Ephron formula? (Yeah, I loved Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland,” which gets extra points for sweetness and for nailing its period and setting, but leaves the formula intact.) Is it worth noting that “(500) Days” earned back four times its modest production budget, while most of the other inflated Hollywood rom-coms I’ve mentioned made little or no profit?
Sure it is, sort of, but studios and producers learn lessons slowly, and only through the application of many millions of dollars. I bear “Friends With Kids” no ill will, by the way; by all means go see it. (In the likely-to-be-confused-on-Netflix category, it’s worlds better than “Friends With Benefits,” but not as good as “Friends With Money.”) But it’s not the answer to the question. Somebody’s going to have to write a romantic comedy in which something totally unexpected happens in the third act, leaving the Ephron template in ruins — and then turn it into an absolute, gonzo-palooza worldwide hit — before the 21st-century rom-com is unshackled from Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
If you’re going to go the Nora Ephron route, you have to understand where Ephron herself takes them — from the traditional romances of the 1930s and 1940s, wherein quirky female types like Ephron choose to dwell. Where men are hunks of coal waiting around to be fixed and reshaped by women who are smarter, cleaner and better cooks. I can tell you that in the real world men like that don’t exist, which leads to the continual existential crisis of most modern women — not only can you NOT fix men, but they don’t want to be fixed. Most straight men seem to want both things at once, the virgin and the whore. There aren’t many one-stop-shopping women out here that can satisfy the needs of the modern male, who has the internet at his disposal. So men who cheat and have affairs and leave their wives are the villains and men who suffer in silence allow themselves to be transmogrified by women — dressed up in suits, always there to pick up the kids, understanding of their moods, ready to listen when they have problems, etc. Female satisfaction is as tall an order as male satisfaction.
Because we can’t really find it here in reality we go looking for it in fantasy, which is where women tend to dwell anyway. All of this to say that the modern romantic comedy is fairytale porn for dissatisfied women everywhere. The Bachelor feeds into both the myth of love at first sight which turns into happily ever after. But the reality is that those couples from that insufferable show barely stay together long enough for the series to have its run. Women look at the tabloid stories about the participants, and even about Angelina and Brad or the Kardashians and allow themselves to believe these silly stories the same way many men allow themselves to believe that wrestling is real.
So most women will reject a romantic comedy, or any sort of film where there is romance, if the women doesn’t get the guy in the end. The worst of these, I’m sorry to say, is the Nancy Meyer oeuvre, which makes the Nora Ephron oeuvre look like the Orson Welles oeuvre. When you have Meryl Streep fending off the unending desire of her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and her architect (Steve Martin), or worse, Keanu Reeves as a young doctor and Jack Nicholson in Something’s Got to Give — you are looking at the fairy tale morphed into a desire to see it carry on through middle age, a time in most women’s lives when they are rejected by most men and by society as desirable beings.
Women, like men, do not fuck around when it comes to feeding the fantasy. Men go right for the cum shot, or the fetish, women go right for the impossible situation in real life made possible. This is Jack Nicholson finally falling for Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, Jack Nicholson falling for Helen Hunt in As Good as it Gets, and yes, Billy Crystal falling for Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
It is a frustrating thing — but it probably isn’t going away any time soon. The stakes are simply too high now. Women are faced on a daily basis with prettier, younger, photoshopped female ideals as they stare at their own bodies in the three-way mirror at the Marshall’s, hopeless at their imperfection. They can then turn to films and television to make themselves feel better. Is that so hard to understand?
Comic book movies, mumblecore, indie films — they all feature hot babes who provide decoration and boner fodder for the target demo. But the romantic comedies, as awful as they are, fulfill a need in our culture that isn’t being fed anywhere else.
I take heart that I’m not one of those women. I like to think I’m above all of that. But if I shelled out a cool twenty for some truly lame film starring Katherine Heigl or Rachel MacAdams — there better be the payoff at the end for my trouble. It’s the least they can do, after all.
But for the record, in real life Harry Burns would have showed up at the New Year’s Eve party with a date and he would have avoided Sally at all costs, happy to be done with her. It’s messy, you know, all of that emotion.
As for Ms. Ephron, I too wish she’d take more chances as a writer and filmmaker and free herself from the confines of this nonsense. Ephron is brilliant, in truth. Her book of essays, “I feel bad about my Neck” is one of the best things I’ve ever red. Here’s to hoping she finds her inner Orson Welles.