The Porter Zone

Philosophical musings and more

Sexual Politics and the Contemporary Rom-Com


This is a subject I have thought about for some while, and have written about more briefly elsewhere.  However, I am not sure I have yet strip-mined it of all its content, so here we go again.  To put it briefly, my thesis is that if we look at the rom-coms emerging from Hollywood today we see a rather nasty anti-feminism underlying many of them.  What I want to do is to discuss that, looking in particular at how the sexual politics of rom-coms has changed since the golden age of the 1930s / 40s, to make a tentative effort at determining what it means.

On  this last question, all I can do is offer a tentative effort.  I can document what the phenomenon is that I believe is responsible for this, but I have no idea why that phenomenon is happening.  For that I turn over to you, and I hope to find in comments on this illumination, and perhaps even an answer.

The Rom-Com I : How things were

I’m going to look at four classic rom-coms, two in which the man starts off with the wrong woman, and two in which the woman starts off with the wrong man.  Three of them involve Katharine Hepburn, which is only fair, as she was arguably the greatest movie actress ever (and the AFI seems to agree with me), and all four involve Cary Grant (and I do think the AFI were wrong to put Bogart above him).  They are:

Wrong woman

  • Bringing up Baby
  • Holiday

Wrong man

  • The Philadelphia Story
  • His Girl Friday

Well let’s have a look at them.  One obvious similarity is that all of the characters (except the wrong one) in all these films are intelligent, witty and self-sufficient.  Hepburn’s character loves Grant’s in both ‘Bringing up Baby’ and ‘Holiday’, but it’s clear that she expects to do more than simply sit at his feet and gaze adoringly.  Given what she manages to do to the poor man’s dinosaur in ‘Bringing up Baby’ one hesitates to imagine their married life.

Now turn to ‘The Philadelphia Story’.  This is interesting.  Grant is, as always, urbane, but Hepburn’s character (and remember, this part was written specifically for her) is a woman who, at the start views marriage as being about her being a virgin goddess up on a pedestal, while her husband adores her.  And the clod she is engaged to at the outset is happy to do just that.  What she learns, in the course of some unusual pre-wedding events, is that marriage must be a partnership of equals, and on that basis she is able to re-marry Grant’s character, their first marriage having foundered on the rock of her selfishness and his drinking.

So marriage is a partnership (almost literally so in ‘His Girl Friday’, where the re-marrying couple are editor and star journalist).  Both partners are intelligent, urbane and witty and they have mutual respect for one another (at the start of ‘The Philadelphia Story’ almost everyone admires Hepburn’s character, but no-one respects her: that has changed by the end).  I know I’ve said this once, but it bears repetition before we look at the train-wreck that is the modern rom-com.

Interlude : Horror films then and now

I write this the day after reading the depressing news that the ‘Saw’ saga is the most successful horror franchise in history.  So successful horror constitutes coming up the increasingly complex and bloody ways of killing people.  I see.  And a truly great contemporary(ish) horror movie: ‘The Others’ is ignored, despite the fact that I think it contains the most frightening (as opposed to viscerally nauseating) film moment I have ever seen.  And what was this moment of terror?  Simplicity itself: a piano lid that was up when it should have been down.  It sounds like nothing, but as the climax to some half-hour of building tension it is terrifying.

Think again of the long sequences with the geiger counter in Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing From Outer Space’.  We scarcely ever see the thing.  We never see him actually doing grisly deeds.  But the long sequence of absolute silence broken only by the click of the geiger counter is what real fear is about: anticipation and the unknown.

So how come that horror, which after all has impeccable credentials as a genre, from ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’ (where we can be more scared by a man opening his eyes than by any number of dismemberments) and ‘Nosferatu’ has come to a genre defined in terms of the effectiveness of its ‘kills’ (in the nauseating language used by current aficionados).  Simple: it used to be the province of adults.  Now the audience is predominantly teen-age boys, who aren’t mature enough for the subtler joys of suspense and things not being as they should, but who dig a dismembered corpse with the proper callousness.

The Rom-Com II : How things are

Back to rom-coms.  I’m afraid things have gone down-hill a bit since the age of Hepburn and Grant.  And not just because neither is still alive (though that doesn’t help).  Let’s look at things now, shall we?

Now, I’m not going to rehearse examples, partly because these flicks are too unmemorable to stay in my memory as more than basic schematic outlines, variations on a theme, and partly because to write them all down would be just too unpleasant.  Anyway, I fear you will recognise only too well what I am writing about.

So here’s the basic plot.  Not all of them have all details, but this is the basic framework you should use if you want to write a successful modern rom-com.  Here goes.  Young woman is successful in her career and is engaged to a nice, equally successful ‘new man’ type.  You know what I mean: he’s considerate, treats her as an equal, all that stuff.  Well, anyway, our heroine is still discontented.  And then she meets a knuckle-dragging specimen to call whom a neanderthal would be an insult to neanderthals everywhere.  He views women as objects, appears to have fewer neurons than fingers, and is generally the sort of thing the cat might bring in on a slow Friday night.  And naturally, after a brief outburst of hating him, our heroine dumps her perfectly nice boyfriend for this monster.  And we then fade out and are left thinking: that was a happy ending?

Well, I don’t think it was.  I think it’s quite terrible, actually.  What a message to be sending to young women (the predominant audience being women in their twenties)?  Forget the achievements of the women’s movement: what you need is a real man, the sort who smells a bit, wears odd socks and will treat you like shit, but that’s all right because on the rare nights he’s sober he’ll roger you ’til the cows come home.  And probably won’t notice that you’re faking it either.

So why are modern rom-coms sending such an anti-feminist message?  Now, I am not one of those people who believe that movie studios are evil and deliberately foist brainless pap on us.  I think they’re interested in making money and have discovered that brainless pap is what people want (whereas back in the golden age, they were more inclined to make what they thought the people ought to want).  So we get horror movies with no real fear in them, just visceral disgust (‘Carry on Screaming’ is more scary than most modern horror flicks, plus it has the incomparable Fenella Fielding and Kenneth Williams), and for some reason we get anti-feminist rom-coms.

So why do young women want an anti-feminist message?  I have no idea.  When I raised this elsewhere one told me that to her friends ‘feminism’ was a dirty word.  For heaven’s sake, why?  Surely women should be proud of the achievements that have been made, and eager to drive on progress to true equality?  As a male, old-fashioned feminist, I just don’t get it.

And for my next trick

By special request: how a cat nearly got me arrested.


One response to “Sexual Politics and the Contemporary Rom-Com

  1. Pingback: Cutting heroines down to size | Julian's Books

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