I was taping an episode of Bloggingheads with The New Republic‘s Noreen Malone last week, and in the course of our conversation, we turned to the crisis in romantic comedies, a genre that’s hit a rough patch at the box office, and an even longer rough patch creatively. Movies that don’t look a lot like ordinary audiences’ lives are par for the course, whether they’re financially aspirational, geographically transporting, or involve quantities of high-grade explosives that would be decidedly more terrifying to encounter in real life. But as Noreen and I discussed the state of romantic comedies, we began to wonder if the genre’s hit trouble precisely because America’s ideas about love and marriage appear to be moving in two very different directions:
As Megan McArdle writes in her Newsweek piece, “What Are You Waiting For?” on the reasons it might make sense to marry earlier, there’s a real split between the way college graduates pursue permanent relationships that will lead to children, and how everyone else faces the prospect of stabilizing or finding those permanent relationships after they’ve had children:
“When I look at their statistics, it’s as if the college grads are living in a different society,” says Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins, an expert on family structure. And the college grads, unfortunately, are not the majority. The majority are the people without a four-year degree, for whom late marriage has combined with early parenthood to produce a crisis in family structure. The fragile, often fatherless family that used to be associated with the deepest urban poverty is increasingly becoming the norm for everyone except the educated: urban and rural, black and white, Northern and Southern.
It’s a split that’s the reverse, in both ways, of the teenage marriages Betty Friedan described in The Femnine Mystique, in which a ring and a ceremony were the things that denoted you were an adult, and figuring out everything else that goes along with being a grown-up came after. College-educated Americans are getting their careers in order and having children later: marriage is the last box you check on a list of many boxes, because you have to prove you’re an adult before you’re ready to settle down. And Americans without college degrees are having children before marrying, and if marriage is in the cards, it’s an aspirational item on the list, something you can do when you’ve got the other facets of your existence under control.
Relationships as presented in contemporary American romantic comedies fall somewhere in between these two categories. The characters in them are, for the most part, college-educated, employed in a way that makes them relatively affluent, and in stable home and family situations: in other words, they’re the box-checkers of McArdle’s description. But often, they’re significantly emotionally damaged in some way. The 40-Year-Old Virgin‘s Andy Stitzer (Steve Carrell) has become socially isolated and emotionally stunted by the fact that he never managed to lose his virginity, and his successful relationship with a woman (Catherine Kenner), whom he marries at the end of the film, doesn’t just provide him with romantic and sexual satisfaction: it restores him to his full humanity and helps him piece together a successful social life. In The Ugly Truth, Gerard Butler’s Mike Chadway is a misogynistic radio host who, as it turns out, is merely reacting to an incredibly difficult breakup (in Hollywood, this is apparently a reasonable excuse, and Mike is still a nice guy). His relationship doesn’t just make him happier: it helps him discover ways to be less professionally abrasive. Work problems are frequently linked to romantic problems: in Morning Glory, Rachel McAdams’ morning show producer becomes both better at her job and more personally relaxed when she begins dating another producer played by Patrick Wilson.
Love, in other words, isn’t an end unto itself anymore. In When Harry Met Sally, the titular couple basically had themselves figured out as individuals when they got together. They were professionally successful, had cultivated friends of their own, had nice apartments in New York City. The question of whether or not they’d get together was big enough to stand on its own. Their happiness was an end in and of itself, whether or not it would also revive their economic fortunes or make them more capable of interacting with the people around them. Similarly, Barbara Stanwyck’s screwball heroines often had their lives pretty well figured out, whether they were talented conwomen or nightclub singers, before they met the men who would become the object of their affections. Jean, the scammer she played in The Lady Eve and Sugar Puss O’Shea, her gang moll in Ball of Fire, may have seen in the men they came to love opportunities to reinvent themselves, but they were neither desperate nor broken before their ophiologists and linguists showed up in their lives. Stanwyck doesn’t need to be rescued, but she does, very much, want to enjoy herself.
This is not to say that couples in romantic comedies can’t also prove themselves in other areas of their lives. Buster Keaton, as a Southern train engineer in The General demonstrates to his intended that he’s not a shirker when he steals his beloved train back from the Union troops who have commandeered it, and proves to his girlfriend that a bookworm is more valuable than a campus jock in College. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is pushed to make his chain bookstore even better as he comes to know Meg Ran’s corner bookshop owner Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail. Part of the process by which Jack (Bill Pullman) and Lucy (Sandra Bullock) fall in love in the wildly underrated While You Were Sleeping is through their perceptive diagnoses of each others’ fears and anxieties about work, money, and travel, but in the end, when Jack takes Lucy to Europe on their honeymoon, the sense of the movie is less that he’s saved Lucy from herself than that he’s giving her what she’s always dreamed of because he wants to and can. But all of these are stories about basically competent and together people for whom loves stands as an independent goal, rather than the shovel that scrapes them off the sidewalk.
In other words, romantic comedies don’t seem to match a great many American couples’ lived experiences with relationships today. Working-class and less-educated characters are almost entirely invisible from them–the fact that Lucy was a toll collector would probably exclude her from the ranks of romantic comedy heroines today. And while some women who have children outside of marriage show up in romcoms like The Back-Up Plan and Baby Mama, those movies tend to set events in motion such that a step-father and said child arrive into the mother’s world essentially at the same time, rather than acknowledging a gap between motherhood and marriage. But the educated and affluent heroines of romantic comedies don’t tend to follow the track that McArdle describes exactly either. The tendency to make romantic comedy heroes and heroines really damaged in some way, and making love the thing that heals them up, puts these considerably older adults in a position like that of the teenagers Friedan describes, for which a wedding ring comes before the actual process of maturation and building a stable life. Romantic comedies, in other words, have put themselves in a position where they may be too far out of reach to be aspirational, or too pessimistic about the state of their characters to be relateable.