Exploring changes in representations of women in modern romantic comedies and whether portrayals have improved in the current era.
In this essay I will be exploring the way in which women are represented in romantic cinema; focusing on romantic comedies and whether the modern day has brought about change in how women are portrayed in this genre. As it is commonly acknowledged the role and treatment of women in society has changed over the years and also within film. I will be focusing on the romantic comedy genre due to its main target audience being women, so it is particularly interesting to investigate how women are being portrayed to a female audience and also the amount of changes the genre has gone through over the past century. Romantic comedies are a combination of both romantic and comedy genres and is defined as “a movie or play that deals with love in a light, humorous way.” It is key to look at the history of the genre before discussing its changes over the years and the role of women within this to give a better understanding of if and how themes and approaches have changed.
The genre has existed in several forms over the years but was first made commercially popular by William Shakespeare with plays such as Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Nights Dream. With the development of movies in the early 20th century with early silent films such as Girl shy being the first on screen forms of this. Early forms of rom coms were referred to as “comedies of manners” with a rich person falling in love with someone less wealthy. An example of this is It happened one night (1934). This developed into the popularity of screwball romantic comedies which in the 1930s could focus on a female protagonist and hero eg Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). During the 50s and 60s the form developed to popular sex comedies, focusing on the differences between women and men. Eg: Lover Come Back (1961) and Battle of the Sexes (1960). These changes happened due to sexual research opening up the concept that women have sex drives. With Playboy magazine in 1953 guiding men this meant less censorship in films. This form quickly developed into radical comedies where a happy ending wasn’t a given and the personal happiness was important and not romantic love which wouldn’t solve a characters problems. This development led to the form of romantic comedies we are mostly familiar with neo traditional rom coms. Eg Sleepless in Seattle, How to Lose a Guy in 10 days. These focus on compromises on both sides love with aspects that nod to previous forms of the genre we know today. It is argued that romantic comedies hold a mirror up to society and reflect on current morals and beliefs of the day and that can be seen in the progression of themes over the 20th century. It is important to understand the origins and developments of the themes over time as we can compare this to the role of women in society at the time and their role in the popular films of the genre at the time can give us an idea of how the role and treatment of women in life has reflected to their portrayal on screen and whether things in the genre have truly changed for the better in the modern day.
To explore the changes in portrayal of women in romantic cinema it is important to firstly evaluate and explore earlier representations throughout the 20th century through the many earlier forms of the genre. Interestingly progressive change for women isn’t quite as chronological as many would expect; for example the 30s was an era where women were at the forefront of the films and were often portrayed as heroes and key protagonists whereas at the time in society women were not treated to the equal standard as men. This trend seemed to subside then reappear in a different way in the 70’s in the form of radical romantic comedies where a woman characters happiness is not defined by a man but by their own self worth.
A key film that illustrates the genre in the 1930’s is It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934 ) This film is often hailed as one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time and won 5 oscars including best picture and best lead actress (Claudette Colbert) and was the first film to win the big 5 oscars.. The film follows the story of a rich heiress Ellie who escapes her rich father and his disapproval of her secret marriage to a man which he had annulled. She is helped by Peter Warne who is actually a recently fired streetwise reporter in need of a story. over the course of the film he helps her, falls for her and she leaves her husband to be with him. The film explores interesting themes of the time such as wealth, the control of the patriarchy and finding common ground in remarkable circumstances. The characters display a clear early characteristic of a rom com a “meet-cute” in which a humorous sense of awkwardness is created between the two potential partners by depicting an initial clash of personalities, an embarrassing situation, or through a comical misunderstanding or mistaken identity situation.
In many romantic comedies, the potential couple comprises of two polar opposites, people of different temperaments, situations, social statuses; who would not meet or talk under normal circumstances, and the meet cute situation provides the opportunity for these two people to meet. This narrative technique was used mostly in screwball comedies during the 1930s where they made heavy use of romantic “meet cutes”, due to the class divisions of this period which made cross-social class romances into a fantasy.
Ellie as a character is interestingly three dimensional for the time, with flaws such as her spoiled brattiness but great strength in her wit and determination to overcome repression. The key differences between her and Peter are a typical trope of romantic comedies, with the characters overcoming their differences and understanding each other to overcome the obstacles to reconcile and fall in love in the end. Despite being a film of it’s time where women’s independence and political freedom were limited and there was only a beginning of true independence for females it is a stand out for its era that such a strong and independent female character was written and also received so popularly by audiences of the time. Ellie is a character who though she relies on men for her economic status and somewhat for her happiness also lives on her own terms and uses her sexuality and femininity as a choice rather than being forced to or by being used by the male characters in the film. For example in the hitchhiking scene she holds the power with the cab driver and displays this by showing her skin, shown in a close up and grabs the attention of the driver. This conscious use of the male gaze ref as a tool to reach her goals through her own choice is a clear show of power from a female character. Regardless of examples such as these, overall the film fits much within the tropes and characteristics of a piece of the 1930s through being a true comedy of manners; men in a position of power and women’s reliance upon them. By todays standards this is no longer widely accepted throughout society and can be reflected in modern films of the genre which attempt to consciously defy these stereotypes. It happened one night” is a great example of films mirroring the culture of their time and many themes in current romantic comedies are still influenced by films such as this. Although the film attempts to portray the female lead positively in many ways there as still many issues to be found and there was a long way for positive female portrayals to go.
Thirty years later, the romantic comedy had developed to the battle of the sexes or known as “sex comedies” that pitted men and women against each other and highlighted their differences. Due to more acceptable sexual promiscuity in the 60’s, post war climate and the advances of the film industry bringing huge popularity of the genre back in came the lighter, funnier romantic comedies of the sixties. There was no better time to explore this, then during the sixties, as women’s roles continued to evolve and grow. The 1960’s was a important time as romantic comedies took a more explicit, sexual approach to how it displayed affection to characters which looked at monogamy and the women’s sexual roles which were increasingly more common, but explicit sexuality in romantic comedies has always been seen as somewhat negative because of the effects of censorship and the issues linked with feminist movement and the film industries sexual revolution.The reality of relationships was faithfully portrayed by the genre through an increase of divorce and break-up comedies devoted to the exploration of single life. Many actresses such as Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn had great success during this time starring in many Rom Coms. One of the consistent markers of even the modern day romantic comedy is the battle between the sexes, though in modern films this tends to be focused to the first half of the narrative with a more romantic second half. A tendency among filmmakers is to try to play the Battle of the Sexes so that both sides win – except, in the end, the men usually win. In Battle of the Sexes comedies, the lead female characters usually possess two things: a job and a feisty and independent personality, but by the end of the films, they have to learn a lesson about either their careers or their relationship choices. Problems with this form of rom com is often there are independent women with careers who have to humble themselves and learn a lesson about work and/or romance, while their male partners get to stay the same and reap the benefits. This form of romantic comedy seemed to relate to audiences well as the gender divide was emphasised in this form and many women of the time could openly relate to the characters on screen. A highly successful sex comedy of the sixties was Lover Come Back (Mann, 1961) starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson; two of the biggest stars of the genre at the time. With mistaken identity as the key plot device of the film, the two leads Jerry and Carol are rivals at separate ad companies with very different morals. Jerry lies and manipulates his way to success whereas Carol strives to work hard honestly for success. Mistaking Jerry for a doctor who was hired to create a fake product Jerry had advertised he takes advantages and pretends to be the doctor to seduce Carol. Eventually she learns the truth and appalled, she reports him to the Advertising Council, for promoting a product that does not exist. Jerry, however, arrives with VIP, a candy Dr. Tyler has created. He provides a free sample to everyone there, including Carol. “VIP” turns out to be an intoxicating candy, one serving having the same effect as a triple martini. Its extreme effects lead to a one-night stand between Carol and her rival Jerry, complete with a marriage license.
Carol has the marriage annulled, but Jerry convinces the liquor industry to give Carol’s firm 25% of its $60 million annual advertising expenditures in return for pulling VIP off the market and burning the formula. Jerry leaves New York to work in his company’s California branch—only to be called back nine months later to remarry Carol in a hospital maternity ward, just before she gives birth to their child. Ref
The film follows a typical man vs woman format and combines their professional and romantic lives with an eventually happy ending common of the genre. Despite this it seems that neither of the characters particularly learn their lesson from the series of events and perhaps seem to have a happy ending more due to circumstance than true love. Carol is an example of a strong working woman who fights for what she believes which reflects the climate of the time with feminist activism and advances for women in professional industries. Interestingly the ending is fairly balanced for both characters, with Carol and Jerry marrying as she goes into labour with her saying “It’s my baby and I’ll have what I want: I decided on a girl.”. Although in the end it is likely she will become a mother and wife who isn’t focused on career like many of the time, she does still to the end of the film hold her defiant and stubborn sense of self. Although Lover Come Back ends in matrimony, marriage is used as dramatic punctuation and unlike the previous era’s of romantic comedy is no longer the only happy conclusion possible for a character or their sole arc.
Following on from the sexual liberation of the 60’s the 70’s brought about radical romantic comedies that were arguably the last form before neo-tradiotional rom coms of the current era. These films were categorised by their freedom with ploys and innuendos and happy ever afters not being required. Although commercially there seemed to be a lull in popularity with rom coms during this period, films such as Annie Hall (Allen,1977) were popular at the time; focusing on the independence and complexity of the lead characters rather than only their romantic validation. Annie Hall is considered a prime example of radical romantic comedy …In the film after breaking up with his girlfriend Annie Hall, neurotic comedian Alvy Singer goes on a monologue based journey through his memories of their relationship, trying to find out what caused them to part ways often he breaks the fourth wall, speaking to the camera. Annie is portrayed as ditzy and clumsy by his narrative and he explains the ups and downs of their relationship then eventual break up where he is rejected by her. He writes a play about the relationship but with a happy ending although Annie’s true ending is with someone else. The film consciously portrays events through an unreliable narrator so the audience sees the representation through Alvy’s perception rather our own.”within the film’s three fold exploration of self-reflexivity, this ending is as resolutely appropriate to the realistic portrayal of modern love, and to the film’s acknowledgement of itself as a film text within certain traditions, as it is in conscious opposition to the usual generic ending” (Mcdonald, 2007, p74) Alvy represents what is wrong with society’s general view and treatment of women as many of the negative portrayals of Annie in the film are projections of Alvy’s thoughts. However, unlike many typical female characters in film, Annie stands up for herself in the face of Alvy’s criticism and does not always give into his nonsense. She seems to rise above Alvy’s pretentiousness and displays her independence when she refuses to return to New York and get back together with him in the end of the film. This film (as with much of Woody Allen’s work) has complex and deep representations and interpretations of women and their relationships with the male characters. Radical Romantic comedies seem to span a variety of stances and opinions but are no doubt more complex than previous generations of the form: as illustrated by the much contrasting 1970s’ romantic comedy musical Grease (Kleiser, 1978). The film has many female characters (known as the Pink ladies) who each hold unique and defining traits, are not flat and underdeveloped. Sandy goes from innocent girl next door to embrace her sexuality in order to get Danny and in turn reaches her full maturity and expects the same from him, Rizzo is a strong and feisty girl who learns to be kinder and more sympathetic and Frenchie is often disregarded as ditzy is struggling with her career path as illustrated clearly by the song”beauty school dropout”. The three man females reach satisfying conclusions by reaching their goals through their own determination or combined support. The film clearly shows how females can surpass expectations and be more than their stereotypes and in order to be happy romantically will not simply settle for being manipulated or mistreated by men.
This form of romantic comedy still appears in many forms in modern rom coms as women’s position in society has advanced and people desire to see multidimensional women on screen.
These previous eras of comedy lead us to the modern form of the genre: Neo-traditional romantic comedies. By looking at the characteristics we can see how the current style came to be and evaluate how much change in representation has come from this.The Neo-traditional or simply Romantic comedy as we know it today is defined as:
“The neo traditional romantic comedy reasserts the old, ‘boy meets, loses, regains girl’ structure emphasising the couple will be heterosexual, will form a lasting relationship and that their story will end as soon as they do so.” T. McDonald: Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre (2007)
A great example of this would be the film How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days (Petrie, 2003); Andie works for a women magazine as a columnist and is tasked with writing an article titled: How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days whereas Ben is an advertising executive who bets he can make a woman fall for him in ten days also. Of course the ‘meet cute” occurs and a series of events occur over the ten days where neither of them reveal their quests but as Andie acts irratically Ben stays and puts up with the barrage of ridiculous behaviour. While visiting Ben’s family they make a genuine bond which is then ruined by Ben’s co-workers exposing their facades. The pair break up and Andie sets off to move away and find a new job, when Ben reads the article and discovers that her feelings were genuine and the pair reconcile. This Narrative clearly follows the boy meets, loses then regains the girl pattern and the story ends as soon as they form a relationship; affirming the concept given by McDonald alongside a clear man v woman narrative such as those of the 60s’ rom coms. There are many aspects of the film which empower women from the women’s magazine with many influential and intelligent women, the two “Judys” who compete with ben for the advertising job who are both powerful women who go for what they want. This empowerment shows the advancements in gender equality both on screen and in society advancing from the earlier romantic comedies of the past but despite this there are still problems. There is an abundance of stereotyping in the film for both male and female characters and most of the supporting characters are not particularly well fleshed out. Andie is a career driven woman who attempts to place her job before her emerging feelings for Ben but eventually prioritises love over her career. When she is leaving the city to find a better job, writing about more genuine things she is stopped by Ben and as they reconcile their relationship it seem that this desire to achieve is instantly forgotten by her. Of course by this point we do not see the aftermath of the ending and as long as her love life is fulfilled it seems we should be satisfied. This approach is problematic and reflects traits from the films of the earlier 20th century that focused on women happiness being affirmed by their love life. It seems that though many advances have been made and aspects from radical romances are present in Neo traditional romantic comedies which focus on women’s independence it seems that as these films of the 70’s were not as well received by audiences as perhaps their more problematic counterparts such as the sex comedy or the comedies of manners of the 30’s. As the 90’s and 2000’s saw a huge surge in popularity in romantic comedies so came the contentment with films such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days which is perceived as showing an overall positive representation but In fact has many issues still to be found.
After looking at the history of romantic comedy in cinema it can be seen that there is a distinct pattern between cultural climate and the position of women at the time. As the role of women in society has become more equal to their male counterparts over time films have attempted to mirror this, particularly to obtain commercial success as commonly romantic comedies tend to be seen as “chick flicks” so it would be foolish for filmmakers in the modern day to ostracise their key audience through negative representations. Many characteristics of previous types of rom coms has been seen to be carried forward to the modern day; with the cross financial/political love stories such as those of the 30s’, the occasional promiscuity of the 60’s and the defiance and sometimes stark reality of 70s’ radical romances. It seems that in the modern day audiences are more drawn to stories which are heartwarming and have happy endings. Due to this filmmakers seem to take aspects that were successful from older styles of the genre and incorporate them into the current version of the genre we know today; often making the outcome for both sexes fairly equal and stray away from controversy. Having explored this it is also clear there is a long way to go for portrayal of women in not only this but all genres to mirror the current political climate for women of the current day.