With 30 Rock nearing its series finale, why not let my screenwriting idol Tina Fey show you around the office of the most successful unsuccessful [pretend] woman in show business?
Sherwood, which has received a script commitment at the network, is set in 1072 England and revolves around a young noblewoman who sets out to free her serf boyfriend, who has been wrongfully imprisoned by ruthless Norman occupiers. Seeing[sic] help from the vanished Robin of Locksley, she inadvertently reunites—and joins—the fabled Robin Hood and his Merry Men, inspiring new hope for the oppressed people of Nottingham.
For the non-insider, “a script commitment” means the network has commissioned the creator, Tze Chun, to write a script for a pilot episode. If they like the script, they’ll shoot the pilot. If the pilot tests well, they’ll make one season of the show, and so forth.
Is it just me, or is TV turning out to be way better for female starring vehicles than film?
The best recent romantic comedy I’ve seen is The Amazing Spider-Man.
Yes, of course Spider-Man is a romantic-comedy. You must have thought it was about a comic book character or something. How naïve. For future reference, the presence of Emma Stone, the new Queen of Romantic Comedy (as anointed by me), is a dead giveaway.
Now, technically Spider-Man is a rom-com hybrid—according to the definition laid down by Billy Mernit, the man who actually wrote the book on romantic comedies. That is, the romantic-comedy component of the plot is secondary; the central question of the movie is not “Will these two people end up together?” Still, the romance between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy forms a vital part of the story, and more importantly, it both amuses the viewer and satisfies as a narrative.
Sadly, scoring well in both those categories puts Spider-Man out in front of nearly all other so-called “romantic comedies” produced in recent years. When pressed to name a “good” romantic comedy—one that has a strong story and actually makes people laugh—I usually cite Knocked Up… which hit theaters in 2007. While I’m sure other funny, well-written romatic comedies have debuted since then (one thinks of Bridesmaids, another rom-com hybrid), the fact that my mind most easily flits back to a film from five years ago should concern fans of the genre. I mean, even referring to it as a “film” without being technically incorrect communicates a certain temporal distance.
The fact is, the landscape of modern romantic comedy looks pretty barren. Most rom-coms fail on one or both of the aforementioned metrics—usually both; the stereotypical, predictable, trope-filled, Katherine Heigl-starring, barely-clinging-to-reality-by-its-long-fake-fingernails romantic comedy typically provides almost zero laughs and makes almost zero sense. Even some semi-recent movies I have enjoyed (usually more than they deserved) tended to rely on tired plot obstacles that real people could easily overcome by sitting down and having an adult conversation. Moreover, the rare funny rom-com—such as 2011’s Friends With Benefits—tends to turn serious about two-thirds of the way in to focus on the disintegrating relations between the main characters, thus removing comedy and believability simultaneously. Alternatively, comedy stays alive throughout by burning rapidly through the fuel of reality, leaving the viewer dissatisfied by a resolution that feels contrived rather than earned. Couples Retreat, I’m looking at you.
I recently wrote the origin story of my love affair with romantic comedies (and feminism), and I’ve since been wondering whether the genre’s persistent detachment from reality may result from persistent attachment to the tone and sensibility of the movies I grew up watching: musicals and rom-coms of the 30s and 40s. If that sounds far-fetched, consider the following list of similarities: meet-cutes, fast-paced “witty” (rather than actually funny) dialogue, wealthier-than-average protagonists, traditional gender roles (except when subverted for effect), heightened sense of reality, overuse of coincidence to progress the plot, and a telescoped timeline that allows people to meet, fall in love, fight, split up, pine, and reunite within the space of a few days or weeks.
Of course, the romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s were actually laugh-out-loud funny in their day, not merely chuckle-worthy. And current rom-com writers are not directly copying the format; as someone who recently shot a movie that did attempt a fairly literal homage to 1930s filmmaking, I could hardly complain if they did. Rather, contemporary romantic comedies appear to be attempting a translation of the style into modern vernacular instead of inventing their own cinematic conventions.
We do get the occasional exception, like last year’s Friends With Kids, a grounded, genuine offering from Jennifer Westfeldt about two platonic friends who decide to have a baby together without getting married. Naturally, the plot centers around whether they will, despite their ill-laid plans, eventually end up together. While really more of a dramedy, the movie is funny when it tries to be, and more importantly, no one makes decisions for unbelievable reasons, the plot does not hinge on coincidence, and for the most part the characters act like sane—albeit flawed—adults. Right up until the last scene, that is; see this post by Dianna E. Anderson for a (spoiler-laden) analysis of the rape-culture-driven denouement. Despite this and other more minor flaws, though, Friends With Kids tells a somewhat satisfying romantic story that made my wife and me laugh.
Or consider Newlyweds, also from 2011. Written and directed by Edward Burns, an ardent admirer of Woody Allen—of whom I am not a fan—the story follows a couple, both on their second marriage, as they weather the adversities of two different family crises. While not to my comedic taste, the movie—shot on DSLRs for a production budget of $9000—found success among its target audience, being well-done for its subgenre (awkward faux-documentary). It, too, featured very authentic-feeling characters and relationships and never relied on blatant stupidity or coincidence to drive the story.
Both Newlyweds and Friends With Kids were independently-produced films, although the latter had a substantially larger budget than the former. And therein may lie the secret to believable, relatable, genuinely (in both senses) funny romantic comedies. The major studios, even when they consent to produce a movie not based on some popular, pre-existing property, have developed a severe allergy to ideas that are not “high-concept” and hyperreal. While some might classify Friends With Kids as high-concept, Newlyweds is certainly not, and neither premise is executed in the heightened style upon which Hollywood insists. Filmmakers who aim to produce literal comedies that are literally romantic may increasingly find themselves turning to independent financing for the artistic liberty required to tell those stories.
I do realize that I am simply engaging in the kind of doomsday hand-wringing typical of not only rom-com fans but nearly all cinephiles. Claiming the indie film scene has cornered the market on quality is so common that it is now bleeding over into the general populace, along with bemoaning the absence of original ideas left in Hollywood, which I also did not five sentences ago. Every now and then the movie industry does surprise us with a Bridesmaids or a He’s Just Not That Into You—another genuinely funny romantic comedy (with a little tragedy mixed in)—but for the most part the near decade-long doomsaying of romantic-comedy lovers has not proven false. Good rom-coms are dying out, and even the crappy ones rarely perform well at the box office. If we want to keep the genre not only alive but healthy, we may need to reboot it back to its origins—small, cheaply-made, character- and dialogue-driven love stories that provide both escapism and familiarity—without adhering to the tone and cinematic style of a bygone era.
Although because the main plotline of Bridesmaids is actually a womance—a story about platonic love between two heterosexual women—the central question of the movie does satisfy Mernit’s rom-com criterion, after a fashion. ↩
I don’t know why, but it always seems to be her. ↩
(SPOILER: They totally do. What did you expect?) ↩
30 Rock ends this season, but Fey’s new deal may give NBC another smart, witty comedy to collect Emmys instead of viewers.
If we’re lucky.
This post is also part of The Feminist Oddyssey Blog Carnival. If you’re visiting courtesy of the Carnival, welcome!
I credit Fred Astaire with starting me on the path to feminism. When I was growing up, my mom and I would go every week to the library (and later, to three different libraries, one being insufficient for our demanding multimedia requirements), returning home with crates of audiobooks and VHS movies. We rarely failed to consume all of them by their due dates.
Between housework, which my mother probably delegated to me much more judiciously than I remember, and improvements to our neverending string of fixer-upper homes, there was always some kind of mindless work to be done in my family, and we filled the mental space with books on tape. In the alternate universe created by the myopia of memory, my audiobook selections fell neatly into four categories: Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.G. Wodehouse, and everything else. Movies were even simpler, with only two categories left after “everything else”: WWII films, and 1930s musicals.
My mother has never once actually sat down and watched a movie all the way through. Nearly every film she has ever seen has been viewed from behind an ironing board, the volume of laundry for a three-person household somehow dictating that the ironing would never actually finish. I can only assume that families in the 80s and 90s who had more than one child hired out their laundry so the homemaker of the family could occasionally eat a hasty meal standing over the sink. In any case, since you can’t keep both eyes on the TV while ironing without burning holes in your clothes, Mom needed movies familiar enough to be intelligible from sound only, and her go-to sub-genre was the RKO Astaire-Rogers musical.
In case you’ve never had the pleasure… um, spoilers? Every single one of these films involves a meet-cute between Astaire and Rogers, followed by some kind of falling out, the singing and dancing of many songs and dances, farcical but witty comedy, and an eventual reconciliation. In other words, romantic comedies.
We homeschooled, which meant that I spent lots of one-on-one time with Mom, who taught me everything except math. (My dad is the math brain of the family.) Most days we stayed home, but frequently we rode a circuit of thrift shops and grocery stores that took all day to complete. (Despite never having a “job” while I lived at home, Mom stayed busy by stretching every dollar we had to within an ace of shredding, and she accomplished this by never buying new clothes if at all possible, obsessively coupon-clipping and price-comparing food, and canning or freezing massive quantities of fruit and vegetables that filled every one of our successive garages and basements. When I tell you that, combined with my father’s supernatural ability to never buy anything at all, Mom’s thriftiness has enabled my parents to pay off three different mortgages over the course of their marriage, you might be able to imagine what I’m talking about and why “homemaker isn’t a real job” will never make sense to me.)
Those shopping trips form my strongest memory of middle school education. I remember sitting in the front seat of our big conversion van, getting a stiff neck from slouching over my books while Mom was inside the Half Price Books store planning the next phase of my education, better than I remember actually studying at home. And as soon as I think about studying in the car, I remember talking in the car, because having your teacher right next to you while you read is the best thing about being homeschooled. My mother’s model for education, especially once I hit the middle-school years, was to assign me a bunch of reading on a topic, then make me discuss it with her until she was satisfied I knew what I was talking about. And because neither of us is very good at staying linear, those discussions branched out in every direction imaginable.
My family was pretty conservative—in case you didn’t get that from the homeschooling and strict diet of black-and-white movies—and we attended an evangelical church in the Anabaptist tradition whose model for the family I have referred to elsewhere as “semi-benevolent” patriarchy. While I was living at home, my mother always stuck to the party line on things like wifely submission in marriage, traditional gender roles, and a woman’s place in the church. As I neared graduation, though, cracks began to show—subtle, self-corrected off-message rants and sentences that started with “I know the Bible says X, but….” Despite being (I think) generally happy in other ways, Mom was no longer satisfied with what the church was telling her about herself, and as accustomed as she’d become to dialoging with me about everything else, she couldn’t keep that conflict contained all the time. I left high school with several seeds of doubt about the Christian teaching on gender taking root in my mind.
I won’t detail the myriad steps that brought me to the place where I believed in egalitarian marriage and equality for women in the church. They happened in my college and post-college years—that glorious time when you re-think everything you believe and come to believe you know everything—and early in my marriage. I don’t even remember most of them, inconsequential as each incremental change seemed in its time. I’m sure working for three years on the staff of my local church contributed in some way, but apart from the realization that evangelicals treat their unmarried like second-class citizens, I don’t know how.
I do know that I fetched up in Indiana, where I went to college, back from a two-year residence in Los Angeles, where my wife did. Some years earlier I’d decided to be a screenwriter and film director, so I spent those two years working in the entertainment production business and writing a series of screenplays that no one wanted to buy. Despite assuming at the outset that I would write supernatural or fantastical thrillers (the genre of movie I most enjoy), nearly every idea I had somehow turned into a romantic comedy, so I decided to embrace my identity and not only write another rom-com but also produce it myself. It starred a high-school girl—with a single mom—who solved a murder using her photography skills.
I’d recently realized that writing strong female characters fascinated me, a fact that took the writing time of eight rom-com scripts to sink in. Since I was about to go into pre-production on the movie, though, I knew it would be a while before I wrote another screenplay. I decided to make the most of that time by teaching myself as much about women’s issues as my old pal Half Price Books would allow. I remember thinking, “I’m going to be the romantic comedy screenwriter who knows all about women’s issues!” Armed with absolutely zero research to guide me, I bought two books: The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, and Promiscuities, by Naomi Wolf. I read them both within two weeks.
And suddenly, I was a feminist.
That was almost two years ago. I’m still very early in my feminist education, but I feel like growing up the only child of a homeschooling mom who didn’t recognize the concept of subjects being taboo to children (and also liked Astaire-Rogers musicals) has given me a bit of a boost—as backward as putting “30s musicals”, “homeschooling”, “evangelical church”, and “feminism” together may sound to many feminists. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with a wife, a number of close friends and family, and a church who don’t think those things sound strange at all. Even more fortunately, while many non-religious feminists behave skeptically or contemptuously toward people of faith—particularly those from traditionally partriarchal religions—I know that the God I worship feels nothing but compassion for honest questions and loves to elevate the marginalized, be they slaves, the disabled, Gentiles, or—more recently—women.
People born too late to experience the dubious thrill of the manual-tracking VCR may consider themselves among God’s most fortunate children. ↩
I’m serious, everyone. I do not miss taped media. ↩
(With music.) In every movie Fred Astaire (and usually Ginger Rogers) plays a dancer either by profession or hobby, so the musical sequences don’t seem as jarring as in the musicals where people “just break out into song” for no apparent reason. ↩
Notwithstanding the snark, I retain a great fondness for the church of my middle- and high-school years. Although I wouldn’t fit in there now, I currently attend another church in the same “fellowship” (as they call it), which has a pretty big tent. ↩
Oh, and also fell in love. ↩