Close Up: The Female Voice in Contemporary Rom-Coms
The romantic comedy, also known as the “rom-com”, is a genre where the driving force of the narrative is the quest for love, with added comical elements throughout. Romantic comedies deal with love in a humorous way, and are based on the concept of two people meeting, conflicting and eventually reuniting with one another.
There are various strands and sub-genres of the romantic comedy: screwball comedies of the 30s; sex comedies of the 50s; and the neo-traditional comedies of the 90s to 2000s.
The screwball comedy provided audiences with an escape from everyday life due to the economic depression. Movies like It Happened One Night (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) were successful because they provided comic relief in hard times (Jeffers-McDonald, 2012).
According to Jeffers-McDonald, the sex comedies of the 1950s arose from three key factors: Alfred Kinsey’s report on Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female, revealing that women were sexual beings too; the circulation of the Playboy magazine; and the weakening of the film Production Code, which changed the treatment of sex on the screen. Notable films include, Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961) (Jeffers-McDonald, 2012).
Films can be subject to analysis by taking into consideration factors such as narrative, characterisation, mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing and sound. Most genres have a set of certain tropes to abide by, and the Romantic Comedy is no different.
Rom-Coms usually feature two main protagonists, generally one male and one female. The story may begin with a character that has been heartbroken. His or her friends and family encourage the character to go out, and find someone new, and there begins a string of unsuccessful dates/relationships.
During or after this, the character will meet the other protagonist in an awkward or unusual scenario that is often entertaining or humorous Mortimer, C. (2010). This is called a ‘meet-cute’. The idea of a ‘meet-cute’ has existed since the 1940s. The earliest example provided by the Oxford English Dictionary is from Anthony Boucher’s book The Case of the Solid Key (1941), in which one character states, “We met cute, as they say in story conferences”.
In the film Closer (2004) Alice (Natalie Portman) locks eyes with Dan (Jude Law), on a bustling London street. She walks directly in front of a car, knocking her to the ground. Dan runs over to check she is alive, and Alice rolls over, looks up and announces “Hello stranger.” Other examples of ‘meet cutes’ can be found in Moonstruck (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Notting Hill (1999), The Wedding Planner (2001), and Man Up (2015).
In some rom-com films, the main characters are not always an obvious match, and can be polar opposites. The love story needs a conflict or obstacle for the couple to face before getting to the ‘happy-ending’ format that most rom-coms follow. The characters may fight their obvious attraction to each other in the film, or the obstacle could manifest as one of the protagonists lying or deceiving the other throughout the third act.
To wrap up the rom-com, the audience require recognition of the characters love. This can be played out through a reconciliation scene that results in the two characters reunited in a romantic embrace. When Harry Met Sally is an example of a film where this is demonstrated.
We also see characters conduct grand romantic gestures in order to win back their partner. In Trainwreck (2015), Amy mocks the cheerleaders her sports medicine specialist boyfriend works with. Later on, at the end of the movie, we see Amy perform a cheerleading dance with the squad. This is something her character and the audience wouldn’t expect her to do, but she does this as a romantic gesture in order to win back Aaron.
The genre normally offers up a triumph of love against all odds.
A more recent strand of romantic comedy has formed, and is known as neo-traditional. They take from screwball comedies and sex comedies, with a strong female character that line the story with witty dialogue, slapstick behavior and sexual references.
The neo-traditional romantic comedy may include all or some of these elements:
- Self referential moments, and nods to previous rom-coms
- Compromise and Compatibility
- The female voice
Self-referential Moments and nods to previous films
It has become a staple for romantic comedies to refer to, and mention their predecessors.
This can be seen through conventions such as fate, old-fashioned ideas of romance, or particular novels/narratives and films.
For example, in the film They Came Together (2014), a character references the famous line from When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having”. The classic romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (1993) directly refers to another romantic film, and embeds it within the storyline. The film is based around the character Annie, who constructs her thoughts on love around the film An Affair to Remember (1957).
Although it is not a film, the television show The Mindy Project laces multiple references to 90s romantic comedies. A less obvious homage, is the ‘walk and talk’, a New York stroll with the love interest through a park. We see best friends Mindy and Danny replicating this rom-com trope. This particular ‘walk and talk’ pays homage to Meg Ryan, who in various rom-coms converses with love interests on a stroll in the park, for example, in When Harry Met Sally.
These references are somewhat postmodern, as they attempt to challenge genre conventions of structure, narrative and characterisation. The assumption is that the audience is already aware of the conventions and clichés that span romantic comedies.
Compromise and Compatibility
In the film Jerry Maguire (1995), Jerry says “You complete me.” to Dorothy. This single line demonstrates how contemporary romantic comedies focus on the concept of compatible love.
Theorist, Giddens (1991) writes about the self as a project that should be worked upon. This is the idea that self-development and choice are central aims in human life.
“Identity is about belonging, about what you have in common with some people and what differentiates you from others. At its most basic it gives you a sense of personal location, the stable core to your individuality. But it is also about your social relationships, your complex involvement with others.” (Weeks, 1990).
Romantic love grows out of this project of the self, as we choose who we partner with, and this choice can be emphasised in romantic comedies.
Often the characters complement each other, in an ‘opposites attract’ scenario. Romantic comedies that use the ‘opposites attract’ format include: Harold and Maude (1971), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Knocked Up (2007), and Blended (2014).
Characters may also compromise with their partner. In Trainwreck, Amy has a free-spirited lifestyle that involves casual dating, breaking hearts and excessive alcohol consumption. Her character pushes the boundaries of how society expects her to behave. The male protagonist, Aaron provides the emotional challenge she needs to prise herself away from behavior that she begins to feel is destructive to herself.
She compromises with her partner in order to make their relationship work.
The Female Voice
The female characters in modern rom-coms are strong, confident and witty, who engage in verbal confrontations in the pursuit to find love with the protagonist or other characters. The female leads are often represented as hard working, intelligent, professional women and mothers. They are postmodern women who embrace all aspects of consumerism and a ‘having it all’ lifestyle.
Many neo-traditional rom-com films focus on female friendships alongside the romantic storyline. Films such as, Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Sex and the City: The Movie (2009), Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect (2012). The female characters in these films represent groups of confident individuals who together embody contemporary womanhood. For instance, the characters in Bridesmaids provide a realistic offering of contemporary females, through slapstick, and gross out comedy.
On discussing Bridesmaids Roger Ebert said, “It definitively proves that women are the equal of men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, vulnerability, overdrinking and insecurity.” (Ebert, 2011).
The voice-over is a common trope used in Rom-Coms as it creates a sense of intimacy with the viewer.
The narration allows the audience to engage with the protagonist, as the character can express her inner thoughts through extra diegetic segments that are often a source of comic relief.
Bridget Jones uses this throughout the franchise, based on the characters diaries. The female voice plays an important role in the film’s sound, as Bridget narrates from her diary to the viewers. This method of narration uses Bridget’s diary stemming from the book, but allows the audience to hear the events of the film from her perspective, offering a personalised touch. Many recent films and television shows that are female focused have taken this approach, such as Trainwreck (2015), and The Mindy Project. The female voice over narration offers a witty, personalised telling of the story.
Some films to explore:
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Annie Hall (1977)
Harold and Maude (1971)
Notting Hill (1999)
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Pretty Woman (1990)
The Wedding Planner (2001)
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Happened One Night (1934)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Key Texts to look at:
Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference
Wes D. Gehring
Writing the Romantic Comedy
Boucher, A. (1941). The Case of the Solid Key. Simon and Schuster.
Ebert, R. (2011, May 11). Bridesmaids. Retrieved from:
Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford University Press.
Jeffers-McDonald, T. (2012). Romantic comedy: Boy meets girl meets genre (Vol. 34). Columbia University Press.
Mortimer, C. (2010). Romantic Comedy. Routledge.
Weeks, J. (1990). The Value of Difference. In J. Rutherford (Ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (pp. 88-100). London: Lawrence & Wishart