Romantic Comedies, more commonly known as ‘Romcoms’.The motivation for writing this article arose after watching one of the classics, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (2003), and a question came up; what makes this genre so appealing? The textbook definition of a romcom is “a movie or play which deals with love in a humorous and lighthearted way”, but there is so much more to the genre than what it seems at face value. Typically defined by their girly nature, their overly happy endings, and the iconic main characters indulging in a dramatic relationship, there are lots of criticism towards this category of film. Yet there is a much deeper intricacy as to why the target audiences of these movies enjoy them so much, and what their secret formula for popularity is.
A common mistake when it comes to RomComs is that it is a romance, or that many will mix up both genres as the same when in reality they are different. In a romantic comedy, the central love plot drives the movie’s comedic aspects, so the film's humour is derived from romance. Another key difference is that the main protagonists embark on a journey where they must learn and transform something about themselves, whether that be self-acceptance, or learning to be more selfless. The central character must realise that before being ready for love. Whereas in a romance, those two aspects aren’t essential to the genre, and whatever issues arise will eventually be conquered by love. It ending tragically or positively is up to the filmmaker. Another important matter to establish is that not every movie that includes romance counts as one. Many films use it as a sub-arch to drive the main plot or characters forward, whilst not occupying the entirety of it.
Now that a difference has been established it is crucial to find that romcoms have a very specific target audience, or at least they had. Who might that be? Girls. The main group the films go after are women and the ages will depend on if it’s a teenage or adult romantic comedy. Usually, if it’s aimed at teenagers, the age range goes from about 13-20 years old, usually taking place in a high school setting where the main protagonist is shy and introverted, not being part of the traditional cliques, such as the movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018). If it's aimed at adults, the age range is broader going from 15-40 years old, and normally takes place in a workplace or familial environment background, such as in “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (2001). Now, when analysing the protagonists of teen romcoms, the pattern of a girl who stands out and rejects the traditional standards of school cliques appeals to many girls who don’t feel as if they fit in, providing an immense sense of relatability and identifiability within such characters. As for older protagonists, the characters have more range going from the workplace, career woman to a more family-oriented girl, since the heroine is usually female. Now one thing they must all have in common is that they are likeable, and the audience can root for them, either due to admiration, connection, or both!
If specific examples are looked at, 1995’s “Clueless” protagonist “Cher” is different from the usual main girl in romcoms, which fits into the comedy/romance categories of film. She is confident, popular, and outgoing, but deep down Cher must fight her selfish traits and her occasional shallowness. Despite her not being the most relatable character, in both financial and social terms, teen girls all around can look at her and find comfort in her journey. For an older character, there’s Bridget Jones from “Bridget Jones’ Diary”, who must go through a path of self-acceptance and stop trying to change aspects of who she is to fit in. For women, there’s the relatable aspect of insecurities that many share with Bridget. Watching her overcome her insecurities and being loved for who she truly is, does not only inspire other women to have courage but to have something to strive for in the future. Romcoms have the power to provide conforming and relatable characters whose journeys can be imprinted on viewers.
Beyond just characters, there are literal psychological effects when watching this sub-genre of romance. The hormone Oxytocin, released by the Pituitary gland, is commonly associated with emotions related to happiness, relationships, and even childbirth. It’s commonly referred to as the “Love hormone”. Usually, there is a high release of this hormone in the beginning stages of a relationship, which romcoms give a lot of view time to. This can also provide a scientific explanation as to why women gravitate more to this category than men, which is because oxytocin release occurs more often in females than males. Since watching these movies can trigger such a release, a target audience is formed. Oxytocin also elicits other hormones like dopamine and serotonin, which are connected to positive emotions too. The good feelings neurally transmitted during the films are what provide empathy towards the characters, which explains why so many people become emotionally attached to them at the end, desiring that happy-go-lucky ending.
Now, besides the literal scientific motives as to why women are attracted to romcoms, they can also be appealing both to people in and out of relationships. Girls who are single and watch such films are given things to root for and hope to gain in future relationships. It sets a new dream leading women to become motivated to search for it in any new romantic endeavors. However, women in relationships, married or not, take away a goal from the movie, perhaps with the realization that there is an aspect of the movie’s affair that they would like to have in their own home. The fuzzy feeling when the two central figures find each other and stay together gives that sense of love and hopefulness to any audience member. That is why these films embrace the viewer by rewarding them with a good feeling or message to look forward to.
There is also a very detailed formula to romantic comedies that they’ll follow, making their broken-down structure identifiable and simple. Initially, what marks the movie is the meet-cute, or the 1st encounter. If it is not remarkable, either whimsical or immediately romantic, it does not provide a good foundation for the audience’s interest in the relationship at hand. Then comes the driving power for their connection to start, which is where many love tropes can be found such as enemies to lovers, or the fake dating trope. In, “The Proposal” (2009), Margaret’s deportation is what moves her and Andrew’s relationship to begin with. If that starting situation isn’t uniquely done or presented to viewers, the movie can easily become unentertaining. Many current rom coms lack the originality aspect, making them very predictable and typically boring. The next step in the storyline is the cliff moment, where the relationship reaches its breaking point, or something threatens it, and the characters' love for one another is tested. This moment is extremely important because it is where the director can prove to the audience that their love may conquer any challenges, and whether it can or can’t will set the tone for the rest of the story.
A key essence to the rom-com genre is that the romance feels realistic, yet with the glamours and extravagance of Hollywood. One moment which sets the tone of believable yet pleasantly out of reach is the second when characters realize they need to be together after their relationship is tested. It’s that perfectly Shakespearean scene where the guy chases his loved one down an airport, or where he drives his motorbike chasing her down a bridge in her taxi, as seen in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 days”. In real life, things of the sort don’t usually happen, and if they do it’s one in a million, which is exactly what makes the magic of rom-coms so inviting to people. It gives them the promise of a magical love revelation. The ideal romantic comedy mixes realism with the ‘out of touch’ perfectly to provide the illusion to viewers that due to the common settings of the film, this could happen to them!
However, that isn’t to say that this film category has no flaws, because they exist. Back in the day, like in most genres, romcoms rarely featured people of colour as their main figures. Usually, they were used as comedic relief or a funny side character, which poses the issue of exclusion. It almost sells the idea that POCs can’t experience that wonderful love story when that is far from the truth. Nowadays, we’ve seen an improvement in the film industry, with a better inclusive approach. There is much work that still needs to be done to aid this situation. Another factor is the lack of RomComs for LGBT people. Due to a lot of homophobia involved in the film scene, there was no space for LGBT love stories, and the ones which were produced didn’t get much mainstream recognition, becoming underground cult classics for the community. Similar to the previous issue, more and more romantic comedies have included MLM or WLW stories. A popular example is in “Love, Simon” (2018) which made immense success mainstream.
Another issue within the genre can be identified as the lack of focus on the female protagonist besides her romance. Habitually, there is a tendency to strive for “strong” female leads, however, there’s more of a necessity for complexity rather than strength. The target audience of romcoms usually looks for female leads who make mistakes, and aren’t perfect, because if they are, that makes them out of reach and the movie loses some of its relatability at best. If the film attempts to present the narrative of the career-driven powerful woman, yet sets her down a path of traditional romance, it can tell an inconclusive narrative.
Despite the problems and imperfections of the romcom classification of cinema, it is still loved by many. The iconic characters created by these movies, the one-liners quoted in other pieces of media, and everything else that sets them apart from regular romance films are what make them special. Perhaps the reason why people love them so much, or at least why women do, is because they give hope. They don’t usually end on a sad note, and if they do it still provides the promise that the main character might embark on a new, happier, healthier venture in life, such as at the end of “500 days of Summer” (2009). Overall, the great aspects of this type of film are derived from the happy illusion they provide, where people can grow because of love, and that there is a certainty that we can all live our own magical love story.