Rom-Coms: the Good, the Bad and the Mis-categorized

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I have a love-hate relationship with rom-coms. On one hand, they are lovely and sweet and much-needed female fantasy. On the other, they drive me crazy when they are overly contrived.

During the Memorial Day weekend I caught a marathon of Gary Marshal films on Lifetime. I started watching with Pretty Woman and then The Princess Diaries 2 came on. I watched until I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open (it was past midnight). These are the movies I love. They focus on the romantic and have (at least a little) themes of female empowerment. This is certainly true in The Princess Diaries, which ends with the proclamation *SPOILER ALEERT* that Princess Mia doesn’t have to marry to rule. And although Edward is the Prince Charming of most of Pretty Woman the nearly final lines of Pretty Woman hint at gender equality in a way that was uncommon when it came out in 1990:

Edward:” What happens after the knight rescues the princess?”

Vivian: “She rescues him right back.”

Last week I was trying to listen to a rom-com on audio (it shall remain nameless) that really had the potential to be cute, but was so OVER THE TOP (yes, so much so as to deserve caps) and ridiculous, I couldn’t finish it. The main character was utterly clueless time and time again. No one is that stupid or naive. And the author completely ignored how the real world works to point of pretending certain laws don’t exist and changing basic human behavior to suit her plot needs. Ugh!

Today, I read a review in USA Today of a much-touted soon-to-be released rom-com. This quote could so easily have been applied to the book I’m referencing above: “It’s a ridiculous plot that would never happen in real life − the perfect ingredient for an inherently idealistic rom-com.” Yet they still gave the book 3.5/4 stars.

I’m trying to figure out when this requirement for the farcical in a rom-com began. I guess I could blame Shakespeare (I mean, Hero pretending to be dead in Much Ado About Nothing is pretty out there.) But the movies of the 1930s and 1940s like and It Happened One Night (1934) were witty and intelligent. Now, I realize rom-coms have always had elements that would never happen IRL, from Bringing Up Baby (1938) to What Men Want (2019). That’s what makes them female fantasy. But nowadays its like you have to ignore the laws of life in a major way to be a rom-com, such as doing things that would actually get you arrested or that borderline on psycho.

When I was thinking about it, honestly, as much as I love the movie, I blame Bridget Jones’ Diary. Bridget is the first rom-com heroine (at least that I can recall) who was clutzy (which is fine–I totally am and I like being able to relate–but it has been taken to a terrible extreme). Plus as the movie went on (not to mention in the sequels), the plots became more and more outlandish. Because that was successful, that was the formula that was followed by authors thereafter.

Last night I watched the rom-com satire movie Isn’t It Romantic. It was really, really cute and it brought up some serious issues that I have with rom-coms. The biggest is that I HATE deception, especially when it could be remedied by a simple conversation that most normal people would naturally have–or you know, by not lying in the first place. But this has become a classic defining characteristic of the rom-com. So much so that when I wrote Been Searching for You, I purposefully didn’t include it and people told me I couldn’t call it a rom-com. Even screenwriting guru Micheal Hauge lists it as a must-have for the genre.

A few other pain points for me in rom-coms:

  1. Female colleagues must be mortal enemies; there is no other way. This is so stupid and does nothing for female-kind. In Been Searching for You, I never even considered making almost-entirely female agency have work enemies. We have plenty of other enemies and frienemies in the rest of life. I honestly think this idea came from male writers of early rom-coms who couldn’t conceive of women as good for anything other than bitchy cat-fights. Then again, I work for a non-profit and not a corporation, so maybe it is different there. Regardless, we should be building one another up rather than fighting with each other.
  2. You have to have a gay stereotypical sidekick who has no life outside of the heroine’s. And this is why Annabeth has two best friends, a guy and a girl, and Miles isn’t gay (Mia is bisexual, but that has nothing to do with her role in Annabeth’s life). I can’t suffer the disrespect of an outrageously gay male best friend character. Yes, I love very gay men, but to use them in this way is just wrong. Gay men come in all types, just like straight ones, and not all of them (or even most of them) want to be your fashion consultant/cheerleader/lap dog. And even if they do, they have their own lives. How about exploring their sub-plots a little and maybe even letting us see their happily ever after? The world is ready.
  3. The person you’re supposed to be in love with has been right in front of you all along. Yes, sometimes this happens in real life, but this is certainly not the case for every woman. I don’t currently have any close male friends, but when I did, ew, no! They were like brothers to me. Ick! This also reinforces the idea men and women can’t be just platonic friends, which I think is disingenuous. Just like not everyone marries their high school sweetheart, not everyone marries the guy they work with/live door next to/get their mail from, etc. Some of us actually have to go looking.

And if this isn’t enough, until recently (I’m not sure when it changed, but I just checked and it has) the books that topped Amazon’s romantic comedy category where really erotica. I don’t know how that happened or why, but it was a thing for at least a year. Thank God it seems to have been rectified.

Yes, Amazon, these are indeed rom-coms. (Click to enlarge)

But it looks like their sponsored ads may still need some work. I kid you not, when you look Been Searching for You up on Amazon, you get these “related” sponsored books. These are what used to top the romantic comedy category and could not be further from what a rom-com really is:

And these are related to my sex-off-the-page rom-com how? (Click to enlarge.)

Anyway, all this to say I fail to understand why “it could really happen” or at least only slightly fantastic rom-coms aren’t a thing anymore. Are we that in need of escape that anything that smacks of real-life isn’t acceptable? Do we secretly like watching other women make fools of themselves? (Because let’s be honest, that’s a LOT of what the farce comes down to, even in Bridget Jones.) Or have we lost/changed our definition of romance altogether? (I could get on a 50 Shades soapbox here, but I’m really so clumsy I’d fall off of it.) It would be really interesting to hear a publisher/producer’s perspective on this issue.

I’m going to keep writing what I write (there are two more books in the Chicago Soulmates series that Been Searching for You started), and hope for the best. In the meantime, I can’t wait for The Princess Diaries 3–which might actually happen!

What are your thoughts on rom-coms, both books and movies?

Been Searching for You Publication and Book Award News

So before I get into my actual post, I have happy news to share with everyone! Daughter of Destiny was named Book of the Year by Chanticleer Reviews and won a Gold Medal in the fantasy category of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards!

shocked

I know, right? That’s how I felt, too! (Here’s my blog post about it, in case you want the details.)

Been Searching for You eBook Cover LargeSo, back to Been Searching for You, which came out on May 10 . This was originally written for a guest post on another site, but captures my feelings so well, I’m going to use it again. Waste not, right?

I never thought I’d write a romance. I actually swore I’d never write romance because I really disliked romance books for a long time – until I realized what I really hated was certain types of romance, specifically the more traditional ones where the hero has a pronounced physical reaction every time he sees the heroine, if you get my drift. Those make me want to barf. Others are pretty darn good.

But I still had one pet peeve: most heroines, especially in romantic comedies, are under 30. If there’s a wedding involved, it’s “OMG, I’m going to be 30 and not married!” As a 36-year-old single girl, allow me to smack you. So, what did I do? I went and wrote my own love story, one for those of us who are over 30 *gasp*, still single and still romantics at heart. I wrote it because I wanted to write the happily ever after I haven’t yet experienced.

The book came to life because of the Civil Wars songs “To Whom it May Concern” and “Dust to Dust,” both of which my best friend introduced me to. They seem to be bookends to a love story to me, so I swore I’d write a book that began with the words “To Whom it May Concern” and ended with the words “Dust to Dust.” And I did.

But while Been Searching for You is a fun beach read that won’t set the world on fire, it’s also much more than “just a romance.” It’s about a woman’s struggle to overcome her past hurts, heal and learn to trust again. Even if the reader hasn’t been traumatized in the same way as Annabeth, chances are good there are a few scars he or she can’t let go of; such things are a consequence of dating.

It’s about the struggle to connect in a meaningful way in the modern world, which seems to value hookups more than relationships with actual lasting meaning. Throughout the book, Annabeth struggles with having old fashioned romantic tendencies in a society that wants her to be happy with getting laid. That dichotomy is part of the reason why I chose not to have graphic sex scenes in this book; I wanted to show that it’s possible to have romance while the sex takes place off the page.

It’s also about friendship and the ways we support or harm one another through our interactions, ulterior motives and positive and negative reactions to life. I have had a few frienemies in my life (friends whom you are aware are likely to stab you in the back when it is convenient) and I wanted to explore that odd dynamic, one that I’m finding from contest feedback is much more common among younger readers than older. It didn’t begin with Mean Girls but that movie certainly brought it to the fore of societal consciousness.

Finally, the book also has strong themes of the power of education (especially in literature and writing) to affect students and positively change the world. This is a topic I’m personally passionate about and I’m sure it shows in the novel. In a world fixated on wealth (the quicker the buck, the better) I wanted to show how less flashy, sexy career paths can have meaning. Chalk this one up to the book lover in me!

One element Been Searching for You lacks that most traditional romantic comedies employ is a deception of some sort. You know the storyline: the fake boyfriend/fiancée, the woman pretending to be rich when she’s not, the person with a lie that will have to come out in the end. I think reason for this is twofold: 1) I hate deception, especially when it is contrived, and when it’s obviously contrived its like nails on a chalkboard and 2) I never sat down with the intention of writing a romantic comedy. I was writing a love story, plain and simple. When it ended up being laugh-out-loud funny, I dubbed it a rom-com.

Whether you like it, love it or hate it, I hope Been Searching for You is a worthy contribution to the annals of contemporary romance, albeit on the sweet side (but it’s not totally sweet due to references to sex and a bit of adult language). It was intended to be a standalone novel, but my beta readers are begging for more, so if you want me to extend this into a series, I need you to let me know. Either way, I wish you happy reading and hope that Annabeth, Alex, Mia and Miles are good company into the summer vacation season for all of you.