Valentine’s Day is upon us again. Couples and singles are a bit more likely to put on a cheesy romantic comedy for some good, predictable fun. Are romantic comedies your passion? Your guilty pleasure? That thing you like to riff? Something your SO makes you put up with, and since it’s Valentine’s Day you can’t weasel out of it this time?

Or perhaps they are something darker? Could there be something diabolic behind the pretty faces and delightful montages of people trying on hats? In many ways, Rom Coms perpetuate some pretty messed up values. In fact, I’ve made a list of the six worst things about romantic comedies. (Yes, it’s pretty morbid to post such a thing on Valentine’s Day, but that’s how I roll.)

Read on, if you dare, but be warned: You may never feel the same way about 27 Dresses ever again.

 

My Top Six Worst Things About Romantic Comedies

1. Nondescript Characters

Ever notice that when people get crushes on fictional character, it’s usually someone who’s not just cute, but also someone with a very vivid and unique personality? Spend some time on Tumblr and you’ll quickly find people confessing their love for Tony Stark, Katniss Everdeen, Jon Snow, Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock, original Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock, all members of Team Rocket, Dowager Countess Crawley, and, of course, Sonic the Hedgehog (I am not here to judge your crushes).

But in Romantic comedies, the characters do not have vivid, unique personalities. In fact, these characters are usually as bland and un-unique as possible. They have good (but not great) jobs, one to two discernible talents and placid personalities. Even the fans tend to refer to these players by the actors’ names instead of the actual characters’ names. This is not an accident caused by a severe lack of imagination (probably). Things that are bland appeal a little bit to a broad audience, while things that are unique appeal deeply to a smaller audience. Plus, the characters in a romantic comedy largely exist for the audience members to impose imaginings of themselves and their crush over, sort of a cinematic equivalent to a blank avatar, or those carnival photo boards where you put your face through the cut-out spot and look like a cartoon body builder or a mermaid or something.

Why is this a problem? Well, aside from making the movies way more boring, it reinforces the idea that there are a basic default personality types for the ideal man and the ideal woman. People who match these characteristics are considered the average, relatable people. The “correct” people. Anyone who is not basic enough to fit these social-acceptable roles is a weirdo who does not get to be the star of the story. They must be demoted to the lesser roles of “Annoying Best Friend” or “Creepy Guy Who No One Wants to Date.” This is why quirky people often feel so alienated by these films.

 

2. No Real Character Flaws

Because the lead female protagonist is a sort of avatar for all the ladies in the audience, she can’t have any character flaws. People don’t want to see themselves in someone with real problems. So our leading lady will have only virtues that are treated like flaws. “She’s too nice.” “She puts other people first and never thinks about herself.” “She works too much.” “She donates too much money to ‘Walk for the Cure’. ” None of these are actually flaws, just virtues that are temporarily inconvenient in achieving a very specific goal (which is, usually, falling in love.) Yet, for some reason, all the lead character’s friends and family will walk around scolding her for these problems as if her flaws are on the same level as gambling addictions or habitually dropping bricks onto the overpass.

The problem here is that it reinforces the stereotype that women are supposed to be nicer than men. Writers often complain that if a male character does something wrong, the audience can still be convinced to like him, but if a female character commits the same crime, it will be harder for her to win the audience over. Perhaps if we gave our fictitious women some real flaws but still made them likable, we could ease up on that double standard a little.

 

3. Negging for Attention

Rom Com writers love that cliche where two people who are destined to fall madly in love with each other often begin their relationship by hating each other. But, because our lead female protagonist still needs to appeal to every individual person in the audience, she must be too perfect to start a fight. So the dopey or endearingly cynical male love interest must step up and spark an argument by saying something mean. Of course, a likable female character has to have some amount of chill, and she isn’t going to get upset too easily. So, the man will have to really pour it on. He’ll berate her job, her goals, her personal philosophies, her hair, her clothes, her family, her car, her long-term savings plan, and the exterior color of her current house. And what’s worse, he won’t take any of it back when they finally start getting along. Does he still object to everything she does after they hook up? It’s usually  unclear if the guy changed his mind or not.

Seriously, the only love story I can think of where the guy actually apologizes for putting the girl down is Hayao Miyazaki’s Whisper of the Heart, a 1995 animated movie about a romance between two 14-year-olds. As fans may recall, young Seiji made fun of Shizuku’s original song lyrics, then, later he admitted that he had only made those comments to get her attention. Seiji didn’t want his flirting to cost Shizuku her confidence in her writing. Again, this sophisticated scenario was part of a anime movie. Don’t underestimate cartoons.

What bothers me about this cliche is that it implies that once you’ve found love, it doesn’t matter if your partner respects you. That shouldn’t be irrelevant.

 

4. Choosing Between Two Suitors

Sometimes, a romantic comedy will begin with the female lead in a bad relationship. She’s involved with a guy who isn’t quite right for her, but we can tell she’s a better match for this new guy who just entered the story in the first act. Will hi-jinx ensue?

In real life, this is not a fun, flattering situation. It’s tough because each guy probably has some good qualities that make each of them a good partner. And one of these guys is going to end up hurt, no matter what decision is made. Not to say people should never switch partners, but such a decision usually requires some long and painfully honest deliberation. Not the kind of thing that fits in with that hat montage. Romantic comedies generally sidestep all that unpleasant realism by making the old boyfriend a terrible, disrespectful, egotistical, condescending, philandering fiend. That way, we will have no mixed feelings when our leading lady finally dumps his butt for someone better.

If one or two movies used this device it wouldn’t be so bad. But seeing it over and over and over again can leave the impression that women are complete and total simpletons when it comes to picking a beau. After all, the woman will probably be bright and competent in most other respects, but when it comes to distinguishing woefully obvious sleazeballs from the rest of the male population, her brainpower will drop so low you’ll wonder how she manages to dress and feed herself each day. This Rom Com cliche may be part of the reason why some guys don’t trust women to make their own decisions when it comes to love. And why the worst of these guys feel justified in yelling at women for not going out with “a nice guy like me.”

 

5. The Self-Destruct Button

Most Romantic comedies involve some kind of secret. Usually the male love interest is hiding a terrible secret from the female protagonist. He thought it would be okay to keep it hidden, but then he never expected to feel this way about her. He tries to confess before she finds out some other way. But then, at the climatic conclusion of the second act – The truth comes out! In the most devastating way! Mere moments before she was supposed to give that big karaoke speech! The gal has caught her fella in a terrible lie and their fledgling relationship could be doomed before it even starts. She scolds him for all the awful and accurate things he has done while he flounders to defend himself.

Here’s where it gets weird.

The man, who should have completely lost the argument at this point, then utters a “profound” statement along the lines of, “So you’re just going to throw away everything we have together over this? You’re so guarded. This is why you never had a good relationship before me!”

And the woman will fall for this.

Every. stupid. time.

In a Rom Com, questioning a woman’s relationship status is like pressing a space station’s self-destruct button. She’ll start breaking down, instantly forget about all those crimes he committed, and completely lose the high ground. And he’ll walk away, broken-hearted, but victorious in that one last argument. Then the sad music starts to play, leading into the depressed, ice cream-eating montage.

Can you imagine that scenario in real life? Let’s do a comparison.

Here’s how a romantic comedy movie scene plays out:

LEAD FEMALE PROTAGONIST:

It was you all along! You were the one who set fire to the animal shelter and threw my father down that flight of stairs! I never should have gotten involved with you!

 

MALE LOVE INTEREST:

 So now you’re just going to throw away everything we have together over this? You’re so guarded. This is why you never had a good relationship before me!”

 

LEAD FEMALE PROTAGONIST:

 What…? No, that’s.. that’s not true. I could get boyfriend anytime I wanted. I – I’ve just been so busy working to pay for my father’s hospital bills! (Sobs)

 

MALE LOVE INTEREST:

If you ever decide to admit you’re wrong, give me a call. (turns and walks away like a boss.)

End scene.

 

HOW DID THE WOMAN LOSE THIS ARGUMENT?! She completely forgets about the matter at hand and zeroes in on an unrelated aspect of her life where she feels the most insecure. Why doesn’t she just keep the conversation focused on the horrible deeds and lies which have justifiably upset her?

Here’s how that moment would play out in real life:

LEAD FEMALE PROTAGONIST:

It was you all along! You were the one who set fire to the animal shelter and threw my father down that flight of stairs! I never should have gotten involved with you!

 

MALE LOVE INTEREST:

 So now you’re just going to throw away everything we have together over this? You’re so guarded. This is why you never had a good relationship before me!”

 

LEAD FEMALE PROTAGONIST:

You set several puppies on fire. What are you even talking about?!

 

See how much better that feels?

The big problem with movies including scenes like this is that many jerks already believe that real life women have “self-destruct buttons.” They believe anyone can win any argument with any woman by calling her “fat” or “ugly” or alluding to her biological cycles. Romantic Comedies, can we not reinforce the idea that it’s okay to win arguments with women by making illogical, non sequitur comments designed to humiliate them? Can we? Can we please?

 

6. No Resolution

Remember back in item number two, when I said that female leads don’t have any real character flaws? Well that’s good, because they aren’t going to resolve those flaws anyway. Sure, the story begins by setting up the premise that a woman needs to experience some personal growth, but by the end, no one really cares about that because she’s in love!

Yes, there will often be some small moment where the woman takes a step towards correcting her behavior, but that step is usually so specific that it doesn’t really indicate wether she has actually changed or not. The workaholic turns down her dream job, not because she discovered that other things are more important that work, but because the job was not what she expected. Or the woman who always put everyone else first was finally able to put herself first – on her own wedding day. Those moments are not exactly accurate predictors for future behaviors.

Thankfully, I can’t think of a real world consequence for this one. It’s just lazy writing.

 

There you have it, my top six list of what’s wrong with romantic comedies. It’s interesting to consider that women are the target audience for these movies, yet a lot of the stereotypes and cliches are more harmful to women than to anyone else. It’s a grim reminder that feminism and the quest for equality are not just binary battles of men vs. women. We ladies need to check ourselves too and make sure our interests and values don’t contribute to a culture that demeans us.

Forgive me if that last thought was a little weighty. Perhaps I could suggest a hat montage to cheer you up.

Happy Valentine’s Day.