Monday, June 09, 2014

Take back the Rom-Com

This article in Policy Mic addresses the issue of abortion in movies. I haven't seen "The Obvious Child" yet, and haven't heard anything about it that makes me want to run out and see it. Mostly what I've heard is that an abortion happens in it, and while I am certainly in favor of abortion rights, that alone isn't enough to make me want to see this "romantic comedy."

I do question what role an abortion has in a romantic comedy. Abortion in itself is not exactly conducive to either romance or comedy.

I definitely agree with the article in its disparagement of the way abortion is presented in Hollywood movies, but to a certain extent it's understandable. If you have to have an abortion, the one thing you don't want is dramatic complications resulting from it. So a typical abortion has nothing to recommend it to a storyline unless it does result in something awful happening, hence the reason that abortions in movies are so often related to come calamitous circumstance. Otherwise, if the abortion does not result in dramatic complications, why include it in the story line at all?

That said, I do like the concept of taking back the rom-com. As I've blogged about here many times, the problem with romantic comedies isn't that romance is being combine with comedy, the problem is that romance and comedy are being combined with misogyny. Rom-coms have been so abused by misogynists that people like the Bitter Gertrude blogger say things like:
I’ve long had the desire to fire every romantic comedy into the sun. I despise romcoms, and I never spent time figuring out why. Now that the answer is in my face, it’s undeniable: they’re one way we disseminate all of the worst ideas about relationships we have as a culture, including (especially) the male master narrative. What was once just an annoyance to me now looks like the worst kind of reprehensible irresponsibility. And that’s just one tiny corner of the art we produce. 
It’s easy to say, Oh, it’s just a play; it’s just a movie, etc. But there is no “just.” The narrative art form is POWERFUL. The human brain can experience narrative as if it’s happening in real life. The brain of a person telling a story and a person listening to that story experience neural coupling. Art is where we discuss who we are as a culture; our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our past, our imagined future. It’s the most important aspect of how our culture is created and how it is changed. Stories are the building blocks of culture, and we’re the ones who create and tell those stories.
There is nothing about the romantic comedy that is inherently misogynist. And in fact the classic movies like "His Girl Friday" and "The African Queen" are clearly compatible with feminism - a man and a woman work together well as equals - even if the message of the movies was not consciously intended to be feminist.

And what Bitter Gertrude cites as an example of "all of the worst ideas about relationships" is the hideous "Love Actually." But it's not like nobody was aware of how hideous that movie is - I was aware of it when I saw it in 2006, and A.O. Scott, the NYTimes critic, was when he called it out for for its misogyny back in 2003, although he doesn't explicitly call it misogyny:
It is disturbing to see Ms. (Emma) Thompson's range and subtlety so shamelessly trashed, and to see Laura Linney's intelligence similarly abused as a lonely, frustrated do-gooder. The fate of their characters suggests that women who are not young, pert secretaries or household workers have no real hope of sexual fulfillment and can find only a compromised, damaged form of love. Perhaps Mr. Curtis wishes to offer this as an insight into contemporary social arrangements; if so, his indifference to the cruelty of those arrangements is truly breathtaking. 
But it is unlikely that any particular insight was intended. Instead, ''Love Actually'' is a patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos, ending as it began, with hugging and kissing at the airport (where returning passengers are perhaps expressing their relief at being delivered from an in-flight movie like this one). The loose ends are neatly tied up, as they are when you seal a bag of garbage -- or if you prefer, rubbish.
I think Scott has hit on something when he says: "it is unlikely that any particular insight was intended."

I've seen the writer for the ugly anti-romantic web series "Compulsive Love" frequently write pro-women things in various social media - we are both members of a Facebook playwrights group and he and I share many mutual Facebook friends. And I'm sure he was shocked and appalled on reading the things I've said about his "romantic comedy" because he never considered what he had wrought - he never questioned for a moment whether what he was writing was actually "romantic" rather than the faux romantic comedy of the Apatow ouvre and its dude-bro copycats.

What's most disturbing to me about the new "romantic comedies" is that they seem to be a defensive maneuver on the part of the admirers of patriarchy. What these movies and the web series have in common is that the men are complete assholes - and yet they win the woman in the end. The Apatow movies are famous for portraying women as responsible uptight spoilsports (although of course, inevitably, incredibly hot and way out of the male protagonist's league) and the men as unattractive slobby man-babies. 

The protagonist in "Compulsive Love" is so repulsive that when he is beaten at a game of pool by a woman he refuses to honor his bet and instead prostitutes himself to pay off his debt.

I think that Compulsive Love took the dude-bro rom-com concept, unquestioningly, as what a romantic comedy should be and ran with it. The protagonist is very unattractive and yet in each week of the series ends up in bed with a new, out-of-his-league woman. And their relationship is entirely sexual (the real title should be "Compulsive Sex") and is broken up when the woman proves to have a personality quirk - or really a personality at all.

In the classic screwball romantic comedies the woman's quirky personality - such as Katherine Hepburn's character in "Bringing Up Baby" is part of the fun - and part of her charm. 

In the dude-bro "romantic comedies" the ideal woman has no personality and waits around for the unattractive man-baby to appreciate her. The woman in these misogynist romantic comedies are called "the because-um girl" by Sady Doyle and can be seen all the worst dude-bro rom-coms - including the execrable Talley's Folly.

The Policy Mic article mentions the movie "Knocked Up" - arguably the quintessential dude-bro rom-com and gets at something important about its sexual politics - the Kathryn Heigl character never considers abortion. And that's how the unattractive schlubby man-baby gets her in the long-term. That is the essence of the regressiveness of the dude-bro rom-com - pretending that women don't have all the hard-fought options we do have now. Woman can support themselves now - we don't need to trap a meal ticket into marriage - and women have control over their own bodies - if a woman is pregnant thanks to a sexual encounter, regrettable or non-consensual, she isn't doomed to spend the rest of her life being associated in some capacity with the horrible baby-daddy.

What these dude-bro rom-coms seem to be saying is this: "so lady, you want to see a story about a woman who ends up in a monogamous relationship with a MAN? Well stop believing those girly romantic comedies, where the man and woman come to a mutual and satisfying agreement on the issue of monogamy and desirability. In the real world if you want a man you will have to put up with his being a total asshole. And BTW, you better be hot - only the most attractive women have the honor of a monogamous relationship with a man, no matter how big an ugly loser he is."

I'd like to think my play JULIA & BUDDY is part of the movement to take back the rom-com from the dude-bros.