Mother’s Day looks terrible. By all critical accounts (or at least the shady tweeting they’re doing while waiting for the embargo to drop), it’s a bad film, much in the same way its predecessors New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day were. This is of no surprise to anyone, nor are the oft-repeated condescending remarks that the entire genre of romantic comedies is irredeemable trash.
Given that the majority of film critics are men, it’s not the shock of the year to hear such comments, but it is baffling to me that they’re repeated with such frequency even as Hollywood moves away from making them. Compare the past couple of years of major releases to those of the early to mid-90s and the difference is clear.
This is partly due to the changing economics of the film industry. Mid-budget films like rom-coms, live-action family films and more adult orientated dramas are disappearing from studio slates in favour of massive budget tentpoles, mostly with superheroes, with the occasional worthy drama thrown in at the end the year for awards consideration. Even iconic directors like David Lynch and Steven Spielberg, the latter of whom essentially pioneered the blockbuster template, can’t get a medium sized budget. Matthew Weiner, best known for Mad Men, summed it up best when he lamented, “Something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible.”
with the ever fetishized “white male aged 18-49” demographic still receiving the lion’s share of Hollywood’s attention, regardless of the economic realities of that arrangement, films that cater primarily to women are tossed aside or viewed as passing trends. Their success is dismissed or explained as some kind of fluke that can only be replicated by smudging away the things that made it so appealing in the first place. Things made by and for women make money but are then unceremoniously snatched away and given to men to make the sequels.
The traditional narrative of the rom-com is a well-worn formula that’s yielded many successes, from Adam’s Rib to When Harry Met Sally to 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s also a formula criticised for its sameness and supposed lack of realism. Romance novels face the same cries, because wanting happy endings is a bad thing, apparently. Formulas exist because, when executed with skill and affection, they make for a satisfying experience. Superhero films essentially follow the same narrative vein but criticism of that is never centred as a failing of an entire gender in the way rom-coms are. Sneering at the geek crowd still happens occasionally, but with the caped crusaders and Jedi Knights standing as the billion dollar foundations of an entire industry, enjoyment of them isn’t seen as proof that you’re a stupid person, or worse, a bad feminist.
The major criticism of the romance/rom-com genre, one that comes from all genders, is the formulaic reliance on every story ending with a woman deciding she’s happier once she’s ceded power to a man. It’s a power dynamic we see repeated basically everywhere, but it’s also one that, when executed with a deft hand and strong charismatic leads, can be incredibly appealing to women. Shockingly, most of us are capable of separating fact from fiction, and enjoyment of a story doesn’t equal lowered intelligence or a betrayal of our beliefs.
Romance has flourished in recent years in television, thanks to shows like The Mindy Project, a show with its roots in a genuine love of the rom-com genre, Outlander, which made its name thanks to dedicated romance fans despite the author’s determination to have it categorised as anything but romance, and Channel 4’s wonderful Catastrophe. The structure of TV allows for creative freedoms not possible in film, such as detailing the full development of a relationship, and audiences have been flocking to them. Yet progress remains slow and the genre maligned in film and TV.
Recently, figures showed that the recent Huntsman film, starring Chris Hemsworth, is set to lose a lot of money. Hollywood will look for someone to pin the blame on and I dread the inevitable think-pieces that blame women audiences, the women-centred story or the three major female stars in leading roles for the flop. I doubt Hemsworth himself will be, because the industry favours his type.
That’s not to say he should be blamed, but his lack of recent box office successes rings a few bells for me because I’ve spent years waiting for Hemsworth to be used effectively as a romantic leading man. The same applies for fellow superhero star Chris Evans, whose early rom-com work has been written off as a stepping stone to greater success rather than a brilliant use of his skills. I have a whole list of actors and actresses who would be incredible romantic leads, and it saddens me that we’ll probably never get to see them used as such. Limiting such a huge group of talents to a narrow set of stereotypical roles does a disservice to them as well as viewers.
The genre has much to offer, and really needs opportunities to evolve in this new industry environment where everything has to be a franchise and cost $200m. the problem is those chances are thin on the ground, and the most obvious options are flat out ignored. Why not option some romance novels for the big or small screen?
Imagine a Lifetime series based on Julie James’s FBI/District Attorneys books; or a Sy Fy saga of Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas novels; or Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair on the big screen; or an adorable rom-com based on Act Like It (featuring Karen Gillan and Richard Armitage, thank you very much). The possibilities are endless, as are the opportunities for women to develop these projects. Film-makers like Marti Noxon, Gina Prince-Blythewood, Gillian Robespierre, Sanaa Hamri, Julie Delpy, Catherine Hardwicke and many more have proven themselves adept at handling the genre, yet most of the films we love are made by men.
Bringing a focus back to nurturing romance and rom-com films would allow for a more varied demographic of storytellers, actors and creators to develop a tried and true formula for new, eager audiences, all while offering the genre a chance to flourish in mediums it’s so often pushed out of. The billion dollar a year industry of romance novels shows that there’s a sizeable and enthusiastic base out there hungry for these stories: That Hollywood seems so determined to not take our money feels foolish as well as sad.