Podculture: Love, Actually? Why rom-coms are our guilty pleasure

Grand gestures, love at first sight and will-they won’t-they are just a few of the tropes seen in romantic comedies, better known as rom-coms. As we watch these feel-good movies, we laugh, we cry and oftentimes we cringe. Listen to hear Northwestern students discuss all things rom-com related, from their favorite movies to the rom-com’s troubling history when it comes to representation.

JACQUY GERMAIN: From cult classics like “Clueless” and “Sleepless in Seattle” to newer movies like “Holidate” and “Set It Up,” Northwestern students love romantic comedy films, also known as rom-coms. 

JORDAN MANGI: And what better way to honor the spirit of Valentine’s Day than discuss what makes rom-coms so good?

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Even the ones that are…kinda bad. 

JACQUY GERMAIN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Jacquy Germain.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: I’m Neya Thanikachalam.

JORDAN MANGI: And I’m Jordan Mangi. This is Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond.

JACQUY GERMAIN: Personally, I’ve always loved rom-coms. I think my favorites would have to be “Love, Rosie,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” and “He’s Just Not That Into You.” A part of me actually decided to major in journalism because these movies always centered female journalists as the protagonists. I’m not sure why this was the go-to trope, but I loved it. 

JORDAN MANGI: My recent rom-com obsession was actually a limited series on Netflix, “Dash & Lily.” It was horrible, but also combined the best parts of bad high school comedies and Hallmark holiday romance movies. What about you, Neya? Any rom-coms you love? Or love to hate?

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Well, I always love a good rom-com. I just rewatched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which is one of my favorites. A movie with a cute wedding scene? Count me in! I’m glad I’m not the only one who watches rom-coms to fuel my inner romantic. Take, for example, Communication freshman Solome Bezuneh.

SOLOME BEZUNEH: I definitely am pro-romance, pro-Valentine’s Day. Maybe it’s my astrology, I have no idea. I have no idea, but I’m a big fan of fantasizing about cute relationships. I think that rom-coms are perfect for that. 

JACQUY GERMAIN: Communication sophomore Ahlaam Moledina, however, said she doesn’t consider herself to be a hopeless romantic. She just likes to enjoy rom-coms on her own terms.

AHLAAM MOLEDINA: I love rom-coms. I love the drama, I love the gossip, I love the scandal. I would not consider myself necessarily a romantic. I think like if I, in real life, met people who acted like they were in a rom-com, I would be forced to throw up in my mouth every time I saw them.

JORDAN MANGI: So, what even is a rom-com? Well, Merriam-Webster defines a rom-com as “a light, comic movie or other work whose plot focuses on the development of a romantic relationship.” But there are countless subcategories within the genre.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: The late 90s to about 2010 was sort of a golden age for rom-coms. During this time, rom-coms were everywhere. Movies like “10 Things I Hate About You,” “13 Going on 30,” “Love Actually” and more were released with wild success. The rom-com’s familiar tropes — meet-cutes, friends to lovers, soulmates  —  used to have a routine presence in movie theaters and on TV. But when we needed them most, they vanished.  

JACQUY GERMAIN: Nick Davis, an English professor who teaches and researches commercial filmmaking, said the way we think about rom-coms has definitely changed over time.

NICK DAVIS: From the 30s through the 50s, I would say it was one of those genres that Hollywood was proudest of and thought it had really contributed to the world, and now they don’t get very good budgets, they’re always terribly shot, it’s usually all about showcasing how funny that comedian or that actor is.

JORDAN MANGI Evidently, we have superhero movies to blame for the death of the rom-com, according to Business Insider writer Jason Guerrasio. This is because studios realized that superhero movies made more money compared to rom-coms. Furthermore, the changes in dating culture with the rise of dating apps led studios to think that young people just didn’t relate to rom-coms anymore. Why randomly run into your soulmate at a coffee shop when you can just swipe right on Tinder?

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: But even in the age of Tinder and Hinge, some students still have a soft spot for rom-coms and are even defining them in their own ways. Take McCormick freshman Marcos Rios, for example. 

MARCOS RIOS: So I think Ratatouille, in my head, is a rom-com. A rom-com, like if there is a love arc, and I am laughing, in my mind, that is a rom-com. Did I think for example “The Three Stooges,” was that a rom-com? No, there was no rom. Did I think “The Hunger Games” was a rom-com? Possibly. I think we can extend the definition of rom-com a lot. 

JACQUY GERMAIN: Even though some of us watch the rom-com for the love arc, the plotline of a rom-com might be due for an update.

NICK DAVIS: The whole like becoming a couple as the happy end seems like total cart before the horse to me. Like, we should be making more movies about how hard it is to be in a relationship where you love and respect each other and desire each other but you are complicated people and you got to work through it. So that has always made me rethink what we look for in romantic comedies and whether we’re asking for better images or more ideals about what falling in love would look like, or if we actually want to know what staying together or being a good partner to somebody else would be like, because I don’t think a lot of romantic comedy behavior teaches you anything you should reproduce about how to fall in love or how to be a partner with somebody.

JORDAN MANGI: So, we love rom-coms, but it goes without saying that they have a troubled history with representation. 

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: As much as we may love them, rom-coms are notoriously White and straight. Professor Nick Davis says this issue of representation is bigger than rom-coms. It dictates the whole film industry. 

NICK DAVIS: Hetero privilege, white privilege, class privilege still regulate that whole industry, the way they regulate so many industries, you know, anytime you vary up those premises or cast differently or prioritize different actors or different characters, you’re seen as departing from the norm in some way as though like we’ve never displaced the rudimentary sense of what the norm is.

JACQUY GERMAIN: Even when these movies portray people of color and/or LGBTQ+ people, these characters are often token side characters who help their majestic, straight White friends through their woes, without ever seeing any real development or story of their own. Ahlaam said even when people of color are the main characters, their “representation” often still centers whiteness.

AHLAAM MOLEDINA: Especially for me as like, a Muslim woman of color, I can’t really say that like, I have ever ever seen any representation of anybody who is remotely like me in any kind of rom-com. Any representation of Muslim women is always like oppressed, submissive, hijabi who is oppressed by her backwoods, doesn’t-speak-English parents. And then she meets a White boy and he’s like “you’d look pretty without that on” and she pulls off a headscarf and she’s like, “that’s for you White boy, I did it. I’m saved now, thank you.” And she turns to her mom, and she’s like “you just don’t understand me, you crazy brown woman.” That’s literally all the representation there ever is. If that’s what it is, I don’t want it, keep it. I do not want it.

JORDAN MANGI: And while bad representation can be irritating at best and racist at worst, the vast majority of rom-coms, it feels like, are made up almost entirely of White people. Here’s what Solome had to say about a rom-com she saw recently.

SOLOME BEZUNEH: There was one called “Set It Up” on Netflix, recently. I watched it. I watched it multiple times, but I didn’t really like it that much. Honestly, it was fine. I feel like it was weird that it was just very White. Altogether, it was very weird that the bosses were people of color, and they were terrible people. But then the nice assistants fell in love.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: This tokenizing representation has led students like Marcos to even question if they want to see themselves represented in rom-coms at all.

MARCOS RIOS: Firstly, I’m gay, and so the fact that there’s not a lot of gay romcoms it’s just like — well, honestly, I don’t even know if I’d want to watch a gay rom-com because I think it’d be a little played out, a little stereotype-y. It’d be nice, but in execution, I feel like, like there’s already so little representation. It’s just like, would I want to see their corporate attempt? So maybe just more realism? I know romantic comedies are supposed to be ideal, and it all ends up tied up perfectly, happily ever after. But, like, sometimes romance isn’t like that, and I think it can just be as good of a story and just as funny and just as romantic, even if it doesn’t end up happy or tied up. 

JACQUY GERMAIN: Even when representation is there, it’s not necessarily relatable.

NICK DAVIS: Beyond diversity, we need more inclusion. You’re telling me this character is Latina or this character is a lesbian. This character is trans or this character is working-class. Are you just telling me that? I’m not getting a sense of any real texture that really matters in terms of running with how people’s expectations or desires might be different because their identities and their backgrounds change what they’re looking for.

JORDAN MANGI: There is some hope, however, as filmmakers of color are starting to have an increased presence and notoriety throughout Hollywood, telling their stories in ways that don’t necessarily have to be palatable to straight, White audiences. 

SOLOME BEZUNEH: Issa Rae, again, “Insecure” is amazing. It’s not a rom-com, but, like, it is her trials and tribulations of being a woman in LA and her relationship issues. So, in that show, I feel like I definitely see the reflection of just being a Black woman. Yeah, just with all the characters, but I wish that was translated into movies more often.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: As we reimagine the future of rom-coms and representation, maybe we should consider focusing on stories that don’t center Whiteness at all.   

AHLAAM MOLEDINA: And I’d just love a rom-com that has no White people, like zero, like none, they don’t exist in this world. But even though there’s no White people, there’s no, like, tragedy. It’s just nice, fun, happy all the way through, like good vibes there’s a bit of miscommunication. You know, the classic “will they, won’t they” kind of vibes.

JACQUY GERMAIN: While we reckon with this issue, the beauty of rom-coms this Valentine’s season is watching them with the ones you love most.

MARCOS RIOS: Rom-coms are always my favorite thing to watch with my mom. We’ll actually text each other whenever we see something come out on Netflix like “Oh my gosh, I’m waiting to watch this with you when you get home!” 

JACQUY GERMAIN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Jacquy Germain. 

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: I’m Neya Thanikachalam.

JORDAN MANGI: And I’m Jordan Mangi. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by Jacquy Germain, Neya Thanikachalam and myself. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Alex Chun, the digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Olivia Yarvis, and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey. 

Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]

Twitter: @jordanrose718, @jacquygermain

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