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The evolution of the romantic comedy

BY Alice Gawthrop

31st Jul 2023 Film & TV

6 min read

The evolution of the romantic comedy
Whether you love love or you're more on the cynical side, you've no doubt watched at least one romantic comedy in your life. But how has the genre changed over time?
Ah, the rom com! Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that rom coms occupy an important place in pop culture. But where do they come from? And are they getting a little too predictable?

The origins of the romantic comedy

Believe it or not, Shakespeare arguably wrote the earliest rom coms. Okay, it’s not that hard to believe—Shakespeare seems to have had a hand in creating virtually all modern pop culture. And you don’t have to look too far to find more recent rom coms that are retellings of Shakespeare classics (think 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, which transports The Taming of the Shrew to an American high school, or the more recent Rosaline, which reimagines the story of Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of Romeo’s eponymous ex). 
"You don’t have to look too far to find rom coms that are retellings of Shakespeare classics"
A romantic comedy in its simplest form is a lighthearted story centred on a romantic relationship, usually between two young, likeable protagonists, with humorous elements. The typical narrative structure goes something like this: boy meets girl, they fall in love, some obstacle gets in the way of their relationship and they part ways, they realise they were meant to be together, they reunite and live happily ever after. 
The contemporary romantic comedy genre was also shaped by 18th-century restoration comedy. Restoration comedies were “comedies of manners” which gave a satirical portrayal of behaviour in particular social groups. They often examined social rules and gender politics at the time, and many storylines related to the marriage market. For example William Congreve’s play Love for Love, first performed in 1695, centres on the penniless Valentine’s attempts to court the richer Angelica. The classic structure is visible—Valentine is in love with Angelica, their love is hindered by his lack of money, but in the end they overcome this obstacle and Angelica declares her love for Valentine.
His Girl Friday
Another, more recent influence on the modern-day rom com is the screwball comedy, which was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. The genre satirises the traditional love story, and key elements include fast-paced dialogue, farcical situations, a “battle of the sexes” and storylines relating to love and marriage. Classics include 1940’s His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as newspaper editor Walter and star reporter Hildy respectively, a former married couple working on one last news story together. If nothing else, it’s iconic for the sheer speed at which the characters speak, with dialogue clocking in at 240 words per minute (in contrast to the average 140 words per minute in American speech)!
But the rom com as we know it really came into its own in 1989 with When Harry Met Sally. This iconic film follows Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) through a series of chance encounters where they attempt to navigate a platonic friendship, despite Harry’s belief that men and women can’t just be friends because “the sex part gets in the way”. The film was a commercial success and remains a beloved title decades later, often considered the greatest rom com of all time. It paved the way for future romantic comedies, featuring elements that have since become typical rom com tropes such as quirky side characters and a dramatic proclamation of love at the end.

Typical tropes

Many rom coms seem to follow almost identical storylines, with just names and places changed. Often they are plagued by the same tired tropes which threaten to turn rom coms into a somewhat stale genre with little new to offer (although some tropes, like the meet cute, are probably too iconic to ever give up). 
The meet cute
This is a quintessential element of any rom com: two characters (who are inevitably going to fall in love) stumble across each other, like Henry (Adam Sandler) and Lucy (Drew Barrymore) who chance upon each other at a breakfast diner in 50 First Dates.
Often the meet cute is accompanied by some kind of humorous misunderstanding or somewhat embarrassing situation, such as Mary (Jennifer Lopez) getting her heel stuck in a manhole cover and needing to be rescued by Steve (Matthew McConaughey) in The Wedding Planner
Classic miscommunication
The presence of obstacles to love is a key component of the romantic comedy, but all too often films resort to a moment of miscommunication to act as a barrier to true love. It’s arguably a cheap narrative crutch that leaves you clutching you clutching your head saying, “Why can’t they just talk about it?”
Think Notting Hill, when American actress Anna (Julia Roberts) is wrongly convinced that her lover, British bookseller Will (Hugh Grant), sold her out to the media. So frustrating!
The big lie
Similar to classic miscommunication but somewhat darker is the big lie, where one love interest has been hiding something from the other, and the reveal threatens to destroy their relationship. This can often be an infuriating one, and to be honest, some rom com lies are a little unforgivable. 
"The presence of obstacles to love is a key component of the romantic comedy"
For example, personally if I found out my boyfriend was dating me for money, I wouldn’t be quick to take him back, even if he looked like Heath Ledger in Ten Things I Hate About You.
The makeover montage
One of the worst rom com tropes is surely the dreaded makeover, in which (usually) the female protagonist straightens her hair and removes her glasses and suddenly she’s beautiful. I’m looking at you, The Princess Diaries—Anne Hathaway is stunning whether her hair is straight or curly!
It’s more than just annoying, it propagates a harmful narrative that you need to change yourself for a man that affects many women long-term
The grand gesture
This one’s a rom com hallmark. After meeting in some cute chance encounter, falling in love and then going separate ways following a misunderstanding of some kind, one of the protagonists makes a big declaration of love to win their soulmate back. This could take the form of a public serenade, for example, or a race against time to stop your lover before they get on that plane/train/taxi. 
It can be cute, like Julia Roberts’ “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy” speech in Notting Hill, or creepy, like in Love Actually when Mark (Andrew Lincoln) turns up at Juliet’s (Keira Knightley) house and reveals his love to her through cue cards while Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Juliet’s husband and Mark’s best friend, is sitting in another room.
That’s not to say films that feature these tropes are bad—a lot of them are classics, and who doesn’t love a grand gesture? But still, sometimes you want something a little different. The good news is, there’s a lot out there!

Rom coms that break the mould

Rom coms are starting to embrace themes that were once sidelined. Ranging from lighthearted new additions, like celebrating female friendships, to more serious themes grounded in real-world issues like mental health or illness, a lot of films are breaking new ground in the genre.
An early example that took the typical rom com narrative in an unexpected direction is 2009’s 500 Days of Summer, in which Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) realises that a shared love of The Smiths is not a strong enough basis for a relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and ultimately accepts that the two are not meant to be together.
The theme of “women supporting women” is growing more popular, too. Someone Great (2019) explores the fallout of Jenny’s (Gina Rodriguez) breakup and the support she receives from her best friends, played by Brittany Snow and DeWanda Wise.
"Rom coms are starting to embrace themes that were once sidelined"
A rom com that incorporates more serious themes is Obvious Child (2014) in which aspiring comedian Donna (Jenny Slate) navigates getting an abortion after a one-night-stand with Max (Jake Lacy). Director Gillian Robespierre wrote the film in response to what she considered to be a “misrepresentation of women on screen when it came to unplanned pregnancy” in films such as Juno and Knocked Up
Another rom com that tackles darker ground is Palm Springs, which blends romance with sci-fi with a time-loop premise. Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) are guests are a wedding that repeats every single day. Sarah approaches the situation with varying degrees of acceptance, and actress Milioti commented that the story is an allegory for depression and anxiety. A light touch from director Max Barbakow means that the film remains fun despite its exploration of more serious topics. 
Whether you love the classics or want to see a new kind of rom com, the good news is there are literally hundreds to choose from
Cover image: When Harry Met Sally, Columbia Pictures
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