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Culture Warrior: ‘Sex’ and the Romantic Comedy

By  · Published on June 1st, 2010

The Crisis of the Romantic Comedy

The romantic comedy, like the western, has a unique, Hollywood-specific tradition as a genre. Romantic comedies have conventionally operated under a strict set of generic expectations, typically starting with a protagonal pair of who can’t stand each other, start seeing one another, hit a snag, reconcile, fall in love, and (inferentially) live happily ever after. The romantic comedy is, in many ways, as “pure” a genre as there ever was one, as it requires the strict adherence to owning up on an audience’s specific set of expectations – you know going in that the two central characters are going to end up together, the slight variation (and appeal) of the genre takes place in the journey to that anticipated point. The separation of the couple presents itself as a threat to their unity, but this threat is never so threatening as an implicit contract exists between audiences and filmmakers that the couple will eventually reunite, this time for good.

The romantic comedy in its Classical Hollywood form offered some of the greatest films ever made. However, the genre in recent years has been sputtering out of inspiration, and never before has one of Hollywood’s most enjoyable formulas felt so formulaic. Not only are most of the industry’s recent romantic comedies the bottom-of-the-barrel in mainstream filmmaking, appealing to the lowest common denominator in the scope of filmic taste and expectation (i.e., these films insult their audiences by treating them like idiots who can’t tolerate anything cinematic outside the most conventional of structures – think of what’s been released so far this year alone: When in Rome, Valentine’s Day, Leap Year), these films are also backward in terms of their sex and gender politics, positioning their female protagonists as desperate codependents who long for a man to bring their life to completion and contentment (as the genre has also, problematically, geared itself primarily towards women (the cringe-worthy term chick-flick), rather than keeping consistent with the mass appeal of the genre of yesteryear). Thank you, Hollywood, for progressing us all the way to 1950.

The Case of Sex and the City

But amongst the nadir of romantic-comedic cinema geared towards women in recent years has been a notable bright spot on television, and that has been the Sex and the City television series. As I’ve argued in my articles from the past week focusing on the show, Sex and the City may not have offered a radically progressive, world-shaking view of feminism, but was definitely pro-feminist in a way unseen in mainstream media made for a female demographic at the time. Sex and the City can be safely defined as a romantic comedy of the television variety, and as such a genre, the show is constantly preoccupied with the opposite sex. What the show isn’t preoccupied with (or, at least, for the most part – for ¾ of its central characters), is the romantic comedy’s traditional trajectory towards marriage. Relationships in Sex and the City aren’t defined in terms of a predisposition towards seeking marriage, procreation, and all the other patriarchal life-narrative expectations, but simply exist for their own sake. And when characters do get married, it is by their own volition rather than the results of societal pressure, as marriage in the show is never posited to provide a direct route towards happiness in the way of the recent romantic comedy film.

What the ladies of Sex and the City take value in, what they seek to remain cohesive in order to achieve sustained happiness and contentment, is the one thing they can rely on much more so than happiness through romantic relationships: that is, happiness through female friendship. Throughout the series, and up through its very last episode, its happy ending was manifested not through a kiss that promises a life happy forever after, but through a group of four independent women laughing together over a meal. The message is hardly revolutionary or even profound, but it is distinctly and essentially different from what we have, for the most part, come to expect and value in our romantic comedy narratives.

Then came the movies. Both Sex and the City movies reference specific classical story structures diegetically – the Cinderella story referenced in the first film when Carrie reads to Charlotte’s adopted daughter, and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) in the second when Big and Carrie watch the film together – in a way that aims to separate the function of Sex and the City from the mythos behind these classical, traditional narratives. The fairy tale, especially the Cinderella story, functions in a way similar to the romantic comedy in that it culminates with the union of a man and woman through marriage despite all conflicts that the potential couple incurred up to that point. The Cinderella story takes value in the same societal norms – the union of a man and a woman – that the romantic comedy does, and with their endorsement of a ‘happily ever after’ ending, both the fairy tale and the romantic comedy posit marriage as an answer to one’s individual troubles. The use of the Cinderella story and the Classic Hollywood romantic comedy is Sex and the City’s way of saying, “it doesn’t really happen that way” in a fashion consistent with the show’s exhibition of personal conflict amongst these four women regarding the institution of marriage.

Cavell and Narratives of Remarriage

But the film’s don’t have as antithetical a relationship to these traditional story structures as they would like to think. Carrie and Big’s nostalgic viewing of It Happened One Night suggests a juxtaposition with the traditional formula that Sex and the City (the show, at least) aimed to work against, but the classical romantic comedy, unlike the way we see the simplistic chick-flick today, was an incredibly complex site of meaning-negotiation. In his book Pursuits of Happiness, cultural theorist Stanley Cavell wrote about Hollywood romantic comedies of the late 30s and early 1940s (beloved classics like The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, and, of course, It Happened One Night) as a genre of “remarriage” (rather than the initial bonding of a couple that characterizes so much of the romantic comedy) in which a central couple who incurs the possibility of their dissolution with the threat of divorce must learn to reconcile their differences and rediscover their love. As Cavell puts it, these films show that…

“satisfaction requires not the…satisfaction of our needs…but the examination and transformation of those needs.”

Cavell goes on to point out that the women portrayed in such films were unique in that they “demanded equality with men,” such films often featuring central female characters who showed aggressive independence and incredible personal achievement in worlds of business occupied by men, women who showed no interest in relegating themselves to the status of motherhood, and women possessing a unique brand of femininity in their emulation of male behavior (no doubt integral to their ability to compete with men). The subgenre is at once inspiring and disheartening, for while I love these films, the independent nature of the strong central women featured within are often used for (what come across today as) cheap jokes about androgyny, and these women often renounce their aggressive independent nature and fall into a more traditional female role as they reconcile with the man of their destiny by the end.

So while the gender politics of the remarriage subgenre were not progressively revolutionary, they were indeed positively feminist for their time. Take away the necessary affirmation of marriage at the end, and you can say the exact same thing about the Sex and the City television series. But while the Sex and the City films explicitly aim to continue in such a tradition by branching themselves off from the myths and structures of the fairy tale and the classical romantic comedy, they instead regress from the show, back into an embrace of the structures they originally wished to detach from.

Both Sex and the City films essentially operate as 21st century updates of the remarriage subgenre, as both films require some sort of separation and reconciliation between Big and Carrie. So rather than affirming the need for friendship amongst women, these films instead privilege the accepted and repeated endorsement of the marriage institution (especially as the second film closes with Carrie and Big reunited rather than a meeting of the four women). And instead of possessing the charming one-upsmanship of the couple in trouble at the center of the classic remarriage subgenre, the ultimate reconciliation happens between Big and Carrie through a superficial interplay of vacant material objects (the exchange of anniversary gifts and conflict over how many apartments to own that operate as the crux of the film’s flimsy narrative) that substitutes for emotional, human character interaction.

There’s been a great deal of hyperbole in recent years decrying the “death” of the romantic comedy, and while I hesitate to endorse such language, part of me can’t help but agree. For every The Awful Truth and Annie Hall there are dozens of formulaic, uninteresting, interchangeable entries into the genre. But the Sex and the City films are significant in that, as a spinoff from the groundbreaking series, they come from a narrative of modern feminism, though by reducing themselves to these structures they weaken the necessary message that made the show so unique and take the romantic comedy genre several steps back.

The fact that each Sex and the City film, even in their bloated running times, still reduce themselves to the most clichéd of formulas may be a result of the limitations of the medium itself. Maybe its impossible to have a romantic comedy that respects the role of the independent female in contemporary society because of the constraints of the Hollywood movie storytelling structure, thus rendering it easy to fall back into the problematic gender roles of these worn formulas. Maybe this is why Sex and the City was so much more effective and unique as a television series. But regardless of the reason, you know the state of the romantic comedy film is in trouble when you have to look back to the era of the previous major financial crisis to find a trend of progress within the genre.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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