Key Takeaways:

Romantic comedy has been a controversial genre, often dismissed as a “chick flick” and panned by critics. However, critics are not the only ones watching romcoms, as they are often seen as repetitive and rely on certain tropes. The “neo-traditional romcom” is the dominant form of the genre, with characters running through airports and a lack of communication between love interests. The perfect romcom consists of miscommunication, conflict, and connection through love and laughter. The genre is also changing its character parameters, with gay male romance and non-white protagonists being prominent. The perfect romcom shows that despite challenges, there is sometimes a happy ending, and the genre is a comforting place to think through these issues.


Picture the scene: it’s a dreary weeknight evening, you’re tired from work, and you want to watch something that will pick you up. My guess is that some of you – perhaps more than would admit it – would pick a romantic comedy. 

Over the years the romcom has been designated as “chick flick”, dismissed at awards ceremonies (the best picture Oscar primarily goes to drama films) and frequently panned by critics. Yet, critics are not the only ones buying cinema tickets or watching streaming services. 

A 2013 article from the New York Times found that the romcom was one of the genres most likely to divide audience and critical opinion. Like many other things that are classified as “women’s things”, the romcom is often spoken of as a “guilty pleasure”.

Researchers such as Claire Mortimer, who writes about comedyand women, argue that the dismissal is not just down to the genre’s status as “women’s films” but also because romcoms are genre films. Such films are often seen as repetitive – they rely on a number of tropes to be wheeled out again and again and we come to expect certain styles, stories and characters. Some films become key examples of a genre, a kind of “best of”, and form a template which the others either imitate or diverge from.

That’s not to say that all romcoms are the same. But there’s a dominant form that we think of as being definitive, called the “neo-traditional romcom”. Tamar McDonald, a professor in film, argues that this is the main form of the genre now – one that “has no use for realism”. 

This can be seen in characters running through airports, the absurd lack of communication between love interests and the convenient mishaps. Without these elements though, the resolution wouldn’t be as sweet.

The perfect romcom

So what are the ingredients for a perfect romcom? Looking at the lists of the best romcoms of all time – which the internet isn’t short of – we see similar tropes popping up repeatedly. One popular favourite, When Harry Met Sally (1989), features the “friends to lovers” storyline. This reoccurs in more recent films like Always Be My Maybe (2019).

Ali Wong and Randall Park smile and link arms at a fancy event.
Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe features the ‘friends to lovers’ storyline. Ed Araquel/Netflix

Within a romcom, there typically has to be miscommunication – and lots of it. Although a relationship can blossom steadily, often unknown to the characters themselves, romcoms usually feature a pivotal moment where one character is not understood by the person they want.

This miscommunication is also underpinned by conflict. Leger Grindon, an expert in romantic comedies, breaks these kinds of conflict into three major fields: between parents and children, the two characters who are dating, or when someone has to choose between personal development and sacrifice. 

We’ve seen examples of all of three over the years. Children defying their parents’ wishes to be with someone they love is a common theme in the queer love story, like Happiest Season(2020), but is also present in other films, like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). My Big Fat Greek Wedding hinges on conflict between family and love.

Conflict between the needs of the love interests can be seen in What Women Want (2000). And the conflict between personal development and sacrifice has been a common theme of many recent Netflix romcoms such as Hello, Goodbye and Everything in Between (2022) or The Holiday Calendar (2019). In Hallmark Christmas films (their own sub-genre of the romcom) like Just In Time for Christmas (2015), women often have to choose between their career and their relationship, a common recurrence for the Christmas sub-genre especially.

Romcoms can provide escapism, but at their heart the glue of the genre is finding connection through love and laughter. How realistic this is may be shifting, with more recent examples in film and television providing more cultural critique (see comedian Rose Matafeo’s brilliant Starstruck series, streaming on BBC Three for example). 

A boy and girl smiling at each other, wearing colourful clothing.
Recent London romcom Rye Lane was a surprise hit. Searchlight Pictures

The parameters for the characters of these stories are also changing. Once predominantly white and straight, the genre is opening up to a range of different stories. Recent examples like Red, White, and Royal Blue (2023) and Bros (2022) put gay male romance front and centre, while Rye Lane (2023) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) foreground non-white protagonists. 

Perhaps this is because – as Mortimer argues – the genre is concerned with “perennial themes” of love and identity. In a moment where definitions and understandings of identity are shifting, the romcom provides an ideal place to think through these issues in a comforting way. Or perhaps we just need the optimism we associate with the genre at a time of war and economic crisis.

Although there may be classics and new challengers emerging for the title of the best, the perfect romcom is one that shows that, despite all the challenges life may throw at us, there is sometimes a happy ending.

Contributor

Recently Published

Key Takeaway: The Singapore Stone, an ancient epigraph measuring three-by-three meters, was discovered in 1819 but was almost entirely lost. Three fragments were saved by Scottish military officer James Low and sent to the Royal Asiatic Society’s Museum in Calcutta. The remaining fragments are unknown, and the script remains undeciphered. The epigraph’s origin is unknown, […]

Top Picks

Key Takeaway: The double-empathy problem, a concept popular among social scientists, suggests that people with different identities and communication styles struggle to empathize with each other. This theory has gained attention due to its potential to explain why different people in society struggle to empathise, potentially leading to personal and societal problems. However, the double-empathy […]
Key Takeaway: Research indicates that modernization and rapid technological advancements are contributing to contemporary problems such as mental health issues. An evolutionary mismatch theory suggests that our physical and psychological adaptations become misaligned with the environment, leading to issues like tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes. The modern world also presents challenges such as crowded cities, […]
Key Takeaway: The global demand for critical minerals, particularly lithium, is increasing rapidly to meet clean energy and de-carbonisation objectives. Africa hosts substantial resources of these minerals, leading foreign mining companies to invest in exploration and acquire mining licenses. The critical minerals market doubled in five years, reaching US$320 billion in 2022. The demand is […]

Trending

I highly recommend reading the McKinsey Global Institute’s new report, “Reskilling China: Transforming The World’s Largest Workforce Into Lifelong Learners”, which focuses on the country’s biggest employment challenge, re-training its workforce and the adoption of practices such as lifelong learning to address the growing digital transformation of its productive fabric. How to transform the country […]

Join our Newsletter

Get our monthly recap with the latest news, articles and resources.

Login

Welcome to Empirics

We are glad you have decided to join our mission of gathering the collective knowledge of Asia!
Join Empirics