Every generation has a defining genre of film born out of the social and political climate of the era. In the 1940s, film noir reckoned with the trauma of the World Wars. The “New Hollywood” filmmakers of the 1970s created complex characters and morality in response to the Vietnam era. Most recently, the post-9/11 decade saw the rise of anti-heroes doing bad things (arguably) for the greater good. Out current political moment is also finding its defining genre in a perhaps unexpected place: rom-coms.

If the last year is anything to go on, we are in the middle of a romantic comedy renaissance. Movies like CRAZY RICH ASIANS, TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE, and LOVE SIMON have crushed it at the box office and in social media hype. And unlike the typical rom-com of yore, these movies are actually good.

What is it about the often maligned rom-com that is resonating so strongly right now? Do we all just secretly want to slowly fall in love with the person we thought we hated and then engage in a choreographed dance number, or is there something deeper going on?

Out of the Past

As much as movies are a form of escapist entertainment, they have also always served an important function as sort of time capsules for what people were feeling at the time. Patterns emerge, sometimes to cash in on a trend and sometimes because there are common aesthetic and thematic elements that strike a chord with the people who make and watch movies.

The World War Generation: Film Noir

Film noir is one of the first notable examples of this.

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THE THIRD MAN (1949) Dir. Carol Reed. Image courtesy of Letterboxd

World Wars I and II showed the world horror like it hadn’t seen before. A traumatized generation turned to art to express its changed view of the world. As Hollywood hit its stride commercially, it also experienced a sort of coming-of-age artistically. German artists fleeing Europe brought expressionist influences to the archetypical American detective story, creating film noir as we know it. “Cynical” is a bit of an understatement to define the result. Noir stories emphasize cynicism in morality, relationships, and sometimes life itself, while the expressionist style has an aesthetic darkness that brings the inner turmoil of the characters into the visual realm.

New Hollywood Delves Deeper

It seems that “darkness” is almost always the response to political upheaval. The next generation of filmmakers — often called the New Hollywood, who gained notoriety in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — had to reckon with the Vietnam and Watergate eras. In contrast to the cynicism of noir, New Hollywood dove deeper into characters to try to find some sort of redemption — or at least explanation — in their ethical or personal flaws. Think THE GODFATHER or BONNIE & CLYDE. Our protagonists aren’t necessarily good people, but they are real people. They are endlessly complex, just as real people are. New Hollywood filmmakers tried to see people beyond the surface: Can we ever know who’s good and who’s bad? Who can be trusted and who can’t? And once we find out, is it too late?

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I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Mission Accomplished?

The 21st-century parallel showed up after the September 11 attacks. We once again entered a war under dubious pretenses, were confronted with questions of government’s trustworthiness (this time through a rapid expansion of power and surveillance), and struggled with dangerous labels of “unpatriotic” for voicing any of this concern. It kind of feels, then, that as a way to feel better about ourselves and the ever-increasing violence in the world, movies and TV focused on anti-heroes. Television gave us THE SOPRANOS and 24, and Hollywood gave us characters like Jason Bourne and Christian Bale’s Batman.

Like the complex characters of the ‘70s, they have more than one dimension to them, but the post-9/11 anti-heroes always seem to have a more political and jingoistic tone to them. They tell us that it’s ok to do bad, bad things if you can argue that you’re doing it for what you believe to be the greater good. It’s the trolley problem brought to life and with a higher body count. We called it “gritty realism” to tell ourselves that we, too, could realistically be the hero of this story. Sometimes you have to root for the bad guy because you are the bad guy.

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Jack Bauer: the problematic fave before we knew what a problematic fave was. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

It feels kind of dumb to say that the world is very different than it was just 10 years ago. But it is. The trauma of past generations linger strongly, but we’ve added our own fun spin to wars, inequality, and division.

Every day adds another layer to the weirdness and horror that is the United States right now. We are in a completely uncharted territory in so many facets of political and daily life and our pop culture has responded, in some ways, in kind.

Instead of seeing more dark characters or grittiness or general portrayals of the worst sides of our nature, we’re seeing lightness and heart and optimism. We’re seeing more women and people of color and LGBT+ people —  who are noticeably absent from the genres we discussed previously — both behind and in front of the camera. In short, we’re seeing the world we want to create rather than the one we have.

Nothing embodies this more than the modern rom-com.

Not Your Mother’s Rom-Coms

Ah, rom-coms. A staple of Hollywood cinema since its inception. And a ridiculed staple almost the entire time. Sure, it’s been a long time since rom-coms have been “good” in the traditional sense of the term. But they’ve always been shunned as guilty pleasures or chick flicks — something on the outskirts of real movies made by real filmmakers (i.e. white men).

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Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston in GIRL SHY (1924). Image courtesy of Obscure Hollywood

But that might be changing. This past year, we’ve seen some game-changers from the rom-com genre. LOVE SIMON was one of the first (if not the first) major Hollywood movies about a gay high school romance, and it shattered box office expectations while earning glowing reviews. CRAZY RICH ASIANS was a bona fide summer blockbuster and disproved the myth that an Asian American cast can’t lead a movie to success. Netflix even jumped in with internet-beloved movies SET IT UP, ALEX STRANGELOVE, and TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE.

Something about these movies broke through the stigmas around rom-coms. People took to social media to express their love for these movies and their characters at the same time that established outlets praised their quality.

There are two main things that can explain this: the themes espoused and the people represented by modern rom-coms.

BREAKING NEWS: Not Everyone is White

Time to state the obvious: Movies are usually about straight, white men and made by straight, white men for straight, white men. I know, take a minute to wrap your head around that one.

Rom-coms, historically, were the exception to the maleness at the movies. They usually followed a female main character and target female audiences. While not usually made by women, they were a more hospitable genre for female writers and directors.

Now, we’re getting a much more realistic depiction of the world in our rom-com stars and creators. People of color and gay characters are no longer seen as box office poison. Even beyond rom-coms, movies like BLACK PANTHER and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME showed just how many people were waiting to see themselves on screen.

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The future liberals want. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

And the people behind the scenes of these movies are helping to bring an authenticity to rom-coms that had previously been replaced with sexism, racism, and homophobia. Jenny Han, the author of the novel TO ALL THE BOYS, had to fight to keep her main character Asian American in the film adaptation — a move that has meant the world to young viewers. CRAZY RICH ASIANS went through similar troubles — yeah, they really wanted to cast a white woman as Rachel Chu — but the fact that non-white people were in the room to make these decisions kept the heart and soul of the novel from escaping in the adaptation process.

Other popular genres like superhero and horror movies are slowly opening themselves up to these new (and by “new” I mean “have been around the entire time”) opportunities, but rom-coms are on the forefront of giving people the representation they deserve.

Envisioning a Brighter Future

Rom-coms aren’t just about romance. If they’re any good, they’re usually not really about romance at all. They’re about more universal human experiences, feelings, and desires. Right now, we’re seeing an extraordinary amount of hate and division in the real world. What we want to regain is unity with our fellow human beings, empathy, kindness, and love. These are found in very concentrated amounts in rom-coms.

Time for a Case Study!

Let’s look at TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE. It features a classic rom-com trope: fake-relationship-turns-into-real-relationship. It’s been done before, but the way TATBILB approaches it avoids the problematic pitfalls of its predecessors and emphasizes certain progressive ideals. For one, the main characters subvert traditional, usually sexist characteristics. Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is shy, but not shrinking, smart, loving, and insecure. Her fake boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo) is sensitive, caring, and confused, rather than just a surface-level dreamboat. They’re characters we can relate to for their complexity and look up to for their unjaded qualities.

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Good penmanship never hurts, either. Courtesy of Netflix

 Like I said, good rom-coms are about way more than romance. At its heart, TATBILB is about the power of the written word and speaking one’s truth. The movie is set into motion by love letters that Lara Jean writes to her crushes, but never intends to send. These letters prove powerful to the people who receive them, but because she couldn’t be truthful and upfront with them, negative consequences ensue. Instead, it’s through finally being honest with Peter, her family, and herself that she finds happiness and confidence. It’s not by accident, either, that the catalyst for these realizations is the letters Peter wrote to her: an elegant representation of both the power of writing and being emotionally honest.

Here we have values of truth, connecting with people who may not immediately seem like ourselves, and in a sense, print media. Not coincidentally, these are things that are under attack every day. It’s an entertaining and uplifting two hours of film, but TATBILB also speaks deeply to the anxieties and desires of modern young people — just as film noir and New Hollywood did in their time.

Making Our Mark

It’s really hard to tell what our legacy will be because our internet-based tastes, obsessions, and infatuations change so quickly. Heck, by the time this article is published, we may have collectively moved on to sports movies or something. But as it stands, our rom-com renaissance is happening for a reason. People feel starved of love, of understanding, and of joy itself. Our yearning for romance even extends beyond the fictional realm: the stories of Plane Bae and a potential Keanu/Winona coupling captured our imaginations just as strongly.

But movies allow us to work through these desires safely and without ruining an innocent woman’s life. We can create a world that we want to see, instead of having to live with the one we have. For maybe the first time, we don’t feel trapped in our own trauma, the way noir and anti-heroes suggested. We feel empowered to create the future we want, even if it’s just on celluloid. But that’s the first step. Putting something into words and images gives us a sense of what we want and what we’re capable of. Romance and comedy — what more could we want?

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