2023 is turning out to be the year of the RomCom movie. This has come as a surprise to me. But I heard it on BBC Radio4, Woman’s Hour, and it certainly sounds about right. Their researchers know of 36 new RomComs scheduled for release this year. (The clip starts 27 minutes in, if you’re as interested as I am.)
It started me thinking about romantic stories in general. And wondering — could the same be true of books?
By the way, if you’re wondering why the image above, rather than any other, the answer is sentimental. A very similar image appeared on the cover of one of my romantic novels, years ago. At the time, I was equally surprised and pleased. There’s so clearly a story there. Such was not always the case with my covers.
So What is a RomCom?
The interviewees on Woman’s Hour were both British – film and TV critic Rhianna Dhillon and film maker and musician Elizabeth Sankey. Both clearly knew their stuff. Interviewer Nuala McGovern tried hard to ask neutral questions.
But listening to it, I couldn’t help feeling that all three were slightly uncomfortable. Maybe I’m paranoid, but it sounded to me as if they were struggling to avoid the suggestion that RomCom itself was a naff joke and really rather embarrassing.
Asked to define the genre, Rhianna Dhillon said it was much loved and sounded genuinely enthusiastic about the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, calling them “some of the best films of that time”. She sounded less happy describing the genre’s traditional qualities – “cis, straight, white couple… often one of them is rich.” The dreaded word “formula” flitted past.
On the other hand, she said it was obvious why 2023 should be the year of RomCom. Between the pandemic, wars, and the cost of living crisis, people need hopeful, fun, escapist films to raise their spirits.
New Look RomCom?
All three seemed happier discussing Rye Lane, one of the 36 participants in the year of RomCom. This is no glossy blockbuster, but a BBC-supported debut movie by director Raine Allen-Miller. It gathered plaudits when it premiered at the Sundance Festival in January.
It opened in the UK last month and was Mark Kermode’s film of the week. He called it a “primary-coloured romance, bursting with wit, grit and charm.” It sounds a blast. I’m off to see it as soon as I can.
Now, Rhianna Dhillon acknowledged the ’90s as a golden age of romantic comedy and she had a theory about the decade’s influence. People who, in their formative years, watched Pretty Woman or Ten Things I Hate About You, were now, she posited, putting their own stamp on the genre. Specifically, they were junking outdated habits.
Rye Lane certainly bears this out, from the reviews. This couple are not white and not rich. And they’re both coming out of dodgy relationships which sound very 21st century. They have ordinary jobs. The male half is even an accountant.
When I first started writing romantic stories, I remember very clearly the influential editor of a weekly magazine explaining to me that her readers would simply not accept my accountant hero. The reason? Women were turned off by sums. Um…
Expectations and RomCom
Elizabeth Sankey, the other contributor to the discussion, has made a debut movie of her own, a documentary called simply Romantic Comedy. It is certainly about the genre, but it is deeply personal, not an on-the one-hand, on-the-other-hand academic analysis. I recommend it – entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure.
It starts with her own voice-over setting out her RomCom-inspired adolescent expectations of love and marriage. She identified with the heroines and confidently expected Prince Charming to pop up in her life. By the time she was a young woman RomCom had become, she says, “part of my identity.” (I can SO identify.)
But then she got married. There was a disconnect between life and the screen. She still watched RomComs avidly. But now they didn’t make her feel elated. They made her feel guilty. So here is another familiar trope – the guilty pleasure. And an accusation – romantic stories give us unrealistic expectations.
RomCom Role Modelling
But Elizabeth Sankey goes further. RomComs, she says, teach by toxic example. Toxic because, with a few gallant exceptions, they reward women for male-pleasing behaviour that demands we surrender our autonomy and our own interests in order to align with those of our chosen love object to achieve marriage and motherhood.
She makes an exception for When Harry Met Sally.
In Romantic Comedy she agrees with Rhianna Dhillon that the screwball comedies of the 19302 showed often brilliant career women forging their own way in the world and achieving a romantic relationship of equals.
For Sankey, however, World War 2 knocked this into a cocked hat. Thereafter RomComs, however skilfully scripted, directed and acted, returned to the bad old ways. Eventually they “spiralled out of control into something deeply suspect, twisted.” Interestingly, she makes another exception for a 1950s foray into “the immense female power of sexuality” as represented by Marilyn Monroe.
In her radio interview, however, she concentrates on RomCom’s positive appeal. She calls it “really primal… every human being looking for that connection with another human being.” That she says, is why people will repeat watch their favourites. Romantic Comedy may take place in a fantasy world – even in Shakespeare comedies there are magical forests – but it gives us something important.
Respect the Year of RomCom?
I found both the radio interview and the documentary fascinating in so many ways. Both demonstrate a clear, if slightly ambivalent, affection for the genre. Even when I disagree with some of the points made, I can’t fault either the knowledge or the arguments that emerge in both. Romantic Comedy received a respectful and similarly intriguing review from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw in May 2020.
A Voice-Over, though not I think her own, points out, very justly, that the heroine is an obsessive who has fixated on a man she’s never even spoken to and spends most of the movie lying to everyone and digging herself deeper and deeper into the hole. Even the title could serve as well for a horror movie!
I admit I bounced on my seat at that point and shouted at the screen that the whole point of romantic comedy is that you can make mistakes and come back from them. It’s part of what gives us hope!
#RespectRomFic and RomCom
Last month I wrote a heartfelt blog about the Romantic Novelists”s Association Awards and the #RespectRomFic movement. I remain interested in why romantic stories get so much stick, even from those who love them.
Perhaps one answer might be in an entertaining series on YouTube by someone calling himself The Relationship Therapist. I was particularly taken by his dissection of the various relationships in the perennially popular Love Actually. (Well worth a look. As well as being sensible and rather kind, it’s very funny.)
His thesis is basically that the movie’s focus is on how it feels to be in love, rather than building a healthy relationship with a chance of success. I suspect that many of Elizabeth Sankey’s difficulties fall into the same general area.
The Aristotelian unity of time, of course, pulls in the other direction, as far as drama is concerned. The white wedding is the Big Finish the audience is waiting for. Sometimes, the crazier the better.
And that is where romantic novelists have a real advantage. We don’t have to deliver the big hit in 90 minutes. We can take as long as we want to build that magic forest. The reader can follow our characters’ journey at their own pace, too.
So maybe, just maybe, 2023 will be the year of romantic fiction in books too!
Here’s hoping. We need the love.