Every so often I go through phases where I consume a number of 'romantic' or 'chick' films with a reckless abandon. I usually find this quite a satisfying and enjoyable process, but lately something's changed. Last week I re-watched When Harry Met Sally, never my favourite of the genre but could never figure out why. Last week it clicked, and it highlighted my two main irritations with films of this genre. Firstly, the idea of being single is never treated as a realistic or desirable option and secondly, the female lead is never particularly interesting nor particularly strong.
I get that these movies are pitched at women, and consequently the male characters are the most interesting (and incredibly dishy). I get that they are selling us an ideal, a dream, a fantasy. And don't get me wrong, I love an ideal, dream and fantasy, the last thing I look for at the cinema is a cold hard dose of reality. But I think I have reached a point in my life where this underlying assumption that true happiness only happens when you are in a relationship does not sit right. Sure, it was nice when Harry and Sally finally hooked-up, a gal cannot help but gush at Harry's declaration of love in his jeans and sneakers at a black tie event. But these were two characters that went immediately from long-term relationships into a co-dependent, pseudo-relationship. There was no time for personal development in that plot line.
And let's take a closer look at Sally. Like many female leads in these kinds of films, she's neurotic, holds a generic media-based job, is pretty, but not particularly interesting. It is her flaws that we identify with, that denial that things are okay, that pedantic ordering of food. Is the fantasy then that if these 'flawed' women can find 'Mr. Right', we can too? And why are the Sally's of the genre always journalists, or in PR, television or publishing? Is it because these professions are enough to indicate a woman's intelligence without being overly threatening to the men in the story? A woman's job certainly is not used as a plot device to make her more interesting. Indeed, the films where women have more high-status jobs they are only used to highlight her flaws. Think about Just Like Heaven or more recently The Proposal, the female leads were 'career focused'. Translation: they were cold and/or lonely with great big emotional 'walls'. These women have to 'soften' to be loved, whereas the Sally's are, eventually, loved for who they are. WHAT is that about?
The thing is, it is not like strong and interesting female characters are a turn-off for women when it comes to the consumption of ideals, dreams and fantasies. Quite the opposite. When I think of some of my all time favourite romantic tales I always, always, come back to Jane Austen. Read and adored by generations of women, and almost all centring around strong female characters in the face of a difficult and ridiculous world. And if these women are flawed, they generally adapt and grow. I do not think the modern world is devoid of Elizabeths, Elenors, and Annes, so why is it that when it comes to our RomComs, we can only identify with the neuroses and hysterics. The Sallys, Carries and Bridgets?
I feel quite unsettled by it all. Certainly I love a good love story. But it occurs to me that the movies made for women are all about the men. Interesting, funny, good-looking and strong men. And the movies made for men? Well, let's just say that I have heard them referred to simply as "guns, breasts, explosions, breasts". So, where are the movies about strong and interesting women that are loved for who they are?