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Untrue romance: How #MeToo killed the classic romcom

After movements such as Time’s Up, movies like Pretty Woman don’t look so good. On Valentine’s Day, Tanya Sweeney asks what the future holds for romantic films


The decision to adapt Pretty Woman for the stage has been criticised

The decision to adapt Pretty Woman for the stage has been criticised

The decision to adapt Pretty Woman for the stage has been criticised

Given the spate of screen-to-stage adaptations of late, it was only a matter of time before the most beloved romcom of them all hit the West End.

But not everyone is pleased that Pretty Woman, the 1990 classic which starred Julia Roberts as a prostitute who falls for one of her clients (Richard Gere), is getting a big-stage revival.

"Have you had much experience of being prostituted?" broadcaster Sandi Toksvig asked, as she joined several women's rights groups in voicing her displeasure at the stage adaptation.

A post-#MeToo crowd observes that the film, which effectively sanitises sex work and is riddled with class, race, drugs and gender complexities, may have been acceptable within the consumerist culture of the 90s (she gets to go shopping so it's all good!), but now we know better than to think as much.

Yet once you start to look at various classic romcoms in the rearview mirror, they start to look a little… problematic. Take Sleepless In Seattle, in which Meg Ryan ditches a sure thing so she can play out a strange An Affair To Remember scenario, in which there's a slim chance a total stranger is on the roof of the Empire State Building. In Sex & The City: The Movie, Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw is left jilted at the altar in a very public move, but, after a few weeks in Mexico, decides to marry him anyway, jilting her own dreams for a big flashy wedding.

Then there's The Proposal, in which Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds have barely been able to stand the sight of each other for several years. How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, in which Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey almost destroy each other's lives, sanity and careers in a game of one-upmanship. Mannequin, in which Andrew McCartney falls for an inanimate dummy, with nothing to go on initially but a weird hunch. And Love Actually, in which Andrew Lincoln is all kinds of stalkerish, and Kris Marshall gets away with thinking of all American women as fantastically gullible. 28 Dresses, You've Got Mail, Amelie - romances founded on lies and deceit, one and all.

And when you think about it, the romcom is loaded with other slightly hazardous messages. To wit: you simply can't marry the friend who has just always been hanging around waiting for the scales to fall from your eyes. That 'no-go' relationship that makes your friends' eyes roll in the back of their heads? The way a romcom tells it, that might be the one for you after all. If your relationship is too fiery, complicated or unsustainable, maybe it might just thrive anyway. And if you persist in your OTT romantic gestures, you'll eventually wear your object of desire down (the woman on the other end of Bristol Piano Guy's creepy behaviours, which went viral back in 2017, might not agree so much).

The central romcom conceit has long had its day. Woman gets magazine job, meets irritating upstart, spends 90 minutes dealing with pratfalls, texts from a toxic ex and the niggling feeling that their new, Armani-wearing nemesis might just be 'the one' - it can be written on the back of a stamp at this stage.

How did it come to this? In the 80s and 90s, romcoms were the backbone of Hollywood. Even before that, the screwball comedy genre birthed dozens of classics, and some unforgettable stars.

So how did we get from there to here? Diane Negra, Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture at UCD, attributes its recent decline to a number of factors.

"The reason why the romcom has faltered in the last 10 or 20 years coincides with the decline in social trust," she explains. "For a long time, we had a sense that the couple was a social ideal, and the bringing together of a couple represents this idea of positivity. I don't think we have that anymore."

Hollywood has shifted much of its attention towards a more global audience, with an eye specifically on the Asian market. This is why the tent-pole action franchises flourish and romcoms perhaps fail.

"Romcoms are seen as too 'talky' and culturally specific," notes Negra. "It's no coincidence that the biggest romcoms in more recent times are ones like Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I've Loved Before and The Big Sick."

It's hard to know what younger audiences make of the classic romcom canon, yet a YouTube video posted by Stylist magazine, in which 16-year-olds analyse Pretty Woman, offers some clues. "It was easier for her when she dressed more conservative and acted more feminine, like a woman," one youngster observed. "More of the focus is on him," says another. Negra's students in UCD have watched plenty of romcoms as part of their education. Do they see their basic tenets as gross, or even retrograde?

"I don't know that they do have that reaction - it's more likely that they find the movies surprisingly charming," Negra observes. "I'm not sure they'll pass the test of contemporary norms, but the students see them as historic relics of a different era in intimacy.

"Most [young people] are savvy enough to respond to them without limiting them with questions on whether they conform to our current expectations. More than anything, I think they're impressed at how filmmakers put couples together in such a confident way."

When it comes to reviving romcoms and reaching out to a younger demographic, it certainly hasn't been for want of trying on the part of filmmakers. Netflix has spent some of its considerable resources into producing romcoms, tailored largely to a younger audience.

"There's definitely been a commitment in trying to revive the genre, but it's hard to think of a film in the last couple of years doing that," says Negra. "There have been attempts at innovation within the genre. Yet one of them, Wedding Destination (starring Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves), only lasted around 72 hours at the New York cinema."

Many films geared towards women have moved away from the idea of a romantic partner and focused on films in which our female heroine falls back in love with herself. Greta Gerwig is the high priestess in this regard: Frances Ha, Mistress America and, to some extent, Little Women all centre on what it means for its female characters to find a place in the world.

"The trend towards self-marriage has lost a lot of its stigma and one of the things that has shifted from the desire to be in a couple is the desire to nourish the self, or achieve a settled, successful, functional self," agrees Negra.

As to what the future of the romcom might hold: "I think we'll continue to see signs of experimentation, many of which will be pegged to a new demographic. We've already seen from last week's Oscars that we are so aware of the ways in which women's concerns have been sidelined in Hollywood. Honestly, it wouldn't take more than a couple of box office hits to restore it to favour."

5 classic romcoms for the day that’s in it

1. The Notebook

Not quite the happy ever-after that most audiences crave on February 14, but it's a dependable weepy.

2. Notting Hill

If you haven't idly daydreamed about being a regular person and capturing the heart of a major movie star, have you even lived?

3. When Harry Met Sally

This classic poses a question for the ages: can men and women ever truly be friends, without sex getting in the way?

4. Four Weddings And A Funeral

The film that kickstarted Richard Curtis' romcom reign, Four Weddings is equal parts witty and soppy. And, at the very end, soggy.

5. Breakfast At Tiffany's

The original manic pixie dream girl, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), made being a happy-go-lucky party girl look endlessly appealing to generations of young women.

Irish Independent