“a movie or play that deals with love in a light, humorous way.” It is key to look at the history of the genre before discussing its changes over the years and the role of women within this. The genre has existed in several forms over the years but was made popular by William Shakespeare with plays such as Much ado about nothing and a midsummer nights dream. With the development of movies in the early 20th century with early silent films such as Girl shy being the first on screen forms of this. early forms of rom coms were referred to as “comedies of manners” with a rich person falling in love with someone less wealthy. A good example of this would be it happened one night 1934. This developed into the popularity of screwball romantic comedies which in the 1930s often focused on a female protagonist and hero eg Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). During the 50s and 60s the form developed to popular sex comedies, focusing on the differences between women and men. eg Desk Set (1957), the Rock Hudson-Doris Day hit Lover Come Back (1961), and the very on-the-nose Battle of the Sexes (1960). These changes happened for several reasons; sexual research by Alfred Kinsey opened up the idea that women have sex drives and engage in premarital sex. With the emergence of Playboy magazine in 1953 giving men guides to developing relationships with women, meant less censorship in films leading to the popularity of this form. This form quickly developed into radical comedies where a happy ending wasn’t a given and the personal happiness was important and not romantic love which wouldn’t solve a characters problems. This development led to the form of romantic comedies we are mostly familiar with neo-traditional rom coms. eg Sleepless in Seattle. These focus on compromises on both sides and transparent love with aspects that nod to previous forms of the genre we know today. It is argued that romantic comedies hold a mirror up to society and reflect on current morals and beliefs of the day and that can be seen in the progression of themes over the 20th century. It is important to understand the origins and developments of the themes over time as we can compare this to the role of women in society at the time and their role in the popular films of the genre at the time can give us an idea of how the role and treatment of women in life has reflected to their portrayal on screen.
To explore the changes in portrayal of women in romantic cinema it is important to firstly evaluate and explore earlier representations throughout the 20th century through the many earlier forms of the genre. Interestingly progressive change for women isn’t quite as chronological as many would expect; for example the 30s was an era where women were at the forefront of the films and were portrayed as heroes and key protagonists whereas at the time in society women were not treated to the equal standard as men. This trend seemed to subside then reappear in a different way in the 70’s in the form of radical romantic comedies where a woman characters happiness is not defined by a man but by their own self worth. A good film to use as an example of a varied representation of female characters is “it happened one night” 1934 dir by frank Capra. This film is often hailed as one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time and won 5 oscars including best picture and best lead actress (claudette Colbert). The film follows the story of a rich heiress Ellie who escapes her rich father and his disapproval of her secret marriage to a rich man which he had annulled and is helped by peter Warne who is actually a streetwise reporter in need of a story. over the course of the story he helps her, falls for her and she leaves her husband to be with him. The film explores interesting themes of the time such as wealth, the control of the patriarchy and finding common ground in remarkable circumstances. During a “meet-cute”, scriptwriters often create a humorous sense of awkwardness between the two potential partners by depicting an initial clash of personalities or beliefs, an embarrassing situation, or by introducing a comical misunderstanding or mistaken identity situation.
In many romantic comedies, the potential couple comprises polar opposites, two people of different temperaments, situations, social statuses, or all three (It Happened One Night), who would not meet or talk under normal circumstances, and the meet cute’s contrived situation provides the opportunity for these two people to meet. “meet cute” was used mostly in screwballs during the Great Depression in the 1930s where they made heavy use of contrived romantic “meet cutes”, because of the class divisions of this period made cross-social class romances into a more of a fantasy.
ellie as a character is interestingly three dimensional for the time, with flaws such as her spoiled brattiness but great strength in her wit and determination to overcome repression. The key differences between her and peter are a typical trope of romantic comedies, with the characters overcoming their differences and understanding each other to overcome the obstacles to reconcile and fall in love in the end. Despite being a film of it’s time where women’s independence and political freedom were limited and there was only a beginning of true independence for females it is a stand out for its time that such a strong and independent female character was written and also received so popularly received by audiences of the time. Ellie is a character who though she relies on men for her economic status and somewhat for her happiness also lives on her own terms and uses her sexuality and femininity as a choice rather than being forced or used by the male characters in the film. For example in the hitchhiking scene she holds the power with the cab driver and displays this by showing her skin, shown in a close up and grabs the attention of the driver. This conscious use of the male gaze as a tool to reach her goals through her own choice is a clear show of power from a female character. Despite examples such as these overall the film fits much within those of the 1930s being a comedy of manners; men in a position of power and women’s reliance upon them. By todays standards this is no longer widely accepted throughout society and can be reflected in modern films of the genre which attempt to consciously defy these stereotypes. It happened one night” is a great example of films mirroring the culture of their time and many themes in current romantic comedies are still influenced by films such as this. Although the film attempts to portray the female lead positively in many ways there as still many issues to be found¢¢¢¢¢¢¢¢
Thirty years later, the romantic comedy had developed to the battle of the sexes or known as “sex comedies” that pitted men and women against each other and highlighted their differences. Due to more acceptable sexual promiscuity in the 60’s, post war climate and the advances of the film industry bringing huge popularity of the genre back. in came the lighter, funnier romantic comedies of the sixties. There was no better time to explore this, then during the sixties, as women’s roles continued to evolve and grow. The 1960’s was a important time as romantic comedies took a more explicit, sexual approach to how it displayed affection to characters which looked at monogamy and the women’s sexual roles which were increasingly more common but explicit sexuality in romantic comedies has always been seen as somewhat negative because of the effects of censorship and the issues linked with feminist movement and the film industries sexual revolution.The new reality of romantic relationships was faithfully portrayed by the genre through an increase of divorce and break-up comedies devoted to the exploration of single life. such as Debbie Reynolds, Jane Fonda, Sandra Dee, Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn had great success during this time starring in many rom coms. One of the consistent markers of even the modern day romantic comedy is the battle between the sexes though in modern films this tends to be focused to the first half of the narrative with a more romantic second half. a tendency among the filmmakers to try to play the Battle of the Sexes so that both sides win – except, in the end, the men win almost every time. In Battle of the Sexes comedies, the lead female characters usually possess two things: a job and a feisty and independent personality, but by the end of the films, they have to Learn a Lesson about either their careers or their relationship choices. notable problems with this form of rom com is often there are independent women with careers who have to humble themselves and learn a lesson about work and/or romance, while their male partners get to stay the same and reap the benefits of being around the softened versions of the independent women they love. This form of romantic comedy seemed to relate to audiences well as the gender divide was emphasised in this form and many women of the time could openly relate to the characters on screen. A highly successful sex comedy of the sixties was “lover come back” starring doris day and rock hudson; two of the biggest stars of the genre at the time. With mistaken identity as the key plot device of the film, the two leads jerry and carol are rivals at separate ad companies with very different morals. Jerry lies and manipulates his way to success whereas carol strives to work hard honestly for success. Mistaking Jerry for a doctor who was hired to create a fake product jerry had advertised he takes advantages and pretends to be the doctor to seduce carol. eventually Carol learns the truth, Appalled, she reports him to the Advertising Council, for promoting a product that does not exist. Jerry, however, arrives with VIP, a mint-flavored candy Dr. Tyler has created. He provides a free sample to everyone there, including Carol.
“VIP” turns out to be an intoxicating candy, one serving having the same effect as a triple martini. Its extreme effects lead to a one-night stand between Carol and her rival Jerry, complete with a marriage license.
Carol has the marriage annulled, but Jerry convinces the liquor industry to give Carol’s firm 25% of its $60 million annual advertising expenditures in return for pulling VIP off the market and burning the formula. Jerry leaves New York to work in his company’s California branch—only to be called back nine months later to remarry Carol in a hospital maternity ward, just before she gives birth to their child. The film follows a typical man vs woman format and combines their professional and romantic lives with an eventually happy ending common of the genre. Despite this it seems that neither of the characters particularly learn their lesson from the series of events and perhaps seem to have a “happy ending” more due to circumstance than true love. Carol is an example of a strong working woman who fights for what she believes which reflects the climate of the time with feminist activism and advances for women in professional industries. Interestingly the ending is balanced for both characters, with carol and jerry marrying as she goes into labour with her saying “It’s my baby and I’ll have what I want: I decided on a girl.”. Although in the end it is likely she will become a mother and wife who isn’t focused on career like many of the time she is still to the end of the film holds her defiant and stubborn sense of self. although Lover Come Back ends in matrimony, marriage is used as dramatic punctuation and unlike previous era’s of romantic comedy is no longer the only happy conclusion possible for a character or their sole arc.
following on from the sexual liberation of the 60’s the 70’s brought about radical romantic comedies that were arguably the last form before neotradiotional rom coms of the current era. these films were categorised by their freedom with ploys and innuendos and happy ever afters not being required. Although commercially there seemed to be a lull in popularity with rom coms during this time films such as Annie Hall were popular at the time; focusing on the success and independence of the lead characters rather than their romantic validation. In annie hall after breaking up with his girlfriend Annie Hall, neurotic comedian Alvy Singer goes on a stream of conciousness journey through his memories of their relationship, trying to find out what caused them to part ways. He often breaks the fourth wall, speaking to the camera, entering peoples’ stories. Annie is portrayed as ditzy and clumsy by his narrative and he explains the ups and downs of their relationship then eventual break up where he is rejected by her. He writes a play about the relationship but with a happy ending although Annie’s true ending is with someone else. The film consciously portrays events through an unreliable narrator so the audience sees the representation through Allyy’s perception rather our own.“within the film’s three fold exploration of self-reflexivity, this ending is as resolutely appropriate to the realistic portrayal of modern love, and to the film’s acknowledgement of itself as a film text within certain traditions, as it is in conscious opposition to the usual generic ending” (74)