If you go back and rewatch your favorite romantic comedies, chances are they’ll be pretty bad (except for When Harry Met Sally which premiered in 1989). The male gaze is obnoxiously obvious, women are created according to male desires in lieu of having actual personalities, and toxic masculinity is depicted as not just a but the successful romantic strategy. And yet there’s something undeniably endearing about watching two attractive people seek love in the thorny thickets of offensive writing and prurient camera direction.

Romantic Comedy (2019), by writer-director-editor-narrator Elizabeth Sankey, is a 78-minute found footage documentary that crafts this fundamental tension of the genre into an argument for a better rom-com. It’s a labor of love: The film begins by recounting Sankey’s formative obsession with the genre as a young girl, and at one point she admits to having seen Sleepless in Seattle (1993) 35 times. She was motivated to make the film when she began to see the genre’s glaring imperfections after she got married, a life stage where rom-coms don’t often offer a playbook.

The film starts with rom-coms from the pre-code era, when the lower cultural cachet of the cinema afforded women and minorities more opportunities. It then traverses the heightened gender normativity of the war years, highlighting the subversively sexual but all too brief presence of Marilyn Monroe before settling into an analysis of rom-com tropes from the ‘80s onward.


Women Make Waves Film Festival Taiwan

Joining Sankey are a chorus of her friends and fellows from the film industry, who offer observations and criticisms of their own favorite films (1995’s While You Were Sleeping gets an eye-opening deconstruction), often based on their identities as not cishet, White, and/or men.

Most rom-com tropes are obvious as soon as they’re pointed out: the “cool girl” who’s attractive because she shares the guy’s interests; the muse who exists solely as an appendage to the guy’s character development; the problematic notion that a guy’s persistence will ultimately “win” the girl; the focus on the ideal female body while simultaneously denying the sexual desire of that same body; the deployment of the gay friend merely to add depth to the main character; and the simple fact of how straight, bougie, and glaringly White everyone is. The toxically angry male reaction to frustrated sexual entitlement is conveyed with a frightening montage of men physically attacking women, backed by resonant music. Sankey contributed original songs as one half of the musical duo Summer Camp; the other half, Jeremy Warmsley, wrote the score.

Other biases are more insidious: The screen stays black as Sankey notes that there are basically no rom-coms starring lesbians, trans people, or people with disabilities. This matters because our understanding of life outside our own experience comes from media representations. While stereotypical representations are bad, a lack of representation is arguably worse as it leaves people of different backgrounds out of the cultural consciousness altogether, thereby rendering them completely other. We want to see people like us on the screen not to have something “for us,” but just as a recognition by the culture that we exist.


Women Make Waves Film Festival Taiwan

It would be even better if the representation is accurate. As the film nears the end, it argues for a non-toxic, representative romantic comedy that follows the “opposites attract” plot and features three-dimensional characters with their own concerns. It approvingly cites examples such as When Harry Met Sally, God’s Own Country (2017), and Set It Up (2018). The focus should be less on how a guy gets a girl, and more on what draws these two human beings together, and how they handle their mutual attraction.

Though the purview of the film is the romantic comedy, its points apply as well to other genres, so you could say that the call for a better rom-com is also a call for a better film, a better film industry, and (at least partly) a more discerning filmgoing public. If we feel like what we’re being shown is crap, we shouldn’t sit there and take it.

Despite the film’s criticism of rom-com stereotypes, it mounts a defense of the genre’s critical value, showing how recent box office darlings Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and La La Land (2016) more or less follow the traditional rom-com plot structure while not being billed as such. One might say therefore that Romantic Comedy overall has a carrot-and-stick structure: If the genre avoids these rather big pitfalls, it can achieve great things.

The 2019 Women Make Waves Film Festival takes place from 10/4 to 10/13 at SPOT Huashan Cinema in Taipei. This review is based on a complimentary media screener.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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