It’s a weird time for gender coding in movies. Lately, a very vocal group of people are spending a lot of time and energy being angry that women are being given chances in typically male-driven genres and franchises. The backlash makes it seem like the end of the world, but from where I’m sitting, it feels like something that’s been happening to women’s films for a long time. Romantic comedies, which are becoming tragically less common, have in recent years been used more frequently to tell men’s stories. On top of all that, movie critics seem to regard stories for and about women with a needless amount of contempt.

Turns out, there are some science and anthropological patterns behind this. According to this 2012 New York Times article, young women’s speech patterns actually help shape the way our language evolves. So while we deride things like vocal fry, “like” as a filler word, uptalk, and certain slang, eventually it becomes acceptable when dudes start adopting it. And our verbal language isn’t the only place where our code and cadence are coopted. It’s the same story in cinema. For so long, chick flicks have gotten very little respect. But when the same tropes and cinematic language found in chick flicks make their way into films made for guys, the result is almost always more positively received. Our language has become the language of cinema, but the foundations go unacknowledged as a whole genre is slowly withering on the vine.

Romantic comedies have traditionally been outlets for women to see themselves reflected somewhat accurately on screen, as real women with faults who can get the guy or save the day or find visibility in a world that so frequently denies their existence. I touched upon this a bit when covering various Cinderella stories, but romantic comedies are modern day fairy tales — fluffy stories with really important words of encouragement buried inside that reflect a cultural time and place. They’re meant to look like like any other escapist cinema, but they’re important for their audience.

So let’s take a look at how this particular language is used in male-targeted rom-coms and dramas and why recoding a rom-com for men often misses the point. I honed in on four directors: Judd Apatow, Cameron Crowe, Marc Webb and Edgar Wright. Obviously, these aren’t the only directors to make… dick flicks?, but they all showcase a firm knowledge of the language of the chick flick. They’re all credited, to some degree, with shaping the current state of cinema and having unique individual voices in a way that traditional rom-com directors rarely achieve. And these male-targeted movies, by and large, get better ratings than their female driven equivalents even if the misuse of the language renders some of their messaging hollow.

JUDD APATOW – The Long Con
I was talking to a friend about this idea, and when we talked Judd Apatow, he mentioned how Trainwreck felt fresh because it was a rom-com with the roles reversed. But pre-Apatow, the manchild (or in the case of Amy, womanchild) didn’t have much of a place in rom-coms. Female romantic leads, particularly in the 90s and early 00s, tended to skew more Bridget Jones sloppy or Kat Stratford scary, and both they and their male counterparts usually behave like adults. I can’t imagine Will Thacker of Notting Hill toking up before opening his bookstore. Apatow helped build a different cinematic stereotype through his dick flicks Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Ripped from the pages of crummy sitcoms, the slackers started to become the cultural norm in the genre, so that when he did finally make a movie for women, it looked a lot fresher than it actually was. Trainwreck actually sends some pretty mixed messages, particularly in how it demands so much atonement from Amy while letting the good doctor Aaron completely off the hook.

Movie - Knocked Up

Forcing the sloppy manchild to grow up for love brought the romantic comedy to a new audience, but it also puts the female characters on a pedestal, creating women who are impossibly perfect while still being shrill and bitchy. Apatow’s comedies seem to excuse men’s childish behavior. The reason sloppy women work in rom-coms is because we’re already held to impossibly high standards. Rom-coms subvert traditional gender roles and allow us a brief moment of fantasy that we, as normal women who fail to meet those standards daily, could still get the guy. When you flip the script, it just reinforces years of harmful, impossible stereotypes. Poor Allison in Knocked Up never gets a break. Her entire arc is being and staying perfect, even while pregnant. She even apologizes to Ben at the end for nagging him into growing up, despite the fact that she was right. Similarly, although Forty Year Old Virgin tackles male sexuaity in a unique and refreshing way, it does so over a traditional rom-com storyline, knowing full well that this movie couldn’t exist if the genders were reversed. It also still manages to craft Trish’s character in such a way that she needs someone who’s still a virgin to redeem her — hypersexed guys have led her to a situation where she’s got three kids, a grandchild, and no other chance at a nice guy except one that doesn’t know any better.

CAMERON CROWE – The Rapid Deterioration
Cameron Crowe paved the way for Richard Linklater and his ilk. His music-focused sadboy cinema would be adorably misguided if the victims of his thievery weren’t so frequently maligned. Although all his movies feel intimate and personal, attempting to mimic that conversational best friend feel of the best chick flicks, it comes across as embarrassing instead of conspiratorial. The saddest part is that he started so strongly. Say Anything… is a true romantic comedy, and it manages to appeal to both men and women. Although bloated by the storyline about Diane’s dad, it’s a wonderful first love / coming of age story with a pitch-perfect ending. Cameron Crowe seemed like he got it, man. And then he forgot how women worked.

A hit in its time, Jerry Maguire isn’t without charm, but if Renee Zellweger was a lesser actress, poor Dorothy would have been nothing more than a lady protocol droid, serving either the story needs or Jerry’s before coming close to seeming like a person. It’s a whirlwind romance, but without any chemistry between Jerry and Dorothy, it never generates the heat needed to soar. She loves his ideas, but it’s never clear that he loves her. His biggest fear is being alone, and at the end of the day, celebrating his biggest triumph on his own, he succumbs to his basest nature and calls it love to get the girl. Even worse, Jerry Maguire takes a common romantic comedy function — the fantasy that perhaps the main character isn’t invisible, and applies it not to the struggling single mother, but to a highly privileged dude. Rom-coms serve their female audience not just by providing a fairytale, but by reminding women that they matter and are worth loving. To apply that so wrong-headedly, to use the language for something so opposite, is jarring to say the least.

And then there’s Elizabethtown. Kirsten Dunst brings her all to a thankless role of Claire, trying to better the life of a man played by a beautiful cardboard cutout. But yet again, Crowe tries to use the rom-com genre trappings to convey sympathy for someone who is utterly unsympathetic while forgetting to give his female lead any semblance of humanity. The best chick flicks usually include a love interest who, even when s/he is not a main character, is a fully-fledged person, not a story function. Cameron Crowe needs to return to his roots, but he may be too far gone to salvage himself.

(500) Days of Summer is a perfect deconstruction of the dick flick. Although Tom is the lead he’s also very clearly his own antagonist. As much as we root for he and Summer to be together, we know it’s wrong. Tom refuses to listen to Summer’s insistence that she doesn’t want a serious relationship, instead creating his own fairytale. Summer may be a goal for Tom, but it’s only when he acknowledges her personhood that we can feel good about him as a hero in his own story, even as he doesn’t get what he wants. The movie is honest without being apologetic, self-aware without being tongue-in-cheek, and wholly sincere. If those aren’t the ingredients for a perfect rom-com, then I don’t know what is.

Movie - 500 Days of Summer

Webb fully understands and embraces the genre from which he’s borrowing, allowing it some much-needed legitimacy. He made a movie about two flawed adults trying to navigate each other’s feelings and personalities, and he did it in such a way that we feel good about it, even though the characters fail to be together. He also manipulated the language to call out a common guy behavior in a way that doesn’t condemn his audience, but forces a bit of growth. This is exactly the function of a romantic comedy, and he managed to both resurrected a dying genre and bring it to a new audience while honoring its roots. He’s the movie equivalent of American microbreweries resurrecting old German Gose recipes, and as I watched the movie, beer in hand, I felt very hopeful for the rom-com as a whole. Now he’s free from the sticky grasp of my least favorite superhero, here’s hoping he can get back to slaying the manchild and breathing life into a worthy genre.

EDGAR WRIGHT – The Colonist
There’s absolutely no denying Edgar Wright’s devotion to cinema as an art form. The Coronetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are beautiful mashups of a number of genres that speak to a very singular and unique vision. But Edgar has a lady problem. For as much as both Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim play in the rom-com sandbox, he is probably the worst at creating real female characters. In his movies, women are goals, pure and simple. Sure, he casts talent like actual human angel Mary Elizabeth Winstead to help fill in these gaps, but at the end of the day, Ramona, who has a vibrant backstory in the books, gets the short shrift. This isn’t to say I don’t love his movies — I am a huge fan. But it’s so frustrating to see a director who obviously understands the genre I love blatantly exclude the sort of characters that established that language possible in the first place. He’s British, so massive takeovers and cultural erasure come easily to him, but his movies point to someone who’s generally good at fighting his shittier instincts.

Shaun of the Dead, a romantic comedy mapped over a zombie film, hits all the right notes — it’s got a sloppy best friend, romantic rivals, a character that needs to find some confidence in order to find love, and a sweet ending in which the couple walks into the sunset by way of a massive floodlight. And like a Russian gymnast, although it’s technically proficient, it lacks the right heart to make that technical proficiency meaningful. Poor Liz is the least-developed character. She’s Shaun’s prize for surviving. In reality, the relationship work happens between Shaun and Ed, which is fine and very funny, but then it might actually be better if Liz was gone altogether and the guys get the floodlight sunset to themselves. Otherwise, her existence is perfunctory; she exacerbates problems that Shaun and Ed are already having without bringing anything to the table. Even her best friend, Dianne, has a richer and more complex emotional through-line. No joke, I would watch a real-life rom-com about Dianne overcoming her terrible relationship with David post-apocalypse. And again, this isn’t to say that this movie isn’t terribly clever. It’s one of the smartest scripts with some of the most laser precise direction that I’ve ever seen. But it doesn’t change the fact that it pilfers and appropriates a cinematic language while under-writing characters that speak that language naturally.

Quality: Original. Film Title: Shaun Of The Dead. Photo Credit: Oliver Upton. Copyright: © 2004 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Scott Pilgrim runs into similar problems. Although it’s a really solid adaptation of a great series of books, perfectly cast from top to bottom. It was, until the release of Lady Dynamite, the best use of Brandon Routh in anything. But Ramona is turned from a character into a literal prize. The whole story is about her past boyfriends and Scott having to reconcile what’s happened with the future he wants. It’s a perfect rom-com setup — two people with massive internal conflict, rife with possibility for misunderstanding. But we never see how Ramona feels or what she does or doesn’t understand about Scott because she’s absent through so much of the film. We never learn why she disappears, we never learn why Gideon wants inside her head, we never learn why she likes Scott beyond being nice, so it’s hard to fully appreciate the ending when Scott decides to run away with her. The real bummer is that there are six books that come with a backstory for Ramona. Scott’s journey in the books is learning that even though he thinks of himself as a nice guy, he’s treated his past girlfriends in some really not nice ways, making him no better than the Evil Exes. It’s only when he holds himself accountable that he can face Gideon. NegaScott is a real moment, not a visual gag like it was in the film. Scott is Tom at the beginning of (500) Days of Summer, but he never sees Ramona as a human. There’s never a moment when he has to hear what she’s saying — he never really completes the emotional growth so essential to romantic comedy. This is doubly tragic because not only is Scott Pilgrim playing with rom-coms, but it’s structured like a musical with fights instead of songs. In musicals, everyone sings what they’re feeling, and it’s perfectly acceptable. There’s no reason that trope couldn’t have been smartly incorporated into the fight sequences, especially since the ever present bangs, ka-pows, coins and level-ups speak to the spirit of a book whose climax takes place in a subspace highway in Scott’s own head.

All this is not to say that there shouldn’t be romantic comedies for men or that these directors can’t make the movies they want or play with genre conventions. In fact, most of the movies discussed are solid pieces of cinema. At the end of the day, it’s just an experiment in examining our own prejudices to understand what helped create these cultural touchstones. We also need to give more credit to the predecessors and to the female focused versions of these stories. I would challenge us as audience members to rethink the brilliance of a Nora Ephron screenplay or examine why we need Nancy Myers or Mama Mia or the filmography of Richard Curtis. Their movies are no different, but they are often lower-rated and scoffed at, especially among gatekeeper types. Just as we shouldn’t dismiss a woman who speaks with a bit of uptalk, nor should we dismiss the foundations of romantic comedy.

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