By now, you might have seen Netflix’s made-for-streaming Christmas romantic comedy, “A Christmas Prince.” It’s a holiday rom-com in the tradition of countless Hallmark Christmas movies, crossed with “The Princess Diaries” and “The Prince and Me.” It’s short, it’s cheaply made, it’s deeply satisfying without being terribly deep.
The heroine, Amber, is a hardworking young editor who’s desperate to be taken seriously as a real journalist. She’s assigned to cover what looks to be a looming abdication by Prince Richard, the heir to the throne of the fictional European nation of Aldovia (which presumably shares a border with Genovia and enjoys warm diplomatic relations with Zamunda). She’s out of her depth on her first big story, but Amber is plucky and has not been taught the basic tenets of journalistic ethics, so she poses as a tutor to Prince Richard’s precocious younger sister, Emily, to get her big scoop. Along the way, a nefarious royal cousin tries to steal the throne from Richard, Amber teaches Emily how to be a down-to-earth cut-loose little princess and Richard, of course, falls for Amber. The movie ends with him ascending to the throne, proposing to her, and promising that even though she’ll be a princess she can still keep her journalism career. Sure.
There may be no job more common among romantic comedy heroines than journalist. In the last few decades, some of the best romantic comedies — “When Harry Met Sally…”, “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Morning Glory” among them — have had heroines who work in the fourth estate. Some of the worst ones — “The Ugly Truth,” “Rumor Has It,” “Sex and the City” and its sequel — have as well. Then there’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (women’s magazine columnist), “Never Been Kissed” (metro reporter), “Knocked Up” (E! Entertainment reporter), “13 Going on 30” (women’s magazine editor). And “The Devil Wears Prada.” And “Going The Distance.” And “Trainwreck.” And “Top 5.” To say nothing of rightly beloved classics like “Sleepless in Seattle,” in which the heroine works for the Baltimore Sun, and “Broadcast News,” in which the heroine works in broadcast news.
Journalism has been a standard profession for romantic comedy heroines for decades, and one of the genre’s best heroines, Hildy Johnson in 1940′s “His Girl Friday,” is a wisecracking, hard-charging, natural-born reporter. This isn’t so surprising: Moviegoers understand the profession; they have regular contact with its product, and for all the long hours and layoffs and other assorted indignities, it still carries a whiff of cosmopolitan excitement. Besides, writers tend to write what they know, and one thing screenwriters know is lots of people who work in media.
This year has been marked by good-faith scrutiny and bad-faith attacks on the credibility of the press. It has also been marked by the still-only-partial revelation of the extent to which women in the workplace are seen as ornamental, not essential ― a belief of which rampant sexual harassment is only one symptom. As we curl up on the couch and turn on a favorite rom-com after a long day of learning — often from female journalists! — about the predations of powerful men, we should ask ourselves a question: What are these movies teaching us about women, journalism, work and love?
With few exceptions, rom-com journalist heroines are good at their jobs. They love their jobs, even those who don’t spend a lot of screen time actually doing them. And with few exceptions, rom-com journalist heroines use their work for two purposes: to get a man, or to get a man back.
In “Trainwreck,” Amy Schumer’s character dates and falls for the man she’s assigned to profile for her men’s magazine. In “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” women’s magazine columnist Andie is assigned to date a man, drive him away and then write about how she did it. In “13 Going on 30,” Jennifer Garner’s Jenna uses a big redesign of her women’s magazine to get close to a photographer she has a crush on. In “The Ugly Truth,” Katherine Heigl’s character declares her love for her co-host on live television. And in “Sleepless in Seattle,” Meg Ryan’s Annie uses her newspaper’s database to look up the personal information of a man whose voice she heard on the radio late at night one time, and then flies across the country to visit him at his home.
Good journalism occasionally happens along the way: Bridget Jones lands an exclusive interview with a human rights activist (because the man she’s interested in sets it up for her). But that’s not the journalism we’re asked to cheer for. The professional accomplishments the audience is asked to applaud are the ones that fuse the personal with the professional in sometimes disturbing ways.
In “Never Been Kissed,” Drew Barrymore’s Josie, a copy editor, gets her big chance to be an investigative reporter when she goes undercover at a high school, posing as a student. In her time undercover, she falls for her teacher, and the teacher, who thinks she is 17, falls for her. Her editor presses her to expose him in print, but she refuses. The story she writes, in the end, is not about a public school teacher crossing boundaries with one of his students. Instead, she uses her big shot at a front-page story to engineer a reconciliation with that man.
“A certain teacher was hurt on my path to self-discovery,” Josie writes in her final copy, neglecting to mention that while she was discovering herself, she was also discovering that a grown man had been getting way too close to someone he believed to be a minor and a student in his charge. “Although this article may serve as a step, it in no way makes up for what I did to him.” As a reminder, what she did “to him” was her job, but she did it badly, because she fell in love with a source who might be a criminal, and then didn’t run the story she’d found. “To this man: you know who you are. I am so sorry. And I would like to add one more thing. I think I am in love with you.”
To get him back, she asks him in her article to meet her on the pitcher’s mound at the school baseball team’s big game, and kiss her. Her editor and the paper’s editor-in-chief show up, and the EIC is delighted to see so many readers in attendance, invested in the personal life of one of his reporters. The giant exposé the paper didn’t publish is never mentioned again, another explosive story about a predatory male quietly dropped by the men in charge.
It’s not only rom-com journalists who are depicted as easily distracted from their work: In this genre, it happens to heroines who are doctors and lawyers, too. And as rom-com heroines are often relegated to distinctly gendered jobs — teacher, baker, wedding planner, children’s book shop owner — there is something heartening about watching movies in which women work in an often male-dominated field like journalism. But not all representation is good representation — particularly not when the professional ambitions of women are depicted as an embarrassingly earnest youthful phase, to be discarded as soon as the right man comes along.
At the beginning of these movies, women journalists are hungry to report “real” news and to be taken seriously as journalists. By the end, they’re confessing their love on live TV or running their heartbroken apologies in print. In “A Christmas Prince,” Amber’s blog post about “the real story” of her time in Aldovia is so powerful that it brings the prince to her door on New Year’s Eve to propose. He then swears that he’d never ask her to give up her career, but in the magic moment of the proposal in the snow, it’s never explained to us how Amber will keep her career while also being a full-time princess. The lesson is plain: A big professional break isn’t enough of a happy ending. For that, you need a man. And once you get him, the career is kind of optional.
The blurring of boundaries for these heroines is telling. Their work becomes a route to romantic happiness, a means to an end rather than the end itself. Sometimes it happens by the heroine’s design, and sometimes it happens by accident; regardless of why or how, it happens. In a moment when a public debate is raging about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior in a professional environment — what’s romance and what’s harassment? — the only genre made for and about women hasn’t helped matters. Rom-coms assure us that no amount of inappropriate workplace behavior is truly inappropriate if you’re in love by the time the credits roll. Katherine Heigl’s employee watches as a stranger switches on Heigl’s vibrating panties with a remote control, triggering an orgasm during a business dinner? That’s fine; the audience knows they’re meant for each other, and the happy ending proves them right.
Much fun has been poked at Amber’s empty story notes in “A Christmas Prince.” A shot of her computer screen reveals that many of her notes ― “I have to find out!!”; “I still don’t know the real story”; “I have to dig deeper” ― essentially amount to “I should probably do my job, huh.” So she should. But she uses unethical means to do it, and once it’s done, she implicitly removes herself from journalism in the name of love.
If the last two months have taught us anything, it’s that real women’s careers are too often made collateral damage, belittled or eliminated by a culture that considers men’s work to be far more valuable. And, these last two months have shown us that women journalists, when they do their jobs well, can reshape the world for the better. It would be nice if romantic comedies showed us the same thing.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously identified the prince in “A Christmas Prince” as Edward.