A romantic comedy writer's job consists of culling from their own life experiences and intuiting what's going on in the world around them in order to create unique, entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny films that also answer questions about love that people have long pondered or pose questions the audience never thought to ask. The very personal/universal nature of this writing process means romantic comedies, by extension, are like celluloid dissertations on the prevailing romantic attitudes, notions, desires, fears, needs, and hopes in America. And in the past ten to twenty years, between the popularity of the bromance and the inability of Hollywood to make even one mediocre romcom, what we've been witnessing isn't the death of the romantic comedy genre as many bemoan, but the death of romance itself.
Once upon a time romcoms were so insightful as to the ephemeral nature of love that they earned Oscar awards. Women were written independent yet vulnerable, sassy with a good head on shoulders; men had bravado and strength, they were wise-cracking yet flawed, which gave them room to grow and become better men in order to win the dame's heart. Guys and dolls railed and ranted, trading witty, nuanced quips (which served as foreplay) until the movie's end when the lovers' (and the writers') respect for each other's differences bred reverence and with reverence followed romance, the bridge to love.
But these days, bravado in men on screen plays chauvinistic and strength boorish, where for women, good sense is written as shrewish and vulnerability weak. Rather than having gender friction, couples display gender hostility where quips feel more like digs and witty foreplay sound more like angry barbs. What's happening on screen is a manifestation of what's happening in real life -- as gender roles have changed over the past two decades (and are still shifting and undefined), we've "evolved" to a place where women and men regard each other's inherent gender virtues as vices, and so our respect for each other and our differences has hit at an all time low.
It used to be in the battle of the sexes that after a long day of fighting everyone got to go home and have great make up sex with the enemy. But now that things have escalated into a war of the sexes, and men and women leave the skirmish too bruised and battle-scared to have any sex at all. With the current state of affairs (or lack of them), it's no wonder the romantic comedy writer has very little romance to write about.
Judd Apatow and his brethren write "bromances," romantic comedies about the love of two or more men (often) acting out a second adolescence together despite the fact they are nearing forty, and the superfluous, badgering or sex objectified women who occasionally make an appearance. ("Hall Pass" is a very recent example that this genre isn't going anywhere anytime soon). Guys in these films aren't sweet and they're not out to win the dame, they're out to rescue or win the love of their best friend ("Pineapple Express"). But they do expect women to put out ("Superbad"), and if she doesn't, our heroes, even the geeks, use jokes that are every bit as mean and misogynistic as you've ever heard in a locker room to get their point across. The guys in these movies are all very confused and very angry about women, and so they've conveniently written them out of or as a sideline to their (b)romances altogether.
But it's understandable. Men feel emasculated by modern women's independence and money-laden careers. They're befuddled by what she wants or how to woo her. Well, let's be honest, men have never understood women, but the difference now is that men have stopped trying -- thus, the rise of the bromance. And when men are more interested in watching (or writing) a movie about a man ending up in the arms of his male best friend more appealing than winning the love of a woman, as Neil Armstrong would say, "Houston, we have a problem."
The current spate of female-driven romantic comedies are just as telling as their male counterparts. The best of this genre are (were) character-driven comedies with some romance thrown in: "When Harry Met Sally," "Working Girl," "Bridget Jones," "Annie Hall," "His Girl Friday." Our heroine's name is in the film's title because the story is about her and how love comes into her life. By contrast, romcoms today are to love what porn is to sex: plot-driven romances with some comedy thrown in. With titles like "Leap Year" and "Monster-In-Law," the star of the movie isn't our heroine, it's the plot of her external complications that keep her from getting married. While other films like "Bride Wars" and "Confessions of A Shopaholic" speak to our heroine's emotional journey: a love triangle not between two men, but between Barney and Barney's, like Carrie Bradshaw famously having to choose between Mr. Big and her walk-in closet. Two men no longer occupy the heroine's interest, she's in love with shopping/ having a wedding and a guy who's as superfluous to her story as the female characters in a bromance.
But the focus on buying and power and buying power in these films makes sense. Women used to marry to be counted as a person, for income, survival. It was security. Now women are living independent lives, working and often out-earning men with disposable income to boot wondering if and how husbands fit into the larger spectrum of their very full lives. As Nancy Meyers would say, "It's Complicated."
How we got to this confoundingly complex point in gender relations is actually quite simple. From the 1960s on, girls (for the first time in history) were raised to play sports, go to college and become independent, career-focused adults (more like boys). Parents changed the way they raised their daughters, but they did not change the way they raised their sons. Girls were raised to, as adults, act more like men, but men are behaving as they've always been-and so, at present, America is undergoing a sexistentialist crisis of Woody Allen sized proportions.
In the dating and mating minefield we're currently navigating, everyone's flying blind. There is no paradigm, no history to learn from, no Aesop's Fable, Shakespearean sonnet or Preston Sturges film in which to take solace. No one knows that the hell they're doing and they're lying if they tell you they do. Everyone's doing the best they can, faking it till they make it in the Choose Your Own Adventure that is modern love.
But despite the current outlook, there is good news on the horizon: Firstly, Judd Apatow is coming around. He's just produced a comedy starring a crop of women. Though is there any hope that "Bridesmaids" isn't wedding-themed? (side note: While men enjoy thrillers, mysteries, horrors, political dramas and father-son entanglements of all shapes and sizes, women get one genre, romcoms, because apparently our lives revolve around shopping and weddings. Surely we can do better.) And second, in "The War of the Sexes," the film this generation of adults is currently starring in, we're at the end of act two, at the dénouement, where the guy and girl are separated and have to find a way back to each other. The third act resolution is looking like a happy one, if not for us, at least for our kids. Because parents are changing the way they're raising their sons: to communicate, do the dishes and not be afraid of fashion (just like their sisters). As the girls and boys of this generation mature, romance will flourish once again because they'll respect the fact that male or female, everyone can do anything, wooing can occur across both sides of the aisle, and it doesn't matter who's wearing the pants in the family, so long as someone's wearing them.