Romantic comedy is one of those movie genres that gets completely ignored in the serious film world. The entirety of the genre is written off as nothing but shallow romantic drivel–“chick flicks,” if you will. Somewhere along the line, “Rom Com” became synonymous with “frivolous.” I think this is stupid. Some of my favorite movies are “Rom Coms,” and most of them aren’t even really about romance. To prove it, here are just a few of my favorite romantic movies that actually have very little to do with romance–and what they’re really about (and in case you were wondering, yes, all of these films pass the Bechdel Test).
1. 10 Things I Hate About You
This modern adaptation of the Taming of the Shrew is set in my hometown of Seattle, where sisters Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) and Katerina “Kat” Stratford (Julia Stiles) have been banned from dating by their overbearing father–until a couple scheming boys at their school find a loophole in the rule. Hilarity ensues, Heath Ledger makes a lot of sexy faces, an asshole gets shamed, and the couples all pair off at the end–happily ever after. Rom com, right?
Well, not exactly. While a large portion of the movie is dedicated to the sisters’ relationships with boys, just as much time is dedicated to their relationship with each other–and with other girls. At its heart, this is a movie intensely aware of its characters’ individual personalities and needs, and it takes the time to address all of them. Bianca and Kat can’t be happy in their individual relationships until they have worked out the rivalry between them and come to an understanding, and that plot is central to the trajectory of the story. Essentially, 10 Things I Hate About You takes one of Shakespeare’s most sexist plays and turns it into a heart-warming meditation on the nature of sisterhood.
2. In Her Shoes
Speaking of sisterhood, In Her Shoes, based on the novel by Jennifer Weiner (which you should absolutely not read, because it is terrible), is a movie devoted to the complex relationship that can arise between older and younger siblings who find themselves in a rivalry. Older sister Rose (Toni Collette) is introverted and responsible to the point of stress, and constantly having to put her life on hold to care for her wild and irresponsible younger sister Maggie (Cameron Diaz). When things finally hit a boiling point, both sisters have to go through a great deal of self introspection in order to find one another again, with help from their equally emotionally crippled grandmother Sydelle (Candice Azzara). Two out of three wind up paired off, but the romances are only secondary to the relationships between the three women, and the slow healing of their family.
3. Because I Said So
For a short period of time, Mandy Moore was the reigning queen of romantic comedies–and this was one of the overlooked jewels of her administration. Because I Said So follows Milly (Mandy Moore) as she struggles to follow her heart, while her well-meaning mother Daphne (Diane Keaton) tries to “steer her in the right direction.” Milly has two separate love interests in this film, and yet the bulk of the scenes are between either her and Daphne, or both of them in addition to Milly’s two sisters, Maggie and Mae. Daphne also gets a romantic plotline, but romance is far from the only thing in the girls’ lives. Three out of the four women have wildly successful, independent careers, and their relationships with one another are refreshingly multi-dimensional, making this one of the most realistic films about women that I’ve seen.
4. Miss Congeniality
Now, to steer away from the familial relationships theme for a bit: Miss Congeniality is about an unfeminine female FBI agent who has to learn the ways of womanhood to go under cover at a beauty pageant. It stars Sandra Bullock as Gracie Hart, so the “look how unattractive she is” sequences fall pretty flat (like usual in Hollywood), but that doesn’t interfere with the message at the heart of this film, which is surprisingly feminist. This is a film about how being girly and interested in things like make up and fashion aren’t disempowering, and things classically labeled as “feminine” aren’t marks of weakness. Instead, Gracie learns to respect the women of the pageanting world as multi-dimensional and highly accomplished human beings. Basically, the point is that girls don’t have to pretend to be a man in order to be powerful and deserving of respect (of course this is all still pretty heteronormative, but it’s nice to see a Hollywood film recognize a form of female power that isn’t sexuality or pretending to be a dude).
For those of you who read my posts (all eight of them) on Easy A and who like that film, this is another that you should definitely watch. Easy A owes a great debt to Clueless for paving the way for other smart, witty teenage comedies with strong female leads (it also, I have recently been informed, paves the way for teen comedies based on classic novels, since Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s Emma). The opening sequence of Clueless might lead you to believe that its main character, Cher (Alicia Silverstone), is vapid and shallow, and her friends and peers equally so, but as the movie progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that these are all really smart kids (though still, as the title implies, pretty clueless sometimes). And while Clueless isn’t as thematically streamlined as the other films on this list (the plot has a bad case of the aimlessness), at its heart it’s a movie about growing up and finding a place in the world, with the romances coming second. Don’t let the title and the trailer throw you off–this is a really entertaining and smart movie. Plus, it’s got Turk from Scrubs in it, back before Scrubs even happened, so that’s fun.
These are just a few of my favorite romantic comedies that aren’t actually all that romance-focused. Other examples abound–leave suggestions in the comments if you can think of others. Unfortunately, films like these get over-looked when people are talking about intelligent or insightful cinema, because we have this weird stigma in our culture that says any film heavily focused on either women or romance isn’t worth inspection. I would argue that that couldn’t be further from the truth; we ought to be paying closer attention to films like these, for what they reveal about interpersonal interactions and human relationships as well as greater societal trends.
“Street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic undertones.” -Murray, Clueless