What I Learned From a Summer of Romantic Comedies

Let's talk about sex—unless we're in love.

This is surely one of the most bizarre lessons Hollywood rom coms teach us about sex: You can only be open about your sexual desires with someone if you're not dating them. In Friends With Benefits, Jamie and Dylan are delighted by the fact that they can speak freely about their wants and needs—like where they do and don't like to be touched—because, it's implied, they could never be that open with a significant other. Jamie is relieved that she doesn't have to limit sex to a location with good lighting, the way she would with someone she was dating. In other words, Hollywood still wants us to think that honesty about sex is impossible in romantic relationships. When you're having sex with a friend, you don't have to fake orgasms, withhold constructive criticism of sexual technique for fear of offending your lover, or camouflage your repulsive body with flattering lighting. When you're having sex with a romantic partner, however, those things are par for the course. Which is a problem because…

… "Just sex" always becomes "true love."

Always. Doesn't matter if you put your hand on a Bible app and swear not to get emotionally involved, or if it takes you 20 cinematic years to make it happen: Sex turns to love as reliably as Anne Hathaway's accent turns from English to Welsh to American. The mandatory happy ending, in which a couple commits to a long term, monogamous relationship is alive and well in rom coms, particularly in movies that feature only one couple. Movies like Crazy Stupid Love, which depicts multiple couples, can, like Love, Actually and Valentine's Day before it, afford an ambiguous or even unhappy ending here or there. But for the most part, romantic comedies cannot bear to leave their lead couples unattached as the credits roll. Even Woody Allen, who has challenged the culturally mandated happy ending for decades, couldn't resist it this summer. Perhaps that's because…

Conservatism is back, albeit quietly.

Don't let the f-bombs or the casual sex fool you: This crop of chick flicks is, at its core, deeply conservative. The romantic comedy, of course, has been conservative for many decades; the genre never fully recovered from 1930s moral policing and, with very few exceptions, champions long-term, monogamous, heterosexual relationship as the pinnacle of human experience.

In the case of Friends With Benefits, the conservatism is subtle, but it's definitely there: As Dylan's confessing his love to Jamie at the end of the movie (oh come on, that is not a spoiler, we are talking about a rom com here), he tells her, "I can live with never having sex with you again." I'm willing to bet that that's a sentiment you've heard expressed in pop culture very rarely, if ever.

Similarly, in Crazy Stupid Love, the lead couple has been together since they were 15 years old, and were married at 17 as the result of an unintended pregnancy. Cal's son, who is 13, also seems destined to meet his "soul mate" at a very young age. Jacob, the promiscuous pick-up artist played by Ryan Gosling, is cured of his confirmed-bachelorhood and ready to settle down for life within months of meeting the woman he calls "a game changer." Like all good, artful political messaging in pop culture, the conservatism here is blink-and-you-miss it, but it's definitely there.

The grand gesture, like the happy ending, is alive and well and will totally work.

In real life, when a boy won't stop texting the girl he likes even after she has asked him to stop, we call it "relationship abuse." When a guy won't stop telling you he loves you, and when he shows up at your school and embarrasses you in front of your peers, we call that "borderline stalking." In rom coms, however, these things are called "persistence" and are considered "romantic." When the boy in question is 13, as he is in Crazy Stupid Love, it's meant to be endearing. To Crazy Stupid Love's credit, the woman in question is not swayed by this behavior. She's rightly mortified, and the boy in question is punished rather than rewarded for his refusal to take "no" for an answer. Until, of course, she forgives him half an hour later, and rewards his persistence by slipping him photos of herself naked. In a rom com, when a man declares that he will "never give up" on trying to win back a woman's affection, we're supposed to be touched and long for someone who will love us that intensely. In reality, though, we'd probably just say, "Hey, Steve Carell, stop sneaking into your wife's back yard and watering her flowers under cover of darkness. It's creepy."

Patricia Clarkson is the coolest mom in Hollywood and possibly in the world.

After last year's Easy A, I had my suspicions. Clarkson's performance as Mila Kunis's ex-hippie/groupie/party-animal mother left me fairly certain, and her turn as Jim Sturgess's loving but brutally honest mom in One Day confirms it: Patricia Clarkson is cooler than any movie mother in recent memory, and she's sure as hell cooler than your real-life mom.

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Chloe Angyal is a freelance writer and an editor at Feministing. She is currently working on a book about romantic comedies.

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