Very, very often, I feel like I'm betraying myself as a feminist with my unashamed
obsession with romantic comedies. Oh, sure, I spend plenty of time bashing the drama, but I also can't help getting wrapped up in stories with cliched little happily ever afters. Feminism in rom-coms probably isn't as prevalent as, you know, getting completely visually and ethically made-over for a guy is. But if you look close enough, you can find some positive qualities in some of the genre's most notable heroines.
Or not. Either way, I'm going to take the opportunity to examine some of the
most well-known rom-com queens and determine if they are surprisingly strong and supportive to other females, or if they set our gender back 60 years. Of course, this is completely subjective, as there are many, many ways to be a feminist, and our ladies are going to be judged by all sorts of qualities.
Full disclosure: I wish I could've had a bit more diversity in this list, but the reality is that 90 percent of rom-com heroines are blonde journalists.
Sorry, I don't make the rules.
Scroll down to see how I've weighed out these leading ladies.
1 Julianne Potter, 'My Best Friend's Wedding'
Maybe it's because it's Julia Roberts, or maybe it's because we've all dealt with the sting of unrequited love, but I can, to an extent, sympathize for Julianne.
However, she legit spends the entire film trying to sabotage her best friend's wedding and throw adorable bb Cameron Diaz under the bus. Stone cold. Not a friend to women. 2 Lane Daniels, 'Beauty & The Briefcase'
(hm, wonder why) and yet it is such an unintentional parody of all rom-coms ever that it needs to be included. Lane, the best-worst character ever, gets +1 point for being career focused enough to tackle her assignment for Beauty & the Briefcase is technically a straight-to-TV film Cosmopolitan. She gets -1,000 for prioritizing a quest for penis over the assignment, completely throwing out the ethics of journalism with straight-up lies at one point. But hey, she wasn't trying to steal anyone's fiancé, so... 3 Cindy Mancini, 'Can't Buy Me Love'
Real talk, Cindy Mancini doesn't really help or hurt her case throughout the course of
Can't Buy Me Love. While she softens somewhat, she retains a vindictive side... which you can see when she, white girl wasted, unveils Ronald as just a geek she was forced to leverage into popularity. He's being a jerk, so it's a little deserved, but I don't think anyone can label that a great empowering moment. This is why Can't Buy Me Love makes the top 20, but not 10, when it comes to '80s teen rom-coms 4 Nicole Maris, 'Drive Me Crazy'
Nicole, a blonde, popular girl who needs to re-vamp her unconventional love interest to also be socially acceptable, is a variant of Cindy Mancini. But it's a sweeter variant who wants to take control of her life, and that makes a difference.
5 Andie Anderson, 'How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days'
She wants to write about things of substance, she's a supportive best friend to her unlucky-in-love co-worker, and she puts up a ferocious fight in the (aggravated sigh) "battle of the sexes" this film focuses on.
6 Andie Walsh, 'Pretty In Pink'
Andie is practically the trope codifier for "rebellious teen from the wrong side of the tracks who gets swept away by the popular boy." That's pretty huge in itself. She doesn't really lose her sense of self in the journey, and showing face at prom with that hideous dress is a bold move. Still, I will always lament the fact that she gave that idiot Blane a second chance. That's not a name, it's a major appliance.
7 Jenna Rink, '13 Going On 30'
Apparently 30-year-old Jenna is the Absolute Worst, but we don't really see that. What we see is the 13-year-old Jenna in the body of her future self, and that chick is aggressively fine. No real feminist agenda so to speak, but she wants to be a better person.
8 Sally Albright, 'When Harry Met Sally'
Facing facts, this movie is peak Nora Ephron right here, and yet even in her most tear-stained moments, Sally is a character worthy of some respect. From the get-go she is firmly opinionated, battling against Harry's sweeping generalizations about men and women with her own. And when they have a post-coital falling out, she's the one to detach, declaring, "I am not your consolation prize, Harry." For all her hyper-femininity, Sally is very strong simply for being challenging (not difficult).
9 Jane Nichols, '27 Dresses'
This is a little deceiving, I think, because Jane spends pretty much her entire life being always-the-bridesmaid, and the
best bridesmaid, to her other female friends. However, I feel as though through her extreme selflessness there's something sinister (which ultimately bubbles to the top at her sister's rehearsal dinner), and honestly, a dark obsession with marriage that seems practically patriarchal. But IDK, I could just be projecting because I think this is a ridiculous movie. 10 Kathleen Kelly, 'You've Got Mail'
Once again, Meg Ryan portrays a strong, modern woman who is willing to fight against the white corporate male. And it... doesn't work? And then she is able to forgive him for putting her mother's bookshop out of business? Like, IDK, fam.
11 Josie Geller, 'Never Been Kissed'
Drew Barrymore manages to make the unkissable Josie very, very endearing. So I can kind of forgive her when she leaves her new brainiac bestie in the dust for the popular girls. Plus, she ultimately has her back during that big reveal prom scene. But eh, Josie's objective is to write a story first, get kissed second, not be some kind of free-spirited radical feminist.
12 Lelaina Pierce, 'Reality Bites'
Oh, Lelaina. It's the '90s — you should be so much more progressive than the story that unfolds for you. Stuck in the quarter-life crisis that would become the status quo two decades later, Lelaina is too busy fretting after herself to really be political. She certainly isn't a starry-eyed, looking-for-love rom-com protagonist. She calls Troy out on his bullsh*t, and hell, she was valedictorian of her graduating class. But Lelaina rides on a high horse and still ultimately falls for that loser, which while it hits very close to home for me, is very.... depressing.
13 Bridget Jones, 'Bridget Jones Diary'
Bridget. It's cool that you end up bettering yourself over the course of the film, and admirable that even after bettering yourself you never cease to be Bridget Jones. It's precious. And then, two movies later, kind of infuriating. I'm all for flawed protagonists, and I respect BJ's place in the rom-com pantheon, but she is
that friend who just can't manage to get her sh*t together. 14 Cher Horowitz, 'Clueless'
Clueless again; it is literally a movie about a girl who uses her extreme privilege for good. Sure, Cher comes across as snobby, superficial, and self-centered, especially in the first half of the film. But you can chalk a lot of that up to the fact that she's, what, 15 years old, while the majority of these protagonists are in their 20s and 30s. She undergoes tremendous growth over the course of the film, so you really feel like a grown-up Cher would be a pretty well-rounded feminist. Wish I could say the same for Dionne. 15 Vivian Ward, 'Pretty Woman'
The fact that this is a rom-com where a sex-worker is the protagonist feels inherently feminist, right? Likewise, Vivian is admirable to having a sort of code of honor (albeit, a code that she sort of breaks) and just being delightful. But all that white knight stuff about her needing to be saved... eh... this could be a personal thing, but once a story takes a Cinderella turn it sort of cheapens it.
16 Juno MacGuff, 'Juno'
Not a conventional rom-com protagonist
at all, in fact, there's nothing conventional about this backwards love story (including the fact that it isn't really love-centric to begin with). I fall on the side that Juno (the character and the movie) is more about being pro-choice than pro-life, strictly because someone who has a healthy love of Hole probably cares about women's rights. 17 Violet Sanford, 'Coyote Ugly'
Shrinking Violet from Jersey (represent) definitely becomes a stronger person over the course of the film, but I don't know if I'm 110 percent sold by
Coyote Ugly's brand of feminism. It skates the line between objectification and empowerment, and honestly, I'm just not really big on snakeskin pants. To each their own, though. 18 Elle Woods, 'Legally Blonde'
I've said this all across the internet, so one last time for the back row:
Elle Woods is an amazing feminist icon. But what's important about her is that she takes the rom-com plot of Legally Blonde and turns it into something else halfway through. She isn't looking for love, she's looking for respect and self-improvement, and she wants to gain that with all her integrity in tact. Elle proves to be someone who respects sisterhood, evident by her loyalty to Brooke, her allegiance with Paulette, and even her eventual friendship with Vivian. Winning Emmett — a man who supports her and her dreams entirely — is merely a fringe benefit of her overall accomplishments. 19 Marisa Ventura, 'Maid In Manhattan'
Once again, this is very much a Cinderella story which I have to roll my eyes at, and there's also that fun trope of deception and mistaken identity that feels tired. But Marisa, a single mother just trying to catch a break, is an archetype we don't really see
too often in this genre (not as much as spunky blonde journalists). And when she ascends up the career latter at the end, she takes the whole squad with her a rung. Sporting of her. 20 Laney Boggs, 'She's All That'
Following the footsteps of Andie Walsh before her, Laney is a prickly, independent thinker who flies her freak flag and wears her paint-covered overalls proudly. But the
second she puts on that red dress she somehow loses the bulk of her integrity. It's that makeover, man, it'll get you. 21 Toula Portokalos, 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'
Toula tries desperately,
desperately, to gain some sort of independence within her strict Greek family, and she does that by rebelling hard. She goes back to school, she gets a job outside her parents diner, and she marries a vegetarian WASP. As a half-Greek woman myself, I can tell you right now that that takes courage. But ultimately she does get swept back into her families customs (and her father's watchful eye), so she can't squash the patriarchy entirely. 22 Norah Silverberg, 'Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist'
Norah is the Indie rom-com babe for the ages, but her relationship to the other girls we see in this flick is very... different. She overtly hates Tris (who, in all fairness, does kind of suck), but she does spend the crux of the film trying to track down drunk-off-her-ass Caroline, which makes her a textbook Good Friend.
23 Kat Stratford, '10 Things I Hate About You'
Even when falling for the dreamy rebel that is Patrick Verona (and can you blame her?), Kat never loses her riot grrrl edge. She is one of the few rom-com characters that has such overt feminist leanings, even if they almost come across as parody, and though her methods are sometimes very aggressive, she
does have her sister's best interest at heart. While she can get Heath Ledger to fall to his feet, Kat is a shrew that cannot be tamed.