From Julia Roberts films to Sophie Kinsella books, rom-coms novels and movies — specifically and almost exclusively, those stories that feature a cis man and a cis woman falling in love — have been a cornerstone of pop culture for decades. Beyond being celebrated as lighthearted and comical dives into the oft-complicated dynamics of romantic partnerships, these stories have also long been championed for centering the female gaze, particularly in heterosexual relationships where men's needs and desires are so often placed at the forefront.
"I grew up reading and loving romance," Shauna Summers, an executive editor at Penguin Random House, tells Bustle. "Once I got a job in publishing, I was drawn to the energy and creativity and fun that goes into publishing books that are by, for, and about women. Romance at its best provides an escape — often to a different time or place — where a woman is the hero of the story, and wins in the end."
But despite being part of our pop culture foundation, rom-coms and romances have often come up against criticism. Take the classic 80's film Dirty Dancing, which was panned by the late film critic Roger Ebert for being "a tired and relentlessly predictable story of love" (despite its modern status as a feminist romance with a focus on the female gaze); Or the creation of the dismissive publishing term "chick lit" to encompass many books written by and about women.
And in recent years, hetero rom-coms have found themselves up against even more intense scrutiny — and opposition. Journalists for The Atlantic ("How Rom-Coms Undermine Women"), Medium ( "You’ve Got Male: How Rom-Coms Have Secretly Been Holding Women Back), and Teen Vogue ( "You Is the Psychological Thriller Showing How Dangerous Rom-Com Tropes Can Be") have argued that many rom-com tropes are actually dangerous for women.
"We learn about how men and women should behave in romantic relationships from a very early age," says Dr. Christia Brown, developmental psychologist and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, in an interview with Bustle. "The majority of [stories] marketed to girls have a heteronormative love story within the plot. It is hard for even six-year-old girls to escape the message that 'one true love' is the goal. This is occurring at the same time that girls are learning to be passive and focused on others' happiness, while boys are learning to be dominant and assertive. Rom-coms are just reflections of the larger cultural heterosexual script."
It is undeniable that rom-coms have fallen back on that heterosexual script for a vast majority of the genre's life. The biggest romantic comedy novels and films of the '90s and early 2000's — think Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, based on the 1998 book by Michele Alexander and Jeannie Long — are populated by women with big ambitions and complicated personal lives. Those films often used problematic tropes that have since been called into question by rom-com audiences.
"Rom-coms are just reflections of the larger cultural heterosexual script."
These tropes play out very clearly both on-screen and on the page: the man who shows up unannounced at a woman's home to beg for her love; the man who follows a woman around or lies his way into her life, hoping that with enough time he can make her fall for him; the man who chases a woman to the airport to stop her from leaving him; the man who threatens to harm himself if the woman will not say yes to a date. And it is true that those tropes play out in real life, too: the man who proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of a marathon; not to mention, the violence many women have endured at the hands of men whose romantic advances they rejected.
"Men are simply enacting the gender stereotypes they have been taught," Brown says. "They are taught very early in life to not express emotions, to not value women as individuals but rather as sexualized objects, and to be assertive and dominant in their interactions. Rom-coms just reinforce that those behaviors are acceptable."
As a consequence, many women, especially women who date men, have begun to speak out against these old trope-filled romances in the hopes of retaking control over the expectations in their real life relationships.
"The men in rom-coms are usually some mixture of rude, boring, and straight-up sexual harassers, only made attractive by their wealth and the fact that they're [written as] a very hot person," says Blythe Roberson, author of How to Date Men When You Hate Men, in an interview with Bustle. "A big feminist awakening for me was to realize that pretty much all the guys in rom-coms sucked."
"The men in rom-coms are usually some mixture of rude, boring, and straight-up sexual harassers, only made attractive by their wealth and the fact that they're [written as] a very hot person."
But if Brown's statement that old rom-com tropes simply feed into an existing societal structure in which men are enacting gender stereotypes, and her belief that "many men associate rom-coms as feminine and showing any interest in the things women like is devalued and mocked" are both true, then it can be argued that these behaviors are not necessarily stemming from rom-coms themselves.
"I would argue, pretty strongly, that heterosexual men have not absorbed the problematic aspects of romance from romance novels," says Alisha Rai, author of The Right Swipe. "We live in a culture that is making huge strides in recognizing and eradicating toxic masculinity, but all media is a product of the world it's created in. Those problematic aspects are woven tightly into the fabric of our lives."
That existing patriarchal structure is no doubt the reason why, according to Jasmine Guillory, author of The Proposal, "men have often easily embraced the rom-com tropes that put them, and their desires, and their needs, at the center, and haven't paid as much attention to the ones that are about centering women instead." And like most aspects of toxic masculinity, men cling to them not for women, but for themselves, and for other men.
"Our society does such a disservice by requiring men to perform masculinity," Sarah Maclean, author of several romance novels including Wicked and the Wallflower, tells Bustle. "Public declarations, dramatic pursuit, the ideas that dogged persistence will ultimately charm women... none of it is for a specific woman; it's for an audience and, more importantly, for the audience of the patriarchy."
"Our society does such a disservice by requiring men to perform masculinity."
And, Maclean maintains, many romance novels have actually reworked that real-world tendency for men, especially straight men, to perform masculinity, using it to restructure the power in their portrayal of heterosexual relationships.
"There's nuance here that some appear not to grasp; in romance, that grand gesture is not performance, but passion," Maclean says. "The hero has almost always done something truly idiotic and had to be cracked over the head with the realization that he needs to atone. The grand gesture is often linked to the grovel, which is really emotional availability distilled — the vocalization of fear and love and desire for partnership, for parity of power, and deep mutual respect."
It's important, too, to note that rom-coms are far more inclusive than they were two decades ago. While the majority still feature white hetero couples, those are no longer the only stories available. In 2018 alone, two diverse romance novels were met with critical and public acclaim: Guillory's The Proposal — about a Black heroine and Latino love interest — which smashes the problematic trope of a public declaration of love, and Helen Hoang's The Kiss Quotient, which features a heroine on the autism spectrum who takes charge of her own sexuality by hiring and falling for an Asian-American male escort.
"The grand gesture is often linked to the grovel, which is really emotional availability distilled — the vocalization of fear and love and desire for partnership, for parity of power, and deep mutual respect."
And when it comes to popular rom-com film adaptations, the bar has been raised, too. In 2018, Becky Albertalli's Love, Simon, put a gay male romance at the forefront, while Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians both center Asian and Asian-American characters. And in early 2019, the Rebel Wilson-led rom-com Isn't It Romantic takes the genre's stereotypes to task, including the tendency to lift up the rude, boring, wealthy hot guy as the romantic ideal.
More diverse romances are still to come, including the film adaptation of Albertalli and Adam Silvera's gay male rom-com What If It's Us; the publication of the YA lesbian rom-com novel Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi; and more romances featuring non-white characters from Maurene Goo's YA novel Somewhere Only We Know to Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Party. Ace love stories, trans love stories, bi love stories... they are all more accessible than ever before.
These stories still exist within the patriarchy — and within a society that marginalizes non-white and non-straight people — but they are no longer beholden to it. And they are inspiring changes in romance across the board.
"Marginalized individuals, in particular, have not historically been given happy endings in pop culture in general," Rai says. "I think it's rather subversive and quite necessary to give people a mirror that reflects happiness, love, hope, or sexual fulfillment, especially when those messages aren't being enforced elsewhere."
And if there was ever a perfect time for men, especially straight men, to pay attention to rom-coms and to move toward a more nuanced understanding of the dating experience of women, it’s now. A crop of romance-based podcasts have popped up recently, with some that feature men reading romances for the first time, including Learning the Tropes. The podcast features Clayton Gumbert — a man with no prior knowledge of romance novels — and Erin Leafe — a romance devotee — as they read books from the genre and discuss their thoughts.
"I think it's rather subversive and quite necessary to give people a mirror that reflects happiness, love, hope, or sexual fulfillment, especially when those messages aren't being enforced elsewhere."
"I've learned a lot about myself and the way some women think and perceive the world," Gumbert says. "There are [many] rom-coms that show open, respectful, equal relationships; it is important to know what the goal is, so you know what you are working towards. I have grown to love romance novels, and I am not ashamed to admit that or talk about it."
But there is yet another side to the rom-com takedown that has nothing to do with its possible real-world dangers, and everything to do with its grounding in fantasy. Many of these stories feature unfathomably handsome men, oftentimes staggeringly rich, who are plopped right into the path of the heroine in such a way that a life-changing romance seems inevitable. Do women have a hard time dating men IRL, not only because of the patriarchy, but because of these “unrealistic” romantic expectations they see on screen and in books?
"Women are intelligent enough to know that romance novels are fiction," says Erin Leafe, co-host of Learning the Tropes. "It is laughable to say that the problem with modern heterosexual relationships is women holding men to too high a standard. Romance novels often show couples that are able to communicate, have respect for each other and [have] fulfilling sex lives, often showing men invested in their partner's pleasure. This should be the basis of any romantic relationship, and certainly worth holding out for."
And in fact, it is high time for women to embrace those needs and desires if the ultimate goal is a healthy and fulfilling romantic life.
"If there was ever a time for high expectations, it's in this," Maclean says. "I think we need to have a serious conversation about how we talk to young people (women in particular) about what they should expect from relationships, because, if anything, people have too low expectations of what partnership should be."
Certainly, there has never been a rom-com written that did not see two people navigating through challenges both over-the-top and decidedly down-to-earth. Whether you consider rom-coms an extension of the fairytale genre or not, no one who has read one would say that they completely ignore the fundamental difficulties of falling in love.
"Romance readers spend their days reading about relationship challenges, about navigating them, about finding a path through the difficulties that partners experience," says Maclean. "Romance readers might be better prepared for those challenges, because they know that any great relationship takes work."
And so is this continued fear of the rom-com less about what their impact on IRL relationships might be, and more about our continued cultural reluctance to celebrate anything that centers women and, in the case of modern romances, non-white, non-binary individuals?
“Romance, because it is a genre dominated by female authors, with a majority female readership, is often thought of as less than,” says Leafe. “This is the reason why romance isn’t found in many independent bookstores or reviewed by The New York Times. It isn’t because these books don’t sell, or don’t have artistic merit. It’s misogyny, pure and simple.”
So, it seems that our current rom-com revitalization is here just in time. Now is the moment for all to embrace the modern romance novel — and the lessons they can teach us about consent, respect and love — not demonize it.
“Romance, because it is a genre dominated by female authors, with a majority female readership, is often thought of as less than."
"Romance shamelessly celebrates women (with the exception of male-male romance) and, more importantly, the human experience,” says Helen Hoang, author of The Kiss Quotient, in an interview with Bustle. “The highest of highs, the lowest of lows, some of the most visceral, unforgettable moments in life: infatuation, breathless anticipation, laughter, yearning, passions, loss, fulfillments, achievement — it's all there, it's all explored, it's all embraced. Because those are the fundamental parts of living."
After all, there's one fundamental part of a romantic life that rom-coms will always champion.
"I hope [romance novels] make people go out and and get the kind of relationship they want to have," says Guillory. "[And] if my books make women hold out for partners who respect them and their choices, cheer for them, listen to them, and give them great orgasms, then I would be delighted."