What Happened To The Rom-Com? I Watched 30 Hours Of '90s Romance & Here's What I Got

You've Got Mail. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

In the world of socially acceptable pop culture opinions, there are two truths that we’re supposed to just agree on: the rom-com is dead, and the reason why is that all the best ones happened in the ‘90s.

Apparently, upon the strike of midnight on a chilly December eve in 1999, something irreversibly switched off, and any and all new rom-coms ceased being enough. Sure, there was the wave of unmistakably 2000s versions (flashier soundtracks, Ms. Bridget Jones, an obsession with the busy-business-woman-in-the-big-city trope, and the near ubiquitous presence of Ryan Reynolds). But the story goes that these films marked the decline and eventual death of The Perfect Rom-Com, laid to rest once Hollywood stopped shelling out major cash on sweeping, light-hearted romance. We were left out in the cold, forced to get that magical, tingly feeling from such budget sources as Hallmark movies and ABC Family originals. Here she lies, Our Lady Of Rom-Com, buried by her own sexism or shrinking studio budgets or the lack of true A-listers — depending on who you ask. Let us all mourn her by crawling back to our dusty DVD collections and reliving her past glory. Or let me at least, because that was my assignment.

Lady Rom-Com, it seems, may rise again.

Despite actually enjoying most of these films when they came out, I was apprehensive about revisiting them en masse. Largely due to its casual sexism, I haven’t felt the gaping loss of this cultural institution. I don't pine for the days when Meg Ryan films left millions of people positively twitterpated, and my fantasy relationship/decor scheme isn't one scripted by Nora Ephron. I’ve been told (numerous times by my editor, in fact) that this is sacrilege (Ed. note: SACRILEGE!!!), and while I’d normally wear that as a badge of pride and move on with my life, we’re heading into a summer movie season sure to be dominated by a big ol’ princess fantasy rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians, and in June, Netflix is getting in on the splashy, old school genre with Set It Up, which stars budding A-lister Zoey Deutch and some other famouses you might recognize from the early 2000s. Lady Rom-Com, it seems, may rise again.

Set It Up. Photo credit: K C Bailey/Netflix

So, as we embark on this summer sure to be remembered for at least one big budget rom-com, I cracked open this cold case, certain I could determine what actually happened to our old pal and figure out whether or not she could (or should) actually be resurrected. I would, for four straight days, watch nothing but rom-coms beloved by romantically inclined ‘90s audiences — a veritable dunk tank of quirky Meg Ryan smirk, Julia Roberts’ toothy, whole-body laugh, and the reawakened suspicion that Tom Hanks is maybe, actually my soulmate.

It began at 8:17 p.m. on a Friday. Armed with my Seamless app and three bottles of my favorite pink sparkling wine, I dove head first into the Julia Roberts Rom-Com canon. Saturday morning I would move on to Meg Ryan’s confusing set of classics on Saturday, then into a hodgepodge of box office hits like Only You and While You Were Sleeping on Sunday. Monday I reserved for returning to high school (my delivery order would be pepperoni pizza) to revisit all the angst that comes with being courted by Heath Ledger and Freddie Prinze, Jr. But all in due time. First, to Beverly Hills.

Despite forever looking for an opportunity to have a “Big mistake. Big! Huge!” moment in my actual life, Pretty Woman might just be the flag bearer for sexist issues in ‘90s Rom-Coms. The film starts when Richard Gere’s Edward Lewis, billionaire playboy, gets dumped by his girlfriend because she’s tired of being expected to be available when he wants her. I can almost hear the deep, booming narrator voice wafting over trailer footage of Gere’s paradoxically sheepish, yet confident smile now: His solution? Hire a woman he can’t lose, only she’ll be more so much more than he bargained for. Please join me in a quick, communal eye roll. We’re supposed to laugh when down-on-her-luck sex worker Vivian says that her rate is 100 dollars an hour, but when he asks her to stay for the entire night (a clear total of minimum five hours), she only asks for 300 dollars (isn’t it so charming that she can’t do simple math?). We’re supposed to swoon when he borrows Harry Winston-esque jewels for Vivian to wear for a night out, compliments her for the fact that she’s finally not fidgeting (this is text-book negging, but he says it with adoration, so it’s fine), or when he convinces the staff of a shop on Rodeo Drive not to treat her like garbage by throwing money at the problem.

If you detect a slight hint of slut shaming, you win a prize and that prize is joining me in a guttural, disappointed sigh.

But more importantly, we’re supposed to believe that despite his history of treating women like posable objects, and despite the wildly unequal power balance between him and Vivian, their circumstances are somehow different because he doesn’t just get down to business the second they’re in his hotel room, because he treats Roberts’ Vivian like a human, and because he smiles to himself when she sings Prince an octave off in the bathtub. When he doubles down on her princess fantasy by literally rescuing her from her downtown Los Angeles slum-tower we’re supposed to bask in the perfect fantasy. In reality, it’s Beauty & The Beast, plus some awesome early '90s fashion.

Next I tried on the second most popular rom-com of the ‘90s: Gere and Roberts’ next pairing as romantic interests, in Runaway Bride. The film follows a serially unmarried woman who continually ignores her own personality and interests in order to adopt four different fiancés' expectations of the perfect woman over the course of just a few years. Each time, she bolts the literal second it’s time to say “I Do” and she realizes her whole life is a lie. Apparently, the barometer for not being this type of Lost Woman (™) is to not know how you like your eggs in the morning — a test that has haunted me since I saw this film in the theater in 1999 (and every time I dare to order poached eggs instead of my usual over easy). The entire film focuses on how Lost (™) the titular runaway bride Maggie Carpenter is, as she weaves between wanting and attracting every man (if you detect a slight hint of slut shaming, you win a prize and that prize is joining me in a gutteral, disappointed sigh).

Let’s just pause a second to appreciate the twisted creative brilliance that resulted in us all remembering this movie for Rupert Everett’s charming sing-along version of “Say A Little Prayer For You” while conveniently forgetting that the film’s major turning point involves mean-spirited, shoddy spy work.

In the end, only one man (Gere’s Ike, who somehow got millions of women to pine for him despite sharing a name with a dead president) seems to see her for who she truly is (she truly is just Julia Roberts, but more on that later). The fact that Ike’s first big, romantic moment with Maggie happens when he makes out with her in front of her fiancé at her wedding rehearsal like the most toxic, entitled goon ever to walk the earth is not supposed to bother us at all. Nope, not one bit. *Screams internally.*

My Best Friend's Wedding. Photo credit: FOX

Then there was My Best Friend’s Wedding, which is a doozy. In it, Roberts’ Julianne hops a last-minute flight to her alleged best friend’s wedding, despite the fact that he didn’t even tell her he was engaged or in a relationship until a week before his wedding (yeah, sure, OK, y’all are super close). Upon getting to town, she becomes the quintessential Girl Who Can Hang and at one one point shows up at her BFF Michael’s (Dermot Mulroney) bachelor party in an “effortless” outfit and flirts while handing beers out to his male friends — they all wag their tongues at her and she shoots incredulous looks at the groom. We learn that she could have had Michael way back when, but she was too focused on herself (how dare she… is what I assume the writers want us to say here), and now that she’s ready to love him back, it’s too late, because walking conglomeration of every sexist stereotype about women, Kimmy (Cameron Diaz-before-Cameron Diaz-was-a-thing), has his heart. We’re supposed to be on Julianne’s Kimmy-hating side, even when she literally breaks into Michael’s future in-law’s office and plants a fake email meant to incriminate her romantic rival and break them up for good. (Let’s just pause a second to appreciate the twisted creative brilliance that resulted in us all remembering this movie for Rupert Everett’s charming sing-along version of “Say A Little Prayer For You” while conveniently forgetting that the film’s major turning point involves mean-spirited, shoddy spy work.)

The next day, she not only kisses Michael without his permission, but she tells Michael she’ll fix it. By "fix it," she apparently means "try to convince Kimmy to let Michael go" (but she does this while referring to herself as Jello and Kimmy as creme brulée, so we know she’s not stuck up or self important despite literally all of her actions to the contrary). The movie also has some screwed up ideas about age and gay men, because the happy ending finds Julianne using her gay best friend, George (Rupert Everett) as her romantic surrogate, playing into the outdated stereotype that gay men are forever bachelors, just waiting to be a straight woman’s backup plan and the idea that at the ripe (apparently old) age of 29, women like Julianne are destined to be set out to pasture, childless and romance-bereft for the rest of their days. Sure, it was the ‘90s, but it is downright baffling to me that we, as a culture, ate this sh*t up with a spoonful of Cherry Garcia.

Notting Hill. Photo credit: Universal Pictures.

Filling out the roster of classic Roberts fare is Notting Hill, which is almost a perfect Saturday morning movie, despite its many real-world issues — and no, I’m not referring to the fact that Hugh Grant’s character William has a roommate (Rhys Ifans) who prances around in soggy formerly tightey-whities and a t-shirt that says “GET IT HERE” with an arrow pointing towards his bits. There are glaring issues like the fact that there’s not a single person of color represented in Notting Hill throughout the film, despite the actual London neighborhood being known for its large Caribbean population and its yearly Caribbean-themed Carnival. Leisurely viewing also demands that we suspend our rage when Roberts’ character (famous actress and object of William’s affection, Anna Scott) casually drops that her ex boyfriend hit her during a dinner game of “who’s got it the worst” and no one says a word, appears all that shocked, or does a damn thing (because she’s pretty and famous now, so who needs to circle back to that bit about her being physically abused by an ex lover). But despite these glaring issues, this film lands itself in the swoon bucket because Grant’s an expert at pensive pining, perfectly delivering the illusion that because he’s a bumbling British bookshop owner with a perfectly prim button-up and honey-soaked apricots in his fridge, his pining for Anna is more of an adorable crush than it is, well, creepy.

By the time I made it through the nearly 30 hours of movies on this list, I’d achieved that weightless, mildly ill sensation that you only feel when Tom Hanks emerges in Riverside Park with that goddamn golden retriever.
While You Were Sleeping. Photo credit: Caravan Pictures.

The theme of problematic faves continued as I made my way on to Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, et. al. The lineup includedWhile You Were Sleeping (Sandra Bullock literally lies her way into the family of her crush and gets away with it because he’s in a coma and because she’s just so darn lovable); Sleepless in Seattle (Meg Ryan’s entire storyline involves her lying to her fiancé and flying cross country to stalk Tom Hanks because she liked a few things he said about his late wife on a national radio program); You’ve Got Mail (Ryan is a quaint bookshop owner whose business is destroyed by her rival and secret pen pal, Hanks, who then befriends her and straight up manipulates her into a sweeping, romantic conclusion); An American President (Annette Benning is pursued by Michael Douglas’ POTUS, but she’s a D.C. lobbyist, which means there’s a clear power imbalance in their romance that eventually causes her to lose the job she loves); Sabrina (Harrison Ford is just beguiling enough to make you forget that before his character Linus accidentally falls for Julia Ormand’s Sabrina, he only romances her in order to use her as a pawn to make his family millions of dollars); Emma (the adaptation of classic literature that challenged the notion that women aren’t allowed to be unlikeable, reduced to a “Rom-Com” because it’s markedly a narrative about women’s feelings); French Kiss (Kevin Cline’s unforgivable French accent stars in a film about a woman who’s too sexless for her fiancé, gets dumped by him, and then desperately flings herself across France to get him back); Only You (the movie in which Robert Downey, Jr. wears Marisa Tomei down into realizing she loves him, and he’s only not creepy because of the undeniable chemistry between the actors and the fact that Tomei’s character believes a man with a name she got off a Ouija Board is her destiny); She’s All That (the Freddie Prinze, Jr. movie that is responsible for the “take her glasses off and she’s magically gorgeous” makeover trope); 10 Things I Hate About You (legitimately not so bad considering that it’s the high school-themed improvement on the Shakespeare play, The Taming of The Shrew, which is about a man who schemes to marry off a “shrew” to a rake so that he can bed and marry her younger sister); and lastly, Never Been Kissed (the movie that makes nearly every main character, including Drew Barrymore, a sexual predator to high schoolers and ends with kiss between Drew and a high school teacher who fell in love with her when she was pretending to be a 17-year-old, and he was being completely inappropriate with her).

And yet.

By the time I made it through the nearly 30 hours of movies on this list, I’d achieved that weightless, mildly ill sensation that you only feel when Tom Hanks emerges in Riverside Park with that goddamn golden retriever or Heath Ledger, our Aussie prince, descends the steps of Verona High while crooning “I need you baby” at Julia Stiles, and all you want is for someone to love you enough to viciously deceive you for months on end until you crumble and surrender to the power of swoony, dreamy love.

That was me. Total sucker, party of one. Despite the myriad issues with most of the handsome romantic leads, the repeated use of manipulation in the name of romance, and the fact that my feminist brain was working overtime to try and stave off that rosy feeling, in the end my body pulled a Judas, and some of these movies got me. They got me good.

You don’t even know this guy, Meg!

It didn’t seem to matter that Harrison Ford’s Linus Larrabee spends most of Sabrina acting like an animate cardboard cut-out of an evil Disney villain. When he breaks that and betrays his inner conflict, his quiet longing for Sabrina is intoxicating. It was infuriatingly easy to forgive Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox when Meg Ryan hopes oh-so badly that her mysterious AOL pen pal is him in You’ve Got Mail, because I suppose we want to feel like it’s totally possible that she’s melted his cold, money-grubbing heart. And it’s straight-up painful when, despite spending the entire 105 minute runtime of French Kiss praying that Kevin Cline’s French accent (one that makes Jerry Orbach’s performance as Lumiere in Beauty & The Beast sound as French as Coq au Vin) is a romantic ruse, I damn near clapped when he and Meg Ryan finally kiss among the vines in his vineyard in the French Countryside.

Sleepless in Seattle. Photo credit: Tristar

But the key revelation from this journey that felt, at times, like an endless stream of schmaltz, was that they didn’t all win me over. Only a handful of these movies completely incapacitated me with so much momentary joy that even my dog seemed embarrassed to be in the same room with me (Only You never, ever fails, despite my brain’s objections to a plot that involves RDJ wearing down his heroine). And some, like Never Been Kissed (the whole high-school-kids-accidentally-romancing-adults thing really killed it), Sleepless in Seattle (you don’t even know this guy, Meg!), and My Best Friend’s Wedding (so. freaking. mean.) left me downright cold. While we millennials may, as the nostalgic generation we unrelentingly choose to be, think that the breadth of ‘90s Rom-Coms represents the gold standard, this experiment seemed to prove one thing for sure: We’re looking back in time through some seriously damaged rose-colored glasses. And I think after 30 hours, I figured out why.

The message seems to be that the romantic interests love these women for who they truly are. That is a wonderful but inherently flawed idea.

Let’s turn our gaze, for a moment, to the male gaze. In most of the ‘90s classics on my list, no matter how many times the heroine literally engages in espionage to break up her love interest and her rival (My Best Friend’s Wedding), or flies across the country to stalk a man she barely knows because she likes four things he says on national public radio (Sleepless in Seattle), or lies to the family of a man she barely knows about being engaged to him when he’s in a coma because he sometimes smiles at her at work (While You Were Sleeping), or is actively mean and hurtful to her love interest (Notting Hill), she always gets her man in the end, because when she flashes that classic smile (or goofy smirk, in the case of Meg Ryan in Sleepless... or earnest shrugs and half-smiles in the case of Sandy Bullock in While You Were Sleeping), we and the man gazing at her see all the way down to her true soul and, for lack of a non-dated term, moxie.

The message seems to be that the romantic interests love these women for who they truly are. That is a wonderful but inherently flawed idea, because the romantic interests mostly don’t realize this until they gaze at the Hollywood beauty standard-approved package that houses all that flawed treasure, which usually looks like — or in fact is — Julia Roberts. (Not to mention the fact that many of the behaviors some of these women exhibit justify the professional skewering they get on Rachel Bloom’s rom-com-deconstructing series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.)

10 Things I Hate About You. Photo credit: Touchstone Pictures.

And yet, despite the fact that most viewers are wise enough to recognize this, the physical sensation of butterflies attacking our hearts and our brains with a pleasant, fluttering sensation cannot be stopped. After living in a hyperbaric chamber of romance for four straight days, I’ve come to suspect that it’s because this Julia Roberts Effect refills our supply of a specific kind of hope: that no matter what Cosmo Girl-style embarrassing story befalls you in front of a person you might want to spend the rest of your life with, he or she will instantly see through it and spend the subsequent hours, days, or weeks trying to find their way back to you. The promise of the rom-com is that the kind of love that appears magically, effortlessly in that one indescribable instant is actually completely possible for you and me and every romantic hopeful choking back tears when Freddie Prinze, Jr. finally shows up to kiss Rachel Leigh Cook under the twinkle lights in her backyard after the prom.

What's problematic for the Rom-Com is that for all the fluttering it provides, all the nostalgia it offers in the form of (now obviously) backwards tropes, women recognize that its textbook superficiality isn't innocuous. The idea that the guy could see the girl for who she truly is just by looking at her is not deep, it's dangerous. We have fought hard to be seen as more than our appearances and more than the behaviors that supposedly make us more palatable to men. So when a whole genre trades on the fact that women can be loved and saved in a glance if they are charming and conventionally beautiful, it's hard to leave the house and buy an $18 ticket to that set-up over and over. Especially when we could be at home marathoning a show we already love.

Crazy Rich Asians. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

But against those odds, and our own criticisms, the Rom-Com lives on… just in pieces. Despite the eventual crash of its shiny rocket-ship delivery system, the Rom-Com hasn’t really left mainstream entertainment — it's just morphed into more digestible forms. One thing I realized watching 16 movies back to back to back is that the classic Meg Ryan vehicle is not built for marathons. Developing an emotional connection to a new couple and following the arc of their relationship every two hours was exhausting. My brain longed for the comfort of a continuously unfurling television show that would give me hours upon hours to get to know a central couple.

Let’s not forget the magic that lives in Shondaland, with its enviable sets that are arguably the heirs to Nancy Meyers’ Hamptons dream homes.

But millennial cliche that I am, just a week prior to this little experiment, I had that same weightless, happy post-Rom-Com feeling watching the sixth episode in my marathon du jour: the season finale of a random NBC sitcom. (It was Superstore, and it was absolutely electric when Ben Feldman and America Ferrera’s characters finally got together after three long seasons.) It was the same feeling I felt only a month before that, when I sat in a screening of Avengers: Infinity War and watched as Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora finally kissed after two entire movies of sexual tension, and in the moment Kumail Nanjiani got his girl in The Big Sick, and every time Jane Villanueva’s heart swells on Jane The Virgin.

The Big Sick. Photo credit: Lionsgate

Eight orders of certifiably unhealthy delivery meal and 75 ounces of sparking rosé in, it was all too clear. The Rom-Com some millennials are so nostalgic for is just that: the stuff of nostalgia, staunchly beloved in spite of its warts but stubbornly of its era and not this one. Despite my best efforts, it’s pretty impossible to turn off the wokeness that comes with being a millennial in 2018.

But. As Hugh Grant once wisely said in one of the most controversial Rom-Coms of all time, love actually is all around us. There’s romance for every genre and sensibility under the sun, from the seemingly endless string of series built on OTPs on the CW, to the ‘ships of the Marvel and Star Wars universes, and let’s not forget the magic that lives in Shondaland, with its enviable sets that are arguably the heirs to Nancy Meyers’ Hamptons dream homes. What's new and welcome is that in almost all of these examples, romantic love isn’t the only reason we step up and buy the metaphorical ticket. In these worlds there are also complex stories of sisterhood, family, friendship, politics, careers, ambition, and everything else that makes a human a human. In a word, there’s more.

As Meg Ryan might say, what a lovely thought.