Unrealistic Fantasies: How Romantic Comedies Continue to Fail Women

By Kaitlin Musante, Harvard-Westlake

When I was 4 years old, movies taught me that I alone was not enough; I needed to wait for my Prince Charming to save me. When I was 8, they told me that in order to be worthy of love, I needed to be beautiful; personality and intelligence were only important when I had the looks to go with it. When I was 12, I learned that my role as a woman was to please; finding and keeping love would my greatest accomplishment. And just this past year, they showed me the uselessness of the word ‘no;’ my rejections would always be powerless to persistent admiration.

Out of context, these lessons read as repugnant and wrong, but when romanticized on the silver screen, I couldn’t help but believe them. It wasn’t until the magic of the happy ending wore off that I realized the sexist undertones in many of the romances that had defined my childhood. Although the names and faces of the actors that graced my screen had changed, the plot lines of these movies had been woven together by one common thread: women’s dependence on men.

While our society is certainly progressing in its views of women, especially in relationships, it can sometimes seem that romantic comedies are stuck in the past. Notorious for their formulaic scripts, these movies typically deliver a reliable plot that viewers expect: boy meets girl, they fall in love, break up, reunite, and live happily ever after. These events, however, often depend on both the man’s control and authority and the women’s desperation to find love.

Even in more modern movies that preach female empowerment and independence, characters still fall victim to the gender roles reinforced in on-screen relationships for decades. A recent study by the University of Washington found that Anna, the heroine of the recent Disney blockbuster “Frozen,” demonstrated the same low levels of power and authority compared to the men in the movie as Cinderella, which was released over sixty years ago.

By displaying these ideas on screen, movies have influenced the perceptions of both men’s and women’s roles in relationships for many young girls. For those like Amber,* 13, who grew up with movies like “10 Things I Hate About You” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” it was easy to fall in the trap of happily-ever-after.

“The power granted to men in relationships on screen discouraged me from wanting to take initiative in relationships because it always worked out in the end when the men took control,” Amber said. “Even the thought of a girl asking a guy out was shocking to me because it never really happened in any of these films. I now believe in being strong and independent, but it's easy to get swept up in the romance of it all when these ideas have been perpetrated repeatedly in movies I grew up watching.”

In addition to simply granting men control and authority over the relationship, these movies often romanticize the manipulative practices used to gain affection in the first place. It has been happening for decades- in “Sixteen Candles,” it’s date rape, in the “Notebook,” it’s guilt-tripping, in “Twilight,” it’s abuse- and according to University of Michigan gender and sexuality expert Julia Lippman, glossing over these behaviors has had negative effects both on-screen and off-screen. In a recent study on the consequences of displaying such behavior in films, Lippman discovered that women who watched movies that romanticized persistent romantic male pursuits were more likely to minimize the effects of stalking.  “[Such movies] can encourage women to discount their instincts,”  Lippman said in an interview with Canada’s Global News. “This is a problem because research shows that instincts can serve as powerful cues to help keep us safe. At their core, all these films are trading in the ‘love conquers all’ myth. Even though, of course, it doesn’t. Love is great, but so is respect for other people.”

Keeping this in mind, it is important that we unite to support a new kind of romantic comedy: one that promotes equality in relationships, discourages manipulative and abusive behaviors, and places more emphasis on emotional connection than physical attraction.  It is time our movie screens start teaching girls that romance and empowerment can coexist.