How to Critique Romantic Comedy

I posted a rant about Maureen Dowd’s op ed on romantic comedy over on PopD, and then it was suggested to me that I might want to address it here, without the easy shorthand of “We’ve been critiquing romantic comedy for nine weeks so I don’t have to tell you how to do it.” So this isn’t a rant, but it is still in response to the Dowd piece, a recasting of that rant for people who haven’t been watching romantic comedy with me for two months. I’m still annoyed as all hell at Dowd, but I’ve stopped foaming at the mouth.

If you’re going to do a serious, intelligent critique of a genre, you have to do more than say, “Oh, my God, it’s terrible, don’t you think it’s terrible? I think it’s terrible. I’m having such a good time saying it’s terrible with you.” You have to actually discuss the genre, explaining why you think it’s terrible, where you think it’s falling down, how it could be better. Otherwise you’re just a couple of Mean Girls sneering at actresses who probably don’t have that much input into the script (but Aniston and Garner are such easy targets or, as Snotty Guy in the op-ed says, “Anybody named Jennifer”) while you mourn the loss of the good old days when you had to walk five miles through the snow uphill both ways to see Bringing Up Baby and Annie Hall. This pretty much tells your reader that you know zilch about romantic comedy, but by damn you know what you like.

So how do you critique romantic comedy? The same way you critique anything: you develop a set of criteria. This doesn’t have to be the Ur Criteria of Romantic Comedy, but it does have to exist, you have to have some basis for analysis. I would suggest discussing the romance and the comedy. You know, just off the top of my head.

To begin with, romance should be based on more than “I’m hot, you’re hot, let’s go to bed.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not romance. Romance happens when people get to know each other, learn each other’s rhythms, work together for a common goal, share each other’s world views, sacrifice for each other, romance happens when being next to the other person has such an impact that you change which means that a good romance causes character arc (see Moonstruck, When Harry Met Sally . . ., 10 Things I Hate About You, etc). But change isn’t enough, the viewer has to believe that this character is changing because of the romance, has to see that both people in the relationship are changing. Romance is character, so if you really want to discuss where modern romantic comedy often falls down, you’d talk about character (not about actresses, for God’s sake). That’s why Ellie and Peter pretending to be married so the detective doesn’t find out who she is in It Happened One Night is not only funny but enchanting: the viewers see them working together and falling love before their eyes. Or Bunny pretending that the stair rail is a cruise ship in Desk Set, asking Richard, “Is this your first trip?” and Richard replying without missing a beat, “Yes, but don’t tell anybody. I’m the captain.” These people know each other, they understand each other, they pick up each other’s cues automatically, they enjoy each other. That’s romance through character.

Then for a good romantic comedy to really work, the comedy has to come from that romance, it has to be integral to the romance plot. It’s not funny if the heroine accidentally ends up with vibrating underpants because she accidentally dropped the remote control near a kid who accidentally picked it up . . . what the hell does that have to do with the story? Nothing, but some idiot thought it was funny and wasted precious storytelling time on a sleazy joke that didn’t work anyway. It has to make sense, writer people, and it has to advance the romance plot or it’s just you giggling to yourself about how damn funny you are. And if you’re doing that, you’re not that funny. You know what’s funny? Ellie smiling at Peter while he lectures her on hitch-hiking techniques, her amusement perfectly balanced with her affection for him before she one-ups him by showing some leg. Or Richard telling Mike to act surprised when he opens Bunny’s gift of a robe because they both know Richard wore it first. The romance and the comedy have to be as married as the lovers are at the end because otherwise you’ve got a romance with comic relief or a comedy with a romantic subplot. They need to bond. (Note: I’m not using classic romcoms because there are no good modern films in the genre, I’m using them because they’re the ones I’ve looked at most closely lately.)

And about that happy ending: a romantic comedy needs one. Why? Because classic comedies have ended in marriage since romcom stories began because comedies reaffirm communal and social bonds and because romantic comedies symbolize those communal and social bonds in the romantic pair bond. We’ve moved past marriage as the only possible commitment, but in general, if you’re going to sit through romantic comedy, you want a commitment at the end, in the same way a mystery lover wants a solution at the end of his story. Otherwise you have the equivalent of the detective coming in and saying, “We never did catch the killer, but I learned a lot and I feel I’ve grown from the experience.” No.

So Bringing Up Baby, an excellent comedy and an all around terrific movie, is not a very good romantic comedy because David bitches his way through the whole thing and then when he has to commit to Susan at the end (because it’s a romantic comedy), says, “That was the best day of my life.” No, it wasn’t, David, I was watching you and there wasn’t one moment where you were happy. Funny as all hell, yes, charming, absolutely, happy and falling in love, not a chance. Saying it does not make it so. And Annie Hall, an excellent comedy and an all around terrific movie, is also not a romantic comedy because it keeps its distance from the very thing that powers the genre, that arc into a committed relationship. I have no idea why Dowd and her pal even brought An Unmarried Woman into the mix, that was never a romantic comedy. It’s a great feminist comedy, but a romance? Nope, her romance was part of her journey plot which is why she turns down commitment at the end to be free. You can’t just throw a dart and hit a movie that has a love story and some laughs and say, “Look, a romantic comedy!” If you’re going to be that sloppy, Macbeth is a mystery about a serial killer. (Now somebody’s going to argue that Macbeth is a mystery about a serial killer. No, it isn’t. It’s a tragedy about a noble man who falls; the deaths aren’t the point of the story, they’re the vehicle.)

I think the sloppy thinking in Dowd’s article comes down to the mindset that I found often in grad school, a mindset she should have matured out of by now, the idea that if she doesn’t like it, it’s no good, and nobody else should like it either, and she doesn’t have to explain why or make intelligent analysis because everybody thinks like she does. For Dowd and her pal, Snotty Guy, good romantic comedy is like porn, they can’t explain it or define it, but they’ll know it when they see it and they’re smugly sure you’ll agree. When you add to this Dowd’s take on romantic comedy novels in which she quoted and agreed with a friend of hers that women should put down their romances and pick up The Red Badge of Courage, you are left with the distinct impression that Dowd just doesn’t like romantic comedy; it’s beneath her. Which is fine, if she comes out and says that and then explains why. But instead she joins in the chorus of people slanging at romantic comedy–books and film–because it’s such a safe target for ridicule: it’s about women and love and who takes them seriously?

If you’re going to criticize the romantic comedy genre, first try to understand it and then discuss it intelligently. Really, Maureen, anybody named Jennifer could have written a better op ed than that.

87 thoughts on “How to Critique Romantic Comedy

  1. This is a great response, Jenny. I read the rant at The Popcorn Dialogues this morning, and decided to just take what I needed to know about the op-ed from there. I didn’t want to read it because then I would get upset, and my rants are nowhere close to as well-written as yours. 🙂 I wonder how Dowd would respond to this…or if the New York Times should give up on her and go to you for op-eds from now on.

    Would it be bratty of me to point out a typo in the next-to-last paragraph?

      1. Since it came up, I’d add a comma to

        Because classic comedies have ended in marriage since romcom stories began because comedies reaffirm communal and social bonds and because romantic comedies symbolize those communal and social bonds in the romantic pair bond.

        because I love you. 🙂

        1. You know I looked at that, too, but “because” starts a dependent clause and you don’t set dependents off with commas.
          I think.

  2. *clapping with standing ovation!*

    Most excellent analysis!

    (Yes, I’m a long time, voracious romance reader. Yes, I’ve read practically every J.Crusie book. Yes, I’m trying to arc that romance to make y’all proud. Just wanted you to know that someone in LA has been listening!)

  3. Your rants make me want to cheer. If you ever decide to teach – workshop, online, week-long bootcamp, grad course, whatever – sign me up!

  4. Well, in that case – applause!

    Sierra and I often see similar things. See 4th paragraph, I think its “more than” not that.

    1. Argh. Fixed.
      Going off to eat waffles, covered in shame.
      (I know, I know MISPLACED MODIFIER. Actually, I just prefer shame to syrup. Much less fattening. Also free.)

  5. Shame. Syrup. Shame. Syrup. Shame.

    Hey, look! It’s a vicious circle.

    Anyway, you were post-rant. Printed rants are more likely to have errors than verbal ones. At least, in my experience. My blog post on my car was me pouring out my troubles so its error filled.

  6. Great commentary.

    The whole idea that a book or movie is terrible because the critic doesn’t like the genre bugs the crap out of me. I remember reading several movie reviews where the critic slammed a horror movie, sandwiching her critique with “I hate horror movies”.

    Then why are you reviewing them? The only readers who would benefit from your review are those who also hate horror movies and would look to your review as reinforcement of their already established POV. “Ah, see? I knew horror movies were crap. This reviewer only gave the movie 1/2 star.”

    But the implication that the entire genre is illegitimate because the critic doesn’t like the genre is just weird, especially when it is something as established as rom-com or gothic or sci-fi.

    Me geeking out over Bridget Jones or Love Actually or the new Crusie novel is absolutely as legit as people who can’t wait for the next Stephen King novel, or who have Pillars of the Earth on their DVR while spending all their free time reading the book between episodes, or people who devoured the The Shack like it had contained both the secrets to the universe and $5K embedded between the pages (Spoiler – it doesn’t contain either).

    But coming from Dowd, the critique isn’t that surprising. She has the same thought about politics – if an idea doesn’t subscribe to her particular ideology, then it’s inherently meritless.

    Thus, in that her little “critique” and your subsequent rebuttal, we saw a small glimpse of what is wrong with our public discourse today. People who try to evaluate every idea, every genre, every POV on it’s own merit are competing with those who not only seek rationalizations and reaffirmations of their beliefs, but use those rationalizations as justification to dismiss, discount, ignore, and, if all else fails, shout down anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the same POV.

    Many of us will never understanding the appeal of civil war reenactments or collecting “precious moments” figurines or the Real Housewives in Any City. So what? Who has time to love everything? I’ve got my thing, they’ve got theirs. Unfortunately for most of us, some people’s thing is being mean and calling everyone else’s stuff “stupid”.

    Eh. That’s not my thing, but whatever.

  7. Well, yeah, applause…standing, even.

    Every time I read one of your opinions…rants…whatever, I wish I’d written it. When I read your books, I wish I’d written them, too. I was probably a plagiarist in another life, but be that as it may, thank you for saying what so many of us mean.

  8. Jacie brings up very good points, ones I came here to discuss as well. First, genre snobbery is really irritating. It’s fine to say “I don’t like what I’ve read in chick-lit,” or just plain “I don’t like chick-lit” it’s not fair to say “Chick-lit is a waste of money and time.” It may be a waste of one person’s money if they will never read it, but it’s valid for someone else to enjoy it.

    There’s nothing wrong with reading something that makes you happy.

    If fact, there are some people who may be surprised to find out a person could actually like “Pillars of the Earth” and still like romantic literature, and urban fantasy. (This point was NOT directed at Jacie — I know she get it.)

    Having had all morning to think this over, I think my cheap comment on Popcorn Dialogues comes from this observation — much of the stories about women protagonists across the media are lumped by many critics (both male and female) into inappropriately labeled genres. Since there is a woman in the commedy, it must be a romantic commedy. A female protagonist in a science fiction novel? Must be a space opera. Joshilyn Jackson’s “The Girl who Stopped Swimming?” No, I haven’t read it — I don’t go for chick-lit. (I actually had someone say that last one to me.) No, it can’t be a hero’s journey, no it can’t be a straight farce, no it can’t be about redemption, faith and struggles, it’s got a babe on the cover.

    1. I probably was a bit strong in my criticism with Dowd, but cranky sometimes begets cranky.

      But I also think you bring up a great point: the female protagonist is almost always makes it a “genre” movie or novel for women readers. I asked hubby about this (he only reads non-fiction, but watches tons of movies) and he actually said to me “Well, men’s point of views are universal, where a woman’s point of view is specific”.

      My reply, of course, was “so what you’re really saying is that women are able to understand all points of view, where as men can only understand their own”. This was better than my initial desired response, which was to slug him and call him a creep (not a good marital technique).

      I felt the same way with this article. I think it would have been more accurate argument that Hollywood is marketing movies as romantic comedies that are clearly neither, rather than simply saying “no one makes good romantic comedies anymore”.

      As far as the “meet cute” complaint, or the artificial contrivance for why they are have to be together, that’s nothing new. I think Pillow Talk (and it’s clone Lover Come Back) pretty much did everything you could with those cliches, and the movies are 50 years old.

      There is still lots of great romantic comedy to be found out there – in between book covers. But coming from Hollywood? Not so much.

      1. It’s the theory of the Other. In any society there is One that is the norm, and any other group is the Other. The One has no need to know about the Other because it determines social norms. The Others have to learn their social norms and know the norms of the One because they have to live in that world. Even after decades of women’s rights and civil rights gains, white men still hold most of the power. That’s why I cried with joy all night when Obama was elected; I couldn’t believe our society elected a black man as president because I didn’t believe I’d see anything break the One in my lifetime; if he’d been a black woman, I’d have probably passed out in ecstasy. Of course, the One is fighting back with a rabid vengeance now, but they’re doomed.

        That universal stuff has been crap forever. I remember studying Faulkner’s “The Bear” in grad school and having a prof tell us that it was a universal right of passage, to be blooded in the hunt as a transition from child to adult. I said, “No, it’s not universal. When my people transition from child to adult, we don’t have to kill a large animal, we just bleed.” He didn’t think it was funny.

      2. Actually, Jacie, I think you were very articulate and didn’t come of cranky at all. You supported all your points.

  9. Yay! This kind of thought (and writing) is one reason I keep coming back here.

    This discussion is similar to the discussion of “a book review isn’t a book report” that happened here just recently.

    I have to think that the more people say “likes and dislikes aren’t the same as reasoned analysis,” the more people will understand that fact. But I’m an optimist.

  10. Jenny, your professor sounds like the kind who would make his students read “The Nick Adams Stories” by Hemingway. Ugh. Talk about stories about boys becoming men. While I admire his sparse writing style, I can’t abide many of his stories.

  11. Mollie was right; this was better. The Dowd pieces, it seemed to me, were the type of fluff you throw out when you’re on deadline and don’t really have something to say. (“Oh! If I just transcribe my IM exchange with Snotty Guy, and throw in a few more pithy asides, I can make my word count AND be off to the Hamptons by deadline!”)

    The PopD rant was a rant. THIS is constructive criticism. (And all criticism should be constructive. You’re headed off on a date; you don’t your girlfriend to tell you your outfit is wrong. You’ll spend most of the next three hours worrying that you look like a hoochie-mama, and the rest of that time worrying that you look like an Amish girl before Rumspringa, when you could be figuring out if he’s the One, and hopefully having fun. You need to hear that you shouldn’t wear your open toe heels when your girlfriend knows he’s taking you to a peanut-shells-on-floor roadhouse.)

  12. You are so sane and so lucid. I am so glad we have you as our Jennifer—someone who says what she means, means what she says, and defends the art of criticism in general and our genre in particular with thoughtful, well-reasoned standards in the face of such knee-jerk slams.

  13. Well put, Jana. Jenny, that was wonderful. I really enjoyed the explanation of why Bringing Up Baby is not a romcom and why It Happened One Night is one. Perfect!

  14. Beautiful rant! I wanted to cheer and change my name to Jennifer by the end.

    I agree with Cary that it seemed like Dowd’s piece seemed like the kind of off-the-cuff poke at an easy target that doesn’t show any real thought to the topic. Sadly, Dowd is the one missing out if this piece truly does reflect her opinion.

    One of my favorite things about my internet experience of the last few years is that I have found my people. Sharp, interesting, funny women who also happen to enjoy romance. Its great to see more and more people standing up in defense of the genre with well reasoned and insightful literary discussion. Thanks for doing it so gracefully.

  15. La Crusie I learn more reading your rants than I did in four years of college. And I take umbrage at anyone (Dowd) telling me what I should read or watch. I do both of those things for stress relief, I sure as heck don’t need any ‘serious literature’ in my life. If I want tragedy and suffering I can look at the world around me.

    Yes, I’m shallow, but hey shallowness isn’t illegal.

    1. Kate G. that is exactly what I tell people too. Although, honestly no one *really* picks on me about reading romance. They just like to make smart comments about it. I tell them, I I don’t need to turn to fiction for drama, I live it every day.

  16. Thank you all for the support. Every time I blow my stack, I sit around waiting for the blowback, so it’s nice to know you have my back.
    Why do I feel like Dr. Seuss suddenly?

  17. I read your rant–*grins*–one I’ve had before; and I read the opposing rant, one I’ve also had before. (I don’t think the RC’s being produced today are truly romantic comedies. But I don’t think of Annie Hall as a comedy either–I don’t care how many people assure me it is.) However, as rom-coms prove time and again, comedy is subjective. (I would say romance isn’t, though maybe to a degree it is too. Some people think if their husband changes the oil in their car, it’s romantic, whereas others think it’s only romantic if he remembers to give you flowers. Both are romantic, I think, but it’s still subjective.)

    Comedy though is VERY subjective. I find Will Ferrell hilarious (that Land of the Lost fiasco aside). My friend Terri thinks he’s a complete bore (which is not untrue.)

    Romantic Comedy–I think–is an interesting irony. A very thin line to walk. Because in romantic comedies we want to celebrate love and falling in love, but the purpose is to laugh and poke fun at love. You have to be able to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously–and I suppose the same should hold true for love. If you take love *too* seriously, you get things like Romeo & Juliet, and I think one R&J in the world is plenty. The problem is that if you poke too hard or laugh too loud, you belittle love, which doesn’t deserve that. It didn’t do anything to you. Laughter shouldn’t be used to belittle people. Laughter is supposed to unite people.

    The opposing ranter (what was her name? It’s doesn’t matter–she’s forgettable) had some interview with an even more forgettable person, and he was going on and on about “WIT” and how “WIT” is no longer in romantic comedies. (I don’t think Annie Hall is that witty, but whatever.) And yes, Pillow Talk is more witty than The Bounty Hunter. (Old School is more witty than The Bounty Hunter.) But too much wit can ruin a perfectly good romantic comedy because wit is used to cut, belittle, and put someone in his place. Wit is the tool of cynics; and cynics have no patience for love or the kind of humor which is not mean-spirited.

    I don’t know why there is suddenly a dearth of good romantic-comedies (not even great–I’d settle for NON-ABRASIVE at this point), but I think it’s because a lot of writers are cynics and they let that dominate their writing way too much. They forget how to express joy.

    1. I think a lot of movies are made for fourteen year old boys which pretty much screws romantic comedy (I’m thinking of The Ugly Truth here).
      But I disagree that romantic comedies poke fun at love and romance. I don’t think any good romcom does that. I think romcom has to take romance seriously or it fails. Romantic FARCE pokes fun at romance, but not romantic comedy.
      Also, I think the point of reading is whatever the reader wants it to be. So it can be enlightening or it can be fun and it the best of all possible worlds, it’s both.
      Chelle, steal away. I think everything in this post has been said before and better, so you’re just passing it along.

  18. I not only applaud you, I also moon Dowd. Because a picture is worth 1000 words sometimes. Don’t apologize for being angry over her bullshit. She was snotty about a topic on which she had no correct information; nobody’s crying because she got her tush handed to her in her own clown-shoes. You have the right to be pissed. It’s a feminist issue. And your prof should have read the ethnography The Island of Menstruating men.

  19. Ahhh, A Crusie Rant! I’ve missed those!

    I love it when you rant. You sound smart and intelligent and actually have an argument other than “because you’re stupid and ugly”, which is what I would have to fall back on since I’m not nearly as eloquent.


    (And I may steal some of it for the next time I have to have this discussion with someone who’s never even picked up a comedy, much less a romantic comedy.)

  20. Yes! Jenny, I love your rants. They are so intelligent and articulate and they always make me think. I agreed with everything you said. But the part that really made me sit up and take notice was:
    “To begin with, romance should be based on more than “I’m hot, you’re hot, let’s go to bed.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not romance. Romance happens when people get to know each other, learn each other’s rhythms, work together for a common goal, share each other’s world views, sacrifice for each other, romance happens when being next to the other person has such an impact that you change…”

    Yes! Yes! YES! Shout it from the rooftops! (In case you didn’t notice, this is one of my pet peeves.) Lust. Is. Not. Romance.

  21. For a rant that was extremely lucid and cogent. Well done! As for dropping our romance novels and reading The Red Badge of Courage–the point of entertainment is escapism and fun, not enlightenment or self-improvement. I think somebody’s missing the point.

  22. “If you’re going to criticize the romantic comedy genre, first try to understand it and then discuss it intelligently.” Amen! This goes for health care reform and perimenopause, too.

  23. Would someone please explain to me the section in Dowd’s article where Sam seems to be calling Up In The Air a romcom? Because I’m a little confused as to how you end up viewing that movie as a comedy or as a romance. It had wit, yes, but I didn’t think the comedy or the romance were the main point–vehicles, yes, but as Jenny said, vehicles are not the same thing as the actual point. It is entirely possible that I misunderstood what was being said, so could one of you most brilliant people explain to me what he was talking about?

  24. You know, you could collect your rants into one volume, or more realistically a trilogy, and market it as Crusie’s Greatest Hits. We’d be all over that!

    1. It would beat the heck out of some of the sneering essays I had to read in Grad school. I well remember one essay, where Yvor Winters essentially said “I didn’t like this book, and neither did any of my friends.” Oh please.

  25. The Dowd articles really are terribly written.

    My favorite part is in the second one you linked to where she didn’t bother to read the books she’s bashing by name and even quoting from so she doesn’t know that Georgia Nicholson from “Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging” is, in fact, FOURTEEN YEARS OLD and not a chick lit heroine at all.

    Hah. I got a good laugh there.

  26. Did anyone notice that this Sam guy (Dowd’s major educated opinion here) is 28? When his iconic and classic movies that he refers to were being made, there were probably just as many movies made that compared (in people’s opinion) to the slammed movies in the article.(Ahem – Ishtar) And yet to read his comments, one would think that there are no good movies being made today.

    I would think that the reason he doesn’t consider that is because he wasn’t around then! I am his age and I certainly am less likely to think about B/C movies from the 40’s-70’s (or 80’s for that matter – still too young for some of them).

    Now if twenty years down the road people are still comparing The Bounty Hunter (which admittedly has some room for growth in quality ((I heart you Gerard Butler still))) as a great piece of film, then maybe there is room for commentary from a evil snob!

  27. Jenny – This post just reinforces my belief that your books should be turned into movies. I know you’ve covered this ground before but I would love to see a Crusie book turned movie. Or maybe someday you will venture into the world of writing screenplays? There could be an Oscar in your future! In my world you are the Queen of rom-com.

    1. Screenwriting is an entirely different language and I’m still learning the basics of fiction, so probably not, but thank you for the vote of confidence. Actually, if I’m going to learn a new story telling language, it’ll be graphic novels. I’m fascinated by that form. The written-by-committee process that film has now is not for me.

      1. Actually, my mom used to buy romance comics, and there were a few at my grandmother’s house. (-: I remember the one about the newlywed bride who was exhausting herself cooking and cleaning for her hubby, and I think the doctor suggested she go on strike . . . and twu wuv wins out even over dirty dishes (-:.

        Not really a romance, but really quite fun. Go for it! For some reason, I would love for you to steal Neil Gaiman’s illustrator (-:.

      2. Oh, dear mercy, Crusie gags as graphic novel sight gags… please, please, let this happen in my lifetime.

        The Foglios seem to be busy, so I don’t know who I want as the artists.

      3. Have you read Hereville? It’s a graphic novel about an 11 year old girl from a big family, who goes off into the woods after a witch and a monster – it’s awesome. Now that it’s in print, the author’s taken the online pages down, but the reviews/premise/cover should sell it.

  28. Standing, clapping…
    I’m late, its all been said, can’t think of anything to add.
    well done.

  29. Testimonial:

    Just found out my mom is taking off for a weeklong RV trek with farm-obsessed stepdad and her 89 year old mom (yes, my mother is a SAINT). She expressed slight trepidation and I said, Here. Take this with you.
    It was my copy of Bet Me.

  30. I <3 U!
    That was spot on. I have nothing else to add except to say that I loved your analogy about happy endings. I'm always trying to explain this to people. It's why I'm not a fan of Nicholas Sparks. I know so many people who are and they just don't understand how I'm not since they know I am an avid romance fan. So I tell them Nicholas Sparks stories are NOT romance to me! They have romance in them, but his books are tragedies!! Gack!

  31. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote about, how there needs to be an actual romantic arc, that the comedy portion can’t be crass humor that doesn’t move the story forward, etc. I even agree with the fact that it needs to have a Happily Ever After.

    But what do you do about a movie like Love Actually? Would that be considered a romantic comedy, or just a romance?

    1. It’s an anthology movie, which means it’s a series of short stories that are interwoven. Some of them are romantic comedies, some are romantic tragedies, some are just romances. I’d call Hugh Grant’s story a romcom. Not Emma and Alan, that’s a heartbreaker, as is Laura Linney’s. The guys who go to America are in a sex farce. Colin Firth is in a rom com. Keira Knightly’s in a bittersweet romance. The little boy’s is a rom com but his dad is in a journey story, rebuilding his life. I think that was the point, to look at romance many different angles, to form a pattern, a mosaic of individual stories that combined to make one theme: Love actually is all around us.

  32. Ms Crusie-

    I feel you’ve done yourself a disservice and couldn’t help myself from mentioning it.

    My significant other has introduced you to me in the form of a couple of your novels, as well as this blog. As a big fan of yours, she sent me this link this morning in hopes of helping me to better understand romantic comedies and her affection toward them. Unfortunately, I can only half-unfurl the Mission Accomplished banner.

    You have several thoughts that not only make sense to me, but also shed light into the dark corners of the romance genre that I’ve previously not understood. However, your tone seems more interested in slapping the other authors upside the head, rather than conveying these points. Perhaps this was your overall intent, but if you’ll forgive me, it jerks you from being an articulate educator into being Ms Snotty the Second.

    I would’ve appreciated more of your objective opinions not only on where romantic comedies have succeeded, but where they’ve failed (e.g., the vibrating undergarments.) There have certainly been times when I’ve thrown my hands up at a recent release because the character arc has become more of an inverted “V” when writers take shortcuts to get us to the spiralling-camera-kiss-scene (with a rainbow and a dozen white doves in the background.) In my mind, your description of an arc was dead on, but you’ve failed to drive your point home by either conceding a modern evolution of romance, or deriding it.

    For example, how many “modern” romantic arcs begin with “I think you’re hot so I can’t wait until we fall in love so I can sleep with you?” As you say, “To begin with, romance should be based on more than “’I’m hot, you’re hot, let’s go to bed.’” Perhaps I’m being naive in this regard, but a movie like When Harry Met Sally seemed to do this “the right way” – love up front, physical appearance/affection later. Don’t mistake me: it would truly be naive to think physical appearance plays no part in romance (modern or otherwise), but my thinking is that the love and its growth should be emphasized; why do the characters need an excuse to fall in love?

    The intent of the other article appears to me not as an indictment of an entire genre, but of the modern take on it – an opinion that I can’t entirely disagree with. I believe you’ve only partially succeeded in your response because you haven’t admitted that there are failures with the modern genre, or perhaps not failures but simply evolutions. This would further strengthen your points, which are already solid and don’t require any sneering. In any case, I won’t throw a cliche about taking the higher road, but it seems you’ve been drawn into a fistfight when you could’ve won without having ever thrown a punch (if I may be so bold as to genre-cross.)

    Or maybe I’ll simply be henceforth known as Mr Snotty the Second.

    Regardless, a pleasure.


    1. Hi, Adam.
      I think intent determines tone, and I really was going after Dowd and not trying to educate. I’d say you’re right that I sank to her level, but really I was already there because just as she wanted to make fun of romantic comedy, I wanted to go after her. Part of that is because we’re analyzing romcom every Friday night on Popcorn Dialogues so I wasn’t all that interested in doing the same thing here, part of it is that she was already on my list because of her feelings about romance novels and The Red Badge of Courage. I absolutely agree that if my intent was to educate, I could have left out the part about walking uphill through the snow. But what I’ve found is that if you want to get people’s attention, a calm, reasoned analysis of the situation often doesn’t get read. Also, I was really, really pissed.
      Anyway you should come over to PopD. It’s education there 24-7, and although we’re still in the 1950s, we are heading inexorably into modern times when, yes, there have been good modern romantic comedies. Here on Argh, I’ve pretty much bought property and started building condos on the low road.

      1. I would just like to say, for the record, your calm stuff is really very good (In Praise of Scribbling Women comes to mind) but your rants are just EPIC. I loves me some Crusie rant.

  33. The fundamental problem I have with this rant is that it’s directed at Maureen Dowd. Anytime I feel like being annoyed by a poorly-researched, flimsy op-ed piece filled with specious ad hominem arguments, I can turn to her column. She’s just a reliably sloppy thinker on pretty much any topic, unfortunately, and it always frustrates me because the opportunities for a real argument — a dialogue with thoughtful, reasoned, critical input from both sides — seem so lacking.

    As far as the subject, I think the fundamental issue comes down to what you mentioned in your second-to-last paragraph: movies or books about women are automatically second-class. The article is an exercise in the time-honored practice of proving how cool you are by talking about how much you hate something that is universally disrespected — if everyone agrees that movies about women are dumb, talking about how dumb they are is a way of showing off your intellectual credentials without actually taking any risk (or displaying any real intellect). I appreciated your rant considerably more, since you actually have something to say, and intelligent ways of saying it. Whether or not I agree with your definition of romantic comedy, at least you’re able to articulate one for me to consider!

    Also, I loved the movie Mean Girls.

    1. You know that really is key: “For the purposes of this argument, my definition of romcom will be . . .” and then proceed on that as common ground. Even if it’s not THE definition, it’s a place to start concrete analysis. It’s taken us awhile on PopD to get to the one I used in the rant (plus a formalist criteria) but it’s helping us discuss the genre by clearing away the fuzz.

  34. Dowd was given a Pultizer for cripe’s sake, doesn’t that mean anything anymore? I hold her and the NYT to a higher standard of journalism. This kind of ‘journalism’ belongs in People magazine. Or the National Inquirer.

    Getting on with my life now.

    1. Dowd has been criticized on many fronts for this type of sloppy journalism. Many of her op-ed pieces about religion have been ripped apart in recent months for their failure to do basic fact-checking or for making sweeping accusations without any facts whatsoever. Reading the pieces Jenny was referring to in her blog post above shows that it isn’t just the topic that Dowd has an issue with- it’s the premise of writing a well-reasoned article.

  35. Recently I fell down the stairs, twisted my ankle and chipped my rear end. My husband keeps following me with one of the kiddy pool tubes, telling me to sit. But I read this and had to comment:

    If I didn’t stalk you before and in my wildest dreams want to be you (or Krissie, it’s a toss up) when I grow up? I do now.

  36. Wow. I read Dowd’s column well before I came across your analysis, Jenny. It made me vaguely uncomfortable (like so many of her columns do), but I didn’t have time to analyze why. Thanks for doing all that heavy work for me. I really appreciate YOUR thorough review of her column, which helps to inform my own feelings.

    While I find Dowd to often be sharply intelligent and gutsy, I also often find her to be dismissive and, well, snobby. Of course, as you said, romance novels and movies are an easy target, a fact which has always struck me as misoginystic (sp?) or elitist or both. Thanks for being a great champion of the genre.

  37. Jacie: “But the implication that the entire genre is illegitimate because the critic doesn’t like the genre is just weird, especially when it is something as established as rom-com or gothic or sci-fi.”

    Porn is very well established — does that make it legitimate?

    1. Erotica is legitimate, so why shouldn’t porn be legitimate? It’s a form of expression. I will grant you, it’s usually not great storytelling, but it does what good writing is supposed to do, it evokes emotion and provide catharsis.
      I don’t think criticism should be based on a moral criteria. It’s perfectly legitimate to say, “This disgusted me and I don’t like it.” It’s not legitimate to say, “This disgusted me so nobody should like it.”


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