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The Problem with Romantic Comedies

35,000 feet in the air, I wake up in a haze and realize that I have four hours left until we land in New York.

Suddenly alert, I scroll through the flight’s movie library and settle on the 2009 romantic comedy, He’s Just Not That Into You.

The film starts with a voiceover about how girls from a young age are taught that a boy’s bad behavior means that he likes them. Women then internalize this message into their adulthood, and because of it, women cannot tell the true feelings of men. Gigi, Ginnifer Goodwin’s character, is an accomplished career woman who spends her days wondering if the mediocre guy she just met will be “the one.” She drools over men who treat her like crap, who do not call her back, and who have little attractive qualities. Worse still, she bends over backwards to try and get them to like her. The same is true for the other women in the movie.

I roll my eyes and debate turning the movie off and listening to the rumble of the plane’s engine for the next four hours, but soldier on after a sharp snore from behind me forces the decision in this direction.

I remembered the film vaguely, having seen some scenes when my mom watched it in the family room while I was working on a middle school science project. The plot did not stick, but one thing did: Justin Long’s line to Ginnifer Goodwin after her character tells him that the reason the guy she is interested in will not call her is because he is shy. To this Long's character says, “If a guy likes you, you’ll know.”

I suppose this line stuck out to me, the insecure middle schooler that I was when I heard it, because it felt like some sort of a gift; a bittersweet and blunt sentiment, but nevertheless, a gift. It told me that if their actions were not obvious, guys did not like me and that I should accept any overt male attention that came my way as a compliment. Conversely, if I did not receive that kind of attention, the fault was my own. I stored this knowledge in my brain allowing it to penetrate my thoughts throughout adolescence.

I will admit, it was funny to watch a reality where Scarlett Johansson is “the other woman” and Jennifer Aniston embodies the “always a bridesmaid” trope. However, after a while, the fact that all the women in the movie only seem to care about bagging a man (and obsessively so) became exhausting. The male characters are portrayed as aloof and easy-going, with many interests outside of forming relationships. Meanwhile, the women look desperate, needy, and appear to lack any form of a life outside of desiring men. And whenever the date does not work out, the woman is seemingly blamed for driving the man away with her craziness.

The movie tries to lend itself as a self-help manual on how a woman should change how she behaves to get the guy (and is based on a book that does such). As a result, the women make excuses for when a man does not call, and come up with grand explanations for why the guy will not commit.

This returns us to the, “If a guy likes you, you’ll know” line, which could be useful if interpreted as, “If a guy treats you like crap, he probably does not like you, so you should move on and stop wasting your time with a guy who treats you like crap.” However the movie’s interpretation is a far cry from this type of empowerment. Instead, the same line is interpreted more along the lines of, “Do not act so desperate and let the guy come to you, otherwise you will ruin the relationship by being too needy.”

This film and similar romcoms were a point of solace to my friends in high school and college who jumped through hoops and weaved conspiracy theories to explain why the guys they liked did not text them back: he’s just not that into me. The message my generation was gifted with was not, “He is not worth my time,” or, “He is a jerk and I deserve better” but rather that the guy did not like us, and it was probably our faults.

I dismissed the funk the film put me in by telling myself it was a relic of the past. I comforted myself with the thought that at least girls today did not have to grow up with these films, that there were instead options where women are not defined by their romantic proximity to a men and do not have to expend themselves just for the sake of a date.

That is, until a few days later when I watched a Netflix teen comedy called The Kissing Booth that was generating buzz on Instagram. The film follows a sixteen year old girl named Elle (Joey King) who has never had a boyfriend or even a first kiss. She does, however, have a crush on Noah (Jacob Eldori), the older brother of her best friend, Lee (Joel Courtney), and Noah is very much off limits. The teen dialogue, party scenes, and quirky awkwardness fueled all the best nostalgia for those classic 2000s romcoms, but things grew problematic.

One of the first scenes in the film shows Elle being groped by one of her classmates. She is then encouraged to go on a date with this classmate because, “You’ve never dated anyone, so it might as well be him.” Things get worse when a sort of sibling rivalry between Lee and Noah over Elle is revealed when Lee says, “I just wanted to have something he didn’t” after finding out Noah and Elle having been secretly dating. Rather than viewing Elle as a person, Lee treats her more like an object that he does not want to share with his big brother.

As the movie progresses, both Noah and Lee seem intent on controlling Elle. We find out Noah threatens every boy in school and tells them not to ask Elle out. When Elle stands up for herself by saying, "It is not your job to monitor my dating life. The days of you controlling my life are over," Noah smirks and replies, "We'll see about that." This may have been intended to be flirtatious, but it should have been a red flag. This, coupled with the fact Noah is portrayed as extremely violent and spends much of the movie arguing with Elle, should have sent her running for the hills. But, to my horror, it did not. She stays with him until the end.

I found that I was alone in my outrage when I saw countless fan pages dedicated to the love story in this film (also based on a book). It was a phenomenon. Few seemed to care about the film's toxic elements. I shuddered at the fact that an insecure middle schooler could watch this film and internalize the message that dating a guy who harasses you is better than not dating anyone at all, just as I internalized the “he’s just not that into you” sentiment.

Two films, almost a decade apart, yet it seems like not much has changed.

Are these my options? I wondered: to change myself for some loser who does not have it together, or to consider a relationship with my harasser because “at least he’s interested?” Watching these films in the crux of the “Me Too” era makes me wonder if progress is just a word we throw around, and if perhaps society’s narrow outlook on women is unchanging. While I hope this is not the case, I hope to see more films, particularly romantic comedies, work to prove this theory wrong.


Gabrielle Aku is an aspiring television writer and Senior in Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. In her free time she writes fiction, poetry, and personal essays.

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