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Arts & Culture Culture National

A New Wave of Socially Aware Romantic Comedies Shake Up the Genre

The last-minute airport confession, the big proposal, realizing you’ve been in love with your best friend, the meet-cute boy–all are typical tropes of the romantic comedy genre that have filled the movie screens and infiltrated our psyches for the past twenty years. While many stereotypes of the genre remain the same, recent romcoms like  Love, Simon and To All the Boys I’ve Loved demonstrate new conventions of plot and characterization, including more diverse casts and younger leads.

Romantic comedies allow an escape from school stress, family struggles, or anything that may have you feeling down. They are simple, hopeful love stories, which are now aiming  to more accurately reflect the diversity of their audiences.

Love exists between people of all genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, but onscreen, it is rarely depicted as such. The cliché of a romantic comedy hinges on the lead–a straight, white twenty-something who works in the media or art industry and is trying to figure out their life. Take, for instance, Notting Hill, in which Hugh Grant owns a traveling bookshop, or Devil Wears Prada, in which Anne Hathaway plays an aspiring journalist working at a top fashion magazine.

Mainstream romcoms also send mixed messages to their audiences. We are often shown the need to compromise–a character changing themselves to get another’s attention, implying that something is fundamentally wrong with how they are. In the typical relationships portrayed on screen, the woman is the one who changes to please the man. By taking off her glasses or straightening her hair, the female lead suddenly becomes more “attractive”. Romcoms are often marked with a make-over montage in which the woman goes shopping for a new clothes, gets a makeover, and becomes more positively received. In movies, materialistic obsessions become the defining features of femininity. For example, in Devil Wears Prada, the main character Andy undergoes a major transformation when she is forced to conform to the environment of the fashion magazine she works at. Ultimately, she decides to leave this world behind because she sees how damaging it can be. Although the change was not for male attention, it was still done in the name of pursuing success.

This worries me for several reasons. Films in which the plot requires an appearance transformation has toxic implications for the young girls who watch women in these roles. Many films also feature women conforming to eurocentric ideals of beauty. Because new romcoms like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before have younger leads, they draw younger, more socially-aware audiences that expect different kinds of representation in terms of race and sexual orientation. Young audiences demand more of their actors and filmmakers and are able to be more vocal about their demands through social media. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter allow a more direct and immediate relationship between film actors and audiences. When a new movie is announced or an actor is cast in a role, it is common that actors will post about it on social media, thus eliciting much attention from fans. Their followers are able to pay much closer attention to who is cast in certain roles as well as what roles are made available. Social media has enabled fans to be more vocal about commenting and criticizing the film industry for its lack of representation.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved is a Netflix original movie released in August 2018 based on the book of the same name by Jenny Han. The movie stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo and centers on the chaos that ensues when a teenager’s love letters are revealed. The movie made headlines because it is one of the only teen romantic comedies that feature an Asian-American lead. Protagonist Lara Jean Covey is half-Korean and half-white. Centineo is 22 and Condor is 21, and both portraying high school students, making To All the Boys I’ve Loved seem more accurate to younger audiences. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Jenny Han explained what representation meant to her personally: “Growing up, I never got to see an Asian-American girl star in a teen movie, so I’m really happy to be a part of the film with Lana, and to see her be the hero of a story.” Later in the interview, Han revealed her hope that this movie will be a starting point for more stories to be told for a wider variety of people. Younger audiences then take on the progressive concepts portrayed in the movie and have the opportunity to experience more diverse role models than people in previous generations.

Love, Simon, released in March of 2018, is the coming-out story of teenager Simon Spier. He falls in love with an anonymous boy online and along the way, discovers his queerness. Another classmate outs him and he is forced to deal with the aftermath of this with his relationships with friends and family. It was originally a book titled Simon vs. The Homosapiens Agenda that was adapted into a movie. This movie quickly gained popularity because there are very few LGBTQ teen romantic comedies. It was described by film critic Alonso Duralde in The Wrap as “Call Me By Your Name’ through the lens of the Disney Channel.” Meredith Goldstein praised Love, Simon for its dynamic nature in her review of the movie for The Boston Globe. Goldstein explains it “Channel[s] the teen movie classics of the late John Hughes, but only the good stuff.” It has the sweet, grand romantic gestures and charm of typical romcoms while at the same time breaking character stereotypes of the jock, nerds, and theater geeks, etc and presenting a modern approach.

A film critic from The Guardian, Benjamin Lee, emphasized the lack of visibility of queer characters in mainstream film and argued that Love, Simon tackles “the constructed behaviors, the niggling fear of exposure – there are nifty, poignant insights into how terrifying an already terrifying time can be and, while it’s an experience we’ve seen on the big screen before (Moonlight’s middle section handled it heartbreakingly well), it’s never played out on such a grand stage before and at such a vital moment in time.” Like, Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight is arguably not appropriate for younger audiences because of its graphic content. Movies like Love, Simon are seen by children as young as seven or eight.

While movies like Love, Simon show wider LGBTQ representation, there is still a significant problem with not hiring gay actors to play gay roles. Although LGBTQ stories are starting to be told, they are not being told by LGBTQ actors themselves. This problem is present in Love, Simon, as well as Moonlight, and Call Me By Your Name. All of these movies had the opportunity to cast gay leads to play gay roles and yet didn’t. This phenomenon relates to the larger problem of of dominant groups being cast to portray marginalized groups. There is a long cinematic history in Hollywood in which white actors were cast to play people of color. For example, blackface and yellowface were commonly featured in movies such as Birth of a Nation, Cleopatra, and The Good Earth. When stories of marginalized groups are not told by the people they are portraying, the personal connection between the actor and the role is lost. The representation of LGBTQ actors is just as important as having their stories be told.

Recent films like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Love, Simon represent a new wave of romantic comedies focused on depicting greater racial representation in lead characters and telling stories of the LGBTQ community. I would not characterize the romantic comedy genre as realistic. But characters and storylines in movies are beginning to reflect realities of underrepresented communities because audiences are demanding a higher standard of the entertainment industry. Seeing someone who looks like you in a hero position is extremely meaningful to viewers. For one, it helps you visualize yourself in an empowered role and feel appreciated as you are. Increased visibility of marginalized races reduces the feeling of needing to change yourself to fit the model of eurocentric beauty standards. There are several ways representation in movies personally matters. For me, it was always halloween costumes. When I was little, I was never sure who or what I could dress up as because there were not many black female characters to look up to. When The Princess and the Frog came out, I was nine years old and that was the first time I dressed up as princess. I think there is something to be said for being able to wear a costume that you feel like you belong in. Something similar happened Halloween of this year. Many Asian-American women dressed up as Lara Jean Covey from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before for Halloween and commented on social media about the lack of costumes meant for people of color, specifically Asian-Americans. Nicole Clark wrote an article for Vice in which she interviewed Asian-American women who dressed up as Lara Jean. The common thread in the article seemed to be that these women were glad their identity could be apart of their costume. This goes to show the impact that having greater representation can having on individuals’ feelings of belonging.

Going forward, writing roles to be played specifically by women of color and LGBTQ people is important because when those voices are brought to light, it creates a space of appreciation, recognition, and belonging for viewers who identify with those underrepresented groups.