We are in a confoundingly complex point in gender relations, as evidenced by the number of books, NPR stories and articles on the subject. But while everyone is talking about the problem, no one has focused on the root of the problem, which is actually quite simple. From the late 1960s on, girls (for the first time in history) were raised to play sports, go to college and become independent, career-focused adults (more like boys). Baby Boomer parents changed the way they raised their daughters, but they did not change the way they raised their sons. As a result women now act more like men, but men are behaving as they were raised, like men–-and so, at present, Americans are undergoing a sexistentialist crisis of Woody Allen-sized proportions.
The very personal/universal nature of the screenwriting process means romantic comedies, by extension, are like celluloid dissertations on the prevailing romantic attitudes, notions, desires, fears, needs, and hopes in America. Between the popularity of the bromance and the inability of Hollywood to make even one halfway-decent romcom, like its most recent attempt, The Other Woman, what we’ve been witnessing for the past twenty years is evidence of this current gender friction playing itself out on the silver screen.
Judd Apatow and his compadres have been writing a lot of bromances, romantic comedies about the love of two or more men (often) acting out a second adolescence together, and a superfluous woman or two who occasionally make an appearance. Unlike romantic comedies of yore, the guys in these films aren’t not out to win the dame, they’re out to rescue or win the love of their best friend (see This Is the End as the most recent example). The guys in these movies seem very confused about what do with women, so they’ve conveniently written them out of or as a sideline to their (b)romances altogether.
But it’s understandable. A lot of men are adjusting to modern women’s independence and breadwinning careers –leaving many befuddled by her needs and how to woo someone who has it all. Well, let’s be honest, men have never understood women, but the difference now is that some men have simply stopped trying – as represented by the fact that a lot of guys find watching (or writing) a movie about a man ending up in the arms of his male best friend more appealing than winning the love of a woman.
The current spate of female-driven romantic comedies are just as telling as their male counterparts. The best of this genre are (were) character-driven comedies with some romance thrown in: Working Girl, Bridget Jones, Annie Hall, His Girl Friday. Our heroine’s name is in the film’s title because the story is about her and how love comes into her life. By contrast, romcoms today are to love what porn is to sex: plot-driven romances with some comedy thrown in. With titles like The Big Wedding and Leap Year the star of the movie isn’t our heroine, it’s the plot of her external complications that keep her from getting married. In addition, many of these plot driven-films, like Bride Wars and Confessions of A Shopaholic, speak to our heroine’s emotional journey: a love triangle not between two men, but between shopping and an unrealistic love interest, much like TV heroine Carrie Bradshaw famously having to choose between Mr. Big and her walk-in closet. Two men no longer occupy our girl’s interest, she’s in love with shopping/ having a wedding and a potential mate who’s as superfluous to her story as the female characters in a bromance.
But the focus on buying and power and buying power in these films makes sense. Women used to marry to be counted as a person, for income, survival. It was security. Now women are living independent lives, working and often out-earning men with disposable income to boot–wondering if and how husbands fit into the larger spectrum of their very full lives. As Nancy Meyers would say, “It’s Complicated.”
Once upon a time romcoms were so insightful as to the ephemeral nature of love that they earned Oscar awards. Women were written independent yet vulnerable, sassy with a good head on shoulders; men had bravado and strength, they were wise-cracking yet flawed, which gave them room to grow and become better men in order to win the dame’s heart. In the battle of the sexes, after a long day of fighting everyone got to go home and have great make up sex with the enemy. But these days, men and women on the silver screen leave the skirmish without having sex at all – because he’s off spending time with his bros and she’s with Barney’s or a Barney. With the current state of affairs (or lack of them), it’s no wonder the modern screenwriter has very little romance to write about.
In the dating and mating minefield we’re currently navigating, everyone’s flying blind. There is no paradigm, no history to learn from, no Aesop’s Fable, Shakespearean sonnet or Preston Sturges-like film in which to take solace. No one knows that the hell they’re doing and they’re lying if they tell you they do. Everyone’s doing the best they can, faking it till they make it in the Choose Your Own Adventure that is modern love.
But despite the current outlook, there is good news on the horizon: Firstly, Judd Apatow has come around. He did produce Bridesmaids and Girls, after all. And second, in “The War of the Sexes,” the film this generation of adults is currently starring in, we’re at the end of act two, at the dénouement, where the guy and girl are separated and have to find a way back to each other. The third act resolution is looking like a happy one, if not for us, at least for Millennials. Because parents are changing the way they’re raising their sons: to communicate, do the dishes and not be afraid of fashion (just like their sisters). As Gen Y matures, romance will flourish once again because they’ll respect the fact that male or female, everyone can do anything, wooing can occur across both sides of the aisle, and it doesn’t matter who’s wearing the pants in the family, so long as someone’s wearing them.
Emily is a writer of articles, screenplays and the forthcoming book, Slutty Isn’t A Halloween Costume: And Other Things Only Your Cool Aunt Will Tell You. Follow her @emilybracken.