Changing Ideologies within the Romantic Comedy Genre in the 21st Century

It is evident that throughout film history, there have existed ideologies within films which can be clearly acknowledged and understood by the viewer, or exist in more of an implicit fashion. Messages from the “dominant” culture or implications from capitalist outlooks have been indefinable within films of all genres, especially within Hollywood films, (Turner, 1998). Author Grahame Turner has defined and discussed ideologies within film, from his book ‘Film as a social practice,’ the author stated: “both the production and reception of film are framed ideological interests…the relationship between each text and its culture is traceable to ideological roots” (Turner, 1998). The Oxford Dictionary defines ideology as “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy” (Oxford, 2013). Ideological messages can differ depending on the social, economic, or political state of society, or what culture the film has been made within or to suit. Ideology is often said to be decided upon by the ‘ruling class’, and is a one sided ideal of how society should  run; and often not always agreed on or accepted by the wider society (Hess, 1978).  With regards to the genre film, Grant (2007) also argued that genre movies “tend to be read as ritualised endorsements of dominant ideology” (Grant, 2007).

Many genre films can be shaped by the social milieu of the time they are made, and classic genres tend to offer the audience a solution to the ongoing problems in society. These solutions are often portrayed through genre films where the main protagonists are presented with a conflict, and the film follows up and concludes with a logical as well as moral resolution  to the problem (Hess, 1974). As ideologies can portray the state which society is in or the general social attitudes of individuals of the ‘ruling class’, it is evident that ideologies within film can also adjust and adapt to changes within the social society. With regards to Hollywood genre films, research on the subject from many authors has shown that there exist historical ideologies within film which have adapted over time. This essay will focus particularly on how ideology has changed from film to film within the Hollywood romantic comedy genre, or “rom-com” genre, looking at classic and modern-day films.

Hollywood Genre films are easy to identify by audiences as they are categorised into different segments by the industry to make distinct differentiations between the film types, as well as to attract key audiences for marketing purposes. Classic Hollywood genre films such as the Western, the Action and the Gangster film, all arguably contain ideologies which suggest how to deal with conflicts in the best way; and can often represent current issues in society at the time when the film is released into cinemas, (Hess, 1974). The traditional romantic comedy genre contains strong ideologies, but these films focus less on dealing with conflict and more on the importance of finding true love and getting married.

“The basic ideology within the romantic comedy genre is the primary importance of the couple” (McDonald, 2007). The highly popular film genre which features films that generally tend to present a sweet love story, is considered a very escapist and fantasy type genre for audiences, with the light-hearted and humorous plotlines of romantic comedy films (MacDowell, 2009). From the early days of cinema, the romantic comedy film predominantly focused on finding romance; with the explicit ideology that love is the key to an ideal and extremely satisfied life. This traditional ideology within the film genre is portrayed in such films including: “The Awful Truth” (1937), “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), and “Roman Holiday” (1953). The implication within these films that love is eternal, and that you will be fulfilled if you manage to ‘live happily ever after’, has however been challenged in the more recent years of film making; as society has inevitably faced changes which has influenced the content of the romantic comedy film. Such implications and messages of marriage, building a family, and achieving a ‘functional’ relationship, are now portrayed differently as the Western culture has adapted to more realistic issues which can exist within relationships. Such influences can include the effect of the second wave of feminism in the sixties and seventies; which positively changed women’s rights and their role in society to becoming more independent – and this was reflected in film’s of these eras and onwards. Other factors include the greater acceptance of homosexuality in society, stronger racial-equality laws being implemented, and the overall modernisation of gender roles, “the genre has managed to remain successful as it has adapted to social and cultural conceptions of love and intimacy (MacDowell, 2009).

A significant example of a film which challenged the traditional messages within romantic comedy films was in 1977 when the movie ‘Annie Hall’ directed by Woody Allen was released. This film’s plot completely dropped traditional structure and ideology within the genre as the film ended with a couple breaking up. Many of Woody Allen’s romantic comedies challenge traditional ideologies and focus more on intimidate relationships without marriage, often with a depiction of the main characters’ anxieties about monogamy and their move towards self-reflectivity. The directors film “Vicky Christina Barcelona”(2008) also features a more in-depth look at love and relationships outside of marriage, with the two leading females stuck in a love triangle with a charming Spanish bachelor, who mutually endure the quarrels between passion, sex, and spontaneity; against marriage and commitment. Other more modern films which compare in this unconventional way are “The Break up” (2006) which includes a time-frame of a couple’s relationship ultimately failing, as well as the romantic comedy “500 Days of Summer” (2009) where the leading female refuses love and marriage as she is adamant that it only ends in failure and unhappiness.

Perhaps since the Western society became more free post the Second World War along with the changing gender roles and the greater acceptance of sexuality, films which focus more on these controversial topics have become more popular and accepted by audiences. Many “rom-coms” that were released in the sixties were the first to explore single life, as divorce rates rose significantly after the second wave of feminism, changing perceptions of love and marriage portrayed on the big screen, and delivered the message to women that love does not conquer all (MacDonald, 2007).

Author Tamer Jeffer McDonalds book “Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Genre”, explores the changing ideologies within the film genre from the 1930s onwards, providing a very in-depth and interesting look at these films within their social context at the time. McDonald suggests that in the late 20th and  the 21st century, there is more of a focus on popular culture and consumer products, rather than the social context which the film was made within (McDonald, 2007). With focus on modern day romantic comedy movies, McDonald discusses the “post-feminist” film, the “bromance” and the “hommcom”. Regarding the “post-feminist” film, the author is referring to films such as “The Women” (2010) and “Sex and the City” (2008) which contain strong career-driven successful women who seek love and romance despite great personal success, suggesting that people and particularly women, ultimately need love to feel fully complete (McDonald, 2007). The “bromance” and the “hommcom” compare in a similar manner as they are explained to be a kind of modern day “rom-com” which focus on the perspective of the male, which is another example of how these film types completely oppose with older more traditional ‘romantic comedies’, where a focus was solely had on the perspective of the woman seeking true love (Macdowell, 2009).

It is evident that in the 21st century there has been an array of films which conform to these more modern elements. Some examples of these have been produced by director Judd Apatow, an American film writer, director, and producer. To name a few of Apatow’s booming romantic comedies, some include “Knocked up” (2007),” Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008), “I Love You Man” (2010), and “This is 40” (2012). All of these films and many more written and directed by Apatow all contain the same recognisable quirky and refreshing humour, and feature modern-day themes which aim to portray ‘modern-day’ less conventional relationships.

Looking at ideologies in more modern-day romantic comedy films, it is clear from suggestions by author’s McDonald and McDowell that there has been a shift in what messages are being portrayed to audiences. The romantic comedy genre has managed to survive and remain successful to the present day, despite much criticism, and this is likely aided by the fact that they are so open to change (MacDowell, 2009). Although ideologies have indeed alternated, if one is to analyse and evaluate modern-day  films within the genre, they would still see that the desire to find love still exists within them and therefore within society. This is very clear within the 21st century as marriage is still a very respected institution. The difference with modern romantic comedies is that rather than just teaching the audience that they need to fall in love and get married, there is now more of a focus on the make-up of relationships; presenting the truth that love is complicated and can come in different shapes and forms.

Judd Apatow’s film “Knocked Up” is an example of this, which features an ambitious single woman (Katherine Heigl) who works for a television show and meets a man (Seth Rogan) at a night-club. The two end up sharing a one night affair, and subsequently Heigl’s character then becomes pregnant. The story unfolds as she decides to keep the baby and attempt a relationship with the man she very unexpectedly is to have baby with, along with tackling other issues surrounding the situation. The film deals with difficult circumstances in a very light-hearted as well as humorous manner, and overall is a very heart-warming watch as the unlikely romance turns sweet. This is an example of a 21st century film which focuses on romance but in a much less conventional way, perhaps suggesting that finding love has never been an easy structured process; and modern “rom-coms” are finally displaying this fact explicitly. This type of situation would never have been displayed in cinema in the 1930’s, and the film also tells its tale from both the female and male perspective; unlike that of the older traditional romantic comedy movies. “Knocked Up” however still focuses on love and romance, but clearly in a more backwards form, and tackles the processes which couples in reality sometimes must go through before making their relationship work.

Another example of a romantic-comedy which contains more modern-day ideologies is the said ‘spin-off’ of “Knocked Up”: “This is 40”, released in 2012 and also written and directed by Apatow. This movie which contains a handful of the same characters from “Knocked Up”, is very interesting and rather refreshing with its take on the common problems of married life. Despite the fact that it is indeed a comedy, the film is rather outstanding in the way that it deals with very truthful and common issues of marriage in an uncomfortably realistic manner (French, 2013). The ideologies within this particular picture completely contrast the classic romantic comedy film, as it rests in the romantic comedy genre, but aims to portray the difficulties of love instead of only the generic ‘happily ever after’ story. This film is similar to “Knocked Up” in terms of the ideological messages within it as it conveys a very truthful reflection that relationships and married life is not always simple.

With an evaluation of the fundamental ideologies within the romantic comedy film genre, it is clear that there have been some changes over the decades as historical and social events have influenced standards and norms within the Western society, and have therefore affected the make-up of films within the genre. McDonald and MacDowell critically evaluate some of the specific changing ideologies that have been present within romantic comedies since their early days, and these have differed depending on the time period of the specific film or films released. However much romantic comedy films are criticised by film critics, it is still a very remarkable film genre as it suitably changes alongside movements in society; allowing “rom-coms” to remain very captivating and enjoyable with audiences, and will more than likely continue to adapt in the coming years.

References

French, P., 2013. This is 40 – review. The Guardian, [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/feb/17/this-is-40-apatow-review [Accessed 24 April 2013].

Hess, J., 1978. Film and Ideology. Jump Cut [online]. Available at: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC17folder/FilmAndIdeololgy.html [Accessed 23 April 2013].

Hess, J., 1974. Genre films and the status quo. Jump Cut, [online]. Available at: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC01folder/GenreFilms.html [Accessed 23 April 2013].

MacDowell, J., 2009. Romantic Comedy: Love, Nervousness and Intertextuality. Alternate Takes, [online]. Available at: http://www.alternatetakes.co.uk/?2009%2C2%2C222 [Accessed 23 April 2013).

McDonald, T., 2007. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Genre. Columbia University Press.

Grant, B., 2007. Film genre; from iconography to ideology. Wallflower Press.

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3 Responses to Changing Ideologies within the Romantic Comedy Genre in the 21st Century

  1. Johnc58 says:

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