Modest Proposals
Romantic Comedies May Be More "Realistic" Than We Think
Modest Proposals is a recurring chance for a rotating stable of Review to Be Named writers to sound off on pop culture at large, presenting ideas, theories, or observations about areas of pop culture that might not fit comfortably into our other running features. These ideas might not always be right. You might not always agree with them. Even the writer might consider them patently absurd. But this is Modest Proposals, and these are things worth thinking about.

It's conventional wisdom that romantic comedies are inherently ridiculous. Four out of five dentists agree that they stretch credulity. Every single annoying friend you have has probably spoiled one by saying "oh come on, THAT would never happen!" There is more running in romantic comedies than the average American man can muster, and so many moving speeches about the future you'd be forgiven for thinking every leading man in those movies could probably do pretty well on the campaign circuit. Everybody knows that the romantic comedy as a genre bears almost no resemblance to reality. That's just how it is.

Except that it isn't, not really. It's important to challenge the conventional wisdom from time to time, especially when that conventional wisdom is wrong. And so, we here at Review to be Named are proud to introduce Modest Proposals. This feature has no set schedule, no set writer, and no set subject matter. This is simply a chance for everyone on staff to sound off on the entire wide world of pop culture. Sometimes we will comment on current events. Sometimes we will make zealous defenses of the things we love. Sometimes we'll throw out crackpot theories we might not even believe, just because they're worth considering. This is a safe space for ideas; this is the place where the real meat of pop culture commentary can get done. So let's get to work.

I'll be the first to tell you that When Harry Met Sally single-handedly ruined me for romance. That movie (which, to my mind, is the best romantic comedy ever made, at least in our modern conception of the genre) taught me that real love could be hidden behind platonic relationships. It taught me that girls will always come around to realizing how great I am if I just give them a decade or so to get over hating me. It was the movie that got me thinking I could really fall in love with my best friend, and that she would love me back (especially if I knew enough of the random quirks that attracted me to her and listed them off on New Year's Eve. It would help if Harry Connick Jr. would write me a soundtrack, but hell, I can get it done without that, right?). This movie gave me completely unrealistic expectations; it prepared me for a love life that doesn't exist in the real world. So how am I here arguing that romantic comedies are reflections of real life?

Because I, and I expect most of the rest of society, have been thinking about romantic comedies wrong pretty much forever. We all view them as reflections on how our love lives should go. We look to them and think, "this is how I will meet the love of my life." And that's as ridiculous as watching Lethal Weapon and thinking "this is how sound police investigations are conducted." romantic comedies don't reflect real life, at least not in the way we think about them currently. The events of a romantic comedy are unlikely to begin unfolding for you soon after you read this piece. I doubt you'll go outside, accidentally spill coffee on someone, and "meet-cute." However, I have a theory that romantic comedies do honestly replicate what it subjectively feels like to be in love. This is partially due to the fact that everyone wants their relationship to be the perfect one they have seen in these very movies, but I think it is mostly due to the fact that we all constantly edit our lives internally to make them meet our own subjective expectations of what life we should be living.

Think about it this way: How many times have you heard a guy say, "From the moment I saw her, I knew"¦"? I guarantee you at least one couple you know tells this story of their meeting. You might even be in one of those couples (or maybe you used to be). But how many times in your life have you really looked at someone and known immediately you would date/love/marry them? I'm not saying instant attraction doesn't exist, I'm just saying that's never how we tell the story ex post facto. My bet is the guy claiming he knew he was going to marry a girl the second he saw her was thinking something very different in those actual formative moments. But that probably makes a less romantic wedding speech, so we dress it up and couch it in ideal terms.

The same can be applied to any number of things about any type of romantic relationship. When you love someone (or when you're just very infatuated with them), life can take on the feeling of one of those mid-movie montages set to the pop song of the moment. Of course, your life doesn't actually happen in montage (that, I imagine would be really confusing), but especially in hindsight, those whirlwind first few weeks, months, or even years of a relationship can boil down to a few moments, set to the perfect song, that make it seem like you fell in love in the span of three minutes.

When you're in a relationship, the narrative you create about how you met, or the stories you tell about how adorable you are with your significant other, are usually altered in some minor ways if not completely invented, to reflect not the way your relationship actually plays out, but the way you'd like to think it did.

We even like to view the moment when our relationships get serious in terms of romantic comedies. What happens at the end of the second act of almost every romantic comedy you've ever seen? There's a big fight and the characters wonder if they really are meant to be together. Sometimes they break up, usually they are completely estranged for at least a few scenes until that big running scene leading up to the speech that convinces the other person to give the relationship one more chance. Again, I should be clear I'm not implying everyone breaks up or that we all jog more regularly and make eloquent speeches more often than we actually do. Yet usually a relationship enters the next level once you've seen the darker side of a person. I find it difficult to consider myself in a serious relationship until I've had a real fight with my significant other (and I do really hope I'm not alone here, because that might mean I'm mentally unstable, which would be a real blow to my ego), until the knives have really come out for the first time. Why? Because how can you know if someone is really right for you until you know what they will be like when the shit hits the fan and things get real (don't kid yourself. In any long-term relationship, things are bound to get real at some point)? The big fight scene and the sappy resolution that follows it don't happen in real life the way they do in the movies. But think back on these times in your past (or current) relationships, and I'm willing to bet it kind of feels like they did.

For years now, we've been viewing and dissecting romantic comedies like they are cinema verite. We've been watching them like that previously mentioned annoying friend watches a sci-fi movie, yelling "come on! Everyone knows light speed is impossible" as if that makes the Millennium Falcon any less awesome, or any less meaningful (oh yeah, I could totally write an installment of this feature on the Millennium Falcon. Don't push me, or you'll have only yourself to blame). The romantic comedy is fun as escapism, sure. All entertainment is fun as escapism, and if you want to view your romantic comedies as just 90 minutes where you can turn your brain off, more power to you. But to my mind, most escapism isn't really escapist at all; most of it is couching another message about the way we live our lives in a package that is diverting enough we don't notice the deeper truths being imparted by it. In fact, I'll take it one step further: some of the entertainment that tells us the most about the way we live our lives, that gets at the deepest truths about human existence (and some of the ugliest ones as well) is the stuff we all pretend we aren't supposed to think about any further.

Try this out next time you pop in a romantic comedy: instead of thinking about how unrealistic the plot machinations are, and instead of pining for the real world to more closely resemble what you see on the screen, attempt to think about the way you react to benign moments and minor events inside of a relationship. My bet is, whatever romantic comedy you're watching looks more like your last relationship did from the inside than you've ever realized before (unless it's a Matthew McConaughey movie. Those bear no relationship to any reality I can imagine).

Whether this means that we all lie to ourselves about our lives because we've been conditioned to want the standard "happy ending" by decades of exposure to these movies, or that the romantic comedy is actually one of the most prescient genres out there, I really can't tell you, and I suspect the difference matters only on a personal level. The question of whether romantic comedies have conditioned us to view love this way, or whether they just capture this self-editing tendency is a harder one to answer for me. I came of age in the era of the romantic comedy (I was born the year When Harry Met Sally was released, in fact), and have never lived another way. But personally, I tend to think that the genre has always been more perceptive about the way we live that we give it credit for. Humanity has always had a penchant for self-mythologizing, for exaggerating and telling tall tales to make ourselves look better, and I tend to doubt that has ever stopped at the bedroom door. Viewing your romance as "one for the ages" has to make it easier to stay with someone when the going gets tough, and living on the inside the way that romantic comedies portray love externally has likely been a coping mechanism since the dawn of monogamy. A very wise person once said that "love will keep us together" (It was Tenille, in case you were curious. The Captain had nothing to do with it), but I bet that even underneath that cheese, she would have admitted that sometimes, we need a little more, and when reality isn't giving it to us, well, we're willing to take care of it through some helpful self-deception.

Romantic comedies are inherently ridiculous, but less because they are unrealistic than because they consciously replicate the way we all subjectively experience relationships. That doesn't make them any more real, of course. But it does make them somewhat more important. And it also means that "happy ending," may be closer than you think. Or at least, that's what you'll tell yourself.

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