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Friday, April 12, 2024

UC Davis lecturer, student discuss romantic comedy stereotypes, heteronormativity

A gender studies lecturer and a student point to potentially harmful tropes and more inclusive plotlines that they hope to see in future romantic comedies

By SOPHIA PLACHE-CREECH — features@theaggie.org


Every Valentine’s Day, many of us curl up on our sofas and watch — and day dream about — romantic comedies from our childhood, but many of these early 2000’s romantic comedies are now being discussed and reframed as problematic because of some of their sexist and heteronormative plotlines. 

Some students believe that romantic comedies portray false narratives of women and paint them in a negative light while reinforcing and adding to stereotypes about the way women act in relationships. They can also create unrealistic expectations about how relationships should be and write gender roles for men and women, according to second-year gender studies major Sachi Gunderia.

“When you’re looking at the different types of women in these movies, you can put each one into boxes,” Gunderia said.

“Ten Things I Hate About You” characters Kat and Bianca are examples of some of these tropes. Bianca is a more “conventionally feminine” character whose actions often revolve around boys. Kat is more moody and a passionate feminist. These characters exemplify the stereotypes that feminists are angry and standoffish and that more feminine women aren’t intelligent. 

Gunderia explained that women are far more complex.

“I can be a feminist and love pink and not be angry all the time,” Gunderia said. 

Furthermore, Gunderia said that in many movies, female characters’ arcs often revolve around men, which she said is backed by the Bechdel Test. The test evaluates sexism in movies by checking for three criteria: (1) two female characters (2) having a conversation about (3) something other than a man. 

“It requires so little of a movie,” Gunderia said. “Just two women speaking to each other about anything other than a man. So many movies do not pass this test. For the reverse Bechdel Test with men, [more] pass, which is a great representation of how messed up the media is.” 

Dr. Sarah Thompson, a lecturer on film in the gender, sexuality and women’s studies department, shared a similar sentiment regarding the Bechdel Test.

“[It] is such a low bar to clear and yet so many films fail to clear that bar, and this realization gives you a starting point to ask why that might be,” Dr. Thompson said via email.

The romantic comedy “Love Actually” does pass this test, with a single conversation between a mother and daughter about a lobster costume. But Gunderia pointed out that even some of the movies that pass do so with conversations revolving around topics stereotypically discussed by women, like babies, marriage or wine. 

“How hard is it to have two women talking about literally anything else?” Gunderia said. 

Gunderia said that these movies also construct narratives about how women should act in relationships, which can lead to self doubt and make women change their behavior to appear more “attractive” to men. 

“Men like the unattainable, cold women in movies,” Gunderia said. “Why are these men so attracted to the word ‘no’?” 

Another concern that Dr. Thompson pointed out is that many rom-coms are fairly heteronormative. 

“The assumption is usually that everyone is heterosexual and must be monogamously paired off, probably with marriage and children in the works, before life is complete,” Dr. Thompson said via email.

In “Love Actually,” although there are nine relationship story lines, each one involves a man and a woman and most of the characters are white — the only character that isn’t doesn’t have any dialogue. 

Gunderia said that even in recent movies that include more queer relationships and diverse casts, a lot of the representation makes that representation the focal point ofthe plot or seems like tokenism. Dr. Thomson expressed the ways in which they hope future rom-coms will show more realistic relationships. 

“I’d like to see more and different kinds of rom-coms,” Dr. Thompson said via email. “Queer romcoms that don’t revolve around coming out, polyamorous romcoms, romcoms with body diversity that don’t present that as an obstacle to overcome or overlook, romcoms where a short term relationship [that] can end and still be considered meaningful.”

Overall, Dr. Thompson said that many people can recognize that these movies are not real life. 

“Spectators are not unthinking sponges who just absorb everything we see,” Dr. Thompson said via email. 

She suggested instead of refraining from watching these movies, viewing them with the ability to critique their tropes and stereotypes.

“We can watch a film and ask, what do I like about this, and what feels wrong about it?” Dr. Thompson said via email. “If you’re able to do that, and romcoms give you pleasure, I say watch them.”


Written by: Sophia Plache-Creechfeatures@theaggie.org



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