I fancy myself a 90’s rom-com fanatic, (see bio.) For as long as I can remember (second grade, specifically), my list of favorite movies has stayed essentially the same. For the record, my list of favorite romantic comedies from the 90’s includes, but is not limited to; You’ve Got Mail, French Kiss, Notting Hill, Sleepless in Seattle, Joe Versus the Volcano, While You We’re Sleeping, and Pretty Woman…all of which my family owned on Laserdisc.
As a child I only owned one Disney movie on VHS, The Jungle Book. The strong female characters I found in my rom-coms were the only princesses in my life. Tom Hanks may as well have been my Prince Charming. I can clearly picture my dad rotating a selection of giant mirrored laserdisc rom-coms when I got the flu for two weeks in second grade. And now every time I get sick, down in the dumps, clean my room, or find myself feeling completely in love, I return to my old friends.
Aside from the aforementioned nostalgia, I thought about why these films are so important to me, and why that same emotional need is not met through modern films. Then it hit me: it’s the women in the films, that tug my heartstrings. I would argue most romantic movies, and non-romantic ones come to think of it, are designed to make the viewers fall in love with the men. Whether it’s one of Judd Apatow’s chubby yet sweet manboys, or the hunky, deep, twisted soul in one of Nicholas Sparks’ movies, we learn to care for them while the depth of the female characters remain shallow and untapped. In Knocked Up, viewers see Seth Rogan’s character, Ben, transform from a stoner, screw-up to a mature adult and father. Meanwhile, Katherine Heigel’s character, Alison, shows little change aside from her pregnancy and remains the same sensible, career-driven woman, displeased with Ben’s recreational habits.
I see the women of 90’s rom-coms as real women. They wear real clothes not solely intended to accentuate their skinny yet curvy figure, and they don’t always look perfect. In French Kiss, Kate doesn’t change her outfit for ¾ of the movie, despite the fact that she’s travelling through France- a country famous for its fashion. In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy is not the stereotypical fashion-forward city girl. She has messy hat hair, wears baggy sweaters and jeans, and a floor length winter coat throughout, because guess what? The movie takes place in the winter in Chicago and that is what most of us look like here at that time!
In You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen Kelly plays a smart bookshop owner fighting for what she believes in. It is no surprise that the movie also happens to pass the Bechdel Test; Kate has bigger concerns than men. In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy helped teach me the importance of family and fuel my dreams of traveling the world. (I won’t say that her baggy sweaters didn’t influence my own style, either.) In French Kiss, Kate is quirky and loud and makes strange facial expressions. She always expresses her feelings – albeit sometimes neurotic, she is never portrayed as nagging or unattractive. The point is, these women seem more real.
Another defining characteristic of these love stories is the absence of overtly raunchy jokes and explicit sex scenes. The movies are funny, really funny actually, but it’s because of witty banter and smart humor. I am not a prude and I am not saying that sex takes away from the love story, but these movies possess such charm in the storylines and dialogue that allow us to whole-heartedly believe in the romance. The movies don’t need sex. It is like Kate tells Luc, “you can disconnect from everything but a kiss. A kiss is so intimate–two peoples’ lips together, their breath a little bit of their souls…a kiss is where the romance is.”
The genre as I know and love it simply does not exist anymore, and not just because the 90’s have ended. With few exceptions (looking at you, 13 Going on 30), if you want to see a love story in theaters today, your options are frequently limited to a painfully romantic and sad ‘chick-flick’ featuring a likable but unrealistically gorgeous female lead, or a comedy featuring a nagging, yet smoking hot, female lead, where the romance is masked behind crass humor.
Disclaimer: I am by no means a film critic, and am under no false impression that this very specific film genre contains the greatest pieces of art on screen, but it is something that made me think and I think is worth mentioning.