Critics have long decried the odes to normative depictions of courtship, romance, love and marriage that are romantic comedies. Rare is the rom-com blockbuster that deviates much from the traditional script: Man meets woman (who is effortlessly beautiful, but also the girl next door). Man is not totally interested, for fairly mundane reasons. But after lots of buildup and “duh” moments, man realizes woman is the one. In the movies, last-minute love is everlasting and almost always wins. The saccharine, feel-good moments will drive any skeptic bonkers, and the relationships among gender, desire and expectations are overwhelmingly outdated. Yet somehow, we can’t stop watching these movies — perhaps with the hope that this time it will be different.
“Trainwreck,” written by and starring the current patron saint of feminist comedy, Amy Schumer, purports to flip the rom-com script by making Schumer’s character, Amy, commitment-phobic and her love interest, Aaron, played by Bill Hader, steadily pro-relationship. And who better to rewrite the script of traditional rom-coms? Schumer’s Comedy Central show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” engages critically with topics such as beauty standards, the male gaze and sexuality while still managing to be really funny. Although “Trainwreck” — the title a knowing nod toward the social tendency to prescriptively judge and label women’s behavior — has feminist moments, it nonetheless follows the patterns of traditional rom-coms, including at the end, when the guy gets the girl (or in this case, the girl gets the guy). Which raises the question, Is it even possible for a rom-com to radicalize romance?
At first glance, we appear to be well on our way. There has been a recent uptick in the number of rom-coms that depict a more diverse vision of the standard female protagonist. She is no longer a woman vying for romance but an independent women who is ambivalent about finding love. Amy in “Trainwreck” is a great example of this: She’s into her career, has sex like a man, has major intimacy issues (she hates when guys sleep over after sex) and isn’t particularly nice or sweet. Similarly, the protagonist in “Bridesmaids,” Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig), is an honest portrayal of a woman who isn’t ready to get married; she’s also a bit of a mess and is devastated that her best friend (Maya Rudolph) is getting married.
While directors and writers have become adept at infusing the rom-com formula with feminist humor and self-aware criticisms of the genre, few of them are able to break from the script of the happy couple at the end. Though these movies gave us a vision of something different, their main characters largely end up finding a romantic partner. And even in these cinematic attempts to uphold alternate modes of romantic fulfillment, it’s hard to imagine that those storylines are possible in real life for someone who is not like the protagonist — white or thin.
After all, in real life, romance doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s shaped by social expectations and their influence on our desires, from a reliance on patriarchal notions such as chivalry or the arrival of a Prince Charming to the barriers that stand between many of us — based on where we live, what we look like or how the world perceives us — and actually living our romantic dreams.
Breaking the script is hard. It’s hard in real life, and it’s hard in the movies, because we want to feel good when we watch movies. And we still don’t feel good about the prospect of a woman ending up single or outside a traditional relationship. Also, when you watch rom-coms (or movies in general), it’s hard not to root for the winning pair, especially if the characters are well written. Rewriting star-crossed love requires rewriting the rules of how we understand love, old age and our futures. And who wants to do that? It’s the movies!
There are, of course, movies that break from the happily-ever-after script. The wistful “500 Days of Summer” gave us a rom-com from a guy’s perspective: Tom, the protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), falls madly in love with his colleague Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings. It portrays honestly the conflict between how we hope love will be and how it actually is. Or, more recently, “Drinking Buddies,” an indie film in which, despite romantic tension and a deep friendship between the two leads Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), they don’t end up together. Or the movie “Her,” which explores the future of love, with main character Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his operating system (Scarlet Johansson), which is able to have multiple romantic relationships at once. These films leave viewers questioning the complexity of the human experience but possibly also feeling alienated.
Perhaps the rom-com that stars a woman who doesn’t find love is still too dark for us. Watching “Trainwreck,” I felt conflicted. I related to Schumer’s character, because I, too, have a more realistic (some would say hardened) outlook on love and romance. While her character is an exaggerated version of the unemotional has-sex-like-a-man woman, she speaks to an experience we almost never see depicted in movies: women who aren’t prioritizing their romantic lives. But the movie relies on a normative sense of sexuality and romance. For instance, by suggesting that Amy is promiscuous because she has been hurt, it doubles down on the idea that women are sexually active only if they are damaged in some way. And when she finds romance, it is with Aaron, a handsome, charismatic and exceedingly normal man who is best friends with Lebron James — a setup that manages to be both normative and wildly unrealistic.
Intertwining our personal lives with our political ones is always a complex process and, as single women often say to me, I don’t want my personal life to be a stand-in for feminism. I want both to be independent and to find a partner. And that should be possible. Perhaps in some way, believing that we can be independent and find people to love us as we are is a new vision of love and romance. But movies such as “Trainwreck” — authentic about women’s experiences in the contemporary love landscape but nonetheless normative in many ways — underscore the difficulty of completely breaking the mold. Who wants to take the next stab at it?