“Love exists; love is everywhere. Repeat it three times.” In defense of a maligned genre.
Like many small-town Mexican girls, I grew up watching soap operas behind my mother’s back. Sure, she’d let me watch the ones airing at 4:00 p.m. where a bunch of kids wore crazy outfits and traveled in time while they sang. But my heart was truly set on the ones not age-appropriate for a second grader’s eyes, the ones that aired at 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and, the best one by far, the 9:00 p.m. telenovelas. My babysitters would sit with me and teach me to embroider while we watched soap operas called things like Amor real (Real Love), Corazón salvaje (Wild Heart), and Mañana es para siempre (Tomorrow is for Always). Our arrangement was simple enough: I wouldn’t tell if they didn’t tell.
I loved every second of the over-acted, under-produced, and underwritten shows for one very simple reason. No matter how convoluted or crazy or plain stupid the storyline got, the premise was always the same: love conquers all.
It’s a sweet message that transcends social and generational differences—it gave me something to talk about with my friends, my aunts, and even my grandmother (provided we were careful enough to tip-toe around the steamy scenes every time we recapped the latest episode).
I’m always ready to admit that I love soap operas in a very pure, non-ironic way, and that there’s really not much guilt to my guilty pleasure. While my friends eventually learned to roll their eyes at my beloved soaps, I stuck with them, spending most of my weeknights glued to the little TV in my kitchen while dinner was made. (My habit subsists today: I’m currently following one called Un camino hacia el destino (The Path to Destiny); it is completely ridiculous and 100 percent amazing.)
So, I can only blame myself for my terrible taste in movies. It’s really my own fault. Had I listened to my wise mother and avoided filling my young, impressionable brain with more than five hours a week of crazy love tales, maybe I wouldn’t be so unhealthily obsessed with the idea of a happy ending.
Maybe then I wouldn’t enjoy romantic comedies as much as I do.
I’ll say it very quickly so it’s less painful for us all: the magnificent rom com, the wonderful chick flick, is my favorite movie genre. There, band-aid ripped off.
I told you I had terrible taste.
But truth is, I’m perfectly happy in my Nora Ephron, candy-filled land. I still don’t know what is so wrong with being formulaic when the formula yields my very favorite result, what my telenovelas taught me to search for: the confirmation that love really does conquer all.
If you’re a cinephile and are still, for some reason, following this essay, I must prepare you for another terrible revelation—so terrible it made an entire classroom of film lovers literally cringe: to me, my entire fondness of the rom com genre can be explained by Love Actually and Hugh Grant. (You know what? Whatever. Hugh gave me Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Two Weeks Notice, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Let us blissfully ignore Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and long live Hugh!) Love Actually (2003), which is dangerously close to being my all-time favorite movie, opens at the arrivals gate of London’s Heathrow Airport. Hugh narrates: “General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends […] If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
And that, right there, is why I love romantic comedies. We operate under the very same hypothesis—love exists; love is everywhere. Repeat it three times.
As Love Actually unfolds, it explores affection in its many different expressions. The film talks about the hardships of old love, the excitement of new love, the warmth of paternal and maternal love, the loneliness of unrequited love, the comfort of love among friends. It condenses the entire “chick flick” universe into one movie and after 130 minutes of loves-that-were and loves-that-weren’t, returns to Heathrow Airport. The movie is asking us to keep looking for love.
Romantic comedies are, to me, another form of what Love Actually’s arrivals gate represents, only much easier to access (except when my sister forgets to tell me she changed the password to our joint Netflix account). They’re like a battery packet; whenever I feel too tired or disillusioned or upset, I watch Harry meet Sally time and again, or Audrey and Gregory holiday around Rome, or Cher be clueless. An infallible antidote, after approximately two hours of clichés, laughs, and, inevitably, tears, I am myself again.
Contrary to what these few paragraphs might have you believe, I don’t watch these movies because they help me escape reality (although sometimes they do, and sometimes that’s nice). Rather, I watch them because they help me understand reality in a different way. They help me remain strong in my romantic naiveté, which is in many ways central to my identity. I am grateful for my near-dependence on these films, as they have allowed me to understand that I believe in love not because I see it in their fiction, but because their fiction has equipped me to find love outside of the screen even when it’s not “particularly dignified or newsworthy.”
Still I have, despite all odds, slightly grown up and can identify what is wrong with rom coms as I watch them. I’m not blind to plot holes, weak jokes, or bad acting. I am, however, still infatuated enough with the genre to be able to ignore its problems. Or, perhaps I value what these films do for me just a little too much to turn my back on them. But I can make fun of these films too, I promise! In truth, some of my favorite romantic comedies make fun of the clichés most firmly cemented in the canon. In a recent example, Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd’s 2014 They Came Together picks up classic scenes from You’ve Got Mail (1998), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993) to build a movie that parodies the genre (or maybe they’re just poking fun at Meg Ryan?) while simultaneously contributing a charming addition to my chick flick collection.
They Came Together is as absurd as it is smart, and, I think, is a great example of the direction romantic comedies are (happily!) heading in. The genre is becoming quirkier and edgier, and is doing a lot to re-imagine the meaning of happy endings. While I am a sucker for the classic Happily Ever After and adore seeing the main couple reaffirming their undying love for each other as the sun sets in the background, I am becoming more excited to see the possibilities of happiness beyond finding true love’s kiss.
Modern rom coms are now messier, not because they showcase bad writing, but because they are more representative of how love and relationships actually are: flawed and messy. And their heroines, I would argue, are stronger and more independent, but they are also imperfect (you know, like actual human beings).
Here, it’s impossible not to think of Amy Schumer’s 2015 Trainwreck. The funny, raw, moving, R-rated film centers on a, well, trainwreck, who must let herself believe that she deserves to be loved before learning to love. The film is as much about the protagonist’s relationship with her own demons—and her having to face them before resuming her quest for love—as it is about her relationship with her romantic interest. Schumer proved that by allowing the story to depart from the exact formula that cemented the genre’s foundations, romantic comedies have opened the door to an almost uncharted world of comedic possibilities and to the opportunity of connecting with their audience more honestly.
Trainwreck proposes its version of Happily Ever After as its leads promise to try to make their relationship work. In fact, the movie’s ending is not a happy ending at all, but rather a very happy moment after the film’s Grand Romantic Gesture, and it’s very much aware of it. It thrives on it, even; its partial irresolution is what makes it special, filling it with hope, but mostly with a sense of pride at its protagonist putting her relationship with herself first.
This is an ending I would probably never, ever, ever see in a two-hour Sunday special finale of any of my soap operas. I mean, if a telenovela does not end in a double wedding or a passionate kiss before a waterfall, you could probably just call it a day and declare the whole production a failure. In soap operas—my hopelessly romantic, guilt-free, guilty pleasures—happiness is still dependent on the success of the main couple.
Because I believe in soulmates despite all logic, telenovelas remain my happy place. The hopeless romantic in me goes there on vacation. They’re safe, and I stick with them through the memory losses and surprise evil twins because I know exactly what I’m in for. Unlike everywhere else, I know that the love a soap opera guards will unquestionably be okay.
But romantic comedies have become something far more important to me than a happy place. Even though telenovelas forged my outlook on the world from an early age, romantic comedies have become (surprisingly) sobering for my la vie en rose reasoning when it comes to love and my own relationship with it. Telenovelas feed the part of me that believes true love exists; rom coms feed the part of me that believes it exists but hasn’t found it yet.
If telenovelas taught me about the fantasy, rom coms, especially the most recent ones, have taught me about the fantasy with a shot of reality. They remind there are other kinds of happy endings, and other kinds of love. And that suits me. Together, I feel, the genre and I continue to look for love, and together we do a little bit of growing up.
Curtis, R. (Director). (2003). Love Actually [Motion picture on DVD]. United Kingdom: Universal Pictures.
Wain, D. (Director). (2014). They Came Together [Motion picture on Netflix]. United States: Lionsgate.
Apatow, J. (Director). (2015). Trainwreck [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.