News & Politics

Act Like a Lady? 7 Romantic Comedies Stuck in the 1950s

Why are rom-coms so regressive?

Photo Credit: letxy_ at Flickr.

This weekend, the cheeky relationship comedy Think Like a Man hits theaters, and already the positive reviews are pouring in, particularly for its all-star cast: Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Hart, Meagan Good, Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall. It’s an Ocean’s 11 lineup of romantic comedies, and the chemistry and likeability of the characters has been almost universally noted in film reviews.

The plot, however, isn’t receiving as much love as the actors. Based on a self-help book for women written by comedian Steve Harvey (who also has a part), Think Like a Man follows four women and their deadbeat/doggish men as they use the eponymous book (meta!) to try to get them to commit. Harvey’s advice tends to be typically broad and misogynistic on the teaching-women-how-to-catch-a-dude front—don't bone for 90 days?! okay, Queen Victoria—and other life advice you could surmise from the title, Think Like a Lady, Act Like a Man.

The book (and film) are quite similar to the origins of another gross romantic comedy, as writer Jozen Cummings points out: He’s Just Not That Into You, which started as a line on “Sex and the City” before blossoming into an actual self-help book and subsequent film. I’m definitely going to see Think Like a Man this weekend, and I saw He’s Just Not That Into You too, but my personal problem with both is that they’re based on the premise that straight women should have to acquiesce or somehow manipulate or “train” their deeply flawed male partners. That it’s our responsibility to mold them into better people. That we would rather be with said partners, even if they’ve been total shitheads to us, than face a life without marriage or commitment. What about the joys of being single until someone worthy comes along?

With this in mind, and despite my willingness to throw $13.50 at a Steve Harvey vehicle just to keep actors like Henson and Union in the public eye, here’s a list of the grossest rom-coms with their heads in the 1950s. Warning: tons of spoilers below!

1.Sex and the City

The crème de la crème  and the complicated palette some feminists love to hate. Certainly "Sex and the City" the TV show did a lot for frank talk about orgasms throughout the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and had a certain resonance with the concept of independent city women during that time. That said, the chasing-of-unavailable-man thread throughout the series was a serious downer, and culminated in its lowest point in the 2008 film of the same name, when Carrie finally unites with Mr. Big, who then leaves her at the altar. After nine years of screw-ups, though, she forgives his incessant narcissistic commitment-phobia after he... builds her a walk-in closet. The ultimate in bourgie gender essentialism, and don’t even get me started on the writers’ attempt to include “diversity” after years of criticism of their whitewashed portrayal of New York City. Jennifer Hudson is the best, but casting her, the sole black character, as Carrie’s assistant? This is the sound of me vomiting.

2.What Women Want

This 2000 film’s grosser in retrospect considering it stars Mel Gibson, noted domestic abuser, but the premise was already pretty reprehensible. Gibson plays high-profile advertising exec Nick, a sleazy womanizer who miraculously gains the ability to read minds after an electrical accident. Being a piece of human trash, he uses it to manipulate and steal the ideas of his new co-worker Darcy (Helen Hunt), whom he resents because his boss actually deigned to hire a woman. (Believable plot element.) He basically swindles her out of everything and then seduces her. Obviously he’s meant to be a detestable character, but what’s gross about this movie is the redemption story: after he basically tries to screw her over (and screw her) for her job, he learns from his mistakes and Darcy gives him a second chance. Sorry, no: those of us who’ve been subject to gender discrimination in the workplace would never, but this sends a message to women that if only he apologizes, his assholish past behavior can be absolved. And that message is regressive baloney.

3.My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Imagine you could date an actual superheroine, who saved babies with her superhuman strength? That would be awesome, right? OH, OF COURSE NOT, because in this gross revision of a superhero film, Uma Thurman’s “G-Girl” becomes immediately possessive, jealous and vindictive of her mortal boyfriend, and takes the concept of revenge to superhero-scary levels. She throws a live great white shark into his apartment! It’s the crazy ex archetype blown up into a misogynist nightmare, and its legitimately funny parts are depressingly overshadowed by the curdled concept. The end does have a redemptive element, but so does every poorly conceived romantic comedy, and I’m not buying it.

4.Why Did I Get Married?

One of Tyler Perry’s first forays into seriousness outside of his Medea success, I wanted to like this based on the cast: Janet Jackson and Jill Scott!, for two, and Malik Yoba. The premise was realistic enough—a group of black professionals having conversations about the difficulties of their relationships and marriages—but Perry has a problem with stereotyping women, and essentially the script (which he wrote) blames each of the “shrewy” and conniving women entirely for the misery of their male partners, in a way that is difficult to watch. The sequel came three years later, but doesn’t make it better.

5.Shallow Hal

THE WORST: Jack Black’s character Hal Larson falls for Rosemary Shanahan after being hypnotized into seeing only her inner beauty, so instead of an obese and homely woman, he gets Gwyneth Paltrow. Her loveliness transforms him into a reasonable and unshallow person, so when he realizes he loves her—fat Paltrow, not svelte Paltrow—we are expected to believe he is a reformed and newly wonderful dude. We do not.

6.Maid in Manhattan

Interracial romantic comedies are super-rare, and even rarer when they don’t make hay of their interacialness (shout out to Something Newand Jungle Fever, though). Jennifer Lopez, being one of the only women of color who’s a staple of the white romantic comedy, is somewhat refreshing even when the romantic comedy is the worst thing ever. Here’s an exception: Maid in Manhattan casts Lopez as a stereotypical Latina maid in a rich Manhattan hotel, where she will be rescued off her feet by Ralph Fiennes’ high-profile politician. It had shades of Pretty Woman when it dropped—and all the gendered classist implications that go along with it—but now it’s got double the ookiness thanks to the specter of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. And yet: she poses as a rich woman (sin of sins) and allows the politician to believe she is someone she's not, offending not just gender but bumming out my class sensibilities. Hollywood needs to call Tropebusters.

7.The Proposal

Here’s another stereotype that all powerful women are manipulative assholes: Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Reynolds’ insufferable boss, who essentially blackmails him into marrying her for a visa by promising she’ll publish his book later. Of course she has no intention of doing so, and hilarity ensues, at the expense of a rare portrayal of a high-powered woman in Hollywood as a complete jerk. Gender roles are reinforced. Their work here is done.


Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.