Culture Pick – Romantic Comedies aren’t going anywhere

Zara Morgan, Contributing Writer

When most people think about classic 1980s and 1990s romantic comedies, or “rom coms,” they might think nostalgically of idealized tropes such as love at first sight and happily ever afters.

However, the same cannot be said about the romantic comedies of today. Movies such as “Sleepless in Seattle” starring Tom Hanks are seen as timeless pieces that can be watched over and over again while newer rom coms such as “The Kissing Booth” are scrutinized for being “mediocre” by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. 

Elliot Panek, a University of Alabama communications professor with expertise in film history, said he believes romantic comedies of the 1980s and 1990s saw large success due to big name actors. Billy Crystal and Sandra Bullock were actors known for their work in the romantic comedy genre and were able to bring in crowds because the viewers were familiar with the content these actors typically produced. 

“Here, stars are really brands. When I go to see a Matthew McConaughey movie, I know roughly what kind of character he’ll be playing, and I would be disappointed if he diverged from that,” Panek said.

Romantic comedies from decades ago are still beloved today largely due to nostalgia. Viewers enjoy rewatching these films to remind themselves of simpler times when things were “easier,” like the era without smartphones and the internet. Additionally, watching these romantic comedies reminds many of their youth. 

“It’s nice to look back where things are pretty clearly defined, you know how that story is going to end,” Panek said. “So it’s maybe a craving for sort of a well defined social space and simplicity.”

Another reason for the popularity of old romantic comedies is algorithms on streaming services. Streaming services will recommend you watch similar movies to what you have already enjoyed to keep you engaged and watching. With both older and newer movies being placed side by side, they’re seen as equal.

“I think the streaming platforms have kind of flattened the hierarchy between new stuff and old stuff,” Panek said. “And I find that it’s also true in music. It’s true across the board, but it’s playing out in romantic comedy that it’s just as easy for you to access an older romantic comedy as it is a brand new one.”

Older romantic comedies have seen an even larger boost due to social media. Panek noted how frequent viewers of social media platforms such as TikTok will see a post of a clip of an older film which creates the desire for the user to watch the entire film. 

According to romantic comedy director Nancy Meyers in an interview with Vulture, the demand to act in and produce romantic comedies has gone down since the 2000s. In the past, actors such as Matthew McConaughey made their fame through being known for their work in this genre of film. Nowadays, the romantic comedy is almost seen as a stepping stone for actors before they move on to the next thing. 

Romantic comedies have also suffered from the fact that there is a lack of prominent filmmakers that have the desire to make these types of films. Many iconic romantic comedy filmmakers such as Garry Marshall, who produced “Pretty Woman,” have passed away. Other filmmakers in the genre like Robert Luketic, who produced “Legally Blonde,” have simply moved on to other genres. 

Panek said that America has dominated much of the global entertainment industry due to higher production values. At the height of this cultural export, the ideas of love and romance of Hollywood became synonymous with the ideas of love and romance for the world. 

“We exported a lot of our stories, and as a consequence, we exported a lot of our culture,” Panek said. “You get into the 21st century and that changes. You have these kinds of cultural production hubs in India, China, South America — all over the world — that can produce their own high budget content.” 

Romantic comedies have also seen a large decline in theatrical release representation for monetary reasons. Movies that appeal to large audiences are more economically viable and therefore are the ones that are more likely to be produced.

“It might be that it’s really hard to tell a story that appeals to a broad audience’s conception of what’s funny and what constitutes ideal romance,” Panek said. “Social media and various sorts of forces over the past 20 years have led to some extent to a fragmenting of culture. So you have these smaller audiences that have their own definition of what love is and what’s funny.”

Furthermore, Panek said that it is much lower risk and lower cost to create films and limited series for streaming services that target specific audiences compared to a feature film that is going to be distributed globally. 

The romantic comedy genre of today has found itself an area of the internet where viewers love to hate. Influencers on YouTube such as Alex Meyers and Dylan Is In Trouble have found that they can make money off of rewatching and criticizing both old school and modern romantic comedies. 

“When I think of a critic, I think of an expert, someone who’s just spent 10,000 hours watching this stuff, and I don’t have time to do that. I think a lot of these YouTubers have done that. They’ve done the homework,” Panek said. “And that’s something that not everyone is good at, right? I mean, anybody can tell you what they hated and what they liked, but not everybody can sort of spend the time to go through all this content, be entertaining, and be articulate about why this is so great or so bad.”

Whether you’re a lover of the classics or a fan of hate-watching the Netflix originals, the romantic comedy has a special place in many hearts. It’s great at not only entertaining but also at giving the audience something they can relate to. Even though most viewers don’t live in a perfect world where everyone gets their happily ever after, many can connect with characters going through tough times in life. 

“I think it’s fascinating to see how [romantic comedies] reflect the viewer’s internal lives,” Panek said. “Our perceptions of relationships and love are things that take place inside of our own heads. Often they’re very private but they’re reflected and shaped by these public stories about how people fall in love.” 

While the romantic comedy genre may rise and fall in popularity, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re here to stay. 

“As long as we’re willing to define romantic comedies broadly, and say, well, it describes, you know, inclusion of romance and comedy, then the sort of underlying desires in the audience are still there,” Panek said. “Romantic comedies are going to be around for a while.”