In defense of the concept of romantic comedies

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice

Thus begins the greatest romantic comedy in the history of romantic comedies. With Valentine’s Day approaching, movie studios release a number of mostly banal, mostly Saccharin, mostly dim-witted romantic comedies. The whole genre of romantic comedies has acquired a reputation for stupid, escapist fantasy aimed at “foolish” women. Even the nicknames for such novels and movies–chick lit and chick flick–denigrate the concept.

But note that Jane Austin’s famous opening line is not directed at a woman in want of a husband but at a man in want of a wife. Ms. Austin understood something that even the addition of zombies cannot completely diminish: whom one chooses to spend one’s life with is one of the most consequential decisions a human will make. This was even more the case in Ms. Austin’s time, when, at least among the respectable classes, marriage and child rearing were supposed to be congruous. And it is as true for men as it is for women.

Modern social liberals may take the stance of being non-judgmental on the weakening linkage between marriage and child bearing. However, the social sciences increasingly demonstrate the importance of this linkage. Further most social liberals (present author included) hew to these traditional values in their own lives: the rate of divorce and out-of-wedlock child bearing is quite low among Blue-State college graduates.

Given the importance of finding a companionable mate and co-parent, the quest for a happy marriage is both important and explicable. That circuit court may be superior to family court in prestige and pay reflects our culture’s misjudgment about the relative importance of money and family. Certainly money and career are of some importance to human happiness, but stable and supportive relationships are vastly more important. A man with money and career success but unhappy in love is an unhappy man. A man who is beloved by family is likely happy in all but the most dire career and monetary circumstances.

To the extent romantic comedies deserve scorn it is because they treat the marriage as the ending point, rather than a starting point–assuming a “happily ever after” that even the young should recognize as a fairy tale. Further, too often, modern romantic comedies treat a woman’s search for love as a quest to be “rescued” from her circumstances as opposed to finding someone worthy of sharing her life. Marriage and child rearing are consequential and important, but they are never effortless, and rarely easy.

One of my favor recent romantic comedies ia the CW television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  It embraces musical theater to highlight emotions that the characters couldn’t realistically express through traditional narrative. I also adore its attitude towards its Golden Globe best-actress winning lead character–an Ivy League educated lawyer up for partner in a powerful New York law firm who ditches an upward mobility that is making her miserable and lonely to move to a backwater Los Angeles suburb, West Covina, to pursue an unrequited high school crush. While the series is deliberately ambiguous about whether the pursuit of this crush is delusional or heroic, it is unambiguously supportive of her decision to value happiness, specifically romantic/relationship happiness, over professional success.

One reason folks love Pride and Prejudice is that Elizabeth Bennet refuses to settle for a marriage that would rescue her from the poverty that spinsterhood would potentially entail. Instead her sparing with Fitzwilliam Darcy is (unwittingly to them) a pathway to discovering whether they are truly companionable. Something similar happens in the best of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Historically, marriage has been a business and breeding proposition. With these works begins the concept of a “companionate marriage,” based upon mutual regard and affection–and romance. Given that this newer model of marriage is now the ideal, romantic comedies address a vital part of contemporary culture. Denigrating individual examples as bad movies is legitimate; denigrating the whole genre as “chick flicks” is not only sexism, it’s misguided sexism.

…Of course only the truly naive believe that the wedding is the beginning of eternal unending bliss. Which is why we (especially we older marrieds) have the comedy of remarriage.

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