Our fear of letting women be flawed has taken the magic out of romantic comedies

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Meg Ryan attends the CFDA Fashion Awards in June, 2017.

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Meg Ryan has popped back into the public sphere, writing a delightful essay for the US Instyle magazine on the lasting influence of her haircut. You know the one: it was short, but with long bits sprouting out the top. Extremely ’90s.

As Ryan noted: “I got the famous haircut mostly by accident – in French Kiss I played a character stranded in Paris without luggage, money, or a place to live, so it was a stretch to think she had much opportunity to shampoo.”

Alas, while her stylist was working on it with a curling iron, she accidentally singed off a chunk of her hair. The rest is history.

Ryan writes intelligently about what it means to have been famous in the ’90s, comparing it to radioactivity, in that “long after the original offence, you still feel the effects”. 

Make no mistake, the Meg Ryan effect still reverberates throughout pop culture. Almost 30 years after When Harry Met Sally hit cinemas, movie makers are striving to recreate that cute, urbane, uptight woman who falls in love without knowing it.

Try as they might to anoint Reese Witherspoon, she is not the natural heir to the romantic comedy throne. Her most recent effort, Home Again, flopped last weekend. Witherspoon has Sally’s determination and haughtiness but she’s too knowing, too invulnerable, for us to care.

Reese Witherspoon isn't the natural heir to the rom com.

Reese Witherspoon isn’t the natural heir to the rom com. Photo: AP
 

This is the problem with romantic comedies today. It’s not the genre or the idea that women have outgrown the notion of being swept off their feet; but that in trying to cover all feminist bases, and appeal to today’s allegedly empowered woman, the female leads have no chinks in their armour.

It’s as if movie makers are terrified of a woman being humiliated on screen, so they harden the characters to the point of appearing, frankly, inhuman.

It’s not like they didn’t try, though. For years after the success of When Harry Met Sally, movie makers decided to split Sally Albright’s personality down the middle. You either have romantic comedies with quirky or infantilised women, like Zooey Deschanel, Renee Zellweger, Isla Fisher, Penelope Cruz, Drew Barrymore and Kate Hudson, or uptight ball-breakers like Katherine Heigl, Sandra Bullock and, often, Jennifer Aniston.

Ryan’s Sally Albright showed it was possible to be both uptight and lovable, high maintenance and smart, yet miss what is hiding in plain sight. The character, after all, was based on Nora Ephron, who wrote the screenplay. In this sense, it’s not Julia Roberts but rather Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes who is in many ways Sally’s TV heir.

Elaine was a witty and sophisticated New Yorker but could turn on an almost canine aggression if she didn’t get her way. This rage was steeped in an unselfconscious unawareness of self.

PLANNER Feb 14 - FRI When Harry Met Sally FILM STILL Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. 

Similarly, the now cliche phrase of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City – “I couldn’t help but wonder” – was refreshing, because Carrie didn’t know enough to be certain of herself, which is why she made so many mistakes.

But by the time the movie came around, all the women from Sex and the City knew exactly who they were in their fabulousness and they weren’t going to take shit from anyone. If they did, they could articulate perfectly how they would process it.

This device is all over TV, which makes sense. Movies have, for the most part, been hijacked by two-dimensional comic-book characters or kickass women who love fighting (not that I don’t appreciate Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson and Gal Gadot for their efforts).

Look at Lena Dunham in Girls, who perfectly articulated her dysfunction. Look at the women on Broad City who play up their awkwardness, so we know that they know they’re really super smart and feminist. Same with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Same with The Mindy Project.

Look at Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck – an almost perfect romantic comedy, except for the fact that Schumer appeared to be winking at us the entire time. Schumer is currently developing a comedy with Jennifer Lawrence and it worries me to think it will revolve around two women who love boozing and calling men out on their shit. Where is the surprise in that?

It’s not that there haven’t been great romantic comedies since 1989. The Wedding Singer, Wedding Crashers and Crazy Stupid Love were all high points, but largely because of the vulnerability of the men in those movies. (Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams always seem to be playing characters too smart for everyone.)

In this image released by Universal Pictures shows Amy Schumer, foreground, and Bill Hader in a scene from the comedy,

Amy Schumer, foreground, and Bill Hader in Trainwreck
 

I can’t help but wonder if this is why we are so fixated on reality TV. Could it be because it’s the last place women are allowed to be surprised? I know it’s often exploitative, and tightly-edited, but reality TV is now the only place where women – and men – don’t see what’s hiding in plain sight. Instead, they are free to be seen in all their sprawling, messy, complicated vulnerability.

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