You’ve Got Male: How Rom-Coms Have Secretly Been Holding Women Back
As a 30-year-old American woman, I grew up assuming that the female protagonists in the romantic comedies of the 1990s and early 2000s were representative of a new era of modern women and career success. Today, I’m not so sure.
Like many young girls, my pop culture interests ebbed and flowed with the latest fads during my formative years. But even as I matured from Polly Pockets and The Baby-Sitters Club books and progressed onto American Girl Dolls and the all-girl singing group Dream, rom-coms remained a constant in my life. Those easygoing, light-hearted stories became a staple in any context: mom-and-daughter dates, “sick day” movie marathons, birthday pizza parties, school bus band trips — you name it.
At their core, these movies were empowering. It was the first time I saw so many leading ladies headline on the big screen. Between Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Garner, and Anne Hathaway, a powerful slate of role models heralded female ambition, independence, and of course, a killer wardrobe. With each passing year, three to five new releases joined our family DVD collection.
I wasn’t the only one. Between 1995 and 2005 (during my peak adolescent period), more than 80 movies classified as “romantic comedies” hit U.S. box offices. Conservatively, I’ve seen at least 40 of them.
When you factor in time spent re-watching my favorites during snow days and slumber parties, I estimate having spent more than 150 hours consuming rom-coms in that decade alone. To put that in perspective, consider this: In a 180-day school year with 42-minute classes, that’s on par with the number of hours that I spent learning biology.
However, looking back as an adult, I’ve noticed a troubling trend about the basic plot structure of these movies. Even though these films star women as the leading roles — it’s still men whose jobs and careers tend to hold more power or authority. It’s worth asking: What culture norms and social cues had I picked up on during this highly impressionable period of my life?
To investigate, I took a closer look at my favorite rom-coms from the era, categorizing the role or career chosen by the female lead vs. her male counterpart. Boxes shaded in green show which character held a role or career with higher status or more implicit power. Boxes in gray represent the roles that are arguably equal in terms of the power dynamic.
What do you notice?
Of these 32 films, 21 portray men as carrying more prominent or powerful roles. Only 4 movies highlight women with higher status positions or occupations than men, and 7 offer “peer relationships” of individuals of similar status.
Remember: By definition, chick flicks cast women as the lead. These are movies promoting “girl power,” independence, and living the American dream. They are supposed to be our heroes and our role models. And yet — by and large — these characters still seem to put a ceiling on their own personal ambitions, instead pursuing men who carry more power than they do.
In other words: chick flicks and rom-coms have been tricking us for years. Rather than position women as the forefront of success, they have subtly been reinforcing the gender stereotypes that we are now fighting so hard to eradicate in the modern-day workforce.
A brief history of rom-coms
The “era of the romantic comedy” typically refers to the 20-year period from 1990 to 2010, when rom-coms ate up box office profits and dominated the cultural scene. These blockbuster successes include, among others, a litany of titles you’ve probably binge-watched on weekends growing up: You’ve Got Mail, Never Been Kissed, The Wedding Planner, and How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
In aggregate, this genre was undeniably optimistic and upbeat. They were fun, easy, and essentially guaranteed to dismount with a happy ending. And these movies were basically required to cast a woman in a leading role, allegedly showing us all at the time that you could have it all — a career, great friends, a fantastic apartment, and the icing on the cake: true love.
Unlike my mother’s generation of movie-watching, women my age were starting to see these women-narrated stories taking place later in life, highlighting for the first time that it’s okay for women to get through their 20s without getting married. Just look at When Harry Met Sally, The Bridget Jones Diary, or My Big Fat Greek Wedding for a few examples. Yes, you can (and you should) have a career as a woman, these movies said. Get yourself taken care of first — and then figure out the love in your life.
This is very different from the Romeo and Juliet saga, where love comes first as a teen, or what we explored in even older movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, where women marry early and rarely leave the home.
And yet, a closer look at these rom-com storylines reveals a deeper truth. Consider You’ve Got Mail, where a local bookshop owner gets run out of business — but ultimately winds up with the businessman whose chain bookstore replaced her own. Or Never Been Kissed, when a shy newspaper reporter poses as a student to get a second chance at high school, but falls in love with the English teacher who thinks she is just one of his students. Or one of my personal favorites, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, in which a big-city magazine editor gets caught up in a “love competition” with the publication’s advertising executive, who is secretly in on the bet.
Some of these plot points are based on fireable offenses on the part of the men. (It’s never okay to date your student, even if it turns out she’s of age.) Some of these situations are just plain rude. (Would you seriously consider a relationship with the man who ran you out of business?) And you’ll notice that these relationships are not equal. Whether through implied financial success (advertising or business executive), authority (English teacher to someone thought to be a student), or both, men carry the upper hand. It’s sometimes subtle, but it’s there.
Aside from the power dynamic, another cultural bias is prevalent. When you break down that same set of 32 movies and assign categories to the roles and careers of each character, another worrisome pattern emerges: None of the women aspire to career paths outside of the liberal arts world.
In fact, the two most common roles that women play in these films are either roles tied uniquely to their femininity (princess, cheerleader, “Miss Popular” in school) or a career in writing and editing.
By contrast, the top roles played by men in these films are distinctly more aspirational, with roles such as lawyer and executive making the most common appearances. Men in these movies also generally exhibit a wider array of career options, including politicians, architects, doctors, and chefs. Just like we see in the real world.
In the tech industry, when integrating machine learning into our algorithms to make smarter recommendations for users, there is a risk of using a “flawed” training set of data. If you only study photos of cats, your algorithm will be biased about what animals it can properly identify. Any animal with four legs (including a dog) will incorrectly be labeled as a cat. This is a technological bias.
We talk less about the “training data sets” in our own heads. If we watch dozens of movies featuring women who only pursue liberal arts careers that carry less prominence than men, what bias are we teaching ourselves? And more importantly, how can we change this?
If you can’t see her, you can’t be her
It’s a complicated and thorny topic. Collectively, we’re unpacking this question more each day by asking why certain business norms seem to be preventing women from making it all the way up the career ladder to the most coveted spots at the top. Having this discussion is a very good thing.
But it’s harder to actualize a goal if you can’t identify with anyone who has previously accomplished it. This has spurred the launch of the notable #SeeHer social media campaign. When we highlight examples of women who have achieved significant and varied career milestones, suddenly there’s someone to look up to, a role model — maybe even a road map.
So what’s the side effect of a lack of role models? If an entire generation grew up with chick flicks featuring women who rarely aspired to greater heights than their male counterparts, how has this affected our perception of gender dynamics? If we each watched dozens of movies featuring an archetype of a “successful woman” equating to a big-city magazine writer job, how has that impacted our own career aspirations?
I can only offer my personal experience: I tried the big-city magazine writer thing and took two internships at two top-notch publications. Neither one had the means to hire me on as a full-time writer. Eventually I landed a NYC job at a third publication, which paid a mere $14/hour, a rate that barely covered my own rent and ultimately led to several years in debt. Needless to say, I realized pretty quickly that this pathway was not the idealized version of independent success that these movies would lead us to believe. Why have we portrayed this as the best women can do?
Yes, of course, romantic comedies are fictional. They are designed to be funny, far-fetched versions of real life. But, given enough exposure to this type of mass-media depiction of women’s roles, it seems likely that we’ve ingrained some of these biases deep inside.
Over time, we consciously and unconsciously internalize these cultural norms, evaluating ourselves and others in comparison to them. Usually without conscious awareness, we grow up trying to emulate whatever culture deems to be most valuable because we all want to be desired, loved, and wanted.
Given this, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to assume watching 150 hours of romantic comedies may somehow reset some internal switch about the power disparity between the genders — and maybe even our own careers ambitions or expectations as women.
The question is: Can we change this? Is there a way for us to rebrand our own internal biases?
Rebranding our generation
American society has already started to reject the classically written romantic comedy. Women have begun to point out how romantic comedies have “ruined them” or called out the mismatched expectations that “everybody is a writer.”
One video compilation goes so far as to reimagine how different some of the “happy endings” might have been to our favorite movies if the characters (male and female alike) had taken on more modern-day feminist ideals:
As a country, we’re actually producing fewer rom-coms every year, with 2016 and 2017 at an all-time low for the genre in the United States. Compare this to the previous decade, 2000–2010, where virtually every romantic comedy was produced in the U.S. Since 2013, this rate has dropped off completely, with more romantic comedies being produced in Southeast Asia than anywhere else.
While it’s easier to transition away from this genre, it’s harder to rewire an internal bias or learned behavior. So while we can’t change the past, we can make a conscious effort to notice some of the lingering after-effects that may result from years of exposure to this rom-com genre.
In conclusion, I’m not saying rom coms are evil; they remain a guilty pleasure for many of us. And it’s encouraging to see how the genre has shifted so far. As consumers, we can choose to reward great writing, complex characters, and films that pass the Bechdel test by going out to see them.
But if you’re a modern-day woman who supplemented your Furby and Beanie Baby addictions with the likes of Love Actually, Music and Lyrics, and Sweet Home Alabama, don’t sell yourself short or assume your ideal relationship involves unequal status between you and your beau. Aim higher.