CULTURE & ARTS
12/17/2018 06:53 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2018

If Love Is A Battlefield, Rom-Coms Are War Stories

Twenty years after "You've Got Mail," an onscreen relationship that makes a woman's life qualitatively better still seems like a fantasy.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Alamy/Netflix

We’re still at odds in life, and in love online. Welcome to HuffPost’s Rom-Com Week.

In August of 2018, Peter Kavinsky changed everything.

That’s when Netflix’s romantic comedy “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” based on Jenny Han’s Y.A. novel of the same name, slid nonchalantly onto the internet and exploded the hearts of chick-flick fans across America. And a huge part of its initial appeal was the male lead, a sweetheart of a lacrosse bro who falls for a cookie-baking wallflower named Lara Jean Covey.

Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) is confident, ridiculously good-looking, charming, warm-hearted and nurturing, and he is a good listener and is in touch with his feelings. He’s not a perfect person, but he’s essentially a perfect boyfriend — not “perfect for her” or realistic or even cardboard-cutout ideal but believably blessed in every way one could wish from a partner. Watching him on screen, I was moved to tears more than once by his natural facility for making Lara Jean (Lana Condor) feel good about herself without treating her as if she were made of glass.

The sudden existence of Peter Kavinsky hit straight women and girls in a spot they didn’t realize was tender. If this kind of leading man existed in a romantic comedy before, I at least hadn’t seen it. But the fantasy that he embodies feels so fundamental to romantic comedies marketed to straight women, it’s difficult to understand why he didn’t exist in rom-com land until now: that women are allowed to at least dream of an ideal male partner, that we don’t have to settle in the fictional world as well as the real one. In doing so, the character exposed that this settling is exactly what rom-com viewers have been doing. 

Today, when I look back on decades of rom-com heroes I used to weep with happiness to see witty, smart, beautiful women saddled with, I feel like a willing dupe of the heteronormative patriarchy. Even our most beloved rom-coms ― defined loosely as lighthearted or comedic movies in which a romantic union between two characters constitutes the primary narrative ― have coaxed us into rooting for (thankfully fictional) women to bet their happiness on con men, predators and garden-variety assholes. The great Nora Ephron managed to define a whole era of the genre despite betraying constant, well-earned cynicism about the quality of man available to the average upper-middle-class New York lady.

Twenty years after Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” hit theaters, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) has never looked more tragic as a romantic prize. Sure, he’s loaded; yes, he took Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) a bouquet of her favorite daisies when she had a cold; admittedly, his jokes are sometimes caustically funny. (We can thank Ephron for that much.) Hanks isn’t a hunk, but he doesn’t make your eyeballs bleed in the process of watching him tear Kathleen’s business asunder. In 1998, I guess, this seemed like a win.

Even at my most romance-deprived, I never exactly thirsted for Joe Fox. But it’s not just him. Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger in “10 Things I Hate About You”) had the craggy sex appeal, sure, but in retrospect, his willingness to emotionally destroy a girl for a few hundred bucks is a bit of a turn-off. (Unlike Lara Jean Covey, Patrick’s target had no idea her relationship was fake.)

Mark Darcy (Colin Firth in “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) approaches perfection, but if I might quibble, he’s just so stiff, and while he says he likes Bridget just the way she is, he manages to inadvertently make her feel inferior in every interaction.

Like Lara Jean, we’ve been satisfying ourselves for decades with on-screen men who ticked just one or two boxes on the desirability checklist, who were simply hot (like Jake Ryan in “Sixteen Candles”) or funny and a good friend (like Harry in “When Harry Met Sally”) or somewhere mediocre in between. These acceptable men had been presented to us as wildly desirable prizes, and on some level, many women agreed that a man who had a symmetrical face and could listen to you talk for more than 10 minutes without getting distracted by his own dick was indeed a fantasy.

The idea that we could dare to dream more, of having it all in a partner ― the good looks, the personality, the confidence, the warmth ― had rarely, if ever, been presented to American rom-com audiences. Once it was, in the form of Peter K., many of us found ourselves confronting what tiny morsels we’d coached ourselves to be sated with, to consider a pretty good deal.

Perhaps this glut of mediocre movie boyfriends arose for good reason. The most resonant rom-coms, whatever their flaws, tend to grapple honestly with the circumstances faced by their audiences at the time.

What constitutes a pretty good deal, in terms of a husband or male romantic partner for a straight woman, is a moving but perennially depressing subject. Men have always been in a position where a partner is something they’re more likely to want than to need; a wife would, for little or no pay, run your household, ensure that you’re fed home-cooked meals and bear your children. Women have usually been in the reverse situation: They needed a husband, regardless of whether they wanted one, to have a hope at a comfortable life. To wangle a spouse who offers not only the necessary (financial security) but also the desirable (good looks, a pleasant personality, kindness, crackling chemistry) was the ultimate coup in a marriage plot novel like those of Jane Austen.

As women grow more financially liberated, female-focused rom-coms can look anachronistic. The only clear benefit marriage has, in recent history, provided to women is still financial; there’s little evidence that it makes us happier, healthier or more fulfilled. It can even be dangerous: Women are more likely than men to face severe domestic abuse or to be murdered by an opposite-sex partner. And while women can still benefit financially from marriage, it’s no longer a requirement for survival the way it often was in Austen’s day. For a while, the traditional rom-com seemed obsolete, overtaken by Judd Apatow’s bromantic comedies that revolved around the relationship anxieties of flailing modern men-children.

But when audiences were once again offered solid rom-coms geared toward women, like Netflix’s 2018 slate (including “Set It Up” and “Kissing Booth”), they pounced. The thirst for them, clearly, had not yet been quenched by feminism or the increasing ability of women to comfortably support themselves. (Which should not be overstated. Millennial women are still underpaid and are more financially precarious than their male counterparts, and recent surveys have suggested that the wage gap is widening rather than closing.)

That’s because love, for women, isn’t a refuge. It’s a battlefield. A marriage that makes our lives qualitatively better still seems like a fantasy, not a likelihood, and so stories of women who are seen, who are nurtured, who might not spend the latter half of their lives raising children and roasting pork chops for emotionally absent clods while their passions wither are tales of triumph. And some victories are sweeter than others.

Mindy Kaling once referred to rom-coms as “a subgenre of sci-fi,” and the idea that a woman might find joy and fulfillment in a relationship with a man is not the least outlandish of its tropes. Women who want a male partner have to dream: What if I found one of the good ones, a man who will offer me as much as I offer him? What if my husband was my biggest cheerleader? What if he was willing to put in real effort to ensure my happiness rather than just expecting me to look after him? Or at least, what if I loved him passionately enough that every (inevitable) sacrifice was a joy?

For decades now, rom-coms have offered a space to explore the possibility of, for example, a boyfriend who will subordinate his professional future to yours (“Say Anything…” and “Notting Hill,” for example). It’s telling, though, that even in these sentimental imaginings, women often have to limit their expectations. If he’s supportive and kind, he’s not particularly handsome, or he’s kind of dull. If he’s whip-smart and chiseled, he’s a dick. He perpetrated a cruel prank on her, but at least he feels bad about it now that he realizes she’s hot, à la “She’s All That.”

Perhaps this glut of mediocre movie boyfriends arose for good reason. The most resonant rom-coms, whatever their flaws, tend to grapple honestly with the circumstances faced by their audiences at the time. In a Hallmark potboiler, Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly would have concocted a scheme to save the virtuous indie bookshop Shop Around the Corner. They’d be seen in an epilogue a year later, kissing and flaunting wedding bands while hosting a caroling party at the store. But Ephron’s movie resists this “you can have it all” shortcut. Kathleen stares down a daunting power differential ― her tiny shop versus a price-cutting megachain ― and is forced to blink. She never really stood a chance, no matter her pluck. Being steamrolled in business by more powerful, better-compensated men continues to be a virtual inevitability for most women, and it certainly was in the ’90s. Her happily ever after involves finding a new, perhaps equally fulfilling, career; it involves forming a partnership with a man who intrigues her, who admires her for who she is and not what she represents to him (as her lefty columnist ex, Frank, did). Crucially, her happily ever after involves falling in love with a wealthy man, reclaiming in some retrograde way the money that her little shop lost to his predatory megastore.

If Peter Kavinsky had anchored a rom-com in the ’90s, maybe his perfection would have felt cheap, too inconceivable even for fiction. Our willingness to suspend disbelief can stretch only so far, even in sci-fi. His success as a character represents hope for heteros; it suggests that things really are changing. We haven’t reached the point where every man ― or, of course, every woman ― brings a full emotional toolkit and a generous spirit to romantic relationships. But it no longer feels crazy to imagine that it could happen.

That might be a modest victory, but that’s exactly the kind of victory that women like me are used to settling for.

A number of HuffPost reporters recently ranked the most crushworthy leading men of over 300 romantic comedies and concluded that Peter Kavinsky reigns supreme. Stay tuned for our thorough ranking of rom-com boyfriends later this week.

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