The Evolution of the Romantic Comedy



Rom-coms like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Love, Simon” satisfy today’s audiences’ desire for representation in a movie genre that’s long been straight and white.


There is something to be said about the universal warmth that a good romantic comedy can spark in the coldest of hearts. Not even the most jaded can remain unmoved by a tense “will they or won’t they” or the Grandest Declaration of Love.

How did rom-coms gain this profound power, and how has it been wielded over the years? When has it waned and when has it peaked? We can chronicle the rise, fall and subsequent rebirth of the beloved genre by tracking the evolution of the romantic comedy from its roots in theatrical traditions, to its move to the silver screen and the resulting transformations and finally to the diverse and innovative stories we see gracing big and small screens today.

The romantic comedy traces its origins to the Shakespearean tradition of the same name. The traditional rom-com structure originated in his work “The Merchant of Venice.” Three separate relationship plotlines formed the central plot, but the storylines were still infused with theatrical comedy, such as female love interests disguised as men and subsequently revealed to be the objects of desire.

If this sounds familiar — if suddenly you’ve begun reading this article in a low-pitched voice a la Amanda Bynes in “She’s The Man” (2006) — it is because Shakespeare’s plays have been ingrained in the fabric of the romantic comedy, not only in the form of adaptation a la “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999) but in the very tropes utilized.

The Shakespearean romantic comedy structure reappeared in 20th-century silent films. The 1924 films “Sherlock Jr.” and “Girl Shy” set the precedent for how the romantic comedy would be translated to the silver screen. They were infused with the warmth, wit and sweetness that would shape the genre into the beloved mainstay it grew to be. This growth, however, did not come without the adolescent meandering that appears in any good coming of age story — the kind of variance that served to adapt the genre to its given period.

The first period to see this meandering was the 1930s and 40s, which witnessed the advent of the screwball comedy. This genre was came into being simultaneously as sound was added to film.

Finally, writers could fill their movies with verbal wit to match the visual storytelling achieved by directors. The wit of the film was most commonly written for the female character, as she was almost always the protagonist of such screwball comedies. Just like Shakespearean tradition and the silent films’ sweetness, this female-centric approach to storytelling was stitched into the fabric of the romantic comedy.

The 1950s through 70s saw the most radical changes to the romantic comedy. During these years, the romantic comedy entered a sexual realm. In tandem with the sexual liberation movement of the time, the sex comedy sashayed in as the new rom-com subgenre. Films like “Battle of the Sexes” (1960) and “Lover Come Back” (1961) were imbued with a sort of sexual tension derived from pitting the man and woman against one another. Later on in the era, the sex comedy transformed from one of sensuality to one of frankness with films like “Harold and Maude” (1971) that feature candid sexual (and existential) conversations.

When considering traditional ideas of what a romantic comedy entails, we probably conjure up the classics of the 1980s and 90s. Films like “Sixteen Candles” (1984) and “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) are staples of the genre, not for their timelessness (lest we forget the racist comedy in the former and outdated meet-cute in the latter) but for their commitment to what makes romantic comedies universally likable: their appeal to our desire to feel desired.

That is not to say that this universality protects the rom-com from becoming tired and unlikeable. In the 2000s, rom-com fatigue finally hit audiences. While the beginning of the era saw commercial gems like “How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (2003) and “13 Going On 30” (2004), the later years of the decade and the early years of the following saw a shift in audience attitude. While it was not without its successes, such as 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” the general studio attitude was that audiences simply no longer wanted to see rom-coms on the big screen.

It’s easy to hypothesize why audiences grew tired of the romantic comedy. The gender politics, heteronormativity and general whiteness of the rom-com no longer reflected the evolving attitudes and demographics of target audiences. Consequently, studios began to take note and change course.

This shift was perhaps most apparent in the past year. Audience response to releases “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Love, Simon” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” spoke to the shifting desires of the target audience: increasingly mindful young people.

Yes, we love rom-coms for their heart, escapism and wit, but for LGBT and minority audiences who finally get to see themselves reflected in the genre, the love for these films comes from seeing themselves represented and that representation is what has breathed new life into the beloved romantic comedy.