A student at the University of Minnesota taking a class on "Drama and the Media" e-mailed me with a query this weekend which -- in between anxiety attacks about the future of our country and sad ruminations on a writer's suicide -- has gotten me thinking about old Cary Grant movies again. Here's what Julianna Drajko wants to know:
What do you think the structure of romantic comedies tells us about our culture? About gender? Power? Sexuality? Race? Class? Other cultural myths?
The obvious answer (Any crisis can be solved by chasing your loved one to an airport) aside, Ms. Drajko presents me with enough fodder for a dissertation or two. But in the interests of edifying the Living RomCom readership and giving her something to quote me on during her class presentation this week, I'll take a whack at at least one aspect of her question, and I'll try to keep it brief.
In Writing the Romantic Comedy, I identified seven beats in the structure of traditional romantic comedy (Setup, Cute Meet, Complication, Hook, Swivel, Dark Moment and Resolution), basing this supposition on the evidence of hundreds of rom-com movies released over some 80 years. For better or worse, this so-called "formula" has been the backbone of our genre since the silent era, and precedents for it can be found in literature and theater as far back as Austen and Shakespeare.
Skeletally speaking, the Big 7 suggest how a classic courtship story plays out within the three broader strokes of boy meets, loses and gets girl (and yes, it holds true for girl meets girl, etc.). When I analyzed the why of "why does the story always go this way?" I found a sub-structure underneath --
1) Love challenges the protagonists
2) The protagonists struggle to accept or deny love
3) Love transforms the protagonists
-- which reveals the basic thematic bias or belief system of the genre, namely: romantic comedies are stories that affirm the transformative power of love.
Love, in the romantic comedy, is the force that humbles -- and
reconfigures -- its protagonists. The lessons it embodies are what
enables Michael Dorsey in Tootsie to tell Julie, "I was a better man when I was a woman..."; what causes When Harry Met Sally's
formerly near-misogynist Harry to list for Sally the reasons why she's "the last person I want
to talk to before I go to sleep at night"; what transforms Groundhog Day's snarky, selfish Phil into a warm-and-fuzzy altruist.
What does this tell us about our culture, beyond we like to think we're all really warm-and-fuzzy wusses? Well, here's one intriguing thing. On the surface, the romantic comedy seems to come down squarely on the side of emotion versus thought, of primitive impulses over intellectual ideas; it is, after all, a story about mating, so given all its hapless heroes and heroines who end up losing it for love, our genre's credo might as well be Against Rationality.
But the story isn't simply "boy meets girl and everything is hunky dory." This is where the "lose" in the "meets, loses, gets" structure comes in: some lesson has to be learned, and some sacrifice made, in the acceptance of love. Our culture apparently believes that in some fundamental sense, love has to be earned -- it's only in the learning that boy becomes hero or girl becomes heroine.
The principle holds true regardless of race and class, incidentally (operating in Hitch as well as in My Big Fat Greek Wedding). And here's one juncture where the rom-com paradigm intersects, however generally, with Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces mono-myth. Though that culturally influential myth's three-part structure (Departure, Initiation, Return) has been variously broken down into 17, 12, and 8 beats as opposed to 7, a key idea enacted in it is the gaining of wisdom through initiation. After great sacrifice and loss, Luke's got to harness what he's learned about The Force -- give himself over to the power -- to defeat the Empire.
In both the Hero Myth and the rom-com, what's irrational brings knowledge. The cultural spin specific to romantic comedies also has to do with gender, in this respect: what love teaches humans, in one romantic comedy after another, is a respect for the Other. When Harry... ultimately answers its "Can a man and woman be friends?" question with an affirmation that adds, Vive la difference! Similarly, a macho-chick flick like Knocked Up has its man-boy hero concede, I may not understand women, but I'll do my best to live up to their standards (and now can I have that BJ?).
I'll note in passing that romantic comedy structure also tells us that our culture, for better or worse, still buys into the Myth of The One. The "joyful defeat" of its resolution never says: And now we'll live happily ever after, along with any other lovers we may accrue along the way. While an embrace of polygamy and/or a pragmatic life of serial monogamy may develop by a century hence, in our present culture even a painfully sober, dark night of the soul romantic comedy/dramedy like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind affirms the idea of a One True Love in its heartwrenching, conflicted fadeout.
I'll end this mini-discourse with the observation that Ms. Drajko and her class are already wise, in the very nature of their inquiry. It's by questioning structure, exploring what a story's paradigm means, that we pierce the veil, and learn what lies beneath our culture's accepted norms. Now, at a time when questioning and listening beyond the rhetoric we hear is of paramount importance, here's the sorely mourned, recently departed David Foster Wallace on such matters, speaking in a commencement address to students at Kenyon College:
Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some
control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware
enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you
construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this
kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.