Crazy in Love: The Typecasting of Women in Rom-Coms

Sandra Bullock in THE PROPOSAL (Image Credit: Touchstone Pictures)

Sandra Bullock in THE PROPOSAL (Image Credit: Touchstone Pictures)

The thing is about romantic comedy movies is you can generally tell exactly where it’s going to end up and we’re okay with that because we’re really interested in the action between boy-meets-girl and boy-and-girl-get-together.  However, you can also be pretty certain how the female lead is going to act: ridiculous, overbearing, and hilariously inappropriate.  The way I look at it, the rom-com lady is, in nearly every single case, a flawed, and unruly individual who typically falls into one of three different types (with some overlap in certain cases): the snowlady, the restraining order, and the desperate.  There are, of course, more types that rom-com women can fulfill, but in my experience these are the overarching roles that these ladies play in this genre and what the character’s behavior is constructed around.

The snowlady is one of my favorites of these types because it is the portrayal of many of the rom-com ladies who happen to be successful and/or have actual careers.  The snowladies are the ones that are bitter, cruel, emotionally unavailable, or just plain frigid. The whole movie feels as though you’re swimming naked in the waters of the Arctic whenever the woman in question is on screen because she is so cold and unfeeling.  Sandra Bullock’s character in The Proposal (2009), Margaret Tate, fits neatly into this type.  The movie opens with a series of shots juxtaposing how Margaret and Andrew Paxton, her overworked but charming assistant played by Ryan Reynolds, each get ready for their workday.  Andrew’s morning is in essence my own typical start-up: wake up late, put on clothes, frantically run out door.  His home is something of a mess with little do-dads littering every surface.  In short, Andrew is frazzled, messy, and wonderfully human.  Margaret on the other hand, has woken up early enough to spend some time on the exercise bike while working, eat breakfast, and get immaculately dressed.  Her place is void of any pictures or random piles of stuff, instead it is all angular lines and sterility.  In short, Margaret is inaccessible, withdrawn from any personal attachments, and mechanical.  The movie progresses as such.  Margaret shows no regard for anybody’s feelings, including Andrew’s. She denies him time off for his “Gammy’s” ninetieth birthday, and eventually blackmails him into fronting as her fiancée and agreeing to marry her so that she won’t be deported back to Canada.  Her behavior is unbelievably cold and callous and she is more concerned with her career than anything else.  The implication of her actions imply that successful women, women who have or want major careers, must give up not just the ability or desire to be halfway decent to fellow humans, but furthermore, in a more abstract sense, it goes back to the second-wave feminist issue of the idiotic notion that working women cannot be family women.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY (Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures)

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY (Image Credit: RKO Radio Pictures)

On the other end of the scale comes the restraining order type.  This is the woman in rom-coms who goes well beyond the appropriate measure to be with a man and pushes herself right into the category of  “downright creepy.”  This character type behaves as though they are so utterly desperate for the object of their desires to just love them already, issues of personal space, uncomfortable situations, harassment, and law breaking are about as important as high school math lessons.  Although it’s not necessarily a recent movie and as much as I don’t want to admit it, my own childhood favorite Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant is a perfect example of this.  Hepburn’s eccentric and charismatic character, Susan falls in love with Grant’s stuffy and neurotic (and already engaged) character, David.  A series of strange events brings them together, Susan falls in love and in her attempts to force David to stay, she acts like a totally outlandish and conniving lunatic.  From entangling David in a false identity, to stealing his clothes and pretending to have been attacked by a wild animal, Susan’s behavior is on one hand, funny in the way that the screwball romantic comedy of the time ought to be, but it is also deeply troubling.  It’s a movie, sure, but it builds up the image that women are vicious idiots driven by their romantic and sexual desires.

The desperate rom-com woman is probably my least favorite.  This is the female character that generally acts so pathetic and sad over the fact that they are single, you’d think someone is constantly kicking their favorite puppy.  They are oddly self-torturous and constantly surrounding themselves with the image and idea of marriage and relationships in some kind of weird yearning ritual.  In 27 Dresses (2008), for example, Jane Nichols, played by Katherine Heigl, is the epitome of the phrase: “Always a bridesmaid, never the bride,” in which Jane has been a bridesmaid twenty-seven times, and nearing a twenty-eighth with her sister’s impending wedding to Jane’s boss and man-of-her-dreams.  Jane loves weddings, helps friends plan theirs, cuts out the marriage articles, and, you guessed it, wishes for her own.  It is this kind of behavior that earns this character a slot in the desperate category.  It’s one thing to like weddings and to someday hope to be married, but to plan everyone and their mother’s wedding and then get depressed over the fact that you aren’t even dating a person to be married to seems a bit excessive.  Same with The Holiday’s (2006) Iris played by Kate Winslet, who pines over a co-worker she once dated and who is now engaged, writes marriage articles, and bemoans the fact she’s single to the point of a suicide attempt.  The behavior of these characters implies that single women are not only inherently unhappy, but have no self-worth and can only be considered valuable when they are defined by their romantic entanglements.

Katherine Heigl and James Marsden in 27 DRESSES (Image Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Katherine Heigl and James Marsden in 27 DRESSES (Image Credit: 20th Century Fox)

As these films are romantic comedies, we of course expect that these flawed female characters will somehow end up with somebody either by changing their ways or by finding somebody who accepts their flaws, looking beyond (rare exceptions like 500 Days of Summer (2009) and parts of Love Actually (2003).  In a way, I can appreciate the merit of this. Movies are a method of escapism and if these feel-good rom-coms ended poorly most or all the time, well that would certain put a damper on things.  Yet there’s a large part of me that still shrinks away from the way in which romantic comedy leading ladies behave as though women are either absolutely emotionally constipated or feel the need to be in a relationship to feel good about themselves in any way or are blindly infatuated with another person.  For now, the best compromise seems to be watching rom-coms with a skeptical eye and leaving the outlandish behavior of the female leads on screen.


Kathleen Carbone

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