At the end of the first season of Fox's The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling's character finds herself, finally, in her own romantic comedy: Dreamy boyfriend Casey asks her to go to Haiti with him, then drops to his knee at the send-off party. And yet she suddenly wants to ditch the romance and go for the comedy, trying to physically block him from getting down to the floor. What she thought she wanted -- what girly movies have been telling her she should want -- doesn't look so great once it shows up in her reality.
Some more rom-com wrangling ensues, complete with Mindy making a grand gesture--cutting off her hair to prove that she does want to go to Haiti with him, even if she doesn't want to marry him, then running to his apartment to tell him so. The meta-upshot, however: Chances are that, unless Kaling changes the entire premise of her sitcom from single-doctor-in-New York to coupled-doctor-in-Haiti, this particular strand of romantic comedy won't end happily.
Mindy's dilemma, however, also reflects a wider anxiety surrounding the withering state of the cinematic tradition known as the romantic comedy. As Nora Ephron's second-most-classic rom-com Sleepless in Seattle celebrates its 20th anniversary, it's even more painfully clear that the honeymoon is over for the genre. And the handwringing over their demise has been as dramatic as the angsty backstories of the industry's endless parade of superheroes. Earlier this year, The Atlantic asked in a despondent headline, "Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?: The long decline from Katharine Hepburn to Katherine Heigl." Producer Linda Obst -- who brought us How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Hope Floats, among many other heartrending confections -- tells us in her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, that studios now prefer franchises to court foreign audiences and the comic-book crowd, not date-night movies. Jezebel.com recently put it plainly in a headline: "Women Didn't Abandon Rom-Coms, Rom-Coms Abandoned Women."
We do need good romantic comedies again -- well, perhaps "need" is a strong word for a movie genre. But rom-coms do serve a purpose, reflecting back to us our current societal attitudes about love, giving us ways to think and talk about relationships, and, yes, giving women a chance to work in Hollywood. (Not because women only like fluffy stuff as much as because women are routinely marginalized in action-related genres.) Even in their lack of quality and substance, they're telling us something critical about the current state of our romance: Making a good romantic comedy is so hard because we don't know what we want from love--and if we don't know what we want, how can our heroines and heroes?
We need romantic comedies back, but they need a serious makeover, as a group. It's not about parroting those rom-com glory days of the '80s and '90s, but about getting with the messy modern times. The Atlantic's Christopher Orr theorizes that modern filmmakers are flummoxed by modern romance for practical plot-construction reasons: "There must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome," he writes. "And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by. They used to lie thick on the ground: parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds."
While The Atlantic's analysis is interesting, its premise plays as comically misguided to anyone who's dated in the last ten years. No obstacles to nuptial bliss? The obstacles I encountered while dating in New York until coupling up two years ago, and the obstacles I continue to see my single friends encounter, are so spectacular as to make me want to check every morning to make sure my partner is real. True, Montague-Capulet type rifts that keep young lovers apart aren't as common as they used to be. And modern parents, at least of the Brooklyn-liberal variety, are more likely to demand their kid branch out and find someone of a vastly different socio-economic background or ethnicity or religion or food philosophy than they are to prohibit marriage across classes.
But if you want obstacles to finding true love, boy have we got them: workaholism, workplace politics, work-life balance; different views toward children; political rifts; sexual issues; intimacy issues; tech-aided miscommunications; and a paradox of massive choice on every level. Of course there are always the old reliables -- love triangles, previous commitments, geographic distances, nightmare prospective in-laws. And more than a side note: Aren't we ready for a mainstream gay romantic comedy by now?
It's right to look at the mechanics of plot structure for clues to the genre's demise, but we need to shift the focus from the obstacles to the end game: A character must, first and foremost, want something. Our problem isn't that there aren't enough obstacles; it's that so few of us truly know what the ultimate prize, the happily-ever-after, looks like.
Most romantic comedies at this point make the weak assumption that it's enough to say the main character wants "love" and to send him or her out on a quest to get it. But that's not what the classics of old were really aiming at; they were aiming, most often, at marriage. Comedy has been wrapped up in marriage for hundreds of years: Shakespeare, as we are reminded once again with Joss Whedon's new take on Much Ado About Nothing, loved to end a comedy with a wedding, and who are we to argue with Shakespeare?
Well, we're in 2013, for starters. At this point it's safe to say that as a nation, we're deeply conflicted about marriage. Perhaps the defining issue of our time is marriage equality -- but we seem to believe in that more than we believe in marriage itself. Should gay people be allowed to marry each other legally? Poll after poll says yes. Do straight people who have long enjoyed the right to marry want to marry each other? Hmm, less and less likely as time goes on.
And so our rom-com heroes and heroines struggle against maybe-not-enough-obstacles to get maybe something they're not sure they want. Some telling clues -- about our changing attitudes toward love and the future of rom-coms -- exist in how the more successful efforts of late have handled this vacuum of motivation. From a purely monetary perspective, two of the few box-office forces to come from the genre in the last two years have been based on bestselling self-help books -- Think Like a Man and What to Expect When You're Expecting -- which suggests, at minimum, that we're confused about what we're looking for … in love, life, self-help, and movies.
More critically successful top-earners represent an interesting strategy for dealing with audiences' romantic ambivalence: subterfuge. They look like romantic comedies but deal with something other than burgeoning romance. Bridesmaids gave us a cute romantic plot, but the real fireworks came from the changing nature of the best girlfriends at its center. This Is 40 showed an already-married couple struggling to preserve their long-established relationship. (Whether they really belong together is another matter.) Silver Linings Playbook put nothing less than mutual mental illness between its paramours. That, friends, is a thoroughly modern obstacle.
Some indie movies have come up with ingenious takes on the required "obstacles": 500 Days of Summer made the object of our hero's affection emotionally unavailable, without apology, and gave us a truly happy ending when he got over her. The charming Salmon Fishing in the Yemen put outside relationships, as well as differences of opinion about salmon fishing in the Yemen, between its star-crossed lovers. If someone came up with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, we have not run out of obstacles yet. Hollywood, however, hasn't come up with many more such clever romantic ruses.
As for what it is that we, and thus our rom-com heroes and heroines, truly want from love, perhaps the strongest clues come from last year's double-header Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached, both eminently watchable modern takes on the genre despite being, essentially, the same movie (and despite that embarrassing flash mob scene in FWB). Both dealt with the Millennial-generation fallout of When Harry Met Sally: No one doubts that men and women can be friends now, and we've all decided that sex can happen without getting in the way. In these new takes on that old idea, friends become lovers, and then must decide whether to become couples. The wall between sexual and emotional maturity is the quintessential obstacle to young love here: "Hey, you can't call me and tell me that you miss me," Adam (Ashton Kutcher) tells Emma (Natalie Portman) in No Strings Attached. "I don't want to have that conversation on the phone. So you can't text me and you can't e-mail me and you can't write on my wall. Like, if you really miss me, you need to grow up and get in your car and come and see me."
Both movies [SPOILER ALERT] give in to the temptation to go with the happy ending -- the couples undoubtedly coupley -- an unrealistic, but telling, decision. What we want more than anything now, these films say, is to find someone who will be our best friend and our partner. Nora Ephron was onto us way back in 1989: All we want is a Harry or a Sally.
Perhaps Mindy Lahiri and her TV ilk show us one more advantage the small screen has over the big these days: When it comes to romance, television shows do know what we want, and, more importantly, have the time to flesh out all the confusing nuances without settling for the too-neat endings shown in Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached. We're taking longer to settle down these days, and perhaps we need entire TV seasons to let our characters find their way toward love, too. After all, this is the medium that invented the will-they-won't-they couple, which by definition almost always consists of friends with a strong connection that audiences love so much they want to watch it grow into more.
It's tricky territory to mine -- do you put them together, as New Girl (created by No Strings Attached writer Liz Meriwether) did this season, or make viewers wait until the end? Either way, these couples give us the romantic satisfaction we can't get anymore from our movies, whatever the reason.
So if anyone's looking for ways to revive the rom-com -- or fall in love with modern love -- look no further than Mindy and Danny, Jess and Nick, or Jim
and Pam. They are our new Harrys and Sallys, and they know the secret to modern pop culture romance: Love means not knowing what the hell you want.
_____________________________________________________Jennifer Keishin Armstrong spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly,cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including O, Fast Company, and New York's Vulture. She's the author a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, and co-author of Sexy Feminism.