Rom-Coms Can Be Feminist At First Glance, But…
There is only one movie genre I can wholeheartedly rely on to engage my attention for the entire movie: romantic comedies. I don’t care how cheesy, predictable, or unrealistic they are—rom-coms will forever be my guilty pleasure and source of entertainment.
That’s why, looking back at some of my absolute favorites over the past few years, I’ve had to come to terms with a devastating reality. It’s hard to deny—rom-com’s don’t exactly do wonders for feminism. I’ve had to confront the fact that the female protagonists of these movies are reinforcing sexism in dozens of ways.
Since sixth grade, and perhaps through high school, I’ve always adored The Proposal. For those of you who don’t know, The Proposal stars the ambitious book editor Margaret (Sandra Bullock) and her assistant, Andrew (Ryan Reynolds). At first glance, this is awesome, especially since it came out in 2009. Yes, women can be in charge of men in the office!
The Single, Bitchy Working Woman
At second glance, though, the role Sandra plays is not exactly flattering. Margaret is notorious in the office for her cold indifference, and the opening scene begins with her employees looking terrified as she fires one of them for no rational reason. When Margaret learns that her visa has expired and she could be deported to Canada, she blackmails Andrew to pretend to be her fiancé. He agrees to do so if she’ll give him a promotion. It is clear that Andrew has been Margaret’s slave-assistant for years, so viewers are undoubtedly cheering for his promotion. As one review states, Margaret is “professionally well-respected but personally loathed.” Sure, women can be successful. They can be relentlessly ambitious and powerful. The catch, though? No one likes them. They are painted as ruthless, bitchy individuals who everyone is scared of. Quite the trade-off.
Margaret will do anything for her career. Even fake an engagement. And as her obviously pushy, icy personality shows, there is nothing attractive about this. The cover of the movie shows Sandra Bullock aggressively leaning on Ryan Reynold’s chest with a determined and unrelenting glare. Reynolds, meanwhile, has a terrified (an incredibly attractive) expression on his face. For women to be strong and powerful executives, they must be monsters.
And worse, only through Andrew is she able to lower her guard, express emotions, and open up about her upsetting past. One New York Times review nails this when he refers to the expected way that Margaret “melts” as she becomes attracted to Andrew. “Ding-dong the witch is soon dead and in her place, well, here comes the bride.” The movie, in a sense, restores conventional gender roles by the end, as Margaret evolves into a vulnerable woman head over heels for a man. Her success and ambition is associated with cruelty, her empathy and vulnerability with love. But do the two have to be at odds with one another?
I’m hesitant to over-exaggerate the effects of one bitchy female protagonist, but given how the movie ends, replacing her successful life with her romantic one, it still bothers me. And, I haven’t exactly seen a wide variety of other rom-com’s to counteract this uncomplimentary depiction. Margaret isn’t an isolated example, and it’s time to face the consequences in society of these pop culture portrayals.
Working Mom + Kids= Pure Chaos
Another particular favorite of mine stars Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don’t Know How She Does It. I saw it in theaters my freshman year of high school, and as a lifelong Sex and the City fan, was thrilled to witness Parker’s humor again, and especially in the context of her chaotic, fun-loving family.
And yet, my adoration of this film is at tension with my realization that its facade of women empowerment, by using a working mother protagonist, is tainted by certain plot moments and underlying suggestions.
I think the title pretty much sums up everything that strikes me as anti-feminist about this one. I Don’t Know How She Does It. For roughly three-quarters of the movie, the answer simply is—she doesn’t. Sarah Jessica Parker plays Kate Reddy, an over-exhausted, overworked working mother of three who must constantly travel between Boston and New York for her job as a finance executive. She is judged by her colleagues for letting her personal life interfere with her business, and by other mothers for letting her work take away from time with her children. Her older daughter, a kindergartener, is consistently disappointed by her mother’s absence due to work.
The only time she can catch a break and experience true pleasure is when she meets the high-powered Jack Ablehammer. Yes, her ultimate source of indulgent is a man—and even more, not her husband, encouraging viewers to continuously judge her.
The title’s connotation of disbelief—how on earth can a mother handle both having kids and having a career—suggests that the task is hardly doable, much less encouraged. Of course, the title could also be perceived as a form of admiration, containing praise and awe that someone could balance such a life. Yet, the implicit belief remains—balancing both kids and work is unthinkably difficult. And I believe that. But the same movie wouldn’t and has not been made about a man.
The reason why this movie wouldn’t be made about a man is because there’s still an underlying assumption that women have, and will always have, an all-encompassing duty to one’s husband and children (at least, the desire to have children). A duty that must transcend all other desires—to have a fulfilling career, for example. It’s not that either of these movies explicitly condemns working women. But they put forth very narrow, disturbingly similar depictions of what working women—without husbands or kids—look like, compared to when they do.
Back to the Bitchy, Single Working Woman
One of the more humorous characters in the movie is Kate’s assistant, Momo. She is a hilariously cold, emotionless woman utterly devoted to her job and horrified by Kate’s chaotic motherhood. Her bitchiness is all too similar to Sandra Bullock’s role in The Proposal. It is clear to her that she has a choice—work, or kids, and she would never consider the latter.
This all changes when Momo suddenly gets pregnant, and although she is initially devastated, Kate ultimately convinces her that motherhood is irreplaceable, and we even see the ultrasound of her kid. All of a sudden, Momo is portrayed as a considerably warmer character. She’s having a kid! So she’s no longer a cold, bitchy, single working woman. Just like Margaret (Sandra Bullock) is suddenly portrayed as far more appealing and kind when she falls in love with Andrew for real. Why is the woman who doesn’t want kids (at first), or who would rather be 100% devoted to her job than a man be portrayed as such an icy, unlikeable figure? And why are there not more women who actually want all of these things (god forbid) put forth in pop culture?
I should mention that this has been called a “female empowerment flick” (at least by one review I found online). I realize that upon first sight, it might look like this. After all, it shows a working woman who loves her family—something that would not have been possible years ago. And, it uses comedy to shed light on gender bias in the workplace, pointing out her often absurdly sexist coworkers.
Yes, there is a happy ending (she doesn’t destroy her marriage, and no one thinks she’s a horrible parent forever), but I can’t seem to let go of the subtle assertions about working mothers. One review states, “in the end, the film’s juggling act resolution may be a little difficult to imagine maintaining.” The only thing clear at the end is Kate’s love for her family—which, while heartwarming, says a lot about our society’s view of women balancing motherhood and work. Kate is painted as an angel by the end of the movie, because she ultimately chose her family. She doesn’t quit her job, but scales back, as her husband is trying to transition into a new job of his own. The ultimate praise for Kate is her devotion to her family. Again, not inherently bad—but incomplete and limited nevertheless.
Reflecting on the contours of these movies, and how I believe their narratives sadly reinforce anti-feminist views, hasn’t made me a cynic or hater of rom coms. If anything, I’m more determined to commit myself to watching more rom coms to identify these subtle messages. And I will probably still laugh at these movies, and say that I enjoy them. I don’t think it’s necessary to cut out anti-feminist media altogether—rather, we can cultivate critical listening skills by dissecting all media.
My interpretation isn’t necessarily the “right” or predominant one. Maybe it’s possible to extract feminist views from these films. What I’m saying is that regardless, we can’t blindly accept media portrayals of women—especially working women like these. It isn’t revolutionary, or admirable, for movies to put forth depictions of women in the workforce. We should demand more, at least by scrutinizing the portrayals we do see, by raising the question—what is the implicit message being spread? Is it accurate? How can we do better? We can’t change movies that already exist, or many other forms of pop culture, but we can change the discourse surrounding them.
Author: Caroline Geithner
Caroline is a current English major at Georgetown University with a passion for writing, psychology, traveling, and photography. Growing up just outside of New York City, she spent many of her weekends in high school exploring the city, and now does the same in Washington D.C. She tutors underprivileged children in Washington D.C. and has become passionate about children’s equal access to education, including gender barriers that disadvantage young girls.