Whenever one watches a romantic comedy, it’s important to know who’s creating the messaging. Just because the main character’s a woman, doesn’t mean the story portrays a woman’s point of view. In reality, it’s the writer’s point of view, and more than half the time that position is held by a man. There are many great male writers who understand how to portray female voices, just like there are great female writers who understand how to portray male voices, but since romantic comedies play into female stereotypes, it can be enlightening to look at the differences between two similar movies with differently gendered writers in order to get an idea of who is sending what messages.
Both My Best Friend’s Wedding (MBFW) and When Harry Met Sally (WHMS) focus on long-term friendships between men and women, but MBFW was written by Ronald Bass and WHMS was written by Nora Ephron. Though both movies are entertaining and are considered classic romantic comedies, the different ways in which Ephron and Bass approached their female characters’ reactions to conflict is extremely telling of the different messaging between men and women romantic comedy writers. MBFW depicts a shallow, selfish, emotionally-driven woman who chooses to attack another woman to get what she wants, and WHMS shows an emotionally complicated woman trying to untangle life with or without the help of the male lead. The majority of conflict in MBFW is gained through actively pitting the two main women against each other. The protagonist, Julianne (Julia Roberts), spends the entire plot committing terrible acts against her friend’s fiancée in an attempt to get her to break off the wedding. For this plot, Bass creates the role of the crazed woman who can’t handle her emotions. On the flip side, in WHMS, the character Sally (Meg Ryan) doesn’t let her feelings for Harry (Billy Crystal) take over her life, even when she finds out he’s married. She builds her life with or without him and, though there are points where her emotions for him become complicated, she actively tries to work through them.
In She’s All That (SAT) and 10 Things I Hate About You (TTIHAY), two classic 90’s romcoms that remain widely referenced today, high school guys make deals to manipulate women classmates in different ways. For SAT, it’s a bet to make a dorky girl become prom queen. For TTIHAY, it’s payment to ‘date’ the older sister Cat (Julia Stiles) so that another guy can date her younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). R.Lee Flemming and M. Night Shyamalan, writers for SAT, present a scenario in which their main female character, Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook), must change her entire outward appearance in order to be found worthy by the male lead, Zack (Freddie Prinze, Jr.). He gets to know her a bit, but that true quintessential moment of, ‘I know you so well now, therefore I like you,’ comes after her makeover. If it came before, it would have really brought the message home that you should look past someone’s outward appearance to see who they really are, but he had to see her without glasses in order to fully fall for her. Meanwhile, TTIHAY writers Kristen Smith and Karen McCullah portray their main character, Cat, as the stereotypical angry feminist who loves girl bands and hates guys. Smith and McCullah build up this negative archetype by portraying Cat’s harsher traits in the beginning, but they spend most of the film’s plot breaking it down. Just like in SAT, the writers take a classic romantic comedy approach by having the characters fall for each other as Patrick (Heath Ledger) gets to know Cat and sees that she’s actually a kind, caring person who has been hurt in the past, but unlike in SAT, Cat doesn’t have to change in order for the main male character to fall for her. In fact, Smith and McCullah add a brilliant twist by mirroring Cat’s change in Patrick. He also starts off with a harsh, classic bad boy exterior, and as Cat’s exterior breaks down, so does his. This allows male audiences to connect with a male character in order to bridge the gap of understanding the female character. So, while Flemming and Shyamalan worked with a similar storyline as Smith and McCullah, it’s clear that they’re sending different messages. One encourages women to change for a guy, while the other shows that it’s okay to be yourself and let people in because you may actually form a true connection with someone.
All four of these movies are great. They wouldn’t be talked about decades later if they weren’t solid, and that scene in SAT where Laney does her big reveal down the stairs while Kiss Me plays is legendary. It’s just that women need to understand where certain messaging comes from. As seen above, there are male romantic comedy writers who make great movies, but have a tendency to fall into negative stereotypes about women, while their female counterparts try to push past those negative portrayals to make the audience see a more emotionally evolved, but still flawed character. So next time you go to see a romantic comedy, pay attention to who wrote it so you know exactly who is creating the movie’s messages.