Why is the term 'romcom' used so negatively?

Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowall

It's 20 years since one of the most successful romcoms ever - Four Weddings and a Funeral. But for many film buffs "romcom" is almost a dirty word, writes Yasmeen Khan.

(Spoiler alert: Plot details revealed below)

The story of lovelorn posh boy Charles and his group of friends made an overnight star of lead Hugh Grant and propelled writer Richard Curtis into the big league. Its picturesque depictions of weddings in perfect country houses and lingering shots of London's South Bank remain a prism through which many non-Britons see the UK.

And its effect on the whole genre of romantic comedy has been notable. It's a category of films that receives more than its fair share of disparagement, says Dr Deborah Jermyn, co-author of Falling in Love Again: Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema. "There's definitely a stigma now - in recent years romcoms have become conflated with 'chick flicks' and the idea that it's gangs of women that go to see them - they're seen as throwaway films for a not particularly discerning audience."

The shortened term "romcom", first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1971, carries implications of a film consciously targeted at women cinemagoers. It's the perception of this reductive targeting that makes many male and female viewers recoil. The term also represents a certain standard of film. The OED cites a review from 1997: "Consider whether you can cope with the wispy, uninspired, farcical fluff that this wet Hollywood romcom wafts at you."

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The commercial success of Four Weddings helped increase the volume, and harden the formula of the romcom. Boy meets girl in awkward circumstances, and boy - eventually - gets together with girl. "By the 1990s and 2000s, the studios started cranking the stuff out without any great quality control," says "romcom guru" Billy Mernit, story analyst at Universal Pictures and author of screenwriting book, Writing the Romantic Comedy.

Classic films from decades past, films that contained both romance and comedy, are typically not burdened with the label. Take this line from a blog posting on Billy Wilder's The Apartment: "Don't confuse The Apartment for some Sunday afternoon romcom." The implication is clear - the term romcom designates formulaic mediocrity.

Who refers to Woody Allen's Annie Hall as a romcom? The SparkNotes study guide says: "Though Annie Hall is a romantic comedy in many respects, it does not fit neatly into this genre." A Guardian review opines, "Annie Hall also virtually invented the relationship comedy in both movies and literature; it made possible the now degraded romcom genre."

When a film is labelled romcom, certain assumptions and judgements start to creep in, says screenwriter Tess Morris, whose first movie Man Up, starring Simon Pegg, will be released next year. "The problem is that often everything gets lumped into the generic term 'romcom' and romcoms get an unfair bad press. But a lot of the time people don't realise they're watching a romcom - Sideways is a romcom, Shaun of the Dead is a hybrid romcom."

Annie Hall Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977)

When films avoid the perceived formula it helps them avoid the labelling. They might lack a traditional happy ending. Perhaps boy not getting girl or girl not getting boy.

"The ones that challenge the expectations of the genre will always be winners - 500 Days of Summer doesn't end with 'boy gets girl'," says Jermyn. "Similarly, It's Complicated does something refreshing by having a portrayal of older people in love. It's smart comedy, together with great chemistry between Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep. The same combination of chemistry, smart writing and engaging actors is also what makes When Harry Met Sally stand out - that and the memorable faked orgasm scene."

Jermyn praises Groundhog Day. "It's a high concept romantic comedy - it's one where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses girl, boy loses girl - ad infinitum."

Ben Palmer, director of Man Up, thinks that anything that gets away from the idea that films containing romance can only be targeted at women is a good thing. "Often people expect romcoms to be for a largely female audience, but I think they are getting an increasingly broad appeal. The American romantic comedies - Bridesmaids, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, even Superbad - are a good example of why. They don't have that saccharine sweet quality."

Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up Knocked Up (2007) starring Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen

And the older romantic classics will continue to be widely enjoyed. "If you trace the genre back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, they were watched and enjoyed by both sexes and held in a lot more critical esteem," says Jermyn.

Mernit highlights The Lady Eve and Bringing Up Baby, both from the late 1930s/early 1940s, while describing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the definitive modern romcom, but he believes that Four Weddings had a big impact on the genre.

"The level of verbal humour, even the way the swearing is used in the opening scene, is great. In America, our so-called raunch-coms that are lowest common denominator in their sensibility and don't even depend on dialogue for their humour. They make Curtis look Shakespearean by comparison."

And despite the brickbats aimed at romcoms, romance will continue to be a staple theme, argues Morris.

"Everyone's got something to say about love and whether you should or shouldn't go on a date, it's a never-ending topic. People want to be made to feel good at the cinema - you don't want a film to preach to people about meeting somebody, but everyone does want to meet somebody and they're lying if they say that they don't."

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