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From toxic masculinity to age-old ideals, rom-coms don’t make the cut for gen Z women anymore

By Charlie Sawyer

Feb 22, 2022

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Romantic Comedies or ‘rom-coms’ have been universally loved, hoarded and gossiped over for decades. They’ve transported us from cinemas to supermarkets where we witnessed meet cutes that inspired our own real-life expectations. They’ve allowed us to experience a rollercoaster ride of emotions where a public declaration of love almost always led to a happily ever after. However, there’s a growing movement among gen Z women that is rejecting these unrealistic romantic standards and backwards representations of dating in the 21st century. This heyday of movie magic seems to be coming to a close, and many are wondering if it might be for the best.

The genre has undoubtedly provided us with some of the most heart-warming moments in cinematic history. Audiences involuntarily fist-bumped Nora Ephron when Tom Hanks discovered Meg Ryan stood alone at the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle. Crowds cheered at the equally heart-warming moment when Hanks revealed himself as Ryan’s online boyfriend in You’ve Got Mail.

But looking back, rom-coms have also been upholding damaging narratives where toxic masculinity is celebrated as endearing acts of heroism. They’ve allowed stalking and aggression to be portrayed as chivalrous acts of devotion and emotional gaslighting to be excused as a throw-away character flaw. As Megan Garber deftly noted in The Atlantic, “Before Mars and Venus can fall in love, many rom-coms assume, Mars must first make Venus do the falling.” While we can appreciate the joy they brought us, we seriously need to re-evaluate the love stories we have been previously championing.

Let’s be honest, didn’t anyone question if showing up at the doorstep of your best friend’s house with handwritten signs declaring your love for his wife was at all creepy? Or if literally hanging off the side of a Ferris wheel to convince an actual stranger to go on a date with you was maybe taking it a tad too far?

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According to Screenrant, while the 90s and early 2000s rom-coms dominated the cinematic playing field in terms of popularity and cult followings, this supremacy has since begun to wither. This has been primarily due to a lack of progressive change, serious failings in regard to diversity and the emergence of newer immersive cinema that has hooked audiences. The genre was inherently falling short at capturing the realities of modern dating and, instead, was continuing to prop up old-fashioned gender tropes and stereotypes.

In 2018, it was made clear that female movie fanatics were growing less and less interested in the romantic comedies they were being exposed to. Analysing data from a Fandango survey of more than 3,000 women ages 18 to 52, Variety found that women had an overwhelming preference for action or science fiction films and indeed that there was a serious demand for greater “female-driven stories.”

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Identifying why women in particular may be less susceptible to the romantic comedy experience nowadays, prompts us to explore the environment in which they currently operate. For many women, day to day life involves trying to both navigate systemic sexism and confront and cope with an overwhelming culture of violence that permeates all aspects of society. Being consistently exposed to and surrounded by films fantasising toxic behaviours does not help to process or find relief from this harsh actuality.

It’s integral that cinema aims to reflect the realities of present-day dating culture and recognises the different ways in which young people approach love and romance compared to previous generations. Is gen Z the first generation to seriously disconnect from these films, and if so, why? VICE’s study overwhelmingly supports the idea that young gen Z daters are indeed unique in their perspectives on romance. They prioritise meeting a match who is politically like-minded and, unlike their millennial siblings, they’re far less concerned with finding ‘the one’. 

Yale University student Kyung Mi Lee expanded upon this, attributing gen Z’s new outlook on dating to pragmatism. Lee spoke to the BBC about how “evolving attitudes towards sexuality and gender roles” alongside a “hyper-focused” individualism has prompted gen Zers to reject previous societal expectations. While this sense of rationale can easily be swept under the carpet after one too many vodka cranberries, it most definitely provides us with some insight into why the traditional rom-com structure just doesn’t do it for us anymore.

Even a quick Google search proves how Gen Z is not at all the target market for the rom-com genre, with most entries being clearly aimed at a millennial audience. And although it would be slightly overboard to declare the rom-com genre officially dead and buried, it is important to recognise the changes that need to be implemented in all future projects. I’m talking about necessary swaps that will reflect the romantic culture of today’s young generation and innovate new ways which can breathe life back into this hopefully-timeless form of film.

If we all thought about our favourite rom-coms, would there be things that now jump out at us as outdated? What would we want to see done differently?