The Slice: Why do we still love Pretty Woman so much?

The Slice: Why do we still love Pretty Woman so much?

My first piece at The Slice was about Pretty Woman, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year:

This month marks the 25th anniversary of one of the best-loved romantic comedies of all time, a modern-day Pygmalion about a romance between a heart-of-gold sex worker and the soulless corporate executive who turns her into a lady. At 25, Pretty Woman—directed by Garry Marshall and produced by the late Laura Ziskin—has left its mark on contemporary popular culture, and on the rom-com genre. Rom-coms are riddled with Pretty Woman references, and this week, the Today Show aired a cast reunion special to celebrate its iconic status. Somewhere along the way, the movie became a classic.

The question is: Why?

It’s not surprising that modern rom-coms still look to Pretty Woman as inspiration; they’re not exactly know for their progressive gender politics. But these days, the movie also appears in some of the most feminist pop culture we have. A few years ago, on Parks & Recreation, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) discovers that her best friend Ann (Rashida Jones) owns a replica of the iconic dress that Julia Roberts wears at the start of the film. (“Ann,” says Leslie Knope, who is trying to find an outfit that will repel a man, “everything you have is too sexy. This is actually the dress Julia Roberts wore as a prostitute in Pretty Woman.” Ann replies, “I know. I look really good in it.”) And just a few weeks ago, the movie got a shoutout from one of the most feminist shows on television, Broad City. Overseas, it remains a quintessential symbol of romance, of Hollywood, of America—even in North Korea, where it’s smuggled in illegally.

You can read the whole thing here.

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The Washington Post: Where’s the political rom com we’ve been waiting for?

The Washington Post: Where’s the political rom com we’ve been waiting for?

I have a piece at Post Everything today, about how our current political climate has made the political romantic comedy all but impossible:

In 2014, it’s hard to imagine a Republican and Democrat going out for dinner, never mind strolling down the aisle. And at their core, rom coms require compromise: a “battle of the sexes” that must conclude with a sexy cease-fire. In recent politics, there is no such spirit of compromise: There’s no happy ending, just the beginning of a new election cycle.

Today, the division and the vitriol we see in our real-world politics make the notion of a political romantic comedy almost unthinkable. American politics is unprecedentedly polarized in 2014, with the 114th Congress looking to be more reactionary and bellicose than ever, and with Americans increasingly disaffected with their elected representatives in D.C. and with the president. Convincing audiences that it’s possible to fall in love in politics – that it’s possible to cross the aisle in the name of love – is a pretty tough sell. If Romeo and Juliet couldn’t make it work in a town divided by ancient grudge and new mutiny, why would we imagine that your standard rom com couple could make it work in Washington, D.C.?

You can read the whole there here.

The Hairpin: Funny Face

The Hairpin: Funny Face

This week’s Hairpin Rom Com Club movie is Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. It’s an opportunity to talk about Hollywood Homely, huge age differences between romantic leads, and high-waisted pants:

“Though you’re no Mona Lisa…” he sings. No shit she’s no Mona Lisa, she’s Audrey fucking Hepburn. My point is that this is a classic example of Hollywood Homely, wherein we, the audience, are asked to perform the enormous suspension of disbelief required to entertain the notion that Audrey Hepburn is not incredibly beautiful.

Hollywood Homely is everywhere: every time Taylor Swift puts on a pair of mildly unflattering glasses, or Anne Hathaway frizzes out her hair and puts on Groucho Marx eyebrows, or Rachel Leigh Cook puts on a hideous wig, we’re expected not to notice that they still look like Taylor Swift, Anne Hathaway, and Rachel Leigh Cook.

To be fair, the point of The Quality Woman is that she’s not merely physically attractive, but that she’s got poise, grace, intelligence, charisma. And Hepburn’s Jo has all those things—particularly noted when she’s frequently compared to the models in the film, who are depicted as very unintelligent. But in Funny Face, and in other movies where Hollywood Homely is deployed, we are all expected to recalibrate our understanding of what is beautiful and not beautiful. If we don’t make that recalibration, there’s no magic to the moment in which Jo is revealed in a designer gown, after hours with the Quality hair and makeup team; we’re supposed to realize for the first time that Audrey Hepburn is, in fact, beautiful. Is it a contract between story and audience? Or is it merely an insult to the audience’s intelligence? I’d argue it’s both: we agree to have our intelligence insulted so that we can watch a movie starring a beautiful person. All we have to do is pretend, for the first third of the movie, that we haven’t noticed how beautiful she is.

You can read the whole thing here.

The Hairpin: She’s All That

The Hairpin: She’s All That

Last week at The Hairpin, I wrote about She’s All That, as part of my ongoing series about romantic comedies:

She’s All That is a perfect example of how, in popular culture, male persistence in the face of female refusal is framed as romantic, desirable, and part of a healthy courtship. When Zach first tries to befriend Laney, he approaches her at school. She blows him off; he shows up at her workplace, where she tells him that “stalking is illegal in all 50 states.”

Next, he shows up uninvited to her house, and jokingly threatens to stay all day playing video games with her little brother—unless she consents to come to the beach with him. Later that night, when she says she can’t go to a party with him because she has to clean the house, he shows up again, this time with a soccer team tasked with cleaning her house. Now she has no excuse not to come out with him! She also has a troupe of complete strangers in her house. But now she can go to the party! Isn’t it charming how he won’t take no for an answer?

In the context of this movie, sure, it’s charming, I guess, with Freddie Prinze Jr’s big soulful eyes and very square jaw. He’s sweet as he threatens to camp out on her couch, unless she does what he wants, if affable threats are your thing. As viewers, we can suspend our disbelief and imagine we’d be cool with a bunch of fifteen-year-old boys we’ve never met cleaning our house —fifteen-year-old boys being known for their excellent hygiene and exceptional tidiness.

But the fact remains that Laney repeatedly tells Zach “no” and he repeatedly ignores her. Laney even uses the term “stalking,” and so does her best friend, but only to say, “The most popular guy in school is stalking you, and you aren’t the least bit curious?” Hardly the words of a concerned friend.

You can read the whole thing here.

The Hairpin: Amour et Turbulences

The Hairpin: Amour et Turbulences

This week’s installment of The Hairpin Rom Com Club is about the French rom com Amour et Turbulences:

Amour et Turbulences is what film scholars such as Stanley Cavell call a “comedy of remarriage”: the central conflict is not whether the couple will get together, but whether they’ll get back together after falling apart. Sometimes, in a comedy of remarriage, one of the parties is already married to someone else (or basically married) and the plot is whether they’ll stay with their spouse or fall for someone else. And if you want to know more about comedies of remarriage: Stanley Cavell coined the term and literally wrote the book on them.

All rom-coms contain some element of reconciliation or temptation – the template is “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back,” – but comedies of remarriage are a little more explicit about it, calling attention to the competition between old and new love. Lots of classic rom-coms are comedies of remarriage: His Girl Friday, Sleepless in Seattle, Bringing Up Baby, Adam’s Rib, and It Happened One Night, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. In His Girl Friday, for example, Cary Grant’s Walter makes the competition between himself and his ex-wife’s new fiancé, Bruce (played by serial nice boring guy Ralph Bellamy), very explicit, continually goading her about the boring suburban life that awaits her if she chooses Bruce instead of getting back with Walter. That comedies of remarriage became popular in the 1940s was no coincidence: divorce rates were rising, and with them, widespread cultural concern about the durability and relevance of the institution of marriage.

Against that backdrop, comedies of remarriage make the most sense; there was a spate of romantic comedies about divorced or separated couples reuniting and living happily ever after the second time around. Don’t worry,these movies seemed to say, this divorce thing isn’t going to totally change our culture and our understanding of gender. Whoops.

You can read the whole thing here.

Reuters: What When Harry Met Sally… got right – and wrong

Reuters: What When Harry Met Sally… got right – and wrong

At Reuters last week, I wrote about why When Harry Met Sally… is as relevant in 2014 as it was when it was released 25 years ago:

When Harry Met Sally… concludes that friendship between men and women is possible but ultimately unsustainable. Sooner or later, the friendship will involve sex and, in Harry and Sally’s case, love. Like so many other Hollywood romantic comedies, the movie posits that friendship between men and women is a holding pattern en route to the most desirable kind of relationship they can have. Harry and Sally’s friendship is based on respect and honesty, and it’s mutually beneficial; these are two people who care about and for each other. And yet, that’s not enough for them — or for the audience.

The notion of friendship as a consolation prize is the basis for the “friendzone,” a term that did not exist in 1989 but that would have made complete sense to a man like Harry. The friendzone is, in 2014 thinking, the place to which women cruelly relegate men in whom they have no sexual or romantic interest, with whom they want to be “just” friends. It is a hellish place, cultural wisdom tells us, a purgatory devoid of sex where men are forced to enjoy women’s affection, support and admiration without any coitus whatsoever. To be friendzoned is to be stuck at the halfway house with no hope of reaching your desired destinations: Sexburg and Boyfriendville.

You can read the whole thing here.

The Hairpin: The Hairpin Rom Com Club

The Hairpin: The Hairpin Rom Com Club

I’m writing a series at The Hairpin, about romantic comedies. The first installment is about Notting Hill:

Notting Hill is what some scholars of the genre call a “special relationship” rom com: a British man and American woman overcome their minor cultural differences—represented here by his charmingly diffident awkwardness and her brash mouthiness – and make it work. Four Weddings and Funeral and Wimbledon, all made by the same production company that made Notting Hill, are also special relationship rom coms. Notting Hill also signals the start of a wave of rom coms that are aware of or about the film industry—Anna is an actress who makes rom coms herself, and of course the movie is all about the challenges of being or being with a highly visible actress—and it paves the way for rom coms that are even more self-referential, like Friends With Benefits.

And the second  is about It Happened One Night:

Throughout the movie, the central tension between Peter and Ellie is that she’s rich and he’s broke. She’s a spoiled brat, and he’s a man of the people. On the road, with no sense of how to budget her money or fend for herself financially, she needs Peter to survive. He, of course, needs her in order to keep his job. This tension makes a lot more sense when you consider the larger context in which the movie was made and released. It’s 1934, it’s the middle of the Great Depression, everything is shit, everyone has a hangover thanks to Prohibition and its recent repeal, most Americans are miserable. Little wonder, then, that Peter gives Ellie so many resounding verbal beatings, and takes her to task so often for being spoiled and out of touch with real people. Little wonder that he takes so much satisfaction in seeing her brought financially low on the road and relishes the fact that he knows how to live on a tight budget, while she doesn’t.

Peter is meant to be a stand-in for the 99%, Ellie for the 1% who screwed the country over and were still barely dented by the Depression. Along the road, they meet people who are even worse off as a result of America’s economic woes, like the young boy who is riding a bus with his parents all way up the East Coast because his father was promised a job in New York City; the family’s spent all their money on bus tickets, and his mother passes out from hunger. A lot of screwball movies from this time period ignore the Great Depression and continue to tell stories about rich people who are untouched by the poverty and panic around them, but It Happened One Night doesn’t do that. It is explicitly a story about class, and about a roguish but decent working-class man who humanizes, and falls in love with, a pampered rich woman. In fact, if you recognize the hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night, in which Ellie’s leg pulls over more cars than Peter’s thumb, it might be because it was featured in Sex and the City 2, in which Carrie and the girls go to Abu Dhabi to be mortifyingly ignorant about Arabic culture: cultural embarrassadors, if you will. Sex and the City 2, released in 2010 when the economy was once again in the shitter, and concerned mainly with the sex lives of four obscenely wealthy women, is an example of how not to make a movie during economic hard times. It Happened One Night was, at least, much less tone-deaf.

Next up: Hitch!