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Putting the “Man” in Romance: Deconstructing The “Gerard Butler” Romantic Comedies

I had the misfortune of watching The Bounty Hunter last week. It was horrible, really. In fairness, I tend to have a problem with the conventional romantic comedy as it’s mass produced and shipped out to cinemas at least once a month like clockwork. A string of movies which are based on the principle that all men and women (whether they know it or not) want to settle down and get married, argue over stupid things about three quarters of the way through the film and get together again in time for the end credits. Not only are the morals of such films highly dubious, the delivery is generally just excruciating. However, something has changed within the genre in the past couple of years… and not necessarily for the better. I’ll let The Guardian sum up my position:  

I realise it’s high time we refreshed the tired tics and tropes of the kissy-kissy no-boys-allowed modern women’s picture, I just didn’t think the solution would be to take the suppressed homoeroticism of the punchy-punchy male buddy flick then slather it over the vaguely virginal values associated with most Sandra Bullock and Amanda Bynes movies.  

That about sums it up nicely, don’t you think?  

The figure on the left indicates where good ideas come from... the figure on the right indicates where most romantic comedy ideas come from... by the way, he has his back to us...

Every time that I write this sort of article, I feel the need to preemptively defend myself. Yes, I am a man – but I don’t think “you’ll never understand a romantic comedy because you’re a man” is a legitimate argument. Certainly not because, at least in the case of films like The Bounty Hunter, I get the sense that I’m intended to understand it more than I would, say, John Tucker Must Die or whatever (an assumption I’ll explore below). To suggest that, because of my reproductive organs, I cannot comprehend a particular genre is trite and insulting – but it’s one used surprisingly regularly.  

Admittedly, it’s an argument also used the other way around. It’ s equally as often suggested that women will not understand all-action all-the-time movies. This isn’t to say that the genres aren’t necessarily aimed at particular genders – phrases like “testosterone-fueled” and “estrogen-bait” are proof enough of that – just that it’s crazy to assume one’s ability to understand an entire mainstream type of film on the basis of their sex is ridiculous. A good movie is a good movie and a bad movie is a bad movie. The Expendables is a prime example of a movie aimed at young males that fell flat for me, while my second-favourite film of last year was the rom-com (500) Days of Summer. I can name any number of fantastic and energising and engaging romantic comedies over the years.  

Of course, some movies are intended for specific cultural experiences – I suspect, for example, the fact that I am not overly familiar with Jewish culture may have reduced my enjoyment of A Serious Man – but these are the exception, not the rule. And in the vast majority of cases, I can understand them even if they don’t engage with me. Just like I can understand romantic comedies like these, even if I wholeheartedly dislike them.  

Perhaps my impatience with this particular argument suggest the reason for my discomfort with the modern trends in romantic comedies. I know I’m not alone in picking up some marked shifts within the genre, which maybe represent an attempt to engage with modern audiences. In fact, The Boston Globe pegs Jennifer Aniston as the most “modern” of romantic comedy leads:  

The romantic comedy has never had a star as depressing as Jennifer Aniston. It’s not the movies — well, it isn’t simply the movies. Picture Perfect, The Object of My Affection, Along Came Polly, Rumor Has It, Management, The Bounty Hunter: This is in-flight entertainment grating enough to send more than a fed-up flight attendant shrieking down an inflatable slide.  

Aniston is also distressing because she’s the genre’s most modern star. In her, the timeless goal of the romantic comedy (falling in love) now intersects with the specific desperate straits of certain single women (manlessness, childlessness, the quest for perfection). The depressing part is that the women Aniston plays rarely seem depressed by this. For her, loneliness, doubt, fear, sadness, and worry are not emotions. They’re shades of a nail polish her pedicurist isn’t allowed to use.  

But it’s more than the strange disconnect between the conventional “happy ever after” mentality of the rom-com and the modern concepts that it is being melded with.  

Do romantic comedies need to kick it up a Gere?

The problem is the notion that somehow the problem with old-school romantic comedies it that they don’t “keep it real”, so to speak. It’s certainly a legitimate complaint: romantic comedies don’t paint a realistic picture of relationships. I can’t necessarily disagree with such a statement, anymore than I could argue with the statement that most action movies refuse to reflect the laws of physics. However, how would Katherine Heigl fix the romantic comedy genre, then?  

Her experiences have not only helped her learn what she wants in romance but also what she wants in a romantic comedy – and she says it isn’t always rated PG-13.  

In a real relationship, Heigl posits, “you’re probably going to drop the F-bomb once in a while. You’re probably going to say some things that are kind of harsh. And you’re definitely going to talk about sex.  

“It doesn’t have to be so Snow White and Prince Charming. That’s my problem with a lot of romantic comedies.”  

Yes. The fact that people don’t swear is clearly the most ridiculous aspect of the romantic comedy as a genre.  

It seems that the powers in Hollywood have accepted that the genre needs to be updated, but aren’t quite sure how to do it. The recurring “solution” to his outdated-ness seems to be to tackle more modern concepts within the classic mold. So, for example, films like Baby Mama and The Switch follow attempts by women to conceive children without the involvement of a male figure. They’re striking a blow for strong, independent women everywhere. However, those two films are betrayed by the genre’s seemingly fore-gone conclusion: the female lead must end up with the male lead by the time the credits roll. Which severely undermines the decision by the leading lady that she wants to raise the child herself.  

It’s a very weird thing to see the idea of modern families – the notion that a child can be raised by a single parent, unmarried parents or same-sex parents – played out on the big screen, when you know it’s going be undermined by the eventual forced ending, one cut to Hollywood’s cookie-cutter mold. It almost seems that Hollywood is tolerant of all lifestyle choices, but only until a particular point. And that point is about fifteen minutes before the end credits. To quote the always-insightful (if not always agreeable) David Cox:  

In The Switch, things get even worse. Once again, the unorthodox progenitress is shown the error of her ways by seeing her godless gameplan go haywire. This time however, she also has to put up with being cheated out of her semen of choice by an embittered usurper. Her ill-gotten infant is neurotic, doubtless because he’s had no father-figure to sort him out. Finally, to gain access to the empyrean of coupledom, Aniston’s character’s required to bestow upon her violator both her heart and her hand.  

What looks as if it might prove an affectionate treatment of female empowerment turns into a ferocious assertion of romantic, familial and genetic traditional correctness. Then, on top of all this, the film-makers have also managed to deliver a real-world insult to the Sadfab cherub-chasers.  

I hope that you can see why I am uncomfortable with these sorts of mixed messages.  

Still, even this inherent contradiction and the attempt to disguise staid conservatism as dashing liberalism is not the source of my frustration with the attempts to modernise the genre. In fact, my core objection returns to an idea I mentioned earlier, one which stems from my very gender. I’m a man. And as insulting as these movies might be to women, I can’t help but feel offended myself.  

Love hurts... romantic comedies can induce chronic pain...

If there’s one defining trait which links modern romantic comedies like 27 Dresses or The Ugly Truth or Love Happens or The Switch or The Bounty Hunter, it’s that the male lead character is always a horrible person. I don’t mean to suggest that the male lead in a romantic comedy from decades past was a cushy number: they more often than not played the role of an emotionally-stunted Ken doll. However, in most cases they weren’t actively horrible people. They could emotionally wound our leading lady, but through ignorance rather than malice. It was typically an inability to articulate their feelings, or a genuinely sweet gesture being misconstrued, which led to the inevitable “things fall apart in the third act” sequence twenty minutes before the end of the film.  

However, the waters of the romantic comedy have changed in recent years. Writer Dave Denby describes the new subgenre (although it seems to have become dominant) as “the slacker-striver romance”:  

There they are, the young man and young woman of the dominant romantic-comedy trend of the past several years—the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow. The movies form a genre of sorts: the slacker-striver romance. Stephen Frears’s High Fidelity (2000), which transferred Nick Hornby’s novel from London to Chicago, may not have been the first, but it set the tone and established the self-dramatizing underachiever as hero.  

Although he describes Knocked-Up as heading in a “brave and uncharted” direction, much of the novelty has worn off in the years since Judd Atapow made the notion of male-romantic-leads-as-thirty-something-infants the default mode for romantic comedies. What was a fresh exception is now the rule – those waters are no longer uncharted, but have been fished dry. I don’t like Knocked-Up as much as most other commentators seem to, but I appreciate the skill and talent involved in the execution. However, the charming man-child Atapow offered has been “refined” and regurgitated time-and-time-again, at each step by far less skilled writers and directors.  

As a result, the modern male lead is borderline malicious rather than just “edgy”. He mocks the heroine and her values, rejects her outdated ideas about love and affection. He’s a commitment-phobe, but is offensively in-your-face about his ideas. He refuses to open up, and replies to any inquiries with his own offensive remarks (rather than simply deflecting them). More often than not, this horrible characterisation is narrowed down to a single horrible event in the character’s past, one which scarred them and left them as bitter hollow shells – it’s typically having their heart broken (as in 27 Dresses or The Ugly Truth) but could be as severe as the death of a loved one (Love Happens).  

The most offensive part of this shift in the way that male leads are portrayed? Its treated as being “more realistic”. The implication being that guys in the real world aren’t like Mr. D’Arcy (which I can’t argue with), but somehow they are all like Gerard Butler. I think these questions and answers from the writers of The Ugly Truth just about sum up that incredibly offensive position:  

That’s stereotyping … yet in The Ugly Truth, Gerard Butler is a real pig. Doesn’t that play into the stereotype of a male chauvinist?
KML: No, because everyone knows a guy like that. There wasn’t anything we wrote that we haven’t heard a guy say. Most guys do want girls to be skinny and give a lot of blow jobs. So pieces of his character are true — it’s just taken to an extreme.  

Yes, they just defended a stereotype by basically saying “well, it’s true, isn’t it?”   

Now, replace that male stereotype with any other stereotype. Imagine saying that some well known parody of Irish people is legitimate because it’s true. Or British people. Or French people. Or an ethnic minority. Or women. Attempt to defend a sexist portrayal of a female character in exactly the same terms – “everyone knows a gal like that” – and see how well that works. Somehow, this stereotype – the selfish, emotionally crippled pervert – becomes a legitimate portrayal because the writer claims that somebody might know somebody who acts like that. I don’t buy it.  

However, there’s more coming:  

Do you think about getting men into the theaters while you’re writing?
KML: With this film we did. It’s dirty enough to appeal to men.
KS: Generally, yes, we do write female-driven movies. But we’re always trying to write the best man we possibly can and not make them pussies. That way you can like it even if you’re a woman and you’re naughty and the guy is a complete pushover.  

The clear suggestion seems to be that you can draw in a male audience by writing your male characters as stereotypically chauvinist. Because men dig that, you see? We like being portrayed as a bunch of sexist perverts who really just need to be taught how to grow up. The writers of these movies seemingly expect us to not only embrace the bitter sexist shells we’re offered – but seemingly to cheer them on. All of a sudden, the shallow character presented on screen isn’t just bad writing, it’s an attempt to portray a man that we can all engage with on screen. Because all us men in the real world are equally shallow, ignorant and perverted.  

However unhappy I was with the assertion that I couldn’t comprehend a genre because of my gender, I am infinitely more insulted that the creators think they are broadening it out to me by offering me a caveman sex maniac as a “point of view” character so I can wrap my head around the story.  

This has been a somewhat longer post than I expected, but I guess I had a lot to say. I think, perhaps the following quote might sum things up:  

This is the question I ask myself every morning and keep asking all day, and annoy all my friends and lovers with. Every time I see Jennifer Aniston’s or Jennifer Garner’s face I wince. Basically, every time I see someone named Jennifer. They say the problem is teenage boys and girls, that they drive the marketplace. But I say they only drive the marketplace because there’s nothing out there for grown-ups to see. Apropos, I can’t remember the last time I saw two people really falling in love in a movie. Now all we get is the meet cute, a montage, a kiss, then acoustic song into fade out. Nothing experiential, only movies manufactured from movies. Apparently, there was once a time when Jill Clayburgh danced around in her underwear. She laughed, she cried, she hurt, but it seems like a legend that never happened. Now we have ‘The Bounty Hunter’ and I don’t know what to do on Friday nights.  

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11 Responses

  1. I don’t even consider Gerard Butler movies romantic comedies. They’re like this vaguely-present entity who’s trailers provide background noise until the show will come back on.

    I do wish someone would at least make these despicable characters funny.

  2. Thank you for a brilliant post!! I am also mortally offended by the simpering man-starved depressives that populate the movie screens, it burns my eyes and almost wipes away the memories I have of awesome female characters of yore like Ellen Ripley or Scarlett O’Hara. May the souls of those who write and produce this dreck spend eternity listening to the inane dialogue of the phony, one-dimensional characters they unleashed on the world.

    • Thanks Raya. It’s strange how we look back at the romances of the forties or even thirties for strong female characters, despite living in very different times. As you observe, maybe it’s a sign of how times have changed.

  3. Really? You can’t remember characters sincerely falling in love? Have you never seen P.S. I Love You? This is a comedy/love story. And guess who the stars are…Hilary Swank, and, prepare yourself…Gerard Butler.

    I am stunned by the length of your blog. Even more stunned that I wasted my time reading it. But I’m sitting in a coffee house waiting for the rain to stop. So to large measure, I apparently am desperate for reading material to kill my time. Sad but true.

    Seems to me you’re expecting too much from, and writing WAY too much about, today’s romantic comedies. And why all the Jennifer Aniston bashing these days? Why not bash Mrs. No-Talent-Whatsoever Angelina Jolie? Not only can’t she act, but she couldn’t find a husband of her own either apparently. And if you’re questioning movies with “independent” women raising children without a husband and then ending up with a husband in the end, look at the Jolie and Pitt marriage as a “real life” model. Hmmm…

    Also, why targeting Butler? Of all today’s actors Gerard Butler can’t be surpassed as an actor of immense diversity in the roles he chooses. In addition to P.S. I Love You, he has made less known but fabulous movies such as Dear Frankie, The Miracle Match, 300 (a truly beautiful legend acted on all counts by those in the film incredibly, and arguably, in addition to Dear Frankie, Butler’s best demonstration of his acting skills), Rocknrolla, and made-for-British television The Jury. Maybe you could spend one of your lonely Friday nights watching one of those films.

    Get over your romcom sadness if it’s so troublesome for you, and check out another genre…many of which don’t have any more to offer really. And try to keep your blogs to a reasonable length if you want them to be read by others WITH something to do on Friday nights who are desperate for reading material to read sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy Saturday morning.

    • I apologise sincerely if you feel you have wasted your time reading the above, L.E., and I thank you for finishing it and for giving your honest opinion.

      Regarding length, I accept that I ramble a bit (okay, more than a bit), and when I am published in print media I certainly make effort trim my observations down. However, I like to think that I was at least thorough in examining the genre. I don’t like making assertions without backing them up. I hope that – as much as you might disagree with the conclusion and maybe the tone – you feel that I have done my research on the topic. As flawed as you might feel my opinions are (and it’s great that we disagree, life would be boring if everyone agreed), I hope you don’t feel cheated, or that I have taken an easy way out or picked on an easy target due to poor information or a misinformed position.

      If I may be permitted a chance to respond to each of your statements (though this might make a lengthy reply, I concede), I would begin by stating that I don’t think my opinion of “real life” families makes a difference. It isn’t my place to judge single-parents, women who use fertility treatments (whether in relationship or independent) or those in what cynical individuals might deem “alternative” life styles. This isn’t a social blog and those are loaded and heated topics. This is a movie blog, so my concern is how those dynamics (and those people) are presented on film. And I find it disconcerting that Hollywood is willing to embrace these other lifestyles (for lack of a better word – I’m not sure “lifestyle” is a fair description, as it perhaps implies soemthing superficial), and yet force a “conventional” ending on them. That, in my opinion, is worse than simply ignoring them – it states that the only real or proper way for a family to end up (regardless of how it starts) is with a male and female in love (and likely married).

      I apologise for targeting Gerard Butler, though I suspect that basing the article around Jennifer Aniston would have equally upset you. I simply picked the title to bemoan the archetype that Butler embodies – the notion that all men are sexist dinosaurs without any real depth just looking for (creepily enough, given these are romantic movies) a maternal figure to help them mature. I am no huge fan of Angelina Jolie, either. As I said, this is a movie blog and I try to keep my personal opinions of a person’s off-screen antics out of it (though I will concede I have a bit of fun with various actors’ “personas”, for lack of a better word – Christian Bale and his temper, for example).

      And I’ll concede that many other genres are equally in trouble. I’ve been recently toying with an exploration of the flaws of the action movie genre in this day and age, for example, and I’ve used this blog to bemoan the state of studio-driven science fiction or the inherent sexism of the horror movies – so the romantic comedy is not alone the source of my frustrations. Next week I’ll have a look at religion in blockbusters, if I can convince you to come back. It is a much more reasonable length,

      Incidentally, these blog posts go out on a schedule, so I wasn’t blogging of a Friday night. I had dinner with the better half and watched a family film.

      Anyway, I apologise for any offense I caused, and primarily for wasting your time. I do hope you might have found something of more interest in our archives.

  4. Ahahaha L.E, you should chill out a bit. This just a person expressing an opinion on HIS blog. Let’s face it, most romantic comedies range from middling to terrible and are deceptively misogynistic in how they view women as helpless creatures who can’t differentiate their left foot from their right. They are also sexist in how they view men, as if the audience is too dumb to make the difference between characters that are not complete polar opposites.

    I’m sure Gerard Butler is a much more talented actor that he has let known in his latest outings and I think we all look forward to seeing him taking on more challenging roles than, say, playing Katherine Heigl’s co-lead in The Ugly Truth.

  5. Thank you thank you thank you for posting this Darren! I come from the land of the females that finds most romantic comedies nothing more than perpetually archaic stereotypes that projects BOTH sexes in bad lights. I think it’s sad that a lot of woman do somehow feel the urge to relate to these characters that have very little to do with modern society.

    Other than Butler, Matthew McConaughey has been a huge contributor to these awful films, and as you pointed out Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl on the womens side who make frigidity a common trait of any woman who is professionally successful. What is the deal with making it seem like women who are powerful careerwise can’t possibly have a normal emotional life as well? It’s so ridiculous. And yet the worst I’ve seen EVER is Ghost Of Girlfriends past. It was hard not to seethe with anger in my review.

    There have been a few good romcoms of the past decade (I did enjoy PS I LOVE You, which surprised the poo outta me). I even thought Waitress was a good movie, and THAT one ended with the girl NOT getting the guy but moving on alone in life. I absolutely LOVED it, even if it did get tied up in a nice bow, at least it had some balls.

    I feel your rant Darren, and agree with just about everything you’ve said, and probably don’t have much more brilliance to add, as usual. Maybe Hollywood will get it right somehow, someday.

    • Yep, I think that Hollywood is just so sold on the idea that a “chick flick” has to end on a “happily ever after” love story, which is a little bit odd because life doesn’t work that way and, to be honest, the notion that a woman needs a man to be fulfilled is outdated and a little insulting. But that’s just me.

  6. I hear ya, Darren, and I don’t need to be defending GB as I too abhor The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter. But to label this the Gerard-Butler romantic comedies is a bit misleading as it’s the fault of the writers who create such a banal-stereotype role and storyline and if you see the breath of GB’s career, this genre only makes up a tiny part of it.

    As Heather points out, McConaughey is a much worse offender when it comes to bad rom-coms. With GB, I think he just wants to mix things up playing diverse roles, so he did something totally different to contrast the ultra bad-ass Leonidas image of 300. That’s perfectly commendable IMO, though I’m with you in that I wish he had chosen a much better material.

    Castor, he’s already signed on to more challenging roles. I think every actor is entitled to one or two bad role choices in their career, I mean even Ralph Fiennes did that terrible Maid in Manhattan with J-LO! I should write an entire post on that one 🙂

    Btw, I also happen to be a fan of P.S. I love you. I don’t even see that as a rom-com so much, it’s more of a drama with some humor thrown in, of someone dealing with loss, and GB was perfect in the role of the dead husband.

    • You’re right and I apologise. I may have mislabeled the genre. As Heather points out, there are arguably far greater offenders. It’s just I can’t help but think of The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter.

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