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What Really Makes a Rom-Com a Rom-Com?

The romantic comedy is defined by a set of strict rules—but as has been proved over the years, those rules are made to be stretched and even broken

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When you find the theme week you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. Thankfully, The Ringer hereby dubs this week Rom-Com Week, a celebration of one of the most delightful, captivating genres in film. Head to the top of the Empire State Building, order what she’s having, and join us as we dig into everything the rom-com has had to offer over the years.

By nature, film defies the strict definitions of genre. Often, tropes exist merely to be challenged and subverted. The romantic comedy is no exception, and it may even be particularly hard to pin down because it relies on a concept so crucial to almost every kind of story: love. Even the darkest thrillers tend to have a good dose of it—Se7en is, among other things, a love story—which makes the line between romantic comedy and other adjacent genres incredibly blurry. Is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the category, or is it just way, way too sad? Is the usually depressed main protagonist of normcore films like Garden State too miserable, and the love interest too quirky, to fit in the box? Perhaps a definitive definition of the romantic comedy isn’t reachable (and doesn’t need to be reached), but it seems that one thing is certain: Unlike most genres, the romantic comedy centers—and celebrates—the mystery of attraction.

When translated for French audiences, most American romantic comedies get a new title containing the words “coup de foudre”—which translates literally to “thunderbolt,” but is also a dramatic way of referring to love at first sight. Coup de foudre à Manhattan (Maid in Manhattan), Coup de foudre à Rhode Island (Dan in Real Life), Coup de foudre à Notting Hill (this one is easy to guess)—these (ridiculously lazy) titles lay bare one of the founding ideas of the genre: When you see the one, you know. There’s no need to think, no need to wait, no need to even actively look for this person. Ralph Fiennes in Maid in Manhattan knows when he randomly lays his eyes on Jennifer Lopez that she is the one for him, and he doesn’t change his mind later when he finds out who she really is. Same for John Cusack in Serendipity, when he’s convinced that Kate Beckinsale is the one for him after only briefly meeting her—and the film proves him right.

Yet this concept also reveals the paradoxical core of the romantic comedy: How do you really know? What if you think it’s a coup de foudre, but it turns out to be a mistake—as in While You Were Sleeping, when Sandra Bullock has a strong crush on a man whose life she saves, but ends up falling for his brother instead? What if love takes time to grow, as it did for Harry and Sally? In Serendipity, Beckinsale chooses not to trust that first gut feeling. The romantic comedy has often been decried as toxic, spreading unrealistic ideas about dating, romance, and relationships, yet the very basis of the genre is to propose simplistic tropes and challenge them. The rom-com always questions the mechanisms of romance, and therefore, our own ways of thinking about love.

The coup de foudre is reinvented in Sleepless in Seattle, when Meg Ryan falls for Tom Hanks after hearing only his voice (and his story) over the radio, but the classic template is also present: Time stops for Hanks when he first lays eyes on her, without knowing that Ryan has been daydreaming about him. However, they meet in person only in the film’s very last scene because their sudden attraction is transcontinental. The coup de foudre’s narrative purpose is to bring together people who should have never met because they live too far apart or because they come from different classes—a principle that originated in the works of Shakespeare, whose own Comedy of Errors sees impossible unions due to mistaken identities and jumps to conclusions. The most classic rom-coms rely on this concept, adapting it to our modern times. Notting Hill brings together a movie star (Julia Roberts basically playing herself) and a bookstore owner, with both characters willingly playing with their identities in order to meet up away from the paparazzi. Interestingly, Forgetting Sarah Marshall also features a celebrated actress (Kristen Bell as a crime show heroine) and her schlubby partner, but their relationship breaks down at the beginning of the film—the story turns the trope upside down to celebrate a more genuine kind of attraction, instead of emphasizing the convenience of wealth.

Money is often either an explicit element of the rom-com or something to be conveniently ignored. The coup de foudre taps into the idea of the Prince Charming, the oldest story in the book, and in rom-coms, whether they be from the ’80s or more recent (like Crazy Rich Asians), what makes a man a prince is his cash. Pretty Woman is Cinderella in ’90s shoulder pads, following the unlikely romance between a businessman and a sex worker and featuring a classic montage of Julia Roberts going on a shopping spree using Richard Gere’s credit card. As questionable as the film’s morals can be, that scene continues to dazzle audiences and has been copied countless times because it touches upon a fantasy that wealth, instead of separating people, can bring them together. (Trickle-down economics, anyone?) The testing of that very idea is at the basis of You’ve Got Mail: Struggling independent bookshop owner Meg Ryan falls in love online with bookshop-chain magnate Tom Hanks, and the clash of their professional circumstances complicates their romance. In other films, like Nancy Meyers’s Something’s Gotta Give, both protagonists are wealthy enough for money not to be a concern, though complications still arise.

Those very complications are key to the rom-com’s optimistic tone and its appeal. The seemingly impossible circumstances that result from a coup de foudre can, paradoxically, feel like more evidence that the relationship was meant to be; the title It’s Complicated could fit any of these films. In The Holiday, also by Meyers, the international house swap between two women means they will eventually have to leave their new boyfriends at the end of their trips, a deadline that adds urgency to their feelings. We never know if the two relationships will last beyond New Year’s Eve, but the wealth of all involved (let’s be real, Kate Winslet’s English cottage must be worth close to the value of Cameron Diaz’s Hollywood villa) suggests they will figure things out. However, this idea that difficulty is a sign of fate doing its work is denied in certain classics: My Best Friend’s Wedding challenges the idea of love at first sight from the beginning; in the film, Julia Roberts is convinced that her best friend getting married to another woman is proof that she should have him. But their romance, in fact, wasn’t meant to be, and at the end of the movie, she finds solace in friendship rather than romance. (Hollywood has also finally started to realize that non-heteronormative relationships are also ideal for rom-com drama: The Kirsten Stewart–starring Happiest Season is one of the best romantic comedies of the streaming era.)

Roberts’s character in My Best Friend’s Wedding is a food critic, and critics tend to think and talk too much, which leads to misunderstandings—another trope of the romantic comedy that can be traced back to the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. The addition of sound to movies allowed for the wit of characters in comedies of errors to take center stage in films like Bringing Up Baby. To return to While You Were Sleeping, Bullock’s Lucy lets out an ironic and desperate “I was going to marry you!” at her comatose paragon (Peter Gallagher); later, she sarcastically tells a friend that she’s pregnant. When she begins developing feelings for the man’s brother (Bill Pullman), they flirt with their words, discussing the sensual dimensions of “leaning” over someone in a very sexy and funny scene; doing anything more explicit and physical would compromise them. Bullock, like Katharine Hepburn, became a star of the rom-com because of that acerbic charm. That detail speaks to the value of the rom-com: It’s a genre that typically gives women pride of place and allows them to be charming, confused, and funny all at once, full-blown characters who use their wit to move through the world before dropping their facetious defense mechanisms for a sincere lean-in kiss.

Since the romantic comedy plays with pretenses and characters hiding behind walls until love pierces through them, it makes sense that Christmas and New Year’s Eve are the genre’s favorite times of the year. The fear of being alone for the holidays can bring one to let misunderstandings fester and, simultaneously, struggle to keep up appearances of strength and independence. As much as Harry in When Harry Met Sally claims that he’s not declaring his love to Sally because it’s New Year’s Eve and he’s lonely, it’s undeniable that the holiday has rendered both of them particularly sensitive—the bond that grew between them through years simply needed that little push of festive circumstances to reach its conclusion. The holidays are also a heightened period when familial pressure and comfort go hand-in-hand. In Love Actually, various interconnected families go through their own personal hurdles, from infidelity to unrequited love to demanding responsibilities of caretaking; Some of the characters come together for a school Christmas pageant and find solace in each other’s presence.

Naturally, weddings are another event the genre gleefully leans on for comical misunderstandings and personal reckonings. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, Jules is convinced she must get married before turning 28—hence the desperation that drives her to sabotage. In The Wedding Planner, Lopez’s titular character hides her loneliness behind her ability to make other people’s dreams come true while fearing the institution of marriage itself, especially when she contemplates marrying a man she doesn’t love in order to follow in her parents’ traditional footsteps. Weddings are used as moments of brutal clarity, when the film climaxes as the truth finally comes out and plans go gloriously out the window.

That very idea is of course a fantasy: In real life, plenty of people say yes at the altar against their better judgment and live to regret it, without ever finding the One. The romantic comedy always walks the thin line between reality and fantasy because love itself is somewhat magical—a therapist could tell you what conditions may have caused you to be attracted to a certain person, but a good one wouldn’t claim to fully understand it. To make a film praising love is to recognize its power, its mystery, and its possibilities. Clueless, one of the greatest and paradoxically most mature romantic comedies ever made, is also a teen coming-of-age story in which love is a silly game until it is revealed to be an opportunity for self-growth. The transformative power of love is sometimes even more literal, such as in 13 Going on 30, when a teenage girl magically gets her wish to turn 30 overnight and realizes that turning her back on love to gain popularity would lead her to a meaningless life. Grown-ups also get to bend the rules of physics to learn from love in Groundhog Day, when Bill Murray’s Phil Connors confronts his bad personality over and over until he gets it right—and in this case, getting it right means getting the girl. Love and fantasy go together. Denying that isn’t a viable option.

The romantic comedy transcends its reputation when it fully embraces the complexities of its key theme. Love is paradoxical and requires a paradoxical approach. The coup de foudre is real and sometimes misleading. Money differences matter and can be ignored; misunderstandings bring people together or apart; and fate may not exist, but hope abounds. Although the rom-com’s popularity has fluctuated through the years, the format remains ripe for experimentation—because while there are rules within the genre to abide by, those rules were also made to be broken.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.