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The Dartmouth
April 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Trends: The rom-com is coming back in a new way

Back from the early 2000s, rom-coms are now prioritizing diverse plots and casts as they make their resurgence.

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The romantic comedy, often dubbed rom-com, has been loved and hated by audiences in waves for decades. Proclaimed dead by many critics in the late 2000s following a slew of films with poor critical and box office performance, the rom-com is a genre that is often disparaged for being formulaic and cheesy. However, beginning about five years ago and especially following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rom-com has risen from the dead — and it looks slightly different.

Though their prominence has fluctuated, rom-coms have long been a staple in Hollywood. They date as far back as a 1934’s “It Happened One Night.” The romance comedy film was so successful that it swept all five major Academy Awards. This success of “It Happened One Night” led to a flux in the output of a myriad of similar screwball comedies, featuring stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. 

Many critics credit Nora Ephron’s 1989 “When Harry Met Sally” as the basis of the “neotraditional” rom-com that audiences know (and love?) today. The genre success of “When Harry Met Sally” was followed by smash 1990s hits such as “Pretty Woman” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” which earned $463.4 million and $227.8 million respectively.

Audiences were drawn to watching the chemistry between skilled actors as well as to the feel-good formula. The rom-com’s popularity came from its relatability, dealing with a fundamental aspect of the human experience: the desire to be loved. The worth of the genre itself is often minimized by those who dismiss rom-coms as cheesy “chick-flicks,” a label that is rooted in sexism. According to Vox editor Constance Grady, rom-coms are “a genre that’s about delivering joy to the audience, and what is wrong with that?” 

While the 2000s produced plenty of iconic rom-coms such as “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “13 Going on 30,” by the latter end of the decade, the genre significantly declined. The movies became formulaic: very white and heteronormative. They began to shift priorities to other genres, and action, adventure or raunchy comedy movies with hints of romance became more popular with audiences than rom-coms. There was a huge increase in the polarization of releases between massive blockbusters and Oscar-favored films. In the early 2010s,“ [rom-coms] were never going to make $1 billion worldwide, and critically, they were never going to get the awards applause that studios are hungry for… So there was a sense that they weren’t serving the purpose the studios needed them to,” according to author Scott Meslow.

A shift occurred around the summer of 2018. Netflix released a slew of rom-coms that gained immense popularity and positive reviews. This included films such as “Set it Up,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “The Kissing Booth.” According to Variety, in October 2018 Netflix reported that over 80 million subscribers had watched its rom-coms. Even in theaters, the August 2018 release of “Crazy Rich Asians” brought in $239 million — making it the sixth highest grossing rom-com of all time.

The resurgence of rom-coms has only increased in years since 2018. However, they have come back in a new and perhaps more enduring way. Gone are the days where all a rom-com needed for moderate success were two perfect-looking, Hollywood stars with a one-dimensional “will they, won’t they” plot. Audiences have come to crave authenticity — perhaps they always have. This desire for authenticity can be proven by the highest grossing rom-com of all time, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” A semi-autobiographical film which tackles culture shock among families, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is successful because it provides a charming look into a quirky lifestyle. 

Characters with depth and unique experiences and perspectives make rom-coms more relatable despite less generalization. Films such as “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) — which notably features the first predominantly Asian cast in a Hollywood movie since 1992 — or “Bros” (2022) — which follows two commitment-averse gay men in Manhattan who are drawn together — offered audiences fresh and endearing perspectives. This has paid off both at the box office and critically, with the films earning 91 percent and 89 percent Rotten Tomatoes scores respectively. 

Despite some occurrences of box office success, the most striking evidence for the rebirth of the rom-coms lies on streaming platforms. Throughout and following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences began to once again crave the uplifting stories rom-coms typically offer. UK television psychologist Emma Kenny weighed in on this, saying, it is unlikely the rom-com viewer will feel sad or as if the characters did not get the happy ending they deserved. The comforting nature of rom-coms could be a reason for their resurgence, especially on streaming platforms like Netflix.

According to Nielsen ratings, Netflix original rom-com “Holidate” (2020) was viewed an impressive 654 million times within its first week of release. Netflix has especially taken the lead in rom-com production. In 2022, 25 Netflix original rom-coms were released. Compared to Netflix’s mere eight rom-com releases in 2019, this number indicates a clear trend in production. Netflix does not often release their viewership data, but this significant jump in output of rom-coms demonstrates that audiences are engaging in and enjoying the material. 

Recent Netflix original rom-coms featuring diverse casts and stories such as “The Half of It” (2019), “Always Be My Maybe” (2019) and “Wedding Season” (2022) are bringing the genre to new places. There is no shortage of stories and perspectives surrounding love and relationships. If this willingness to incorporate fresh and diverse stories into the rom-com genre continues, rom-coms will surely grow and thrive for years to come.