The Romantic Comedy: Is the Fairy Tale Worth It?

How does the United States see women? One way to look, is at one of the most popular forms of entertainment, the movie. A genre that drives audiences to the theater, and focuses on reeling in women, is the romantic comedy. This genre has been a safe haven for the women surrounding me, including myself. We can watch these movies, and escape from all of the harsh realities of our lives. As we watch them, we are caught up in the emotions, drama, popular actors, and glamour, but don’t think about what we are actually learning from them, or why the movie industry chose to portray us this way. If analyzed, what would the romantic comedy look like without all of the glamour, and fantasy traits? Aside from the extreme lack of diversity within the films and more realistic approaches to women, I found that they are generalized into one large stereotype. I chose films within the last three decades to see possible change, or to notice any static movement. Sixteen Candles, Pretty Woman, and He’s Just Not That Into You illustrate women as primarily obsessed with the opposite gender, and to achieve this love they must alter their bodies, dress a certain way, and have money. The movies also exhibit little change towards a more positive, realistic portrayal.  

The 80’s: Sixteen Candles


I took it upon myself to look at one of the most popular romantic comedies from the 80’s. I figured that if it is so popular, then it is worth analyzing. Released in 1984 and directed by the famous John Hughes, Sixteen Candles embodies high school life in the eighties. Samantha, the main character, struggles with the fact that her family forgets her birthday, and also is highly aware of her classmate, and crush, Jake Ryan. Despite her thinking she is out of Jake’s league, they end up together by the end of the movie, leaving audiences with a satisfied feeling.

Taking a closer look, Samantha expresses her dissatisfaction with her body, and compares herself to Jake Ryan’s current girlfriend. In the beginning, Samantha wakes up on her birthday expecting bodily growth. She states, “you need for inches of bod and a great birthday”. Similarly, her aunt and uncle make a comment about her small breast size. Later, she also describes Jake’s girlfriend as having the “perfect” body, as if associating her popularity and love life with the body. In order for her to get Jake to notice her, she feels she must look a certain way. She becomes focused in getting Jake to notice her. Natalia Thompson in her journal article, “The Chick Flick Paradox: Derogatory? Feminist? Or both?”, states that these recurring portrayals of women being overly concerned with romance and their bodies is derogatory (44). I agree with this statement made by Thompson, for the reason that there are more to women that just this, and if they do think that way then how did they get to that point? Young women watching these roles in popular movies begin to believe that this is how they should be. There are more realistic issues women deal with that are not or rarely conveyed through film.



The 90’s: Pretty Woman


Perhaps one of the most popular romantic comedies from the 90’s is Pretty Woman with the (at the time) up-and-coming beautiful actress, Julia Roberts. Pretty Woman was released in 1991 and directed by Garry Marshall. The main character Vivian is a prostitute who comes across a very rich man, Edward. Edward eventually takes her in and pays her to stay by his side for a week. Vivian changes throughout this time and falls in love with Edward, and they are together in the end, once again leaving audiences satisfied.

In the beginning, Vivian is very concerned about money to make a living. After she meets Edward and attains some money, she uses it to dress, and look a certain way that is suitable for Edward. As the movie proceeds, I seen Vivian transition as if she has been “saved” by Edward. The journal article, “Constructing Gender Stereotypes Through Social Roles in Prime-Time Television” by Martha Lauzen discusses the gender roles within movies. She mentions that males typically play the more professional and money-making roles, while the women take on more domestic, or family roles (201). While Vivian isn’t necessarily domestic, she is the “new female” role that Lauzen mentions. This new role “relies on competence…physical beauty or her relationship to men” (203). Vivian conveys these traits in certain scenes. For example, she uses the money given to her by Edward to shop for more appropriate or “conservative” clothing in order to appeal to him. In this scene, Edward doesn’t even recognize her transformation at first and approves of her new appearance. By doing this, the movie is revealing to women that in order to please the man you want, you must spend money, dress, and look a certain way. Vivian proceeds to shop in expensive, popular clothing stores to be the women suitable for Edwards high-end lifestyle. I think it’s important to mention, that the movie takes place in Beverly Hills, a place known for it’s rich lifestyle and predominately white neighborhoods.


Throughout the entire movie, Vivian is “saved” by the actions taken by Edward. He got her off the streets and gave her enough money to buy her whatever she wanted. Unlike reality, Vivian’s problems were basically blown away with the entrance of Edward. She then makes the comment of how when she was little she always wished for her “knight in shining armor”. This is revealing because it alludes to chivalry, or the idea that only men can solve a woman’s problems or save them.


The 00’s: He’s Just Not That Into You


One out of the many romantic comedies made in the 2000’s, He’s Just Not That Into You is filled with a popular cast. The movie exhibits intermingled relationships, romantic and platonic, and reveals their growth throughout. It seems the movie makes an attempt to better the portrayal of women, but essentially fails. The most revealing, and interesting characters are Gigi and Beth. Gigi is an outgoing character, who is obsessed with finding love and even watches old John Hughes’s movies. She takes the wrong signals from men and acts upon it. Beth wishes to get married to her long-term boyfriend, but he feels their relationship is fine as is. In the end, it is revealed that they both get what they want in terms of their relationships.

The character Gigi, is overly obsessed with finding “the right one”. She meets a man who is basically a love guru, and tells her when someone just isn’t interested, since she can’t seem to understand it herself. She researches, waits for calls, makes the calls, and waits at bars knowing her person of interest might walk in.


Beth is concerned about getting married, and even relates it to nature. She states, “Not getting married is going against nature, don’t you think?”. By making this comment, she reveals that by not getting married, it is completely abnormal and going against nature. In her movie review, Anna Smith criticizes both of these characters as being essentially derogatory for women. She describes Gigi as “vulnerable and downtrodden” and even states that Gigi “recalls the heroines of John Hughes’ teen movies” (61). Her emotional state is extremely exaggerated, and makes her seem crazy. Her character also exhibits no other concern other than her relationship to men. Beth brings the topic of nature into her relationship, revealing that in order to be happy or have a successful relationship, women must eventually get married. Maybe the movie is criticizing these social roles through the couple, but her boyfriend ends up forcefully proposing in the end. Smith mentions, “… a sympathetic male character -having put forward a convincing, emotive argument for not getting married – proposes to his girlfriend. It’s a cheap attempt to provide a conventional fairytale ending.” In the beginning, the movie criticizing the way women are taught growing up (in relation to romance), and even shows all of the women in a workplace unlike the other movies, but in the end most characters are forced into a happy-ending. Gigi also says in the end, “that a happy ending can be “yourself”, or “moving on”. In contrast to her words, almost every character’s happy ending is a lover or marriage.

The Importance of Representation

Why are realistic representations important? I think that it’s important to note, that upon looking at these movies, I realized all of the directors were older white men. Now, why is it that men are choosing this way to portray women, and why aren’t women portraying women? In Lauzen’s journal article, she recognizes the importance of [women’s] representation, “When multiple programs across the broadcast and cable spectrum repeat these gendered role, they assume the air of truth and credibility,” (201). By representing women in such ways as portrayed in these three movies, tells the viewer that this is how women must be, and by popular movies/ actors doing so it gives the material credibility. The lack of diversity (in-front of and behind the camera), generalizations and stereotypes all give women the message of how they should be in this society. How can representation be improved then? I agree with Thompson in her article, in that movies should empower women and should have more realistic plot lines with real-life issues that women endure everyday and women directors and writes should be provided with more of these jobs to achieve the better representations (44). Women should be represented by women, not older white men.


While examining these three popular romantic comedies spanning the time of three decades, it is evident that there is little change to more realistic portrayals of women. The three movies indicate that women are all obsessed with the opposite gender, and to achieve their affection they must change their body physically, dress and look a certain way, and have money. By including this representations in popular movies, it gives the traits credibility and sends the message to women on how they should be or act, and this includes the lack of diversity behind and in-front of the camera. Movies, including romantic comedies, should portray women in a more realistic fashion by dealing with issues women face everyday and confront societal issues revolving around women.

Learning Moments

The biggest learning moment for me in this class, was “the method” videos and the tutorial for finding good, reliable sources. “The method” videos allowed me to break down my analyzing skills, and focus on what is important with my emotions set aside. It really helped me with news, movies, articles, and basically any kind of media. It also helped me with my other classes this term, and I will continue with these learned skills. The tutorial for finding sources in the PSU Library and database was a huge helper. At first, the process was long and confusing. The tutorial allowed me to break down my search to a more specific area and to even find similar sources related.

Another big learning moment for me was finding reliable, trustworthy news information and why the news is important to look at, analyze, and understand who is writing it. Before taking this class, I wasn’t too concerned about the news, and even didn’t take the time to know who it was that I was reading it from. Now, I feel that it is important to maintain a healthy intake of news and to make sure to be aware of the filters happening in the internet, and to also find reliable sources.


He’s Just Not That Into You. Dir. Ken Kwapis. New Line Cinema, 2009. Film.

Lauzen, Martha M., David M. Dozier, and Nora Horan. “Constructing Gender Stereotypes Through Social Roles in Prime-Time Television .” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 52.2 (2008): 200-14. Communications & Mass Media Collection. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

Pretty Woman. Dir. Garry Marshall. Touchstone Pictures, 1990. Film.

Sixteen Candles. Dir. John Hughes. Universal Pictures, 1984. Film.

Smith , Anna. “”He’s Just Not That into You” Film Review.” Sight and Sound Apr. 2009: 61. Performing Arts Periodical. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

Thompson , Natalia M. “The Chick Flick Paradox: Derogatory? Feminist? Or Both?” Off Our Backs 1st ser. 37 (2007): 43-45. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.