Please Explain How The Ugly Truth Is Good For Women

Few have tried to defend today's romantic comedies, maybe because in that category, money does most of the talking. Still, here is producer Lynda Obst striking out on their behalf — and, apparently, against New York Times critic Manohla Dargis.

Obst, whose producing credits include How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Hope Floats, One Fine Day, and Sleepless In Seattle, bemoans the fact that Kathryn Bigelow's success last year "set off a torrent of sniping among the chattering class of women critics. Instead of celebrating this year's impressive box office numbers, and our all-too-few female directors (and even fewer writer-directors), it served as a launching pad for attacks on the romantic comedy."

She never names these critics, though Dargis's is the only negative criticism of the genre she links to. She wonders, "Are the critics who belittle these movies dyspeptic? Are they self-hating women? Are they other-women-haters who want to be the only woman on the tennis court (as we used to say in the '80s)?" Perhaps you can't blame Obst for taking it personally. After all, outside the politer confines of The New York Times — right here, in fact — this is what Dargis had to say to explain why romantic comedies suck:

One, the people making them have no fucking taste, two, they're morons, three they're insulting panderers who think they're making movies for the great unwashed and that's what they want. I love romantic movies. I absolutely do. But I literally don't know what's happening.

There is a key distinction here — between romantic movies as a genre, and romantic movies as they are being made now. (And, of course, romantic movies as the sole province of women, but that's another story.)

Unlike previous commentators complaining that Bigelow's embrace was a just-one-of-the-guys brand of sexism, Obst doesn't reject Bigelow's work as a sign of women's advancement. But she is willing to go further than just calling romantic comedies "organic" and "life-affirming":

Romantic comedies are having a grand moment, and young and older women have returned to the habit of movie-going, which means that studios, producers, movie stars, and starlets can actually make them...One of our jobs is to keep women working, which we do by keeping women coming to the movies. And doing that means making good, smart, often funny movies that women can identify with—with terrific dialogue we all remember and cherish, and stories that illuminate our lives and decisions and turning points.

It all sounds so good, in theory. A few of the movies Obst has made indeed qualify for those descriptors. And you will find plenty of Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron defenders on this site and elsewhere. But let's take a look at the romantic comedy successes Obst names, in this case the ones aimed at the younger set of female views: Valentine's Day, The Ugly Truth, and He's Just Not that Into You. Is anyone willing to argue that these are anything but cynical manipulations of gender stereotypes, pale and materialistic shadows of the "good, smart, and often funny" romantic comedies that existed in the past? Does anyone remember, let alone cherish, a shred of dialogue from these synthetic concoctions? Even her own friend and occasional collaborator Nora Ephron was hard-pressed to name a romantic movie of the last 15 years worth a damn.

Obst writes,

That these tales are now being financed by the studio system reflects the fact that our audience loves seeing themselves not as girlfriends, or sluts, or baggage, or dumb hos (as in Heather Graham's hilarious Hangover girlfriend), but as protagonists with real dialogue, and jokes we are not the butt of.

Many of the female archetypes of the romantic comedies — often needy, male-obsessed creatures with personal lives that are mere window dressing before the guy shows up — are hardly better representations of women. Here is another example of a false choice:

Do you really prefer the female characters in Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith movies? Or perhaps the indie chimeras in movies like 500 Days of Summer? Are those really characters you identify with? Really?

Not really. But I'm not convinced that nearly all of the romantic comedies of the last decade or so provide much of an alternative. It's not that people think they're terrible because they feature women. It's just that they mostly are terrible. (And often bad for women.)

In Defense Of The Chick Flick [Atlantic]

Earlier: Fuck Them: Times Critic On Hollywood, Women, And Why Romantic Comedies Suck
Nora Ephron Appears To Agree That Romantic Comedies Are In A Rut
"The Transvestite Of Directors: A Backlash Against Kathryn Bigelow