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“Girl” Movies: A Journey Through Romantic Comedies (For Women?) By Women!

What is a Romantic Comedy?

This may seem like a silly question, but not just any funny movie about people falling in love falls into the category of “Rom-Com”. No, this is a precious genre set aside for a specific class of cinema. The “Rom-Com” features some very specific tropes that set it apart from your regular old romance, drama, or comedy. 

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail

Here’s a short list of what a true “Rom Com” must contain:

7. Two people (our leads) who for all intents and purposes do NOT belong together (or so it seems at first)— be it that they don’t get along, are trapped in different times, are from different social classes, or any myriad of hilarious reasons that the world may be keeping them apart

6. Our two leads should be attractive and likable (in their own right)

5. But they both must have some sort of fatal flaw or missing piece of their life… something that the other can fulfill or help them overcome 

4. There’s got to be some crazy situation or circumstance that leads to both comedic and romantic tension

3. Normally, there’s a “falling in love” montage

2. The film MUST have a happy ending–they’ve got to end up together (bonus points if their previous partners also end up together)

But one thing is absolutely required for a film to be a true “Rom Com”:

1. All in all, the most important distinction is that the central plot and, more importantly, the comedy of the film must arise due to the romantic tension between the two lead characters. 

There can be subplots of the characters trying to run businesses, get promotions, go to college, etc. but the central thing that we’re all there to see is the love story. The subplots may add to the comedy, but the comedy must always arise from the characters’ responses to their budding relationship; be it them running from the romance, thinking that they’re in love with someone else, or even not knowing the person that they love is actually someone that they see everyday. It’s funny! It’s romantic! The romance is comedic, and the comedy is romantic–get it?! I’m sorry. I digress…

These are the pieces of a perfect “Rom Com”. And, while this genre always has a place in pop culture, time and time again these films get written off as being “Girl Movies” devoid of meaning and artistry. However, just because a film is centered on romance, certainly does not make it just for women. Furthermore, this genre has been dominated by male filmmakers since its beginnings. In this article, I want to take us through the history of these films, and focus specifically on the “Rom Coms” that were created by women, for women (okay… well, really for everyone). 

The (Now Basically Lost) Beginnings: The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

In the early 1970s, it was pretty uncommon for a woman to be directing in Hollywood. In fact, from the beginning of cinema in the late 1800s to the 1970s I was only able to find evidence of about 100 films directed by women (that’s out of potentially 70,000 films, if not much much more). So, pinpointing the first “Rom Com” directed by a woman is practically impossible, and honestly kind of depressing. But, there is one film which entered the scene in 1972 that seems to have popularized many of the tropes I listed above. Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, written by Neil Simon. This film follows salesman, Lenny (Charles Grodin), who falls in love with a beautiful blonde girl, Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), in Miami. The only problem is that Lenny is in Miami for his Honeymoon with his new wife, Lila (Jeannie Berlin); and Kelly doesn’t seem interested in him, and her father totally disapproves of him. It’s a pretty textbook formula for a classic “Rom Com” that seems to explore missed opportunities and the fear of newlywed life, all with some great comedic Neil Simon dialogue. 

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to actually watch this film because it’s basically been erased from the public eye. In the 1970s, a pharmaceutical company bought the distribution rights to the film in an attempt to get into the glamorous world of Hollywood and did absolutely nothing with them. So, to this day The Heartbreak Kid cannot be found on any streaming service or in any store (nope, not even Amazon). So, while I would love to be able to really discuss this film and its impact on the “Rom Com” genre, all I have to go on is the plot synopsis that I was able to find online. This film actually received a lot of critical acclaim– even getting some Oscar Nominations for the lead performances. And it seems that it really did make an impact on those that were able to watch it at the time. From what I can tell, it’s the only true “Rom Com” directed by a woman that I can find from the 70s, and it seems to have given permission for the rest of the women in this article to go for some wacky and comedic romantic plots that became a staple of the genre. It’s truly a shame that Elaine May’s work has been erased from the modern eye because she was truly a trailblazer for women directors at the time. Furthermore, I have a feeling that this piece inspired a lot of the films I’ll be diving into in this article.

Pre-Modern “Rom Com” Romantic Comedies

Oh, the 80s… movies from this time always have such a specific feel and atmosphere. I almost feel like I should write a whole separate article about “Rom Coms” from the 1980s, but meanwhile there’s one specific film that I want to discuss here. Martha Coolidge’s 1983 instant classic, Valley Girl, tells the story of Julie (Deborah Foreman), a teenager from a wealthy family in the Valley who accidentally falls in love with Randy (Nicolas Cage), a troubled bad boy from Hollywood, despite her friends’ disapproval. While this film doesn’t quite embrace the high concept, crazy situation that this genre will soon be known for, Valley Girl is definitely a classic Romantic Comedy, with the central plot and humor stemming from the strange relationship that develops between this mismatched couple. And our happy ending comes when Julie realizes that she loves Randy despite the ways in which their lives do not align. It is truly hilarious, and very romantic… in a super twisted 80s, Martha Coolidge kind of way. Something to note about this film and Coolidge as a director is that Valley Girl was her second feature film, and its predecessor, Not a Pretty Picture, is about as far away from a “Rom Com” that you can get. In her first film, Coolidge blends documentary and narrative filmmaking to explore the story of her own sexual assault as a teenager. It is not romantic or funny at all. But, it is incredibly experimental, and I think Coolidge always had an interest in the dark twisted experimental opportunities in filmmaking. So, it makes a lot of sense that Valley Girl is not your typical “Rom Com”, yet it’s probably one of the most interesting and celebrated films on this list. It also subverts our expectations and both criticizes and mocks our main characters, while also showing the vapid and superficial feelings of teenagehood in a really positive light–something that is certainly a staple of “Rom Coms”. 

Honorable Mentions

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) / dir. Amy Heckerling

Big (1988) /  dir. Penny Marshall

Tom Hanks and Ross Malinger in Sleepless in Seattle

Nora Ephron’s 90s:

In 1993, Nora Ephron stepped out from the “Rom Com” writer’s room and put on her Director’s hat with Sleepless in Seattle. Having written one of the most acclaimed and beloved Romantic Comedies of the 1980s, When Harry Met Sally, Ephron dazzled everybody with her distinct directorial style and aesthetic. Sleepless in Seattle follows two strangers, recently widowed Sam (Tom Hanks) and recently engaged Annie (Meg Ryan). The plot begins when Sam’s son, Jonah (Ross Malinger), calls into a radio talk show and asks for advice on how to help his father find a new wife. This charms many women across the country, but most importantly Annie, who begins to question her own connection to her fiancée. Annie, a journalist, decides to write a feature on the radio show in an attempt to learn more about Sam, because—though she tries to deny it—she can’t help but think that he may be the one. I will admit, this film leans severely towards a drama–especially in the first half, but the central romance and overall plot is comedic, and the way in which the characters meet is meant to be funny and ironic, so I’ll allow it to be considered a “Rom Com”. Also, this film is filled with jokes poking fun at the “Rom Com” genre as a whole and remains totally aware of itself and films like it. Nora Ephron is able to so brilliantly mock those “chick movies” while also creating such a moving love story, and with her smart writing, wonderful casting, and succinct shots she gives us permission to love these movies too. 

Sleepless in Seattle would soon be followed by another instant classic (also starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), You’ve Got Mail. Once again, Ephron explores a romance that is formed at a distance. However, rather than two people on opposite sides of the country who have never really spoken, we follow two people who speak everyday online– yet have never seen each other (or so they think)– who incidentally live blocks away. Where Sleepless in Seattle was Ephron’s attempt to poke fun at Romantic Comedies, this is her fully embracing them, and subsequently defining many of the stereotypes we see time and time again. Meg Ryan plays Kathleen, an independent bookstore owner, opposite Tom Hanks as Joe, who owns one of the largest bookstore chains in the world–Kathleen’s biggest competition. Online, they email back and forth everyday, but they never share any personal details about themselves. Instead, they discuss their feelings, books, ask for advice (without specifics) and basically totally fall in love. In person, they cannot stand each other. It isn’t until they make plans to meet that Joe realizes who she is, and then must decide how to move forward. The story shifts once the two of them, in person, actually begin to become friends, and even start to like each other romantically. The resolution deals with forgiveness and acceptance, and of course they end up together! Kathleen even has the wonderful and memorable line “I wanted it to be you so badly.” It’s really an incredible, gushy, hilarious romance that paved the way for many many more films in this genre.

Ephron’s work always contains an element of magic, something that many films have incorporated since. There is this distinct love of love, and each of her romantic films contain this air of divinity and fate. Her characters find each other because they have to. They are meant for each other, and no matter how much they try to deny it, they must be together. While this sounds very cheesy (and perhaps it is a little), Ephron is an expert at grounding these moments both with stellar visual storytelling and by capturing some incredible performances. You simply cannot deny Nora Ephron’s lasting impact on the craft of creating the perfect “Rom Com”.

Honorable Mentions

Clueless (1995) dir. Amy Heckerling

But, I’m A Cheerleader (1999) dir. Jamie Babbit

Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball

The 2000s:

Admittedly, 2000s “Rom Coms” have a special place in my heart, probably because I was a sweet little elementary schooler entering middle school in this era, and for the first time in my life I was made aware of love. If Nora Ephron and the 1990s clarified the Rom Com form, the 2000s perfected it. This decade was really all about the formula. Hollywood has always been a business, and in the 2000s, as we crept closer and closer to recession, the studios needed formulas that worked and, more importantly, made money. Romantic Comedies of the 2000s were all about high concept, crazy situations in which two people fall in love in completely absurd circumstances. And while these stories were definitely over the top, they kept audiences interested and sold tickets. There are a few women responsible for this new wave of “Rom Coms”, in fact there are a lot of women responsible for this. 

But before I dive into the films that perfected the formula, I’ve got to mention Gina Prince-Bythwood’s Love & Basketball (2000). I would accept the argument that this film isn’t really a “Rom Com” as it leans pretty dramatic, and you could make the point that the central plot of the film is not the romance, but rather our two leads–Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps)-- journey to becoming professional basketball players. But, their romance is important to both of their journeys and it is a central part of both the plot and the comedy. So, it definitely belongs in the conversation about women directed “Rom Coms”! This film follows two childhood neighbors and friends who both aspire to be successful basketball players, as they  go to college for the sport and, all the while, form a romantic relationship. The stand out of this film is Bythwood’s brilliant visual storytelling when it comes to the comparison between their love for basketball and each other. The most thrilling sequences are those moments of intimacy that we see between Quincy and Monica–them playing basketball in his dorm room, close ups of their hands on each other's waists, the beautiful blend of romance and sport. These are brilliantly paired with scenes of Monica actually playing basketball, where her teammates and opponents mimic this intimacy. This film loves love, and it certainly loves basketball, and it’s a fascinating depiction of how passion and relationships mix and–at times– are at odds.


2001 gave us Bridget Jones Diary, which is certainly one of the craziest and most hilarious films of the decade. 32 year old Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger), makes a New Year’s resolution to turn her life around after she overhears a childhood acquaintance, Mark (Colin Firth),complaining about her vulgar ways. She begins writing in her journal about her attempts to stop drinking, smoking, lose weight, and find Mr. Right. Bridget begins dating her womanizer boss, Daniel (Hugh Grant), until he inevitably cheats on her and they break up. She eventually becomes interested in Mark, and a love triangle follows, ending in an epic fight between the men for her affection. Director Sharon Maguire has such a great sense for comedic timing, and paired with Renée Zellweger’s performance, this is easily one of the funniest films on this list. But the comedy is met perfectly with such romantic chemistry between the characters. This movie helped perfect the high concept, absurd plots that “Rom Coms” are known for, and most importantly, Bridget Jones Diary introduces a twist–something that has also become a staple of the form. 

Later on in the decade, we’re introduced to Anne Fletcher–a true “Rom Com” MVP who directed two prominent Romantic Comedies in the 2000s, 27 Dresses (2008) and The Proposal (2009). The former follows Jane (Katherine Heigel), a woman who fantasizes about getting married and has been a bridesmaid 27 times. She longs for her boss and thinks he may be interested in her, but things get shook up when her sister comes to town and her and Jane’s boss hit it off and start dating, then get engaged! Enter dreamy journalist, Kevin (James Marsden) who is writing an article on the couple for his marriage column. But his plan shifts once he discovers Jane’s closet full of bridesmaid gowns. Seeing the potential for a career-shifting article about a woman who is truly “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”, he secretly begins to write about Jane. Of course, it’s a “Rom Com”, so they fall in love, and things go south when Kevin’s editor publishes the article and Jane reads it, mortified and betrayed. This film has every bit of over the top “Rom Com” goofiness you could imagine, and it’s truly a super fun and nostalgic watch, but the issues with the genre slip through the cracks and it’s almost… too much.

Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal

In 2009, Fletcher rectifies all of these issues with The Proposal. From concept to casting, directing to cinematography, this film is a magnificent “Rom Com”. Strong willed, and slightly terrifying, editor Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) and her assistant, Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) find themselves entangled in a web of lies when Margaret’s green card expires and she tells the U.S. immigration office that her and Andrew are engaged so that she can keep her visa and, more importantly, her job. Andrew agrees to go along with the scheme if she will promote him to editor. The two take a trip to Alaska to visit Andrew’s family for his grandmother’s 90th birthday. But, of course, it’s a “Rom Com”... so they fall in love! And, boy is it fantastic! Fletcher really takes her time with these characters, and she makes us believe that they could actually fall for each other. Their moments of intimacy are almost purely emotional, with a series of conversations between the two of them at night–Margaret laying on the bed, Andrew on the floor–talking about their lives and feelings and all the while slowly falling for each other. Conceptually, it’s silly and over the top, but it’s so real and powerful and it encompasses everything about the “Rom Com” genre that makes it so powerful. 

Obviously, the 2000s were very formative for these types of movies, and all of these women (as well as many many more) had a hand in creating these films that we love so much. This is the most memorable era of Romantic Comedies for myself. And all of these films, as well as the ones mentioned for the previous decade, inspired what was to come for the 2010s to present day. 

Honorable Mentions

Bend It Like Beckham (2002) dir. Gurinder Chadha

Something’s Gotta Give (2003) dir. Nancy Meyers

Bride and Prejudice (2004) dir. Gurinder Chadha

2010s –Present Day:

If the 2000s were about perfecting the “Rom Com”, the 2010s were about tearing it apart and questioning the entire conceit of the genre. For the first time, we were getting some truly diverse voices in the public eye, and the movies and stories became more diverse and interesting. We began to truly question and examine what love and relationships are and how they dictate our lives. Now, more than ever, we see “Rom Coms” about queer relationships, non traditional romances, and love stories about people that aren’t your typical young, healthy, attractive “Rom Com” leads.

In 2013, Nicole Holofcener wrote and directed Enough Said, an unconventional Romantic Comedy that follows two divorcees– Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and Albert (James Gandolfini) –who begin dating. The story gets interesting when Eva, who is a masseuse, discovers that one of her new clients is Albert’s ex-wife. All of the horrible things that she’s heard this woman say about Albert starts to get to her, and the charming and sweet man that she was falling for starts to seem grotesque. This exploration of love later in life isn’t something that we get all of the time. Eva finds herself surprised by her reaction to Albert’s middle-aged, overweight body, and it’s really charming to see the two of them find someone who makes them feel cared for after their previous marriages. This, paired with the traditional kooky “Rom Com” twists and turns makes for a movie full of heart and humor. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Alice Wu’s The Half of It (2020). This is a sweet, queer, teenage, coming of age, love story about Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a young Chinese girl who feels out of place in her small North American town. Ellie is brilliant and makes money by writing papers for the kids at her school. The story begins when her neighbor, a jock, Paul (Daniel Diemer) asks her to write a letter to the girl that he has a crush on. She begins a correspondence with this girl for Paul, and– in a very Cyrano twist–she begins to fall for the girl as well. While this film explores the queer love story of Ellie and her crush, the more interesting love story unfolds between Ellie and Paul, as they form a real connection and friendship. Not only do we get a story about a young lesbian discovering herself, we also get a love story centered around love between friends. Again we have the traditional “Rom Com” high concept in a very unusual way. These films, while clearly inspired by the “Rom Coms” of the past, have incorporated feelings faced by all kinds of people. 

Honorable Mentions

Sarah Polley: Take This Waltz (2011)

Lulu Wang: Posthumous (2014)

Stella Meghie: The Weekend (2018)

Clea Duvall: Happiest Season (2020)

The Romantic Comedy, or “Rom Com” if you will, has stood the test of time. It’s exciting to think about how the genre has evolved over the years, and I can’t wait to see how new stories are able to be told with this timeless formula. Obviously, it will change as time goes on, but there is a very specific aesthetic and feel that a true “Rom Com” possesses, and I think these female filmmakers have been at the forefront of creating the Romantic Comedy. They’re not “Girl Movies”; they’re for everyone, but it’s incredible how this genre has given opportunity for women to take charge of their narratives and tell stories that intrigue women, men, and everyone alike. 


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