Essays · Movies

The Romantic Comedy Ideology

The road to romance is paved with disposable fiancés.
Graduate Ending
Embassy Pictures
By  · Published on July 17th, 2018

If you throw a wedding bouquet at a romantic comedy, you’re liable to hit a cliché or two. A plot-forwarding misunderstanding here, a kiss in the rain there…an overall abundance of miraculously employed architects. But as far as rom-com tropes go, the “disposable fiancé” is one of my favorites.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. Or, rather, who I’m talking about. In the broadest of strokes, romantic comedies are about two people coming together. And, per storytelling 101, we need some obstacles to prevent that coupling from happening in less than 90 minutes. Enter stage right: the disposable fiancé. Maybe they’re a childhood sweetheart, a friend of the family, or a colleague from work. But one thing’s for sure: they are the love interest’s love interest, and as such, an inconvenience. A cock block embodied.

romantic comedy enchanted

…usually played by James Marsden

Now we could just leave it there and shrug the trope off as a necessity of narrative formula. Or we could take the media we consume seriously. There’s an assumption that romantic comedies are low culture. And because the genre gets disparaged as something fluffy and transparent that we shouldn’t take too seriously, it makes for a hell of an effective vehicle for ideology.

See, I have a theory: the way that romantic comedies handle their disposable fiancés speaks volumes of the ideas and ideals of the genre as a whole. As figures of conflict, the way romcoms remove preexisting partners reflects what romcoms think must be sacrificed and prioritized to achieve the requisite happily ever after.

So, chardonnay in hand, let’s see what we can deduce from the broken hearts that paved the way for many a ride into the sunset:

Whoever is dating your crush is probably an asshole  

romantic comedy wedding crashers

To make extra special sure that we don’t resent the protagonists for abandoning their significant others, some films make their disposable fiancés as unlikeable as humanly fucking possible. From serial cheaters (The Wedding Singer, Wedding Crashers, Old School) to financial opportunists (Leap Year), to actual mustache-twirling villains (The Princess Bride), it’s easy to root against the disposable fiancé when they’re an indisputable jackass.

The moral rot of these exes isn’t always proven until the third act. But even when villainy is only implied, the ideological implication is pretty immature. Namely: whoever is with the person I want to be with must be a shitty person because I am the hero of this story and I must save my beloved from this objective monster. Villainizing the person dating your crush is certainly easier than confronting the possibility that they’re someone your crush genuinely likes. Only in romcoms, the villainy parades about with the subtlety of Brian Blessed in a library, leaving audience members snug in the satisfaction of rooting against the romantic competition without the inconvenience of having to humanize them.

“One true love” is a fantasy, but you should buy into it anyway   

romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle

Hi comrades, can we talk about how the stability of consumer capitalism relies on monogamy for a minute? The implication of most if not all romantic comedies is sex, more specifically, the content, secure, within-a-relationship-happily-ever-after sex implied at the conclusion of just about each and every entry in the genre. And for this kind of romance (aka the kind of romance that has traditionally supported consumerism) to succeed, the disposable fiancé needs to be out of the picture.  

There’s a scene in Kate and Leopold where Meg Ryan confesses that she hasn’t had the best luck with men, and Hugh “fresh creamery butter” Jackman suggests that maybe she just hasn’t found the right guy yet. Ryan responds, effectively testifying that the fanciful idea of love perpetuated by the rom-com genre aids and abets consumption:

Maybe that whole love thing is just a grown-up version of Santa Claus. Just a myth we’ve been fed since childhood. So we keep buying magazines, joining clubs and doing therapy and watching movies with hip-hop songs played over love montages all in this pathetic attempt to explain why our love Santa keeps getting caught in the chimney.

It’s a valid point that the film proceeds to completely undermine, but it’s a valid point nonetheless: from gym memberships to the wedding industrial complex, there is an entire market based around the fantasy of finding your “one true love.” And by perpetuating this fantasy, romcoms are a part of that market.  

There are so, so many disposable fiancés whose disposability hinges on them being pretty good, but not good enough. Prince Valium of Spaceballsas his name suggests, is a riff on this very idea: yeah he’s a prince, but he’s bland. In other words: he doesn’t seem to care about his being rejected, so why should we? Whether they’re too stiff (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Midnight in Paris), too emotional (Four Weddings and a Funeral), or too boring (You’ve Got Mail, Princess Diaries 2, Crazy, Stupid, Love) the consumption must continue because the special spark just ain’t there…speaking of which:

Being a jerk is okay if it’s for true love

Romantic Comedies Four Weddings

For every marginally bland, boring, or outright villainous disposable fiancé, there’s one that’s perfectly nice, well-off, charming, marriage material. The only problem? Our lead just doesn’t love them anymore. By inflating the stakes of courtship, romantic comedies dramatize the circumstances around which partners that aren’t The One get dumped. You could be a literal, bonafide saint who runs an orphanage for blind kittens and the audience would still cheer when Rachel McAdams leaves you at the altar.

Wendy from 13 Going on 30 was a perfectly nice meteorologist. Richard from Ghost Town was a human-rights lawyer. Andrew from Sweet Home Alabama was the son of the mayor of New York, and a genuine “rent out Tiffany’s for a wedding proposal” kind of romantic.

Practically speaking, our protagonists would be fools to turn down fiancés like this. But while pragmatism has its place in marriages that are more like corporate mergers, it’s pretty dang important to be honest with your current partner about your feelings (and, in this case, lack thereof).

The narrative satisfaction of most romantic comedies is seeing two specific people wind up together. And because romcoms are framed this way, when the outgoing partner is told that they are no longer loved, it’s usually treated with the fanfare of resolution. To consider the perspective of the jilted party would derail the romantic narrative freight train. Taking responsibility for how your grand romantic gesture effects other human beings is a bit of buzz kill.

With a couple subversive exceptions, romantic comedies are wish fulfillment. And wish-fulfillment has its place. Sometimes we need to believe in the kind of love that can draw people together gravitationally like the moon in Moonstruck.

And yet for all their feel-good, fantasy value, most romcoms are littered with human-shaped evidence of what that kind of love costs. It’s uncomfortable that romcoms go out of their way to spare the audience the emotional labor of sympathizing with the rejected partner. It’s distressing that the fantasy of one-true-love supports a consumptive market. And it’s a hard truth that falling in love often means breaking someone else’s heart.

romantic comedy the graduate

Yay! Isn’t ideology fun?

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).