The Tired Rom-Com Tropes of How to Be Single

By  · Published on February 16th, 2016

You need to hand it to the team behind How To Be Single for packaging, at least on paper, a Valentine’s Day-aimed rom-com/female buddy comedy that’s not about the pursuit of marital bliss, but about making peace with the idea of being alone. This is what I thought upon seeing the Christian Ditter-directed film’s trailer and the reason I paid to watch it on its opening weekend. Yet, as written by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (unsurprisingly, the same team of scribes behind He’s Just Not That Into You) with Dana Fox, How To Be Single proved to be a bait-and-switch on this premise. Sure, we get to watch Dakota Johnson learn a thing or two about not relying on her romantic relationships to define her life or identity, but I still left the theater wishing the film granted her more agency and wit “on her path to self discovery.” But most importantly, I wished it didn’t severely misuse its side female characters, all thinly drawn with facets and hysteric characteristics of some lazy and lackluster female comedy tropes we should no longer care to see.

As a sucker for rom-coms who occasionally indulges in the comforts of even the most predictable examples, I do admit How to be Single has its undeniable charms, like a lovably manic Leslie Mann and a sexually very active, heavy boozing Rebel Wilson. So, no, I am not a coldhearted monster who thinks there is an inherent problem with wanting to fall in love and settle down. But having also seen good-to-great examples of the genre in the last two decades featuring female characters with complexity and agency outside of their romantic interests – Kissing Jessica Stein, Definitely, Maybe, Friends with Benefits, For a Good Time, Call… and Obvious Child, among them – I am no longer tolerant of a parade of certain tired clichés. How to be Single sadly ticks all of the following boxes:

1. Goofy Sidekick

You know the one I’m talking about: the girl with no depth or purpose other than helping a usually stunning but emotionally lost girlfriend achieve her romantic goals. These may come in the form of a criminally wasted Joan Cusack in Runaway Bride or an absurdly alternative/New Age Molly Shannon in Serendipity to help out the likes of Julia Roberts and Kate Beckinsale. Not dissimilar to Manic Pixie Dream Girls (though not as “conventionally” gorgeous as them) who exist solely for their male counterparts, goofy sidekicks are usually not granted with a dignified storyline of their own. Bridesmaids’ Megan, brilliantly played by Melissa McCarthy, put something of a positive spin on this trope by giving Megan a decent back story, yet some of the physical comedy still dwells on her plus size without exactly spelling it out – hence making it tougher to pinpoint and take issue with. Thankfully, the infinitely talented McCarthy is now a leading lady (actually, a movie star) of feminist comedy hits like The Heat and Spy. I just wish the same could one day be said about the exceptional Wilson, who fills a similar (but sadly, lesser) role here while single-handedly making How To Be Single watchable. She deserves a lot better than a film that casually dismisses the range she’s capable of and instead uses her as comic relief. Let’s hope this film serves as a springboard to her path to stardom. Then all will be forgiven.

2. Woman desperate for marriage

I consider When Harry Met Sally to be one of the finest rom-coms of all time. Yet I still slightly cringe every time Marie (played by Carrie Fisher) takes out her Rolodex of potentially available and eligible male suitors at Central Park’s The Boat House with the hopes of finding Sally (Meg Ryan) a new match. Again, there is nothing wrong with wanting to fall in love, but there is something severely nasty about writers insisting on inventing smart, capable and independent female characters that want and obsess over nothing other than finding a suitor. Ginnifer Goodwin’s Gigi in He’s Just Not That Into You is a memorable offender among this group of tropes. How to be Single replicates her almost exactly by giving us Lucy (played by Alison Brie), who spends her days sitting at a bar, browsing various dating sites to put together spreadsheets of eligible men. If there is ever a scene that hints at what she does for a living amid her chronic disorder of male hunting, I must have missed it. To my defense, the film doesn’t want you to remember anything about her other than the fact that she achieves her pathetic goal in the end.


3. Cold career woman won over by motherhood

Did anyone really buy Sex and the City’s Miranda Hobbs canceling her abortion at the last minute while she was already at the clinic? I didn’t. And before you ask, no, I don’t hate babies and I am not against women who would love to become a mother one day. But please, no more of the outdated “she was incomplete before she had a baby” tropes. We are in year 2016. People realize not wanting a baby is just as normal and acceptable as wanting one. I love Baby Boom to pieces (not because I’m a hypocrite, but because Diane Keaton launches her own successful business in the end), but I don’t need to see another cold corporate female monster that gets in touch with her feminine side thanks to the arrival of a bundle of joy. How to be Single’s Meg (Mann) isn’t necessarily confronted by unplanned pregnancy. She chooses motherhood willingly, yet the story manipulates our emotions insidiously through a scene in which she unexpectedly bonds with a baby belonging to someone else and decides that is what she wants, as well. Have I mentioned she plays a top doctor who’s delivered over 3,000 babies and never wanted one till then? But you see, How to be Single wants you to believe all females have that undeniable maternal instinct and it’s just a matter of time for it to kick in.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.