Red roses, chocolates — and rom-coms. On Valentine’s eve, Kim Knight sets her DVD player to saccharine and asks why the genre is so enduringly awful.

Hilariously, the highest grossing romantic comedy of the 20th century stars a man who woos a woman with this line: "I'll pay you to be at my beck and call".

Richard Gere picks Julia Roberts up in his silver Lotus (she drives - because, otherwise, you know, sexist) and then orders her to spit out her gum, stop fidgeting, and change her clothes.

Spoiler alert: love conquers assholes. Because in return for $3000, a bubblebath and a week of room service breakfasts, our heroine will have sex on a piano (melodically) before falling (metaphorically) head over heels. Also, she'll stop being a prostitute and go back to school. Obviously when I typed "hilariously" at the beginning of this story, I was joking.

Not funny? That's okay. After a week of total rom-com immersion, my sense of humour is as unreliable as Hollywood's ability to depict an actual relationship.


Some things a recent romantic movie marathon taught me about love: Unless the bed has a minimum of six gigantic pillows, it will not work out. Unless someone can sing something from a Broadway musical, it will not work out. Unless, at some point, she wears a cute but ambiguously gendered hat or necktie and he has a dog, it will not work out.

Rom-coms have rules. There will be a misunderstanding or downright deceit. A kooky friend will play court jester to the handsome princess. A soundtrack will underscore the action so literally that when you hear the opening strains of Foreigner's Feels Like The First Time, you will want to check there are no children in the room.

"To be honest," says Dr Shuchi Kothari, University of Auckland's associate professor of media, film and television, "Even the smarter rom-coms acquiesce to a certain conservatism about gender roles, power dynamics in relationships and division of screen time."

They all start with the "meet cute" - movie jargon for the moment Hugh Grant spills orange juice on Julia Roberts (Notting Hill); sleeps with Andie McDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) or discovers that Drew Barrymore writes lyrics when she's not watering potplants (Music and Lyrics). Basically, the moment the future romantic couple first cross paths.

Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman.
Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman.

"Boy meets girl, or girl meets girl, or boy meets boy," says Kothari. "But the timing of the meet cute is wrong. Yet the attraction is palpable. Most of the complications of the second act are about the relationship being thwarted in one way or another. Eventually one gives up on the other.

"And then 10 minutes before the film ends, they see the folly of their ways. So you run to the airport, preferably in dense traffic and rain.

"While you're getting there, the obligatory montage reminds you of all the moments in which you like your salad one way and their shirt the other way and then between rapid cut-aways of 'oh such lovely memories of each other's quirks', you pick up your pace and run even faster - benign strangers help you get there. And while we know all these cliches of the genre, and we make fun of it, it seems to deliver to its audience."

Just like, says Kothari, "a comforting tub of super-rich icecream that satisfies - despite being empty calories".


Pass the Movenpick, and press play.

Before Tinder, there was Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. In 1998, they starred in You've Got Mail, an early ode to online attraction. Sample dialogue: "I tried cybersex once, but I kept getting a busy signal" and, perhaps more prescient, "the internet is just another way of being rejected by women".

Except, of course, no one is rejected. Even when the boy ruthlessly forces the closure of the girl's family bookstore; even when he humiliates her in a cafe by not admitting he is the guy from the internet she is supposed to be meeting in real life; even when he comes to her apartment when she is sick, and sits on her bed and grasps her face in a way that should have resulted in a 111 call, the film still ends with them kissing. In a park. With a dog. While Somewhere Over The Rainbow plays in the background.

What's wrong with a little harmless stalking? Just last week, a new academic study from the University of Michigan suggested rom-coms desensitised women to obsessive male attention. Researcher Julia Lippman found women who watched movies that romanticised relentless pursuit (There's Something About Mary) were more likely to tolerate stalker behaviour than those women who watched films where such behaviour was depicted in the negative (Sleeping With The Enemy). In an interview with Canada's Global News, Lippman noted rom-coms traded in the "love conquers all" myth. "Even though, of course, it doesn't. Love is great, but so is respect for other people."

Honestly, when I selected You've Got Mail for my six-movie, 649-minute soak in schmaltz, I had higher hopes. It was directed by Nora Ephron, the woman whose script had, 10 years earlier, orgasmed Meg Ryan to cinematic history in that scene from When Harry Met Sally - the high-point of my rom-com romp, and a film that Kothari lists alongside Annie Hall as a "standout" example of the genre.

"They haven't become dated, because of their self-reflexivity: an awareness of the reductive nature of the genre itself, of constructions and expectations of screen romance and gender roles.

"Most film-makers don't complicate the fundamentals of the rom-com - the difference for them is 'hey, how about a rom-com in the Mafia world, or how about we go back in time, or forward in time, or bring back the dead?'"

But by simply changing the setting, says Kothari, "you're not challenging or complicating the hetero-normative and often sexist conventions of this genre".

So why does the rom-com endure? Why does anyone make a movie like, say, Valentine's Day, the cinematic equivalent of being stuck on the Northern Gateway toll road on a long weekend?

Taylor Swift and Jennifer Garner in Valentine's Day.
Taylor Swift and Jennifer Garner in Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day

stars approximately 92 celebrities (from Taylor Swift to Shirley Maclaine) and features approximately 327 interconnected subplots, including Anne Hathaway as a multi-accented phone sex worker who spanks bad boys in her secretarial lunchbreaks. I'd continue, but the film's running time is approximately three years and, 10 minutes in, I'd lost my will to live. British critic Mark Kermode reviewed it best when he said it was "like getting a greeting card full of vomit ... here's your Valentine's card, it's a bag of sick".

Why is a good romantic comedy so hard to find?

Kothari notes that in her Auckland scriptwriting classes, she often encounters female students who want to write rom-coms.

"They like the genre and are frustrated by it. But as they develop their subverted versions, they realise it's a difficult genre to do well."

And maybe the audience doesn't care. Pretty Woman - that assault on everything women have ever fought for, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts - earned $463.4 million at the box office. Valentine's Day was the 20th highest-grossing rom-com of all time (Annie Hall, the thinking woman's rom-com, doesn't even make it into the top 50).

Roseanne Liang, Kiwi director and writer, says: "Sometimes you just want to believe in love, no matter how silly or unrealistic it might be ... there's so much horribleness in the world, people feeding on people, people exploiting people, people treating people like animals. You could say I'm exaggerating it, but romantic comedies balance that out."

The genre is changing, she says. "Audiences grew up with Sleepless in Seattle, those classic romantic comedies. Now they're way more savvy. They want something more for the modern age."

Liang points to the recent Man Up, where boy (Simon Pegg) meets girl (Lake Bell) because girl makes a split-second decision to pretend to be his blind date. And Silver Linings Playbook, the story of a bipolar man that, she says, was "geniusly" not marketed as a romantic comedy, but followed many of the genre's conventions.

A modern rom-com, says Liang, "needs to be honest, it has to be authentic. Especially with the rise of digital content ... people just want something they haven't seen before. It needs to rise above the usual, to have a point of difference. And one of the best ways to do that is to be intelligent and smart and comment on something that's happening in the now".

So I went back to the video store and asked for 2012's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's the romantic and comedic movie of the Stephen Chbosky book of the same name. It stars drugs, introverted teens, issues of sexuality and excellent use of a David Bowie song. It was not as good as the novel (banned in several American high schools) but, when the girl gives the boy a typewriter and the teacher says, "We accept the love we think we deserve," I blinked hard. Okay, I cried. Way, way harder than Julia Roberts, that time she went to Notting Hill and told Hugh Grant she was just a girl standing in front of a boy. I went outside. And the rain hid my tears. Roll credits.