In the Romance genre, the viewer is preconditioned to believe that love is the most important ultimate goal. Character motivations, dreams, and social backgrounds are expansive and endless, but a common central theme often persists throughout the ages – love can conquer all. Of course, in order for love to conquer all, there must be a significant challenge, barrier, or struggle for this love to over-come. There can be no war without an enemy. As society changes and grows, the conflicts that propel the genre can be eradicated, leading to new avenues of exploration of conflict.
Romantic, movies, particularly romantic comedies, have a bad reputation and are often dismissed. Genre-films in general are criticized for not being ‘artistic enough’ and, “Romantic comedy is, arguably, the lowest of the low”. (McDonald, 2007, 7). Romance movies are consistently considered lesser-than, and in-films like Sleepless in Seattle (1993), there is evidence of, “a kind of institutionalised devaluing of the genre” (McDonald, 2007, 2). Romantic comedy and romantic drama movies often have a large over-lap and are hard to separate and dissect as separate genres. Some movies are dramatic at times, and funny at others, or purely ironic in nature.
The idea that ‘love conquers all’ has been present in romantic comedies (and romantic books which) for a long time – The Notebook, both the book and movie – show a woman contemplating this timeless problem of money vs. love. Whether the character comes from a rich family like in The Notebook, or was poor and choosing a marriage prospect, questions of love vs. money have been important throughout society. Money is not the only instance of love conquers all – there are other considerations – in The Prince and Me (2004), Julia Stiles’ character Paige has the fairy-tale dream, but struggles with rigid royal rules that mean she will have to give up her own independence in the name of love.
The theme of love conquering all is present in movies that are widely watched – even if they are poorly received critically. Examples of this are 50 Shades of Grey (2015), and Twilight (2008) Thematically – loving a man who is hard to love, or even monstrous in nature like Edward Cullen, is a common theme that has its roots in literary fiction. The imperfect love of Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is a classic example of an unattainable man – socially an outcast, yet still there is a romantic connection. While the lead character in 50 Shades of Grey (2015) appears to the world as a rich stud, even in its clumsy writing, we see an example of a story that has been widely popularized, likely because of the beastly nature of Christian Grey. 50 Shades of Grey (2015) is a modern-day retelling of Beauty and the Beast, a tale as old of time.
Fairy tales, and their cinematic retellings are rich examples of love conquering all. The “Evil Queen”, “Sea Witch”, “Dragon”, and other villain serves as a perfect metaphor for the trials and tribulations that life throws at couples. Fairy tales provide a vehicle of discussing love, and classics like Cinderella told of class-differences, while The Little Mermaid has implications of racism. Though, in fairy-tales – though not the Grimm version – the characters are able to find each other, beat the monsters or evil queen, and live happily ever after. Fairy tales were a safe way to talk about societal problems without labeling them explicitly.
In the ultimate romantic comedy, The Princess Bride (1987), Buttercup is forced to become a princess when the prince of the land decides that she is to wed him. Westley, the man she loves, has been lost at sea, and Buttercup feels resolved to her harsh fate. Though, this ultimate fairy-tale sees Westley still alive – now the Dread Pirate Roberts, and together they fight off the evil prince and come together. This movie is so beloved, that one author writes, “The Princess Bride is a kind of perfect that can’t really be quantified or replicated” (Mason, 2020, n.p.). The molding of fantasy with stories of the power of love is not new and continues to persist.
The modern fairly-tale movie Maid in Manhattan (2002), follows Jennifer Lopez’s character Marisa, a made at a hotel who accidentally convinces a rich guest that she too is from the upper-class. Despite the character’s financial backgrounds and differences, in the end, love is all they need. The Prince and Me (2004) has an interesting take on the fairy-tale, showing that life with the prince might just mean having to give up a part of yourself. The Netflix film series A Christmas Prince (2017) tells a similar story, with its lead character, a journalist, later struggling with censorship from the palace in the film’s follow-up, A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding (2018).
Pretty Woman (1990) has several challenges for love to challenge – money, class, and the stigma of Julia Roberts’ character Vivian being a prostitute lead to a compelling story of love triumphing numerous societal taboos. Another story revolving around money, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) is a story of three young women who are looking for rich husbands in New York City. The trio live in an apartment that has been abandoned by a criminal and sell furniture to get by – even convincing potential suitors to rebuy the furniture for them – only to sell it again. As Pola (Marilyn Monroe) and Loco (Betty Grable) find poor suitors throughout the film, opting instead for quiet lives of love, Schatze is not convinced, practically beating off her potential love interest Tom (Cameron Mitchell), whom she assumes to be a very poor, down-on-his-luck man. In the final scene, Tom reveals that he has a net worth of 200 million dollars. Schatze was completely unaware that she married a rich man, instead opting for love, but ironically getting what she wanted all along.
Love conquers all is not necessarily external – it can also be internal. Sometimes love has to conquer the character’s own instincts – though, this can sometimes come from a fear of living a lesser-life. In an iconic scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Paul Varjack (George Peppard) tells Holly Gollightly (Audrey Hepburn), “I love you Holly Gollightly”, to which our main character replies, rather tautly, “So what?”. Holly Gollightly of course, is a prostitute (assumed in the movie), who worries about living with a man that does not have the means to take care of her. We learn in the later part of the film that Holly was once Lula Mae Barnes, a poor, married southern girl who was married at 13 years old. The fear and insecurity of returning to a trapped existence serves as conflict for Holly and Paul’s relationship.
Romantic films have played an important role in sexuality and helping the public to become more comfortable with the idea of relationships that shied from the norm. Hairspray (1988) spoke of the 1960s and the discomfort for obese women as well as racial relationships. Movies like Pinky (1949) discussed racial relationships between black and white and numerous movies such as, The Forbidden City (1918), and The Toll of the Sea (1922), discussed Chinese-white relationships. Brokeback Mountain (2005) is an example of an LGBTQ film which challenged uncomfortable societal perceptions of gay relationships. Film is important for societal change because it helps people who might otherwise never be exposed understand and empathize with persons that have different viewpoints. For many heterosexual or same-race couples, there might be very little exposure to the plights of individuals suffering from discrimination due to their relationship. These movies can also provide an outlet for persons struggling with their sexuality and racism, in-which they see others like them, and do not feel like an outlier or alone.
There have been some questions as to whether the romantic comedy or classic romantic films are a “dead” genre. In an article for The Daily Beast titled “The Romantic Comedy is Dead”, the author writers, “As They Came Together wore on, I started to realize that every movie it was referencing was at least 15 years old. That no one under the age of, say, 30 would have any clue what Rudd and Poehler were parodying. And then it hit me: Could it be that the Romantic Comedy is dead—and that I didn’t notice until it was too late? How in the name of Meg Ryan did this happen?” (Romano, 2014, n.p). Romantic comedies – and even romantic movies in general – have been in steep decline, and “gone are the days when light comedic pairings like When Harry Met Sally … or 50 First Dates reliably packed multiplexes” (Siegel, 2013, n.p).
In reality, genres do not seem to die – but rather, they change and adapt to the times. Romantic films have changed over the years, as challenges in society either evolve or change. Once upon a time a movie about a man and woman who have premarital sex would have been a challenge to social norms – now, of course, this is less true. If true love never dies – then perhaps, genres never truly die either, they only evolve and grow – sort of like a marriage going into the golden years. Instead of dying, the “rom-com has been liberated to try new things and upend … old conventions” (Chaney, 2017, n.p.).
Modern movies have moved onto new topics of love conquering. As times change, the limits on love do too, and, “[l]ove is increasingly presumed—perhaps in Hollywood most of all—to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status” (Orr, 2013, n.p). This does not mean that there are no challenges available for cinematic exploration, merely that new, less explored themes will be extrapolated, and the genre will change to incorporate previously unexplored obstacles to love and its fundamental power.
The Fault in Our Stars (2014) feature characters trying to over-come cancer and disease. Silver Linings Playbook (2012) showcases two characters marred by mental illness, a topic which has considerably grown in awareness in recent times. Modern societal issues lead to modern reimagining of the genres. This is not to say that mental illness, disease, gay rights, or other struggles were not important in the past – they certainly were, it is merely to recognize that culture has shifted to a place where these topics are now in a position to be presented on television. Modern sensibilities allow for new ideas to be explored. The conventions of society are a common obstacle for love to over-come. In The Big Sick (2017), the lead character is a Pakistani who falls in love with an American, despite his family’s objections. While black and white racism movies might become more and more uncommon as society has now agreed that it is wrong to discriminate a white and black marriage, there is now an opening and appetite for films from other cultures and viewpoints. Stories such as Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and The Big Sick (2017) are filling this void.
However, love does not always conquer all. As a playwright, William Shakespeare toyed with the concept of choosing love over all else in Romeo and Juliet, and of course, there are few persons left who do not know that the decisions of the young characters in the name of love leads to their untimely devise and ruin for their familial houses. In this case, love did not conquer all, but the foolishness of the family’s feud and the consequence of death came out on top. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a similar theme emerges, Antony, who had a significant advantage against Octavian Caesar at sea, loses the war when Cleopatra turns her ships around suddenly and makes her way back to Egypt. A blind man in love, Antony follows her, and loses the war, leading to their complete and utter defeat. Modern examples of this “love does not conquer all” theme are movies like LA LA Land, or 500 Days of Summer, movies that would be considered romantic comedies if the characters had only lived happily-ever-after, but like Shakespeare, these films are far more cynical.
These films that subvert the idea that love is the ultimate goal are still an important reflection on love, society, and our motivations. Though The Devil Wears Prada (2006) is not a romantic movie, it does focus on a coming-of-age story, which is often central to romance movies. The lead character Andy (Anne Hathaway) discovers that her friends, family, and her career in journalism has been swept aside by her job with Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). While Andy does eventually get the guy, and Andy does eventually realize that through her job she had sacrificed much of her relationship. Titanic (1997) is a very clear example of a movie that challenges class conflicts. Rose Dewitt Bukater is from high society and ends up falling in love with third-class passenger Jack Dawson. Though the two do not have a happy ending, Rose comes of age and learns that money isn’t everything – and despite Jack’s death, she breaks free from the shackles of her class, taking on Jack’s surname and starting a new life for herself.
While the theme of love conquers all has transformed and molded itself to new social challenges throughout the ages, it has been an important part of literary fiction, plays, and modern-day media in films. Though romance films are not always critically respected, especially as is the case with romantic comedies, these movies are an important reflection on the human experience. Familial love, romantic love, and the evolution of society and the view of love in general is a topic that is not likely to go anywhere, even as society moves forward and changes. Like love and its ability to persist and conquer despite challenges, romantic movies will likely stick around too, even as countless critics proclaim the genre as dead – but, they also said that about musicals.
Chaney, J. (2017, January 30). The Romantic Comedy Is Not Dead – It’s Just Not the Same As You Remember. Retrieved from https://www.vulture.com/2017/01/romantic-comedy-is-not-dead.html
Mason, J. (2020, April 30). There’s a Shortage of Perfect Movies in the World, but The Princess Bride Is One of Them. Retrieved from https://www.themarysue.com/why-the-princess-bride-is-perfect/
McDonald, T. J. (2012). Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. New York: Columbia University Press.
Romano, A. (2014, July 7). The Romantic Comedy Is Dead. Retrieved from https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-romantic-comedy-is-dead
Siegel, T. (2013, September 26). R.I.P. Romantic Comedies: Why Harry Wouldn’t Meet Sally in 2013. Retrieved from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/rip-romantic-comedies-why-harry-634776