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How the Sexual Revolution Killed the Rom-Com

Cultural trends made Harry and Sally go the way of the eight-track tape

The death of the Hollywood rom-com’s popularity is a tragic side effect of embracing the sexual revolution — and only a change in its values can bring it back.

Two just-released films showcased the failure of the romantic fantasy:

  • Priscilla,” the Sofia Coppola-directed film about the wife of Elvis Presley
  • “What Happens Later,” directed by Meg Ryan about two former lovers who meet again at an airport while simultaneously having their flights delayed.

“Priscilla” deals with Priscilla being swept up in the fairy-tale romance of being wooed by, and then married to Elvis Presley, only for that fantasy (and marriage) to fall apart. “What Happens Later” explores with how the fairy-tale love story the protagonists thought they would have in their younger years never materializes.

Priscilla | Official Trailer HD | A24

It’s common knowledge that the Hollywood rom-com has been largely “dead” for a while now. Obviously, Hollywood still makes them, such as “To All The Boys I Loved Before” and “Ticket to Paradise,” but we’re also seeing anti-rom-com’s like “Somebody I Used To Know.”

They are largely low-budget affairs that typically come and go in limited release or on streaming platforms. Gone are the days when rom-coms were blockbusters in their own right. Films like “When Harry Met Sally,” “You Got Mail” and “Hitch” come to mind, not to mention something as colossal like “Titanic.”

CAUSES FOR THE DECLINE

Many explanations for the decline of the Hollywood romance film have been touted in recent years. The rise of the “mega blockbuster” and superhero movies, the death of the mid-budget movie and the rise of streaming services have all been put out there as possible reasons.

There’s reason to believe that at least part of the decline in rom-coms comes from the fact that a large part of the audience just doesn’t believe in romance anymore. Fewer and fewer people are getting married and increasingly people are getting disillusioned with dating. And this is bleeding its way into people’s viewing preferences.

A new study shows that Gen Z has said they want TV and movies to focus less on romantic relationships and more on platonic ones like friendships. Why? I would argue a big part of this is the rom-com genre itself, which sold people a lie about what love is supposed to look like and how to find it – causing generations to become disillusioned with love itself and some to give up on it. Once people give up more and more on love in the real world, the less they want to see it portrayed on screen.

The rom-com genre since the 1980s and ‘90s has promoted a view of love and romance based on the cultural shifts of the sexual revolution of the same era. This sexual revolution was based, in part, on the migration of people from farms to cities in the early 20th century and the wide acceptance of birth control and abortion decades later.

RELATED: CAN MEG RYAN REVIVE THE ROM-COM?

According to “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating” the migration to cities meant that people were largely choosing dating partners among a larger pool and people they’d known for only a short time. This meant people were choosing who they dated far more based on superficial characteristics like looks and charm. Widely available birth control and abortion — along with other cultural attitude changes — lowered the cost for women to engage in casual sex.

Unlike what some have claimed, Hollywood romance and rom-coms rarely devalued marriage or monogamy in favor of shallow casual sex. In movies like “Trainwreck” and shows like “How I Met Your Mother,” Amy and Barney’s anti-marriage and pro-casual sex philosophies are treated as toxic responses to childhood trauma.

Almost every Hollywood romance elevated commitment and marriage.

What Hollywood did do, however, was promote casual sex and sexual chemistry as the best — and most effective — way of finding true love. Harry and Sally have multiple partners before discovering their feelings for each other after sleeping together for the first time in the Rob Reiner classic.

When Harry Met Sally... (8/11) Movie CLIP - Feelings of Loss (1989) HD

Allie and Noah’s lifelong commitment in “The Notebook” and Rose and Jack’s timeless love in “Titanic” come about because they chose the person they found the most intense sexual chemistry with over the ones who seemed the most responsible and whom their families approved of.

Jane from “27 Dresses” discovers that she should be with Kevin over George because she compares her kiss with one with her one-night stand with the other. The protagonists of shows such as “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” appear to sleep with half of New York before finding the loves of their lives.

LIMITS OF ‘PURITY CULTURE’

More and more research is showing that casual sex is a terrible way to find lasting love. People with more sexual partners are more likely to divorce, be unhappy in their marriages, and to cheat. People who live together before marriage are at a higher risk for divorce.

Feminists are starting to make the case that casual sex is exploitive of women rather than empowering. Take Louise Perry, author of the book “The Case Against The Sexual Revolution.” She argues that it forces women to engage in casual sex to find a man — something most women don’t want to do, which leads them to feel exploited as well as single.

Meanwhile, men have complained about being shut out of the dating market entirely are more and more women only compete for those men at the top. All this is causing men and women to feel burned out from dating and resentful of the opposite sex, rather than seeing the culprit as the dating strategies they’ve been pitched.

All this while the relationships that are most likely to last, have the highest rates of marital satisfaction and least amount of divorce and abuse are where the couple go to church more than three times a week.

Go figure!

This should be a huge cultural victory for religious conservatives, who’ve often said many of these very things about the problems with the sexual revolution. Unfortunately, religious conservatives have failed to provide an alternative model that young people want to buy into. Most of the models suggest a return to the pre-dating “courtship” one that doesn’t work in a world where communities are less tight-knit and live in densely-populated cities.

The model of “purity culture” (named for the way it advocated men and women to remain “pure” until marriage) that evangelicals advocated for in response to the sexual revolution largely failed to prevent most young Christians from engaging in sex. Likewise, faith-based romance movies have failed to provide a vision for romance and love that can replace the one put forth by Hollywood.

Will the romantic comedy ever come back to the heights it once did? Maybe someday. It will only happen when someone figures out how to tell a story about love that audiences feel is both true and beautiful. Someone has to cast a vision for how to find love that movie-goers want to be true — and also can believe is true.

Perhaps that will come from some visionary writer-director. Or perhaps that will come from ordinary people learning how to love and be loved in ordinary lives so that it doesn’t seem so far-fetched on-screen after all.

This article originally appeared at Religion Unplugged.

Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.world, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers. His other work and contact info can be found at his website josephholmesstudios.com.

3 Comments

  1. Christians women are socialized and educated to be feminists so the church cannot win. The church has lost their influence. RomCom has failed because there’s no romance to sleep with women. Today’s modern women can be wooed to sleep with top men just from their looks. Repeat like a broken record or a time travel closed loop. Marriage is now a contract where the prizes and legal protections are all given to women.

  2. Hollywood is viciously anti male anyway. The have been a million battle of the sexes movies and the score is one million to zero. Men always lose. The vast majority of male characters in comedies are buffoons who get pies in the face or kicked in the crotch.

  3. None of this gets fixed until we create an alternative to the Hollywood studio structure. As long as Hollywood had a choke-hold on culture, waiting for them to change course (even in the face of hemorrhaging at the box office) is an exercise in futility. Keeps the writers of websites like this employed, but no competition – no fix.

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