Sunday, 13 February 2011

Sex, Rom Coms, and Final Couples, Part 2


It has come to my attention that there are, not just one, but two 'casual sex' romantic comedies on the horizon: No Strings Attached (trailer here), and the even more literal-mindedly titled Friends With Benefits (trailer here). This is on top of last year's Love and Other Drugs, the raunchiest mainstream rom com for some time (even if it does develop, not entirely convincingly, into something of a melodrama).

As I've said before, many (academic) critics like to characterise contemporary romantic comedy as perversely chaste, suggesting that these movies usually find some reason or other to keep couples out of each others' beds. This just isn't true, however, as the appearance of films like these makes all the more obvious.

The final couple happy ending has long been seen as a standardised, conservative end to a genre that is concerned in virtually every instance to repeat the same mantra regarding marriage and monogamy. Yet I'm more in agreement with Celestino Deleyto when he says that the main purpose of romantic comedy is

the artistic articulation of current discourses on love, sex and marriage - discourses that [are] multiple and contradictory. The apparent universality of the happy ending and its obvious conventionality have led many to defend a homology between the genre’s narrative structure and a stern defence of monogamy and heterosexuality, distorting what, in my view, is its main discursive space: the exploration of love and human sexuality and its complex and fluid relationships with the social context.

There have certainly already been plenty of romantic comedies in which casual sex or one-night stands have taken place between final couples (only to lead to something more), but these two films - taking, as they do, the parlance of our times in their very titles - make it very clear that they are concerned to explore this particular aspect of their "social context". Urban Dictionary's first entry for the phrase 'friends with benefits' seems to have appeared in 2003. Well, better eight years later than never.

Of course, it is almost certain that these movies will end with their final couples deciding that they want to try for a monogamous relationship; but meaning doesn't just reside in the ending - it's also conveyed by the beginning and middle. Equally, one final couple can mean something very different to another depending on what has come before it. For instance, once it has been demonstrated that sex can be separated from emotions outside a relationship, it follows that they can also be severed inside one. I predict tentative conclusions.

Regardless of how they turn out, though, what could make more clear the rom coms' desire to wrestle with changing sexual politics than the appearance of films with titles like these? How long until we see a movie called Fuck Buddies?


  1. A search for 'Fuck Buddies' on imdb reveals: No Strings Attached (working title: Fuckbuddies). The time is here, sort of! Of course, they were never going to use the title (conservatism), but that's neither here nor there.

    I have a question: Do you study the difference between European and American romantic comedies, and also the difference between those by actual artists and those simply made by commercial hacks? When I think of romantic comedies I can only recall the ones I found interesting, and they were interesting because they were not formulaic and sterilized, and few of them stick with this 'final couple' syndrome. I would name things like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, etc. I wouldn't name... those whose names I can't remember because they're made to generate maximum box office receipts.

    As for this wave of film 'wrestling with changing sexual politics', the friends with benefits angle was already explored prominently in Scrubs, popular comedy show on a major network, so perhaps the reason they have delayed this long is because they would have been redundant earlier. They are doubly redundant now, it's true, but people have short memories.

  2. Good work finding the alternative title!

    I don't tend to make too much of a distinction between 'actual artists' and 'commercial hacks', to be honest - I'm interested in all sorts of films and the ways they navigate genre conventions. Having said that, in my thesis I do write about some recent indie movies like Eternal Sunshine and Before Sunrise, taking into account both their desire to distinguish themselves from what they perceive as standardised conventions AND their employment or exploration of those conventions. Though let's remember that mainstream contemporary rom coms are also sometimes willing to forego the final couple: My Best Friend's Wedding, The Break-Up, Prime, etc.

    Thanks for the Scrubs heads-up. Do the characters actually use the 'friends with benefits' term?

  3. I can't recall the exact term they use. You'd have to look it up.

    How do you determine a film that 'desires to distinguish itself from what it perceives as standardized conventions' from one that is simply similar by virtue of its subject? I never got the impression that either of the films you mentioned were written with reference to any conventions, as opposed to a film like Punch-Drunk Love which directly references conventions incessantly. I do think there's an inherent problem in treating a formulaic film made to make money as a 'discourse on love, sex and marriage', which is why I would differentiate between 'hacks' aka businessmen (directors for hire) and artists who actually seek to provide a discourse on love, sex and marriage. If someone makes artistic decisions that defer to perceived monetary gains then I see only a commentary on commerce, not society - even if they break the mold in order to separate from the pack (in order to make money).

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  5. Well, I think the subject matter of romantic courtship does unavoidably tend to dictate that a film will engage in some way with the long history of romance narrative. For instance, both those films find different ways of tackling the issue of the final couple happy ending: Before Sunrise by leaving open its possibility for the future, and Eternal Sunshine by playing on its status as a simultaneous ending and beginning. Equally, Before Sunrise can be usefully seen in relation to the convention of time-pressurized romances (Linklater showed Minelli's The Clock to Delpy and Hawke before shooting, for instance), and Eternal Sunshine is something of a variation on the comedies of remarriage.

    I would certainly resist the desire to assume that 'formulaic' mainstream films aren't also discourses on love and sexuality - in fact, they can hardly help but be so, and indeed will often tell us more about their cultural moment than 'indie' or 'art' films, precisely because they appeal to a broader audience. I don't feel that the matter of monetary gain matters all that much in this respect: regardless of intention, movies will always make use of the cultural materials at hand to construct their narratives. Besides, I also don't believe the line between 'artist' and 'director for hire' is obvious, by any means. Directors of classic mainstream rom coms like Hawks, Sturges, Capra, Lubitsch, or Cukor were certainly both. Nora Ephron or Garry Marshall (for example) might not be as fine popular artists as these masters, but they are popular artists nonetheless, and it would be wrong to assume that their films have no interest simply because they are also designed to make money. We can't say that commercial imperatives dictate every decision in these films, nor indeed that they dictate none in Linklater's or Gondry's. In my view, all kinds of films have useful things to tell us about their times, contexts, generic precedents, and so on.