The deteriorating romantic comedy genre

Published: Thursday, Feb. 9 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in "Knocked Up."

Universal Studios

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When asked if he could think of any recommendable romantic comedies, John Mulderig laughed.

“That are less than 50 years old?" asked the assistant director for media reviews and critic for the Catholic News Service.

Who hasn't seen a few romantic comedies, at least in the month of February? The genre is more popular than ever, with half of the top 10 grossing romantic comedy films of all time coming out within the past 10 years.

But the "rom-com," as it is often referred to, is not what it used to be. While there's clearly a stark contrast between the current genre and the black-and-white, Motion Picture Production Code-era films of yesteryear, critics and values-conscious media observers have seen a steep moral decline in recent years. The rom-com has gradually moved from being a cheeky, charming and generally family-friendly gem among Hollywood films to becoming the formulaic, sex-filled cash cows of the industry.

The fallout has been a further cheapening of intimacy, the objectification of women and an overall decline in quality filmmaking.

“In the scramble to make the box office pay off, a lot of things rise to the surface that really shouldn’t,” Mulderig said. “I find that I see more bad romantic comedies than bad anything else, I think.”

In 2008, NPR ran a story marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the Motion Picture Production Code, or “Hays Code,” as it is commonly known. It began in 1930 and was enforced beginning in the late 1930s.

The code “was the result of a nationwide backlash — an outraged reaction to a Hollywood that by 1922 had come to seem like a moral quagmire, even by the bathtub-gin-and-speakeasy standards of the Roaring '20s.”

For decades until the end of the code and ushering in of the MPAA rating system in 1968, Hollywood produced wholesome and moral material that some people may pine for today. Romantic comedies were tame.

In section two of the code outlining restrictions for sexual content, it states, “Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are accepted or a common thing,” and, “In general, passion should be so treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.”

Mulderig believes the romantic comedy genre has gradually declined in terms of sexual content. Since the ushering in of the MPAA rating system in 1968, there has been a lot of good and bad.

Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, that the decline of the rom-com has been a recent trend, starting with flims like 1998’s “There’s Something About Mary” and especially the 2005 film “The 40-year-old Virgin.”

Lori Pearson, communications director for the content rating website Kids-In-Mind.com, a partner of the Deseret News Family Media Guide, agreed.

“I do think that romantic comedies have changed recently, and the emphasis now seems to be more on sex rather than romance,” she said in an email. “Indeed ... the classic romantic comedy may have to now be relabeled as a sex comedy instead.”

Henson referred to it as “The Hangover Syndrome” — an overall increase in coarse and crass material in all films. It’s finally carried over to romantic comedies, she said.

Henson used the 2008 film “Knocked Up” to illustrate. It's about an alcohol induced “hook-up” turning into a pregnancy and eventually romance — inserting plenty of crude material along the way.

“That’s kind of the first one that comes to mind when I think about the direction romantic comedies are heading, because traditionally you think of romantic comedies being targeted to young females.”

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