Dana Corey and her husband of 13 years don't celebrate their wedding anniversary. They celebrate the day they fell in love over brunch menus and a broken pair of reading glasses.
"It's the day our lives changed," Corey said.
If that sounds like something out of a romantic comedy, that's because it's the kind of story many people hope to have for themselves — the "how we met" story. But the part of Corey's story not found in many romantic comedies these days is becoming very common: Corey, a 41-year-old divorced mother of three at the time, met her husband online.
It's been a rough few years for romantic comedies, as L.A. Weekly's Amy Nicholson penned an obituary for the genre in February.
"In 1997, there were two romantic comedies among the top 20 box office performers. In 1998 and 1999, there were three. Each cracked $100 million in sales. Even as recently as 2005, five romantic comedies topped $100 million at the box office," Nicholson wrote. "Contrast that with 2013: There's not one romantic comedy in the top 50 films. Not even in the top 100."
The cause of the drop-off has a host of valid theories behind it that range from financial to cliched story lines. But as Megan Garber wrote in the Atlantic recently, the reason may be much simpler than that: Romantic comedies may not accurately reflect modern relationships anymore.
"Love, actually, is now more data-driven than it has ever been before," Garber wrote. "The rom-com, in general, has responded to this enormous cultural shift by ignoring it."
Corey knows from experience that love doesn't subscribe to a strict formula — she's a Portland, Ore.-based relationship expert who runs Modern Relationship Expert, a website where women and couples learn how to foster lasting relationships.
"We've changed," Corey said. "We don’t want to be as led by this romantic princess story, like a fairy tale. It’s fun every now and then. But reality is really quick to say, 'Nuh-uh.’ ”
That reality, Corey says, swoops in and spoils the familiar rom com formula (boy meets girl, hilarity ensues, love conquers all). She says it is partially due to young women growing up under the pressure of the women's movement, or, as Patheos culture and entertainment writer Rebecca Cusey calls it, the "dark side of feminism."
"The very noble and true idea that women can stand on their own and control their own lives seems more akin to, 'Don’t make yourself vulnerable,’ ” Cusey said. "I don’t know why those two things can’t coexist."
If that sounds far-fetched, consider Disney's recent efforts to break its in-house spell of fairy tale princess stories. Both "Frozen" and "Maleficent" eradicated the age-old concept of true love's kiss by taking romance out of the equation — in "Frozen," the love was between siblings and in "Maleficent" it was maternal.
That's not a bad thing, Corey says, since many classic rom coms can inspire depression as much as faith that "the one" is waiting just around the corner. It's Hollywood's age-old reinforcement of the fairy tale myth that has finally made audiences roll their eyes rather than longingly sigh.
"We’re jaded that true love is even possible. The media has perpetuated this myth that your partner is going to fall out of the sky. They meet their lifelong love riding a bike or whatever, and sometimes that happens, which perpetuates it even more," Corey said. "While going to romantic movies can make you feel lovey dovey inside, it can also make you sad for yourself. — What’s wrong with me? Why hasn't this happened for me? What we haven't gotten yet is that a good relationship relies on us."
Love anytime, anywhere
Hopeless romantics looking their fix of on-screen love affairs need not leave the sofa these days, Christianity Today writer Alissa Wilkinson said, which could be another part of why rom coms bomb at theaters lately. Wilkinson wrote a piece back in April applauding the genre's poor standing.
"You can easily find any romantic comedy you want on Netflix," Wilkinson said. "Because of technology, we can watch them over and over again."
The other trend, Wilkinson said, is the quality of television on cable today. What young viewer wants another cookie-cutter Prince Charming when they can have Walter White?
"Today we want a little bit of bad guy in our good guys and a little bit of good guy in our bad guys. TV now is driven by dry, self-aware humor or drama that is somewhat new within the last 20 years," Wilkinson said. "I just don’t know that the kind of sincerity and feeling that the fairy tale will come true convinces critics that we haven’t seen this all before or an audience to go see (rom coms). Seeing that onscreen today plays a bit odd."
Cusey and Corey both agree that because Netflix offers such a variety and array of romantic films from the silent era forward, many streaming-enthusiastic millennials are latching on and watching more Katherine Hepburn than Katherine Heigl.
"With Netflix, all old movies are available in a way that weren’t when we were their age," Corey said. "But now, my kids can watch the same movies I watched, and there’s so many of them."
Given a choice between now 25-year-old classics like "When Harry Met Sally" any time of day on Netflix or more current rom-coms, it makes perfect sense that audiences choose what used to be good, Wilkinson said.
"We’re nostalgic for the fast-talking romances from the Katherine Hepburn era. We like them, but don’t see them as a reflection of ourselves today. It's the same for 'When Harry Met Sally': It’s something that we remember, we feel nostalgic about and rarely can they do it better," Wilkinson said. "There's a lot of sincerity in 'Sleepless in Seattle' that would be corny today."
Rest assured, Cusey says, people are still falling in love. Now it's just up to Hollywood to catch up with cultural changes.
"It’s like Mark Twain said: The reports of the death of the romantic comedy are probably greatly exaggerated," Cusey said. "Even if you meet someone online, it’s still all about meeting someone and having their soul touch your soul."