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.”
“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.”
“And that was clearly an attempt to also draw in young male audiences,” Henson added — a move she suggested could alienate the traditional rom-com audience rather than increase box-office gross.
Mulderig referenced the 2010 film “The Switch” to make a similar point. The opening scene features the main character in a diaper-changing mishap.
“We’re treated to an extremely crass experience for him — and for us,” Mulderig said.
“There’s a tendency in general that as taboos fall, it becomes harder and harder to find a taboo that you can break for supposedly comic pay-off. ... Since they’ve gone about as far as they can go in bedroom matters they have to turn to other things to try to make themselves seem pioneering — in all the wrong ways.”
More alarming perhaps than the onscreen sexcapades and gross-out gags is the sex-before-love trend, Mulderig says. The recent films “No Strings Attached” and “Friends With Benefits” come to mind.
Mulderig called it an unsettling premise, “with characters trying to forestall romance in favor of an uncomplicated ‘physical relationship’ which obviously would be exclusively sexual.
“I think that’s kind of a disturbing premise for anyone who holds traditional values."
Dawn Hawkins, executive director of Morality in the Media, pointed to the "lax attitude" of what intimacy means.
“It’s much more acceptable now to hook up right away before there’s any kind of relationships in romantic comedies, and that’s definitely a result of our pornified culture," Hawkins said.
Hawkins believes this attitude leads to the belief that women are objects, that sex is emotionless and physical intimacy should be on short-order in any relationships.
“I think it forces a lot of relationships to take place much quicker and faster because this is what happens in the movies,” she said.
Indeed, these movies have often been blamed for their various negative effects on women and their view of relationships.
Henson said many past critics of the genre have blamed the movies for giving girls and women unrealistic, “prince charming” expectations.
She agreed that may be a problem, “but I think that’s not necessarily a bad problem to have if the alternative is girls who accept men who treat them with disrespect, who don’t act like gentlemen, who are boorish or behave like some of the men in these more recent romantic comedies. That’s not a standard we should allow our girls to accept, I think.”
When asked if today’s rom-coms are generally family friendly, minus just a few exceptions, Mulderig’s answer was a solid no. But aside from content and themes, Mulderig said, the genre is simply failing in quality.
For one thing, he said, romantic comedies are extremely popular. Filmmakers have caught on to the “built-in money maker” of the date movie, Mulderig said. They seem to think that if they follow the basic rom-com recipe, they can’t go wrong — despite lack of quality in acting and writing.
Mulderig, Henson and Hawkins all suggested that parents be wary of films' content, and Mulderig suggested especially paying attention to ratings. He said that while he can sometimes justify a teen watching an R-rated drama with necessarily gritty content key to a meaningful plot, an “R” is a “definite red flag” in this genre.
Henson suggested pointing boy-crazy, rom-com-loving daughters to the classics like “His Girl Friday” or “Bringing Up Baby.” For slightly more recent fare, the likes of “Return to Me” and “While You Were Sleeping” have very little problematic content, she said.
Henson hasn’t lost hope for the genre.
“It’s actually interesting to me to talk to folks about current TV trends and current movie trends,” she said. “I think people tend to despair and think, ‘Well once the genie’s out of the bottle, it can never go back.’”
But she pointed out how the Hays Code came about in the first place due to public outcry over pre-code films' surprising amounts of sex and nudity.
“I tend not to despair too much when I see the direction we’re heading because I think it is possible for things to go back in the other direction.”
To find detailed lists of film content, visit kids-in-mind.com.
The following is a list of rom-coms from the past 10 years with a Kids-in-Mind score of 4 or less for sexual content (no evaluation of entertainment quality provided). As an example,“Little Manhattan,” an innocent story of young love, is rated PG and scored a 3. “Sex and the City” (the film) was rated R and scored a 9. It should be noted that any kind of kissing counts for sexual content on the Kids-in-Mind scale.
"Kate and Leopold," 3, PG-13
"Legally Blonde, 4," PG-13
"Serendipity, 4," PG-13
"The Wedding Planner," 4, PG-13
"Maid in Manhattan," 4, PG-13
"Sweet Home Alabama," 2, PG-13
"Two Weeks Notice," 3, PG-13
"My Big Fat Greek Wedding," 3, PG
"How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days," 4, PG-13
"What a Girl Wants," 3, PG
"13 Going On 30," 4, PG-135 comments on this story
"A Cinderella Story," 3, PG
"Chasing Liberty," 4, PG-13
"The Prince and Me," 4, PG
"Win a Date with Tad Hamilton," 4, PG-13
"Fever Pitch," 4, PG-13
"Just Like Heaven," 4, PG-13
"Little Manhattan," 3, PG
"Just My Luck," 4, PG-13
"The Holiday," 3, PG-13
"She’s the Man," 4, PG-13
"P.S. I Love You," 4, PG-13
"Mamma Mia!," 4, PG-13
"Bride Wars," 4, PG
"Confessions of a Shopaholic," 3, PG
"Did You Hear About the Morgans?," 4, PG-13
"Leap Year," 3, PG
"Letters to Juliet," 3, PG
"You Again," 3, PG
Top 10 grossing romantic comedies
- "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (2002, PG), $241,438,208
- "What Women Want" (2000, PG-13), $182,811,707
- "Hitch" (2005, PG-13), $179,495,555
- "Pretty Woman" (1990, R), $178,406,268
- "There’s Something About Mary" (1998, R), $176,484,651
- "The Proposal" (2009, PG-13), $163,958,031
- "Sex and the City" (2008, R), $152,647,258
- "Runaway Bride" (1999, PG), $152,257,509
- "Knocked Up" (2007, R), $148,768,917
- "As Good As It Gets" (1997, PG-13), $148,478,011