A brief history of the romcom – How romantic comedies have evolved over time

Love Is In The Air

Defining romantic comedies is a pretty easy job – it’s there in the name, they are movies or plays that deal with romance (love) in a comedic, humorous way. That sounds simple enough, right? But drawing a timeline of rom-coms is much more complicated.

Solely going by the given definition, rom-coms have actually been around for centuries – maybe millennia, even! But the formula that makes up the genre as we know (and love) it, can be dated back to William Shakespeare and his plays, such as The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is – two people meet, have a conflict of some sort, and then reunite to live happily ever-after.

However, romantic comedy movies have only been around since 1924 (with the silent films Sherlock Jr. and Girl Shy), and they have evolved numerous times over the last century, before becoming what we know right now as ‘rom-coms’.

Comedies of manners

In the genre’s very beginning in the ‘20s and ‘30s, a very popular rom-com style was the one of “comedies of manners”. That is, when a rich person falls in love with someone who is not wealthy, and suddenly sees the beauty in life without money, such as the 1934 classic It Happened One Night.

This trope was particularly well-liked in the 1930s, as those were the years of the Great Depression (i.e., the worst economic downturn of the industrialized world), and those stories were giving people hope as they faced many financial struggles, by saying that money isn’t everything after all.

Screwball comedies

In the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, the genre evolved and the most popular style became “screwball comedies”, a name referencing screwballs in baseball (i.e., balls that move in unexpected directions). Similarly, screwball comedies would unfold in unexpected ways, intertwining fast-paced slapstick scenes and witty dialogue.

And the main possessors of this ‘wit’ were the female characters, who for the first time were not merely outsiders of the story, but the heroes and main drivers of the movies – for instance, the 1940 hit A Philadelphia Story comes to mind. This is also another nod to the social situation of the time, since the 1930s were a period of much turbulence for women’s rights advocates and the feminist movement.

But alas, the female-centric approach is stitched deeply in the rom-com fabric even now.

Sex comedies

Next up, there were the so-called “sex comedies”, which spanned from the ‘50s to the early ‘70s. These movies focused on sexual tension and the differences between men and women, usually by casting them as professional rivals who were in a fierce competition with one another until sparks started flying (e.g., the 1960 film, The Battle of the Sexes). In short, it was the early days of the ‘enemies-to-lovers’ trope in cinema.

The advent of this subgenre relates to the societal climate of that period as well, since those were the decades when women’s sexuality was being more thoroughly explored.

Society was becoming more acceptant of women as beings with a sexual appetite, Playboy magazine was beginning its journey in 1953, and the film industry was becoming more lenient with censorship… The world was ready to see women in a new light.

Radical romantic comedies

Alas, the sexual revolution of that time brought another style in the 1970s – “radical romantic comedies”. The ‘happily ever-after’ was no longer a requirement, as people were beginning to look at romance with a more cynical and sex-driven eye, and wanted to focus on self-love and -fulfilment.

A popular example is Annie Hall (1977), a movie focusing on personal happiness, rather than one derived from romantic love.

Neotraditional romantic comedies

However, in later years the genre did a full-180, and made way for “neotraditional romantic comedies”. These movies were the complete opposite of the radical comedy, as they focused primarily on compatibility and forgo the emphasis on sex. Romantic love was once again put on a pedestal, but with a much firmer stress on the importance of compromises and communication compared to previous films.

Furthermore, it was common for movies of this subgenre to include references to past romantic comedies, such as the self-referential moments of An Affair to Remember (1957) in Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

The rom-com fatigue

Nowadays, most rom-coms still fit into the neotraditional category, but it is becoming increasingly frequent for these films to have a more cynical spin on the love story. Compromising and communicating are still very important values, but it is far more common for romantic comedies to not end in the classic ‘happily ever-after’.

However, the 2000s and 2010s have been afflicted by the so-called ‘rom-com fatigue’ – that is, people are growing tired of them. Rom-coms are overall becoming less and less popular, so much so that it is hard to find more than one in any list of upcoming movies. And what’s even rarer is finding a good one.

At the moment, the cinema landscape is vastly dominated by Oscar-bait movies and big budget franchises – particularly of superhero blockbusters. By now, films signed “Marvel” are where the real gold is at – they are the ones breaking box office records left and right, and drawing in millions of people of all ages and backgrounds to the theater.

Meanwhile, rom-coms have disappeared from the public agenda almost entirely. As barely anyone is still going to see them in theaters, the number of studios making and investing in romantic comedies is decreasing day by day. And who can blame them? Studios are barely breaking even from rom-coms as it is, so why would they put their wallet at risk?

But perhaps the fact that the focal lens of media and society is beginning to skew away from romantic love can be seen as a positive thing in a way. Nowadays, more and more importance is being placed on independence and freedom of self – hence, the love that is now protagonist of most contemporary stories is platonic love, the one between friends and within families. Media are now trying to shake off the idea that you need a princess or a prince to be happy, and trying to spread the message that love can be found in places other than romance.

Still, if you are a hopeless romantic (like yours truly), you probably can’t help but sadly sigh when seeing the rom-com landscape become more desolate as years go by. Yes, it’s true that independence and self-love are relevant topics to explore in media, but romance can be important as well, especially when it comes to healthy romance.

So, maybe it’s time for a new rom-com to come and sweep us off our feet by showing us someone being swept off their feet! After all, love may supposedly be everywhere, but I think we need to bring it back to the Big Screen.


Do you agree? Do you think romcoms are no longer the big money-maker they once were? Or are you a sucker for a good romance? Do let us know in the comments below!

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