What we talk about when we talk about romcoms

A lot of people don’t have the same ideas that I do about what constitutes a romcom.

To me, romcom (also written as rom-com) is a genre, with such strong genre conventions that they border on formula. It doesn’t just mean a movie that has some romantic or comedic aspects.

(I’m intentionally using the term romcom here instead of romantic comedy, to reinforce the point that I’m talking about a particular genre and flavor of movie, rather than about all movies that have romantic or comedic aspects.)

In a romcom, I don’t mind formula; I find it comforting and comfortable to not have to fret about how things are going to turn out. (You say formula, I say familiar structure that matches my genre expectations.) What I enjoy about romcoms isn’t plot surprises; it’s charm, and humor, and execution, and the specifics of the characters and situations. Characters who care about each other is one of my favorite things in fiction, and in a romcom I can be sure that I’m going to get that.

Here are some defining aspects of a romcom for me. For me to count a movie as a romcom, it doesn’t have to absolutely fit all of these, but it has to either fit most of them or intentionally avoid them to mess with genre conventions and expectations. (Side note: Several of these are also genre conventions for romance novels and romantic drama movies.)

(In a romcom with multiple romance storylines, each of the storylines matches these criteria.)

  • There are two (or more) protagonists, of genders and orientations that would allow for them to be romantically involved.
  • It’s usually pretty obvious to the audience from early on who the protagonists are, and that they will end up together.
  • Each of the protagonists either wants a romantic partner but can’t find one, or is opposed to romance.
  • Optional but common: The protagonists have a meet-cute.
  • The protagonists either aren’t interested in each other romantically but are thrown together (by chance or design), or are interested in each other romantically but are kept apart by circumstances or timing. (Often, they are opposites in some big way, in which case they usually initially can’t stand each other.) Either way, they are at least a little bit attracted to each other, whether they’re willing to consciously admit it or not.
  • At least some of the dialogue is funny.
  • At least some of the situations are funny, and maybe a little implausible/larger-than-life. (But not too implausible.)
  • The overall tone is lighthearted and sweet. There can be serious moments/elements/aspects (and even deaths), but not many.
  • The primary focus of the story is the romance. The comedy is not the primary focus, but is important, and is present throughout most of the movie (not just a scene or two).
  • The overall stakes are relatively low—the primary question is whether the protagonists will end up together, and the audience knows from the start that they will.
  • The protagonists gradually fall in love.
  • Optional but common: The protagonists may be separated by a misunderstanding or by one or more of them mistakenly thinking that they aren’t in love.
  • Optional but common: Near the end, one protagonist makes a Grand Gesture to publicly demonstrate that they are in love after all.
  • The protagonists end up as a romantic couple (or, in rare cases, romantic multiple-person group).

There are probably other elements and aspects that I would consider necessary and/or sufficient, but I think that’ll do as a rough approximation for now.

…But it’s clear that not everyone agrees with me about what constitutes a romcom. When I asked for romantic comedy recommendations in 2008, I got suggestions like Juno and Star Trek IV. When Mary Anne asked for romcom recommendations a couple weeks ago, she got suggestions like Before Sunrise, Carol, and Marat/Sade. In both cases, we also got suggestions that did fit my definitions; but there were enough suggestions that were way outside my definitions that I had to recognize that different people have different definitions.

So if you want to see a lot of recommendations for romantic comedies, some of them from people who don’t necessarily agree with me about any part of my definition above, see comments on my 2008 post and Mary Anne’s 2021 post.

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