Feminists love to dis “rom-coms”—the happy-ending “romantic comedy” movies that are not only targeted at women but also viewed almost exclusively by women, usually in the company of their women friends. Husbands and boyfriends are sometimes dragged along, but only when bribed: “I’ll trade you Bridesmaids for X-Men: First Class.” “You see Sex and the City with me, and I’ll see Dark Knight with you.” The rom-com always features a female protagonist, and it always revolves around a “relationship” that, if it doesn’t culminate in a marriage, at least culminates in an amorous “commitment,” which is almost as good. The other person in the relationship is always a good-looking and often fabulously rich man, since the Cinderella plot involving the plain Jane of modest means who snags a prince is a fantasy staple that sells (think Pretty Woman, the all-time-quintessential rom-com, but also Sex and the City, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and You’ve Got Mail).
The Mr. Big angle, implying that women’s brains are wired to be turned on by male wealth and power, especially rankles feminist critics. Just this past October the Washington Post‘s Emily Yahr expressed dismay that Meg Ryan, starring as the independent bookstore owner in You’ve Got Mail (1998), falls into the arms of Tom Hanks even after discovering that he’s the chain-store CEO who has wrecked her business; if she were a good feminist like Yahr herself, she should have delivered him a dressing-down and then stormed out of his life. “That’s why when people go on tangents about how Hollywood can’t make a good rom-com anymore and the genre is dead, I’m secretly relieved,” Yahr wrote.
Her assessment was a bit premature. Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer as a one-night-stand addict who mends her hard-partying ways after falling in love with an exceedingly handsome sports physician (Bill Hader) who loves her back, grossed $150 million at the box office in 2015. Rich, a doctor, and with a sexy medical specialty—you can’t get more rom-com than that. La La Land, a rom-com with songs and dances, grossed $445 million in 2016 and won six Academy Awards (the ending was bittersweet for its lovers, to be sure, but bittersweet in the “We’ll always have Paris” style of Casablanca). And this year, the Judd Apatow-produced The Big Sick, which does feature a happy ending for its star-crossed sweethearts, is doing pretty well at $25 million for a limited-distribution indie film.
So it seems that there will be rom-coms as long as there are women. There always have been. The very first English novel, Samuel Richardson’s best-selling Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), was a rom-com in hard covers targeted at a growing and increasingly literate female middle class. Its plot featured a lowly but lovely servant girl pursued by her handsome and moneyed young master who at first has gross designs on her—he holds her prisoner at one point—but then proposes, after duly undergoing a moral reform. That’s the exact same plot (minus twenty-first-century kinks) as that of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, which starts out in a high-rise bondage-and-dominance dungeon but ends with its English-lit major heroine, Anastasia, married and happily scrambling after her toddler son with her young and brooding-billionaire tormentor, Christian Grey (who conveniently realizes that he was into S&M only because he had a rotten childhood).
This all suggests that there is something to those theories about the female brain that feminists love to hate. And it turns out there is. Starting in the late 1990s, Nirao Shah, now a professor of psychiatry, behavioral sciences, and neurobiology at Stanford University, has been researching cognitive differences between men and women—and even between male and female monkeys and rodents—that seem to stem from differences in the structure of their brains (which are in turn shaped by the hormones triggered by the genes on the XX or XY chromosomes in every human cell). Shah’s experiments on mice involved isolating and turning on and off the modules, or neural or genetic pathways, that seem to govern stereotypical male or female behavior: mouse mothers’ maternal protectiveness toward their offspring, for example. “Almost all of these genes have human analogues,” he told a writer for Stanford Medicine’s spring 2017 issue.
Shah’s research dovetails with other psychologists’ and neuroscientists’ well-documented findings: While men in general have superior visuospatial skills that underlie mathematical and scientific reasoning, women in general are more verbally skilled and “retain emotional memories more quickly [than men do], and the ones they recall are richer and more intense,” as Stanford Medicine described. That in turn dovetails with the theories of evolutionary psychologists that women are drawn to powerful and wealthy men because they instinctively seek protectors for themselves and their children as well as strong genes to pass down to the latter.
Feminists may continue to malign the rom-com and its stereotypes of male-female relationships, but both literary history and current neuroscience suggest that those stereotypes are less the product of a backwards patriarchal culture than of biological differences between men and women that are built into every one of their cells. So the next time you’re embarrassed to admit you like romantic comedies, remember: You’ve got science on your side.
Image: Warner Bros.