The spiritual lessons of romantic comedy

by Mark Stephens


It is a truism that films carry the power to affect us. Martin Scorcese once remarked that the cinema and the church share much in common, not the least of which is that both fulfil our spiritual need for a common memory. We don’t simply watch films; we engage them, indeed we use them to help us navigate life and construct our identity. Yet we tend to reserve the adjective ‘powerful’ only for those movies which are sufficiently serious in tone. The remainder we treat as meaningless ‘fluff’, entertaining and pleasantly diverting at best, mind-numbingly stupid at worst.

Perhaps the most popular form of fluff in our culture is the romantic comedy (rom-com). This genre draws upon two desires resident in almost everybody: the desire to love and the desire to laugh. And if the classic conventions of comedy are being followed, a happy ending is almost guaranteed. All things being equal, there are worse ways to spend two hours of your life. 

Rarely would the average moviegoer stop to consider how watching a rom-com might be forming them as a person. Yet this ignores the way culture — even popular culture — works on us. No matter how fluffy, rom-coms are stories which orient us to the world. They do this not by direct exhortation, but instead through constructing a story-world which projects a vision of what is normal, conventional, and effective.

In so doing, our regular practice of seeing romance ‘performed’ on-screen subtly gives us scripts to follow. So before I had ever kissed a girl, I had already seen hundreds of kisses on celluloid. Before I had ever slept with my wife, I had seen sex simulated in both tasteful and tasteless ways. Am I really so self-deceived as to think that such viewing did not create a certain template, a grid, which influenced my expectations of what should happen? In the 2013 film Don Jon, we encounter two characters who are enslaved to false expectations: one is caught in the grip of pornography, and the other is obsessed by romantic comedy. It is a brave person who would suggest that his or her expectations for romance are isolated from the influence of how it’s done in the movies.

This, by the way, is not intended as a screed against the evils of Emma Stone or Justin Timberlake. It is simply a recognition that our worldview and our praxis are shaped by the stories we absorb for pleasure, and not just the stories we engage for profit. Therefore, we do well to think after we laugh, and to reflect after we smile. (In other words, don’t forget to laugh and smile — thinking alone is going to turn you into René Descartes, and that’s a really bad idea.) 

As one example, let me suggest the topic of marriage in romantic comedy. It is conventional in rom-coms to portray marriage as suffused with boredom. Once kids are added to the narrative, then life simply drains away, reducing the character to something about as sexy as Tolkien’s Black Riders. Correspondingly, sex outside marriage is portrayed as inherently delightful, thrilling, and somehow truer to the whole task. In rom-coms, sex just belongs with the unmarried and the adulterous. Yet the irony is, as characters start having sex with each other, they find that their attempt to place sex outside of a committed relationship actually creates a bonded union. So the denouement is often that the characters commit themselves to one another, frequently in marriage. And that’s, of course, when the movie ends, because nobody wants to watch married people having sex. I mean, do married people even have sex?

What should one think about such scripting? Well, one starting-place is to be rebuked, because the rom-com portrayal of marriage as stale and boring is sufficiently true to remain a compelling plot device. Why is that? Unintentionally, rom-coms challenge the bad name that so many of us give to marriage, where familiarity atrophies into boredom, all of which we justify because I’m so busy with work and the kids. The world is actually longing for stories about marriage — real stories — which are both romantic and committed, full of passion and forgiveness, both delightful and hard work. The ‘plot’ of marriage isn’t boring, but we do a pretty good job of suggesting it. 

A second thought is that in order to stay comedic, rom-coms largely must avoid tragedy, namely, the wreckage that is caused as we casually jump ship in our relationships. Of course there are prominent counter-examples, such as the haunting scene of Emma Thompson standing cuckolded in a bedroom in Love Actually (2003), the passive victim of Alan Rickman’s juvenile lust. But rom-coms are generally ill-suited to portraying the fallout from adultery and betrayal. Too often the breakage is clean, neat, and consequence-free. The implicit mantra is that you must follow your heart over your commitment; you must follow your desire rather than train your desire. If we all did that, that would be the good life, right? I think not.

A final thought would be that ultimately romantic comedies should not make me long for another life, but instead remind me that I have something better in Christ. There is a richer script to follow — not one where novelty trumps fidelity, but rather where there is nothing so passionate as steadfast love. It is steadfast love that underwrites the erotica of the Song of Solomon, it is steadfast love that makes a father grip tight his returning prodigal, and it is steadfast love that brings about the worthiest of happy endings — the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Mark Stephens is Lecturer in Integrative Studies at Wesley Institute. He is married to Linda, and they have three enchanting children. He aspires to look like Ryan Gosling, but ends up looking like Jim Carrey.