You know how much we love pop culture here at Feministing. Ann has a thing for Dolly Parton and Lady Gaga, Courtney has been known to throw all-night dance parties and Jos dressed up as Taylor Swift for Halloween.
Embarrassing though it might be to admit this, my pop culture fixation is the romantic comedy. I love romantic comedies, and I hate them. I love to hate them and hate to love them. I love them because who doesn’t want to have their heart stolen by a bumbling British blighter who uses curses like “shititty brickety”? It’s so exotic, in an awkward, uncomfortable kind of way. Also, I’m pretty sure that every time that teeny red-haired kid in Love, Actually runs past the airport security guards to tell the love of his 11-year-old life how he feels about her as that stirring triumphant music plays, a fairy gets its wings. Then again, I hate romantic comedies because they’re usually ridden with stereotypes about gender, race, sexuality and class and they always end happily – and “happily” always means “with as many characters as possible forming long-term monogamous heterosexual relationships.” And, to add insult to injury, some studies suggest that watching romantic comedies might even screw up our own chances of forming successful real life romantic relationships.
One day in December of last year I went to see Nancy Meyers’ new romantic comedy It’s Complicated. The trailers, all for rom coms, were a parade of marriage-obsessed career women, unlikely but ultimately right-for-you suitors and, thanks to the upcoming Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Back Up Plan, lots of va-jay-jay jokes. At the pinnacle of headdesk was the hot, tangled treacle-y mess that was the trailer for Valentine’s Day. It was pretty clear that 2010 was going to be a big year for romantic comedies. And it was pretty clear that a good number of them were going to benefit from some feminist analysis.
And so, Feministing community, because I love you, and because I may be something of a masochist, I’m going to be seeing every romantic comedy that comes out in 2010. Every single one. And I’m going to write about them here, so that you can debrief, or be forewarned, or feel smug that you never watch romantic comedies at all. First up is Our Family Wedding.
Our Family Wedding is a story about interracial marriage starring Forrest Whitaker, America Ferrera, Regina King and Carlos Mencia. Lucia Ramirez (Ferrera) is newly engaged to Marcus (Lance Gross), and the movie begins with the couple leaving New York for LA, where both Lucia and Marcus’ families live, to tell them the news. Lucia has other news that she hasn’t told her parents yet: She’s dropped out of law school to be a volunteer teacher at a charter school, and she and Marcus have been living together (read: doin’ it) for several months. They want to get married soon, before Marcus leaves to work with Doctors Without Borders in Laos, taking Lucia with him. Lucia’s parents know nothing about Marcus. They especially don’t know that he’s Black. Before Lucia can introduce Marcus to her family, his father Brad (Whitaker) and her father Miguel (Mencia) have a comical but racially-loaded run in on the street. When they’re introduced by their kids and discover they’re about to become family, they proceed to act like a double dose of Steve Martin in Father of the Bride, only with more racial epithets.
The movie, like all romantic comedies, sees a destined-to-be-couple overcoming seemingly endless obstacles to end up together. In this case, the obstacles come in the form of fights – verbal, physical, food – and in cultural differences between Lucia’s and Marcus’ family.
Marcus’s father is an aging radio personality still hurting from his divorce with Marcus’s mother twenty years ago. Marcus was partly raised by his father’s lawyer (Regina King), who is – romantic comedy trope alert! – the only woman in the world who isn’t fooled by Brad’s smooth talk. Brad and his single friends try to convince Marcus that getting married is a huge mistake, using their “whipped” friend (played by a hilarious Taye Diggs) as a cautionary tale. Miguel and his wife Sonia are married with two daughters – Lucia’s younger sister Isabella works as a mechanic in her Dad’s shop (this makes her the resident “tomboy.” Other clues include refusal to wear makeup and disinterest in dating). Our first glimpse at Miguel and Sonia’s relationship is Sonia waiting at home in a sexy dress, disappointed because Miguel has forgotten that it’s Valentine’s Day. Later in the film, Isabella warns Lucia against ending up like their mother – lonely, sexless and “looking after” her husband.
After much bickering, the introduction of still more family members (who also bicker) and the required trying-on-the-wedding-dress scene, the wedding happens, a blend of cultures that includes jumping the broom, eating the goat, a mariachi band playing Babyface and everyone dancing happily with everyone else. Brad ends up with his lawyer, Miguel and Sonia get their marital groove back, a new family is formed and – here comes another cliché! – the tomboy sister catches the bouquet.
*Note: We were unable to find a transcript for this video
The most striking thing about this film is that its central plot dilemma is the failure of two grown men to act like adults. Just as in Father of the Bride, it’s hard to sympathize with a father who still sees his daughter as a child, all the while acting like one himself. The idea that it’s difficult for a father to let go of a daughter who, in his eyes, is beautiful and faultless – Miguel calls Lucia his “angel” – is touching, but it’s hardly an excuse for the kind of behavior we see in this film. Brad and Miguel act like children throughout most of the film, one-upping and out-doing each other, and only manage to stop themselves when they realize that their behavior has damaged their children’s relationship.
According to the film’s director, it’s not really racial prejudice that’s holding Brad, Miguel and the rest of the two families back from embracing the marriage. Instead, says Rick Famuyiwa, “it’s that neither dad is able to let go of his child.” But there’s no doubt that racial prejudice plays some part. There’s openly expressed dismay, among members of both families, at the addition of a member who isn’t the same color as everyone else.
There’s also a good deal of discussion about the lack of shared traditions between Lucia’s and Marcus’ families, and the traditions of each culture are often placed in competition with each other. When both families meet to plan the wedding, Brad invents a “Negro National Anthem” that he claims is sung at all Black weddings; Miguel counters with a song of his own, and suddenly both men are belting out their songs like they’re at Rick’s Bar Americain.
As one might expect, there’s some discussion of Lucia’s virginity – in fact, it comes up the very first time we meet Lucia and Marcus. “Your parents are going to love me,” he tells her as they pack for L.A. “You blew any chance of that when you had sex with me,” she replies. When the pair announce to her parents that they want to get married in a rush, her father asks if it’s because she’s pregnant. “No,” she replies. “That would be impossible.” Her father sighs with relief: “Impossible is good!” “We’re very proud of you,” her mother chimes in. Later, when her sister tries to trick her into admitting that she and Marcus have slept together (“is it true what they say about Black guys?”) Lucia continues the charade. There’s a lot to be said about the cultural pressure to remain a virgin until marriage, or to maintain the illusion of doing so, but for a complete analysis of the subject, I suggest you read Jessica’s book The Purity Myth.
Our Family Wedding passes the Bechdel test, but only if you consider “talking about a man” to be different than “talking about married life.” While shopping for wedding dresses, Lucia tries to find a bridesmaid’s dress for a reluctant Isabella, and demands to know why her sister seems so indifferent about the marriage. Isabella reminds Lucia that years ago, they had made a pact, promising each other that they would not marry young like so many of their girlfriends, ending up “always pregnant or getting pregnant, never thinking of anything better.” “I fell in love,” Lucia tells her sister. “It changes things. But it doesn’t change who you are.”
It’s a fairly feminist discussion of marriage, as feminist as one might expect from a wedding-themed romantic comedy. For all the requisite wedding planning porn montages, during which the women in the audience are expected to drool over dresses, flowers, catering and cakes, Lucia is written and interpreted by Ferrera as a smart, assertive and down-to-earth woman. She chooses the path that she knows will make her happiest in life, and she fights for it. Speaking to the Times about the role, Ferrera offers an explanation for why this wedding movie, while not perfect, didn’t turn into Bride Wars: because it’s not all about the bride. Lucia doesn’t make it all about her, Ferrera says, because “her wedding isn’t the most important thing in her life.”