Where are the Lesbians in Mainstream Hollywood Rom-Coms?

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Mindy Kaling made an amusing yet true observation in her book Is Everyone Having Fun Without Me? (And Other Concerns), which is that romantic comedies (rom-coms) are like a sub-genre of science fiction: the female characters in them are fantasy beings that don’t exist in real life and should be viewed as such. The free-spirited bohemian who enraptures and enlivens the stodgy, buttoned-up yuppie? The cute yet neurotic, breezy blonde with commitment issues? The stressed, trying to have it all career woman failing at love until Mr. Wrong turns out to be Mr. Right? Space aliens, all of them. And the plots…how many single caterers/wedding planners/elementary school teachers can there be and why are their apartments so large?

But this article isn’t about the absence of realistic women on screen (more Bridget Jones, less Hugh Grant and Colin Firth vying for her attention) or the believability of plots, but instead about the absence of lesbians in mainstream rom-coms. As we mentioned in January, queer women are conspicuously missing from this genre. We get Carol, but not How to Lose a Girl in 10 DaysFreeheld, but not 500 Days of Summer’s Lesbian Sister June. Why can’t lesbians fill some of the roles in A-List rom-coms? Aren’t queer women entitled to experience the same sort of fluffy suspension of disbelief as their heterosexual peers?

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Rom-coms are a staple of the film industry, in part because they are cheap and have a relatively consistent audience pool. Rom-coms are popular with the age 13-35 female demographic because they play on women’s romantic hopes of avoiding perpetual singledom by serendipitously finding “the one.” The plot is simple and predictable, the female lead tends to be at least slightly “quirky” while the male love interest is “down to earth” (or she’s down to earth and he needs to be taught social graces), and the key determinant that he’s the man for her is that he’s not only able to put up with her flaws, but even loves her for them. (To see the genre turned on its head, watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which reverses the gender roles of the paradigm: the male lead is mopey, having been cheated on and dumped, while the female love interest is down to earth and pulls him from his shell. Brilliant.)

For movie studios, the rom-com genre has been the quintessential bastion of heterosexuality; Maid in Manhattan could never be about JLo falling in love with a rich businesswoman. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks were the darlings of rom-coms for years, not Ryan and some other actress. There have been a dozen or so queer rom-coms—Imagine Me and You, But I’m a Cheerleader, I Can’t Think Straight, Nina’s Heavenly Delights and Saving Face, to name a few—but by and large, queer women have failed to be the leads in mainstream Hollywood movies. (A possible exception might be Gray Matters, which had a solidly B-List cast.)

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Rom-coms represent, in broad strokes, romance at its most idealized. The love interest—whether the scruffy yet warm motorcycle mechanic, the fantastically rich and initially cold businessman, the guy next door who was there all along—is a proxy for what for many women is the romantic ideal: unconditional love and support. In this movie, this is either revealed over time or in a sudden burst of realization. Queer women want these same things, too: the slightly implausible, sappy and vaguely silly plot wrapped around a core of hope, the exultation of finding your missing puzzle piece, and the happy ending that is required of all rom-coms. Yet because mainstream rom-coms are exclusively heterosexual, the queer community has largely had to make its own rom-coms, in small budget pictures with B and C-List actresses. The generic outlines of a rom-com are genderless and devoid of sexual orientation, and yet studios read them automatically as manifestly heterosexual. Only straight women can pine for the bad boy but end up with the boy next door, in their minds. We need not only more queer characters in rom-coms period, but we need them in A-List movies. We need studios to think more inclusively about who can play the leads in major studio releases.

There are so many different characters in rom-coms that there have to be at least a few movies or characters that Hollywood can spare us. For example, How to be Single was a good movie even if it fared poorly at the box office. In it, there were four females looking for (sort of) love: 1) the recently single gal looking for her next long-term monogamous relationship while trying to find herself, 2) the man-eater uninterested in settling down, 3) the career woman determined to be a single mom but wooed by a persistent younger man, and 4) the woman desperate to settle down who is becoming increasingly panicked by her fear of spinsterhood. The movie is a paean to modernity: these women own and defend their life choices, even when they feel unsure and insecure about them. They have quirks and fallibilities, but that just makes them human and relatable, right? They’re just like us, only slightly better looking and with much better hair. 

With four main characters, couldn’t one of them have been a lesbian? Are any of these character descriptions mutually exclusive with being queer? No, obviously not, and had any of them been queer, it would have shown just how normal and identical queer lives are to straight lives. We, too, are on dating apps looking for love. We, too, sometimes find ourselves swinging from one relationship to another because it’s convenient and less scary than being alone.

If Hollywood is reluctant to produce an A List-level rom-com about a quirky lesbian looking for love off the bat (by the way, I give Amy Schumer props for her character being so casual and honest about having slept with three women in the movie Trainwreck), then starting with an ensemble is one way for Hollywood to dip its toe into the water. Do a reboot of Sex and the City, for example, but this time, Carrie or Charlotte or Miranda can be a lesbian. Is Mr. Big any less realistic of a character if he’s Ms. Big? If queer women can enjoy and root for heterosexual romances on screen (I’ve seen Love Actually 12 times. Don’t judge.), then is it wildly implausible that straight women could root for lesbian pairings as well? It would require a paradigm shift on their part, but it’s 2016, and the revolution has to start sometime.

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As previously mentioned, rom-coms are formulaic. The plot can be written in five minutes like a MadLib: twenty-something woman afraid of X (spinsterhood, boats, deportation to Canada, etc.) meets Y (skiing instructor, gynecologist, sexy FBI agent). Despite initial friction, or as Y is saving the main character (from cancer, spaceship, etc.), sparks fly. Y proves love (days, weeks, months) after twenty-something main character pushes her away, in time to show up at Z (father’s funeral, big cooking competition, airport). Lead realizes that this is the one for her, and they live happily ever after. It’s not hard, so let’s do this, Hollywood. Let’s make more of these ditzy, klutzy, adorable yet socially awkward and endearing A-List rom-com leads lesbians. Because the queer community deserves the same type of love science fiction as our straight counterparts. And because Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez and Queen Latifah, who are collectively in approximately half of all rom-coms, have played queer onscreen already, (Dr. T and the Women, Gigli, and Set It Off, respectively) we know they’d probably be game.

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