Is romance dead?
That's the question my colleague Chris Erskine posed in his Middle Ages column last week after noticing a decline in RomComs and love songs.
"Imagine a life without romance. Well, that's exactly what we've come to in our pop culture — a joyless run of techno-pop, superhero flicks and this year's dour collection of best picture nominees," he lamented. Erskine continued: "If you ever get the chance, watch TV sometime. Most of today's shows are raucous and smart, but not the least bit winsome or romantic. And where are the love songs?"
We haven't completely lost the love story. Beyonce and Jay Z are still crazy in love — or so they have us believe. Mindy Kaling's TV show "The Mindy Project" specializes in the type of comedy that makes girls' hearts go pitter-patter. The Internet is flooded with swoon-worthy engagement photos and heart-swelling marriage proposal videos that go viral. And if you're to believe Bilge Ebiri and David Edelstein's RomCom round-up on Vulture, some of the best romantic comedies have come out in recent years — though personally, much as I loved "Her," I would not consider it a RomCom.
Like Erskine, though, I have noticed a shift away from what he describes as enchantment in our pop cultural landscape. When I was sick over the holidays and desperate to watch a light and breezy movie that might make me feel better, I also wondered: Does Hollywood still make RomComs? (Eventually I watched the wonderful "13 Going on 30" for the 30th time, and you know what? It actually did make me feel better.)
When Mindy Kaling admitted her love for RomComs in the New Yorker a few years ago, she fessed up, writing that she realized "saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity. But that has not stopped me from enjoying them."
"I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies," she wrote. "I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead's dress doesn't get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from 'Alien' and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They're all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it."
In other words, RomComs are little escapist fantasies full of optimism and hope. But these aren't exactly optimistic times.
As Erskine notes: "Could be that this romantic slump is a product of our fretful and difficult times. Workweeks get longer. Traffic gets worse. […] We appear to be leaving our offspring a world of hurt: Failing resources. Whirlwind weather. Stolen Target accounts. Crushing federal debt. Jobs that don't quite pay the rent. Will we leave them a world without romance as well, devoid of poetry and love songs and real-life movie magic?"
Sheesh, I hope note. If anything, now's the time for more love stories and happily-ever-afters to rouse our sense of optimism, to inspire us to take leaps of faith. It might sound like a frivolous idea, but the power of optimism has strong roots.
"Yes, optimism is on one level irrational and can also lead to unwanted outcomes. But the bias also protects and inspires us," argues neuroscientist Tali Sharot in her book "The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain."
"It keeps us moving forward, rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one; and we need to believe that we can achieve it. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals."
So Hollywood, what do you say? Is it time to heal America's spirit, one RomCom at a time?