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Breaking Up With The RomCom

I have been a fan of romcoms since it became possible for me to choose what to watch. I rejoiced when the Romedy Now channel showed up on my set. A 24 x 7 channel dedicated to funny, hopeful stories, YAY! But of course. The romcom is the fairytale of our times. And it is with a heavy heart that I concede that this so-called ‘modern’ fairytale is just as oppressive and problematic as the Snow White/Rapunzel/Dainty Princess-Prince Charming narrative I was fed as a child.

I find myself wincing during rewatches of films that I loved the first time I saw them. How could I not have spotted that stalker-masquerading-as-hero character? How did I think this entitled mansplainer was an ideal man? What on earth did I find funny about that misogynist tirade?

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Topping the list is HITCH, a film that I loved for this sassy dialogue and the utterly droolworthy Will Smith. Not to mention its nonchalant diversity (both lead characters being people of colour without the film making a BIG deal out of it). In hindsight though, isn’t it a story of a pick-up artist actually helping other males prey on women using every manipulative technique he can think of? Oh of course, it’s charming Will who ‘actually likes women’. And yes of course, it’s because his heart was broken when he was younger. Notice how that is ALWAYS used to excuse away men’s misogyny on screen? Right down to our desi misogyny frontrunner — PYAR KA PUNCHNAMA.

There’s WHEN HARRY MET SALLY checking off all the boxes on toxic masculinity and utterly horrible relationship models. “A man and a woman cannot be friends because the sex always gets in the way”?

That was being challenged by Bollywood in the 1980s and by (of all people) Salman Khan. Who lost. Not to mention being copied scene-for-scene in the noughties. Down to excusing the male Im-a-screwup-so-love-me storyline. Boo.

Shall we think about female characters? After all, romcoms did follow the chicklit trend of the 90s/00s with women as protagonists. A hot topic was to address ‘her real problems’. Let’s look at how that turned out. We have 27 DRESSES and BRIDGET JONES DIARY to thank for telling us that being single means we are antiseptic martyr/prudes or alcoholic hot messes. Just until the right man comes our way, of course. And even if he’s a stodgy, dull, boring ‘Good Boy’, he kisses like a dream. Ugh, thanks for setting us back on all the sexual empowerment Sex And The City did (the TV show, not the movies but more on that later).

Oh and thanks, MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING for showing women can be ruthless bitches when it comes to not getting what they want. Feminism definitely is about letting us get off the pedestal of being picture perfect. I just wish Julia Roberts’ character hadn’t ended up being shown as the villain. Reverse the genders and the story of a guy who will do anything at all to land the person of his dreams (including lying, seducing an already attached person, gaslighting their significant other)— does that sound like a villain? No, it sounds like Shah Rukh Khan.

Then there’s HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS, an absolutely appalling story even at its time, about two nasty people setting traps for each other. A side character neatly sums up the story in her line, “Sounds needlessly vicious.” A man making a play for a woman to get her to fall for him, so that he can land a client account. A woman torturing a guy with ridiculous behaviour (Apparently this is what women do wrong. Uh no, this is what someone who never learnt how to be a human being does.) so she can write a magazine article about it. What is either funny or romantic about this story? And let’s put that through the gender filter. The story assumes that they’ve each done equal bad to the other. Is that so? Does seducing a person under false pretences compare with interrupting their boys’ night out? Can I get a Hell, #MeToo here?

I won’t bother talking about the Sex And The City movies because I’ve already done so when they each came out. And now here’s a rather disappointing analysis of why romcoms may not be that popular anymore. It’s time for new fairytales. Hey Classic RomCom, you and I are done.

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The Friendship Frisson

I like to call it a frisson in friendship, not even something important enough to merit beginning with capitals and being preceded with a ‘the’. It’s that elusive sense that you can’t quite catch. If it had tangible form, it would be the thing that you seem to catch from the corner of your eye but when you look for it, it isn’t there. It only turns up when you don’t expect it and the minute you begin to think about it, it turns into something else or vanishes altogether.

Say there’s this friend you have. For simplicity, let’s assume this friend is of the opposite sex (though I think the frisson happens with same-sex friendships too, sexual orientation notwithstanding). You’re comfortable with each other, if you think about it, which you probably don’t do much; that’s part of the comfort level. Then it sneaks up on you.

Like a faint whiff that came up on you as memory first (because the memory-center is very close to the olfactory sense center in the brain, so smells trigger off instant memories). You can’t quite smell it just yet, even if you really strain your nostrils. But it is there, unmistakeably. The next time you notice it even more, perhaps because the last time threw you off a bit.

“四種男與女的吻 Four kinds of kisses between men and ...

“四種男與女的吻 Four kinds of kisses between men and women” #BW #Life / SML.20130116.Montage.20091001.10D.55055.P1.L1.BW.SML.20091220.7D.01633.P1.L1.SQ.BW.SML.20100202.7D.02686.L1.C45.BW.SML.20091129.SD850IS.03537.P1.L1.SQ.BW (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)

It’s not insignificant enough for you to ignore. It’s there, the slight tremble that runs through you when they – your friend, you have to remind yourself – say your name. Or the tingling warmth in your cheeks that you’re aware will turn into a blush if you don’t clamp down on it by saying something very intelligent – and all because they paid you a compliment.

It’s also not big enough to be able to tell what it is – sexual, romantic, both or neither. All you know is that it’s there. You see your friend in a new light. Then you start noticing them noticing you. Wondering if they feel those things too. Deducing perhaps that they don’t. But then, recalling a funny look in their eyes a few months ago. Then remembering that the two of you didn’t speak for about a month after that. But that was because they were out of town. Wasn’t it? You’re thinking about it. It’s that frisson that’s making you think all this.

I think the frisson happens in all male-female friendships at some point of time. Perhaps even all male-female relationships. It’s a sudden crystal-sharp awareness of the other person’s sex. Maybe it’s a natural balancing out. If you’re used to seeing each other in a ‘purely platonic’ manner, nature throws at least one such frisson your way where your brain thinks of nothing but the opposite, if only for a brief minute.

If you’ve been very close for a long time, it can be confusing. If one or both of you are in committed relationships to other people, it can be destabilizing too. I think it sometimes happens as a result of loneliness, horniness or one person going through a difficult time and the other one being there for them. Many of us tend to desperately attach onto the person that’s good to us, during tough times.

The frisson may not be harmless. It’s probably what causes cheating in relationships that are going through rough patches. But it is also probably where longtime friendships that turn into love, begin. Frissons aren’t always permanent or reciprocated at the same time. I think it at least adds a little spice and flavour to an already nice relationship – friendship. And like most other things to do with human emotion, they can be managed with cool heads and communication. Or perhaps not, a frisson is probably the one thing I wouldn’t want to discuss with a friend that I otherwise talk to about everything, precisely because conversation could make it bigger than it actually is.

Well, who knows? The frisson defies definition.

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