Rom-com domination: Increase in cast diversity boosts popularity

The rom-com. Those nine letters ignite a surplus of oversaturated Hollywood tropes. Girl meets guy. Guy thinks girl is a nerd. Girl takes off glasses, and they all live happily ever after. The same recycled plots have unfolded on the silver screen for as long as the quarterback has dated the head cheerleader. Then through the magic of bad timing, misunderstandings and heteronormativity, the leather-jacket-wearing bad boy realizes he has a soft spot for the shy girl, and together they destroy the social hierarchy the high school spent generations installing.

Like the expired cottage cheese in fridge that was bought but never used, it got old. However, if one looks at the newest blockbusters to hit the scene, “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Love, Simon,” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” it appears the once crucified clichés are on their way to resurrection.

From the 80s to the early 2000s, rom-coms were at their peak. While an array of them used the same recipe, they offered polished plot structures and refreshing yet easily identifiable characters. According to Box Office Mojo, three of the top 20 grossing films of 1998 and 1999 were romantic comedies.

“A successful rom-com is clever, relatable and the characters have chemistry. There are tons of classic rom-coms from the 70's, 80's and 90's that [while not always diverse] were fresh and original,” CCAD Film and Video Program Coordinator Bekah Nunn said.

Eventually, the tide began to change. According to Box Office Mojo, by 2013, no romantic comedy had made it into the top grossing films, and it soon became evident that creating a rom-coms easily flop in the eyes of critics. Movies like “Midnight Sun” and “Over Her Dead Body” juggled boring tropes on top of uninspired storylines, resulting in an uninterested audience, each earning a rotten rating from Rotten Tomatoes.

“They started to fall into those cheesy, clichéd, bad acting tropes and stagnated in regards to representation and diversity. We've definitely had a bit of a renaissance of the rom-com genre lately: more and more films are breaking out of that mold, and thus the genre is flourishing,” Nunn said.

Photo from Time Magazine

Instead of the usual mostly white, twenty-something cast, “Crazy Rich Asians” opted for a nearly all Asian cast, and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” featured an Asian American main character with a new take on the old high school setting. In addition, movies like “Love, Simon” and “Alex Strangelove” told the stories of gay main characters.

Some might say these are a fluke, but there’s something they have in common: an increase in representation. According to a 2016 study conducted by researchers at the USC, 33 percent of speaking characters in movies were female despite women representing just over half the population and 28.3 percent of speaking characters were non-white despite such groups representing over 40 percent of the population.

“Representation in film is also more than just race; we need to address power dichotomies between men and women, genders outside the binary, sexual orientation, ability, and more. Behind the scenes, we need more women directors, directors of color, non-binary screenwriters and so forth. Representation is a multi-layered term,” Nunn said.

Take 2017’s “The Big Sick” for example. Featuring a story about an interethnic couple of a Pakistani man and a white women, it was on the American Film institute’s top ten films of the year and nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The movie flourishingly differentiated itself from the typical tropes associated with its genre, allowing room for a storyline unlike what has been made before.

“I think that representation in film is definitely getting better, but can still improve. The room for improvement is big not just with acting, but with filmmaking as well, such as the need for more female filmmakers,” Actor and school theater alumni Amber Edgar said.

Movies serve as escapism, allowing the audience to suspend what’s known about the natural world and accept the unimaginable. Audiences respond to movies that are more ethnically and socially diverse because they identify with the characters.

The problem is not with the genre in its entirety, and the solution lies within the people who make them. Movies created with the whole heart and intent of those responsible will be a hit with the audience, no matter the clichés used.


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