Romantic Comedy, the No-Calorie Godiva

If romance novels are a guilty pleasure, then romantic comedies are the designer chocolates of literature, rich, fun and seemingly without nutritional value. But underneath that sugar coating is one of the most feminist forms of literature ever devised. Jane Austen knew it two hundred years ago and writers like Susan Elizabeth Phillips know it today: romantic comedy empowers women and makes their world a better place.

First, romantic comedy is an excellent way for women to read stories about love without any feminist guilt. We’ve spent so much time establishing the truth that women don’t need men to survive that we’ve buried the truth that there’s more to life than survival. The truth for a lot of us is that men are terrific, and sex is pretty good, too, if we don’t take either of them too seriously. Sharp, feminist romantic comedy makes love stories politically correct, the literary equivalent of no-calorie Godiva.

Romantic comedy also shows women how to wield power without being aggressive. Using wit as a weapon has the double benefit of making us look intelligent and above the fray while we’re getting even and leveling the playing field. There’s a reason that men say the thing they most fear from women is being laughed at: laughter is almost impossible to defend against. You can either laugh along and admit your absurdity, or you can get huffy and be branded as not having a sense of humor; either way, the woman who makes the joke wins.

Romantic comedy promotes women’s friendship, too. Look at any romantic comedy in the past ten years and you’ll find a friend the heroine can return to and say, “Help,” without fearing she’ll be patronized or sneered at for being weak. She can also go back to that friend and say, “This happened, and the men around me said this, but that doesn’t seem right; what do you think?” and the friend can say, “They’re morons, you’re right,” neatly shooting down patriarchy without sounding shrill because, hey, it’s comedy.

Finally, romantic comedy gives women power is by showing women laughing. A woman who laughs out loud is not only confident, she’s smart; after all, she got the joke, didn’t she? Women who laugh out loud announce their presence: “Pay attention, I’m taking up space here.” And if it’s good comedy, it makes the woman reader laugh out loud, too, and if it feels good to laugh like that, she may just keep on laughing out loud after the story is done, making reading romantic comedy a truly subversive act.

So go ahead, indulge. Romantic comedy is good for you.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Springs Literary Supplement. Colorado Springs, CO. Vol. 16 Number 2, Feb. 1998: 22.