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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Not So Tender Trap: Romantic Comedy and Revolt in the Fifties and Fifty Years Later

  • Author(s): Weinman, Jenna
  • Advisor(s): Hatch, Kristen
  • et al.

The Hollywood romantic comedies of the 1950s and early 1960s fashioned sex and marriage from the struggle between dapper playboys and prudish career women. In the twenty-first century, the dominant mode of the genre forces a similar heterosexual life narrative through a refigured struggle between immature male slackers and sexually liberated career women. Why would such similar romantic comedy cycles emerge in such distanced and dissimilar contexts? In employing a research based, cultural studies approach to the above question, this dissertation engages the surprising generic and ideological intersections between the midcentury sex comedy and the raunch/romantic comedy hybrid known as the millennial “brom-com,” in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the power struggles informing the dominant intimate culture in the twenty-first century.

Each chapter compares the key representational strategies and thematic conflicts between a sex comedy (e.g. That Touch of Mink, The Tunnel of Love, Send Me No Flowers) and a brom-com (e.g. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, I Love You, Man), as situated in relation to the films’ respective historical contexts. Such a comparative engagement demonstrates that while the specific figurations of the immature male, the heterosexual couple, and the broader socio-political landscape may change, the cycles’ overlapping thrills, anxieties, and limitations present a similar set of heteronormative expectations rooted in the postwar breadwinner ethic.

In reinventing the sex comedy’s flirtations with false liberalism and male regression, the brom-com suggests that such expectations are deeply unsatisfactory. The brom-com’s male revolt against these gendered expectations is especially evident in the cycle’s celebratory, albeit nervous indulgence in the queer-straight form of male homosocial intimacy popularly known as “bromance”—a prominent yet unnamed phenomenon in the sex comedies. Despite the brom-coms’ spirited stagings of revolt, however, the cycle remains curiously resistant to detaching from the patriarchal fantasies of postwar optimism.

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