I never considered myself to be someone with an addictive personality. I’ve witnessed those close to me become obsessively seduced by many a, seemingly, splendid thing over the years. Though I always thought myself to be far too chilled, content with being content, to invest in the chase. The intoxicating, albeit fleeting, thrill of acquiring another hit right before the craving kicks in again. A road resembling a clear path to self-destruction? No, thank you.
Though, this is simply not true. I was a smoker from the age of thirteen. An entry I put down to a boy two years above me, his face always obscured in a cloud of Marlboro Red fog. I so desperately wanted to impress him (I would end my long engagement with nicotine over a decade later). Then, on a marginally less life-threatening scale, there’s the coffee I simply have to consume before 9am. I don’t feel like myself otherwise.
That’s the funny thing with addictions. They never appear to be that insufferable. You rarely question their goodness. They just are, humming away in the background, part of your individual makeup. An everyday elixir on good day, a fire blanket on life’s dilemmas on the bad. The most gripping addiction of them all? The one that – for the most part subconsciously – has shaped my outlook on just about everything (excluding the obvious: familial relationships have a habit of fucking us up in both big and small ways)? Romantic comedies.
It started innocently enough. Through TV shows mostly. Friends, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Saved By The Bell, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. You may not peg these as rom-coms in the strictest sense, but – oh my – they were saturated with an element of will-they-won’t-they? Or perhaps that’s just what I was looking for. The happy ending. I definitely sought this out later.
Greedily, I absorbed it all. Constantly. Taking mental notes along the way. (If I had a Netflix queue in the mid-noughties it would read like I was researching how to live my life like a romantic comedy.) During the tail end of my – relatively inexperienced – teen years it offered a romantic blueprint of sorts. Aha! This is what relationships could be like, I thought. It all seemed so simple. And, yes, wonderfully romantic. In retrospect, I wonder if some of these films encouraged me to accept something that’s actually deeply unhealthy in real-life relationships. That you can deceive and be deceived – sometimes a cocktail of both these ingredients – and get away with it. In fact, according to rom-com scripture, it can even be quite charming.
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A few personal favourites over the years, to put this in context. 10 Things I Hate About You (the leading guy lies (he dates a girl for a bet), she finds out, is understandably upset, forgives him, they kiss, the end). Never Been Kissed (she lies, he finds out, is understandably upset, forgives her, they kiss, the end). Same goes for the likes of While You Were Sleeping, She’s All That, You’ve Got Mail, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, to name just a few. Films I’ve have watched, and loved, multiple times.
I am by no means suggesting these romantic comedies are not inherently pleasurable to watch. When Harry Met Sally – written by Nora Ephron–- for instance, falls into this category. One of my all-time favourite movies, it stirs up questions that can never be wholly answered – about love, the nature of sex and friendship and where those lines blur.
Still. At its core, the allure of the genre comes down to a simple thing: formula. You may not know the plot, but you also kind of do, right? You know there’s going to be a meet cute, a misunderstanding, conflict resolved – all building blocks for an adorable reconciliation around ten minutes before the closing credits. The all-important Happy Ending. And much like sinking into a warm bath for the first time after a skittish day, there is something tremendously comforting in this knowledge even before pressing play.
But experience is a powerful tonic. This last year more than ever. Teaching us that we can only truly be certain that nearly all aspects of our lives – careers, our own sense of self, relationships – will rarely follow a linear rhythm. There’s no fixed beginning, middle and – ta-dah – the end to “you” and “us”. Rather, a series of unopened chambers and starting overs. Disappointment can often hit us when the neatly packaged narrative arch we’ve curated in our minds – and films absolutely facilitate this fantasy – doesn’t actualise in our personal life.
And yet, even after this realisation, I’m still not quite ready to break up with romantic comedies altogether. They have their place, a familiar and soothing escape to dip into now and then. But I will never, ever, treat them as gospel, like some sort guidebook to what I should hope to seek, in myself or others.
We are ever evolving. Imperfect, creating chaos, cleaning it up, erasing bits and making up new plot lines as we go. In other words, life is actually far more complicated and inconsistent a picture – and by token of that, extraordinarily more interesting – than any romantic comedy can ever paint. Life is, to quote John Lennon, what happens while you’re busy making other plans.