how 2018's big romcom revival left out its women

We're seeing a boom in dreamy male leads, but who is our next female star?

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Dec 21 2018, 10:37am

In 2018, many of us devoured romantic comedies as a reprieve from the world, movies that drowned us in gorgeous cliche, cleansed us with heightened heartache, and resurrected our beaten-down spirits via beautiful people skittishly tiptoeing around their latent romantic longing. For the first time since the halcyon days of maybe 2003, romcoms actually mattered; emergency CPR performed on a genre long thought murdered by too many bad Katherine Heigl movies, but which clawed its way back to unexpected ubiquity.

Most notably, they came from Netflix. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was a literal love letter to the brilliant pain of having a crush, bursting with anxious, starry-eyed feeling, while Sierra Burgess Is a Loser trafficked in the unexpected connections you make at an impressionable age, and important even when sourced through vaguely reprehensible means. Set It Up was a blissful throwback to the big-city, high-concept romcoms that we thought didn’t get made anymore, while, in theaters, Crazy Rich Asians was a glam fish-out-of-water triumph. These were movies that worked like warm hugs, providing soothing shelter from Trumpian chaos.

But something weird was also happening at the same time. Historically, romcoms have been uniquely feminine spaces — stylized, colorful, funny, and light — and therefore often dismissed by a patriarchal, exhaustingly hetero male critical class. But they were also the one genre to exclusively position stories of women center stage, with many of the genre’s best movies as interested in cute laughs as they were the dreams, desires, and complexities of modern women. It’s debatable, for instance, whether Julia Roberts has ever had a role as fascinating as her toxic anti-hero in 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding.

And through romcoms, actresses became stars. Roberts and the likes of Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, and Jennifer Aniston all transformed into the industry titans they are today via their romantic comedies — their strong box office and related press coverage helped them accrue significant Hollywood power, earn bigger paychecks, numerous follow-up roles, and build dedicated fanbases. Reaction to 2018’s major romcoms mirrored that same overnight star-making, but with one key difference. Stardom didn’t happen to their respective female leads. Instead it happened to the guys who played their boyfriends.

Noah Centineo, who played the main love interest in both To All the Boys and Sierra Burgess, emerged this summer as one of the internet’s favorite celebrities, his sleepy, Ruffaloian charm seemingly engineered in a laboratory for the indecently handsome and immediately transmitted into memes and Buzzfeed quizzes. And then there was Henry Golding of Crazy Rich Asians, emerging out of nowhere with a Hugh Grant accent, fancypants British charm and gratuitous shirtlessness, and then suddenly omnipresent, romancing both Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in A Simple Favor a month later. Even Set It Up wasn’t immune from Internet Boyfriend syndrome, Glen Powell sparking lovestruck sighs from those who hadn’t already discovered his right-side-of-sleazy magnetism via Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens.

What followed for each was a litany of “next big thing” listicles, fashion shoots and movie offers. At the time of writing, Centineo has just wrapped the new Charlie’s Angels, Powell is in Top Gun 2, and Golding is shooting both a Guy Ritchie action-comedy and a George Michael-inspired holiday romcom with Emilia Clarke. This year, each man encapsulated the powerful modern currency of Internet Boyfriend-dom — talented, handsome actors propelled to the big leagues via thirst GIFs and flattering memes.

Of course, it’s difficult to fault their obvious appeal, while after the onslaught of male toxicity of 2017, Centineo and his romcom brethren offered a welcome, unproblematic respite from what felt like a run of heterosexual male disappointment. But such thirstiness also had the unfortunate consequence of sidelining many of the women they got famous playing against, an outcome made even more annoying because the genre has finally woken up to and fixed its historic whiteness.

Women of color have always existed in the romcom space, but they’ve largely been left out of white-dominated romcom discourse. When Rebel Wilson incorrectly claimed in October that she was the first plus-sized lead of a studio romcom, it didn’t just speak to pop culture’s casual erasing of the work of actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique, but also how often white gatekeepers have erased the work of actresses of color all-together — Diahann Carroll was headlining romcoms in the 1970s, and Sanaa Lathan and Nia Long both broke out in the post-Love Jones black romcom boom of the late 1990s, but have never been as celebrated as white romcom icons like Roberts or Witherspoon.

So that the 2018 romcom revival has been so dominated by women of color and, in the case of Sierra Burgess’s Shannon Purser, a queer white woman, only makes their lack of coverage that much more annoying. Because there are some incredible performances here. To All the Boys star Lana Condor, playing a teenage girl publicly confronted with love letters she’d written to her various crushes, captures more earnestlessly than most the tender swells of isolated adolescence, where every minor drama is all-encompassing, every action accompanied by an assault of nervous energy and the thoughts of everything going terribly wrong. She’s a magnetic, relatable ball of lovestruck teenage anxiety throughout, and one of the true discoveries of the year in film.

Constance Wu isn’t as much of a newcomer, having made her name on TV’s Fresh Off the Boat, but in Crazy Rich Asians she quickly confirms herself as a natural heir to the romcom queen crown, all big-city confidence, self-deprecating charm and expressive optimism about life. And when confronted with repeated condescension by her new in-laws, she’s a pillar of strength. It’s a truly great performance built up of a number of realistic multitudes.

In Sierra Burgess, Purser is radiantly awkward, single-handedly salvaging a script that often seems to despise her character. And while the wonderful Zoey Deutch is the ostensible female lead of Netflix’s Set It Up, the movie is comfortably stolen out from under her by Lucy Liu as her tyrannical boss, who Miranda Priestleys her way to the film’s funniest lines, and demonstrates a life-giving iciness that makes you want to rage at the gods that we’ve somehow let Liu play second banana on a CBS procedural for the last six years.

In short, these were women being amazing, but receiving little kudos for their efforts. Wu, in a wonderful surprise, received a Golden Globe nomination for her Crazy Rich Asians performance last week, but that it came as a total shock speaks to how little she had previously been in the conversation. And when clout is such an important part of actresses building a name for themselves and earning higher paychecks and further roles, particularly in a market that already underutilizes and underpays its minority actresses, it’s disappointing that Condor, Wu and Purser haven’t been granted the levels of attention and acclaim for what should have been their Julia-Roberts-in-Pretty-Woman moments.

Hollywood has form in taking the wrong lessons from movie trends, but 2019 looks set to not only push the romcom renaissance even further, but continue positioning representation at its center. Comedian Ali Wong leads the Netflix romcom Always Be My Maybe alongside Randall Park and Keanu Reeves, Warner Bros has a China-set romcom in development revolving around the annual single-person-pride event Singles Day, and both Issa Rae and Gabrielle Union have their own romcoms in the pipeline. Kristen Stewart is also in talks to star in the first studio romcom in history about two queer women, to be written and directed by But I’m a Cheerleader’s Clea DuVall. It’s arguably the most exciting movie of all time.

All these new romcoms will mean that we’ll still be able to collectively survive real-world horror in 90 minute increments in 2019, but it’s worth thinking about how we react to these movies, the stars we choose to get behind, and the messaging our likes and shares conveys. In a Hollywood climate more and more conscious of the social media power of young actors, it’s more important than ever for consumers to share the pie more carefully, and not automatically grant status and power to the same people as always. It’s kind of a travesty that many of us would have to Google the name of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s lead actress, but have no problem identifying Noah Centineo. Let’s not do that again next year.