George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Ticket to Paradise
IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE A ROMANTIC AND A FEMINIST at the same time? Is it okay to sniffle into hankies at ‘chick flicks’ and to raise fists in protest? Is it acceptable to believe in female empowerment but also to be a fool for ‘happily ever afters’? It is a pity that all too often the above acts are seen as contradictions instead of complementary. Watching romantic comedies (or the romcom) is considered twee at best, and regressive at worst. Romcoms are frivolous, and women who watch them shallow. Like any genre, there are, of course, all kinds of romcoms, from the good to the bad to the ugly. And to dismiss them all as worthy of neither scholarship nor attention would actually be anti-feminist.
I am a proud fan of the genre. And a loud feminist. I would choose a romcom over an arthouse movie any day of the week. With their beautiful people and predictable plots, the films never fail to entertain me. A Google search will throw up numerous posts on ‘How Rom-Coms Undermine Women’ as that is the accepted version. So, I feel the need to justify my liking for these films. What does it mean to enjoy them, when they are seen as silly and foolish?
This is precisely the question that professor of gender and sexuality studies, and author of 12 books Mari Ruti deals with in Feminist Film Theory and Pretty Woman (2016). Ruti uses the 1990 film Pretty Woman to examine the lure and longevity of certain romcoms. She writes that she is less interested in labelling Pretty Woman as “retrograde or progressive”. She is more interested in knowing why “so many women—including those with explicitly feminist sensibilities—find it so riveting.” She also points out that the dismissal of romcoms is hinged on our problematic gender politics, which overlooks movies with strong and opinionated female leads.
Ruti’s thesis astutely helps explain why women turn (repeatedly) to this genre. Instead of using Pretty Woman I turn to a newer Julia Roberts film. For me, the two recent romcoms that stand out for their feminist sensibilities are Ticket to Paradise (2022) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018). They both share a familiar premise; good-looking boy and girl are in love, and the wicked mother (or parents) tries to break them up; but of course, love surmounts all odds. But to detail the plot is like listing the ingredients of a cake. Knowing that a cake has flour, eggs and butter, is not to know the cake.
It is easy to superimpose Ruti’s thesis onto these two movies. And this just shows that Pretty Woman is not the aberration in romcoms, but simply just another finely made one. Ticket to Paradise and Crazy Rich Asians (based on Kevin Kwan’s novel) are both set in exotic (ie non-American) locations—Bali and Singapore. In both, the couples—George Clooney and Julia Roberts who play the divorced parents in Ticket to Paradise, and Constance Wu and Henry Golding in the latter—have left the US and landed at these islands. Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu, the economics professor at New York University, who is dating the chief catch of Singapore Nick Young (Golding) ignorant of his pre-eminence. Nick is the typical prince and Rachel is a girl raised by a single mother who has made it on her own. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), takes an instant dislike to her son’s “Chinese-American girlfriend”. In Ticket to Paradise, Roberts and Clooney play the sparring and divorced Georgia and David Cotton, who fly to Bali to sabotage the wedding of their daughter Lily to the seaweed farmer Gede, who she has met just weeks before and for whom she is sacrificing her law career.
Romcoms are often condemned for objectifying the female body. But in both these movies, it is the bodies of the young men rather than the women that fall under our gaze. The camera lingers on Nick and Gede, played by beautifully chiselled mixed-heritage men Henry Golding (Malaysian-British) and Maxime Bouttier (France-born Indonesian). Wine spills on Nick’s shirt and that gives him a ready excuse to change in front of the camera (and his mother!). Gede is a seaweed farmer who spends much of his time shirtless in the warm waters of Bali. The men’s abs are the object of attention in these films, much more than the bodies of the women who fall into the petite and not voluptuous categories.
The men Nick and Gede, of course, are attracted to their partners Rachel and Lily (Wu and Kaitlyn Dever), but the movies labour the point that it is for who they are and not what they look like. Rachel is the girl who wakes up in the morning and puts on her spectacles. Nick tears up when his friend tells him that she is a “fighter”; someone who will not cow before his mother. When Gede first hears that Lily is a lawyer, he is impressed rather than intimidated.
Ruti notes that Pretty Woman skilfully navigates the “desire for a combination of female independence and girly femininity that characterises the postfeminist world”. Similarly, Ticket to Paradise and Crazy Rich Asians give us women who are both professionals and are conventionally pretty. Both the films also endow the mothers with meaty backstories. It helps that in both movies, the mothers are played by exceptional actors Michelle Yeoh (Eleanor) and Julia Roberts (Georgia). As actors and mothers, they wear their age with grace and authority. Eleanor tells Rachel that she too struggled to be accepted into the traditional Singapore family as she came from nowhere and had no connections. Georgia is a successful art dealer flying from auctions to galleries, whose marriage with David starts well but then implodes. The mothers here are the conventional ‘bad guys’, but they arrive on screen with solid back stories and rich interior lives.
Ruti highlights that the “romcom world is one where men are willing to talk about their emotions and where women initiate sex.” She adds, “I’m not sure that this world is antifeminist.” Both films tick these boxes. In Crazy Rich Asians, Nick apologises to Rachel for blindsiding her and bringing her to meet his family, without telling her about their influence and affluence in Singapore. After a harrowing weekend, where she is snubbed and bullied Rachel tells him, “I thought I was going to attend your best friend’s wedding, meet your family and eat some good food. Instead, I feel like a villain in a soap opera who is plotting to steal your family fortune.” Nick apologises for all that he hadn’t told her and assures her, “Whatever happens we’ll get through it together, dead fish and all.” In Ticket to Paradise, it is Lily who makes the first move on Gede, with the classic line, “I really feel like kissing you right now…” right before going in for the pucker.
The biggest triumph of these movies is that they show the possibilities of love. These are films that fight against the status quo and dare to imagine a different future, where love triumphs over tradition. Human connections dissolve geographical distance. Opposition melts into acceptance
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These films also highlight the importance of female friendships, a defining tenet of feminism. Rachel and Lily have girlfriends who lift them up. Rachel’s friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) is there to dress her up when she needs it, but more importantly, she’s there to remind her to never back out from a fight. She also captures Rachel’s essence, when she tells her, “You’ve no one, no net worth, but you’ve integrity and that is why I respect you.” Lily’s college friend who travels with her to Bali is also there through drinks and dances, sorrows and joys. These friendships are not just side acts, instead they assert the importance of sisterhood and sticking together.
I HAPPENED TO WATCH Ticket to Paradise on my own in a theatre in Pune. There were only four other women in the hall. Sitting back on the red velvet chairs and hearing four women cackle in the hall held its own therapeutic benefits. This was simple, wholesome and solo fun. It was an immediate mood lifter and joy giver. Four months later, I still think of that evening as a highlight. I got the opportunity to dawdle with Clooney and Roberts, to partake of their repartee and banter. In the film, theirs is a love story that has soured, but the chemistry is still potent. It helped that they were in a gorgeous location, complete with setting sun and lapping waters and chirping birds. It is a fantasy world, but isn’t that what romcoms are for? To believe in love and laughter, while living in the everyday.
The biggest triumph of these movies is that they show the possibilities of love. The parents oppose these relationships because the partners of their children are ‘different’—whether it is professionally or socially or culturally. These are films that fight against the status quo and dare to imagine a different future. A future where a lawyer from the US can find love with a farmer in Bali. A future where a professor, with no fortune, can marry into a legacy family in Singapore. These two romcoms allow love to triumph over tradition. Here, human connections dissolve geographical distance. Opposition melts into acceptance. The elders acknowledge that they are wrong, and that the children are right. Even on repeated viewing, these films leave a lump in one’s throat, because they simply allow us to envision a better, brighter, more inclusive tomorrow. What is more feminist than that?
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