The Imaginary World of Rom-Coms

by David Naples

The world of You’ve Got Mail, directed by Nora Ephron, at first appears much like our own.  That is until you realize you are watching a romantic comedy.  Now this is not to say that the genre makes the film any less good, as is sometimes associated with the notorious rom-com.  As I watched the film, I found myself genuinely feeling either sad or happy for the characters and either laughing with or at them.  What is it about the rom-com genre that just works?  I am no stranger to the genre, in fact, I have seen so many of the Hallmark Channel’s low budget holiday rom-coms.  However, whether the film is produced by Hallmark or being played on the big screen, the format of the rom-com remains fairly consistent.  There is almost always the budding love, followed by conflict, ending in a resolution of forgiveness and love.  There are also other themes and tropes sprinkled throughout, some relating to the main love story, others not so much, however these themes can sometimes add extra conflicts, or other ideas, that end up not resolved in the end.  These contradictions between the real word and movie world can in some cases pull the audience out of the main story, yet in the rom-com, this seems not to matter.  

While I watched You’ve Got Mail, I seemed to keep asking myself why the two main characters, Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), even ended up together.  After the two meet anonymously online, they develop a relationship entirely based on emails, meanwhile in the real world, those same two are clashing business owners.  As the plot progresses, we learn that Joe’s new business ruins a lot of things that were a normal part of Kathleen’s life.  Most predominantly, her bookstore, once owned by her passed mother, is run out of business.  For Kathleen, the bookstore was everything, it was a place to bring joy to children, spread the love of reading, and a place to share time with friends and family.  Eventually Joe learns that his digital beloved is Kathleen Kelly, and to summarize, he eventually feels bad for hurting her, realizing this is the same woman he had that anonymous connection with, and befriends her before revealing who he actually is.  As the audience watches the movie, or at least in my case, this final segment of Joe befriending Kathleen is very sweet and kind.  I’ve begun to believe that this is partly due to the fact that the story does not truly come back to the idea of Kathleen being out of business.  I understand partly why the plot left it alone: that specific part of the story had ended, the store was now closed, and it provided themes of the benefits of moving on and the idea of things being gone and not forgotten.  However, in a way, I feel like this sets up an unrealistic expectation of Kathleen to forgive Joe for everything.  Even if she is able to come to terms with the closing of her store, a real scenario could likely show the two not being so amicable to each other if one had ruined the other’s profession.  

This is part of what makes a romantic comedy so special.   As they watch, the audience is gradually filled with more and more emotions, some good, some bad, yet the comedy throughout keeps spirits light.  The genre uses this to its advantage.  Romance can often be an emotional rollercoaster, so when we watch a romantic comedy, we may want to feel a similar sense of emotions to emulate the real thing.  The film mimics those emotions by giving the viewer real life topics to have an emotional response to, and in this case, that role is filled by the bookstore struggle.  I imagine this is why many rom-coms are centered around conflict as well.  In the case of You’ve Got Mail, we are introduced to our character’s relationship before the conflict.  The result has the audience rooting for the relationship early on, so when problems arise, a sort of sympathy develops in the viewer, as they ultimately assume the two belong together.  In the end, this makes the bookstore feel more like a passing problem than anything, especially after the two are presented as “soulmates” of sorts.  

The use of many emotions in a romantic comedy sets up the potential to easily influence its audience.   By creating that emotional response or investment in a viewer, the rom-com can  successfully set up it’s final act to be a smooth-sailing experience of happiness and romance.  I say it like this because I believe by the end of the movie, after having had it’s emotions repeatedly toyed with, the thing the audience wants to see most is a happy ending.  There are some common devices used by rom-coms to help make this outcome happen.  

Reconciliation is a big turning point in a lot of romantic comedies.  In You’ve Got Mail, it takes a center stage as Joe attempts to rebuild his real world relationship with Kathy.  Geoff King’s interpretation of reconciliation in rom-coms becomes very relevant here, describing it as utopian, as well as “sidestepping the reconciliation of broader thematic issues (55).”  The film shows the audience the kindness that Joe is capable of, connecting him more to his internet personality, implying that he has a good heart.  The following scenes primarily show this, causing past conflicts to feel less important.  As King describes, the impli­cation is that real world factors, such as money, class and power, are essentially secondary and can be stripped away to reveal an essential common humanity underneath (55).  This relates back to Kathleen’s lost business.  The bookstore conflict is stripped away as the film shifts its focus onto humanity and kindness.  At this point the rom-com, whether intentionally or unintentionally, emphasizes the relationships rather than modern material world struggles.  I believe in a way that the reason for the audiences being so accepting of this shift is because of the emotions produced throughout the movie.  When the audience is made emotional maybe they are more willing to take what they can when it comes to resolving the story.

Wish fulfillment also benefits a lot from the emotions created within a rom-com, and You’ve Got Mail seems to embrace this when it can.   Wish fulfillment is sort of the requirement of a happy ending in a film.  This becomes common and easy to obtain in rom-coms because of the nature of comedy in the film, as well as reconciliation.  Comedy is capable of maintaining a whimsical fantasy world, not to be taken seriously (King 55).  When this is paired with a story of romance, the audience may soon expect only happy results, due to the light hearted aura of past scenes or sequences.  When it comes to reconciliation, the audience may also be less likely to question reasoning due to comedy, since the world’s sense of unimportance has already been established.  The use of wish fulfillment may also determine how a director presents emotions and tear jerkers in the rom-com.  For example, this could have been in mind while writing You’ve Got Mail, and maybe this is why so much of the movie is dedicated to conflicts, and why Joe’s reconciliation takes up a much smaller portion of the film (approx. less than 20 minutes).  I think the director may want to allot more time toward the conflict if they already know they’ve got the audience captivated with the hope of a happy ending, especially given the opportunity to bring more emotion and influence to the audience.  

In an effort to tell a fun story of love, the romantic comedy draws influence from many themes to create a well oiled world of emotion, inevitably ending in a satisfied audience.  While perhaps leveling the importance of real life responsibility in comparison to love, movies like You’ve Got Mail are very successful using a variety of techniques such as emotion, comedy, wish fulfillment, and reconciliation to make the audience not see this as a flaw.  While rom-coms are not often considered the best of films, there is a lot that can be understood about the presentation of a story and its audience.


King, Geoff. Comedy and Narrative, Film Comedy. pg 50-62

McDonald, Tamar Jeffers Romantic Comedy and Genre, Romantic Comedy, Boy Meets Girl Genre. pg 7-13

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