Rom-Coms As A Dating Guide for a Young Gay Man
A writer explores how the leading ladies of rom-coms became his guide for dating as a young gay man
I remember being in love with Drew Barrymore in basically all of her films from 1998 to 2005, but her best work will always be Never Been Kissed. Her character, Josie Geller, was everything my young heart aspired to be: smart, well-read, sweet and poetic. Looking back, I now realise that what I truly loved was that Josie was an outsider. She was a 25-year-old virgin who lived mostly on the sideline. High school was a traumatic experience for Josie, just as it is and was for many queer people, as classmates perceived her as ‘abnormal’.
Josie was a kindred spirit. Like many people, she wanted a love story of her own. Cue an amazingly unrealistic plot where Josie goes undercover in a Chicago high school to write a juicy newspaper feature, ultimately resulting in her meeting a hot English Literature teacher and being crowned prom queen. The dream!
When I came out at 19, I was like Josie: un-kissed and a virgin. While I never got egged on prom night, people were still cruel and insensitive. I can recall the homophobic insults that were whispered as I walked through the hallways of my high school. Like Josie, my early 20s presented the opportunity to make up for a life unlived in high school (although, my methods were less problematic than Josie's). As a teenager, the romantic comedy was one of my favourite movie genres. These films felt accessible, safe and hopeful for someone like me: young, shy and closeted. Rom-coms permitted the possibility of true love and a happy ending, especially during a time when society scoffed at the idea of romance and marriage for queer people.
I spent my teenage years passively, watching friends live life to the fullest as they struck up conversations at house parties, went on dates, experienced heartbreak and acted on the urges surging through their bodies. I took refuge elsewhere and found comfort in drama club, writing for the school paper, sinking my head into countless books and, of course, watching my leading ladies of romance. High school bullies did not dampen my idealism. I knew that love was real and one day it would come into my life.
When I finally came to terms with my sexuality and was ready to start dating, I had no script to follow and nobody to ask for advice. This is why rom-coms were so important. I grew up watching films like While You Were Sleeping, Sleepless in Seattle and The Wedding Planner on repeat. I was glued to the screen whenever Ally McBeal and Ugly Betty were on the telly. Slightly awkward but intelligent female screen protagonists taught me how to navigate life.
Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping provided one of the best educations in romance. Her character is an unpolished, solitary dreamer. She spends the opening of the movie watching other people get on with their days as she works the ticket booth of a train station. Although her 'meet cute' is less than ideal – no one wants to have to rescue a man from their death – it gave her character a new lease on life and helped her learn what she really wanted: a family to call her own, something she gets in the end after a very bonkers, but beautiful character arc.
I am well aware that romantic tropes in film are often problematic and wholly unrealistic. But the idea of love kept me going at a time when being in the closet was difficult. During my teenage years, ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ (the policy which forbid openly gay people from serving in the US armed forces) was accepted practice, same-sex marriage was a pipedream and only a handful of public personalities were openly gay. Society did not promote the possibility of queer love stories. Instead, I grew up with the belief that my storyline might include Aids, alcoholism, a meth addiction or being a loner-degenerate existing on the margins of society. In spite of these fears, I genuinely believed I would find love one day and learn to care for a partner, share my innermost fears and be his biggest champion.
The issue was that dating in real life was very rarely filmic. Men did not magically appear in the queue at Starbucks with a perfect side parting and a Hollywood smile. More often, I met guys in low lit and dingy clubs, when they slid into my DMs or from Craigslist ads (the world before dating apps). Meet-cute, these were not. However, because of rom-coms, I was prepared for heartache, disappointment and bad kisses. A firm belief in love got me through the mire of unfulfilling dates and relationships. I learned to laugh at the awkward bits and cherish the magical moments of dating and intimacy. My beloved female leads dated men who were kind, intelligent and had big personalities. While I never dated a man running for the US Senate while working as his maid-slash-love-interest (a la Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan), I did begin to realise I too could date interesting people. I was smart. I was worthy. I knew enough about love and plot structure to understand that a mountain of crappy men might lead to one person who would make the pursuit worthwhile.
The reality is, romantic comedies did not make me who I am. I did not learn to be comfortable with my sexuality, or accept and love myself because of these absurdly saccharine stories. I certainly did not learn how to have sex, nurture a relationship or work through an argument by watching Kate Hudson woo Matthew McConaughey. However, these films taught me that being hopeful and schmaltzy was OK. While in the closet, rom-coms were a means of visualising what love might look like. While I am aware it was through a heteronormative lens, it was all I had to work with during those lonely and confusing younger days. Eventually, I would leave the plush seats of the cinema and, with a few helpful tips from my leading ladies, start to navigate love in real life in my own happy and gay way.