If you wanted to see a romantic comedy this year, you were in luck—especially if you wanted to see the old formula flipped on its head. A new wave of “feminist” romantic comedies attempted to empower women within the traditional meet-cute to happily-ever-after relationship story arc.
Trainwreck, starring comedian Amy Schumer, is perhaps the most talked-about example, but others include 50 Shades of Grey—lauded by some for its female-centric portrayal of sex, though not for its gender dynamics—and the Alison Brie-led Sleeping With Other People, about a woman who can only develop a healthy, balanced relationship with a man once the pair agrees to not have sex.
Those who argue that these films are empowering say something like this: The women in these movies are fully in touch with their own sexuality and unabashed about asking for what they want. They are not princesses waiting to be rescued nor incomplete without a man. These women are fully capable of walking away, no matter the man’s charm or wealth or persuasive ways.
You could dismiss these movies as superficial illustrations that "modern women like sex and that's okay," but they actually illustrate something that frustrates a lot of women—both Christian and not—about relationships: it seems like there’s no middle ground. You can choose sex without emotional involvement, or you can choose emotional involvement without sex.
But I’d argue that these movies do not empower women. Instead, they obfuscate the reality: sexual liberty doesn't reduce emotional vulnerability.
Sexual empowerment is not the same thing as power in a relationship—something many Christians readily acknowledge. But when we also deny that we even have a human appetite for sex (a much more common attitude within the church), or suggest it’s an entirely negative desire, we fail to provide a practical approach to real relationships, with all the uncertainty, negotiation of wants and needs, and vulnerability they involve. Neither stance addresses the reality that relational vulnerability is hell when it’s lopsided.
In the traditional rom-com formula, the woman usually takes the first step of vulnerability by acknowledging her feelings for the other person. Then eventually, the man must make up for lagging behind through some grand public gesture. In this scenario, success for the woman is to become the object of desire, but at least this (arguably) elevates her value.
Trainwreck flips the gender roles by making love interest Aaron (Bill Hader) the emotional one and Amy (Schumer) the one who makes the grand romantic gesture in the end. The lesson of Trainwreck is that the modern, sexually liberated woman doesn’t need emotional support from a man—until he makes the first emotional move, and then it’s okay to lean in.
In Sleeping With Other People, Lainey is so emotionally incompetent she constantly seeks out sex that leaves her feeling used in the aftermath. She repeats this cycle over and over until a man, Jake (Jason Sudeikis), becomes a safe emotional attachment figure by agreeing to a no-sex rule. In this case, while both Lainey and Jake embrace the freedom of sexual activity and had sex earlier in their relationship, not having sex seems to be the real equalizer. (It’s so old-fashioned it’s dysfunctional.)
When we see these women as examples of female empowerment, though, we preach that denying our vulnerability is a form of safety. Amy and Lainey “protect” their hearts with a barrier carefully built of narcissistic confidence and the idea that it’s ok to sleep around, without regard for or fear of potential emotional complications.