Every year, Valentine’s Day brings with it the release of movies that fall into the much-maligned genre of “rom-com.” Warnings against romantic fiction go back at least as far as 1605 to Cervantes’s Don Quixote. More recently, the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld casually dismisses “most romances [as] badly written.” Ella Cerón in GQ calls them “one-degree-from-creepy.” Others consider the genre “emotional porn.” And in the Christian world, some voices warn that romance fiction is not “edifying” in the definition of Philippians 4:8.
Not unlike a lot of single women, I have a complicated relationship with romantic narratives and for a long time, simply didn’t enjoy them. In my 20s, I became a career-driven woman who people didn’t think was “into that kind of thing,” so I started to think I shouldn’t be. Then came the experiences with real-life romance. I went through some relationships that left me feeling prickly about ideal romantic stories that unfailingly led to a “happily ever after.” (The Romance Writers of America defines the modern genre as “a central love story” with “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” so a happily-ever-after in some form is required.)
During the years when I couldn’t enjoy romance, I felt rather proud of my aversion. I was like Rebel Wilson’s character Natalie in the recently released movie Isn’t It Romantic, calling romance and rom-coms “unhealthy, unrealistic, and toxic,” especially for women.
Although I wouldn’t defend the entire genre, nonetheless I have come around to the counter-argument Natalie’s best friend presents in the film: that romance stories are “full of life” and help open our eyes to love as a good and present force in the world. Trashing romance and rom-coms is really about trashing our own desire for love—“real love, ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love,” as Carrie (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) said on Sex and the City, the apex of 1990s rom-coms.
More importantly to Christians, the quest for “ideal love” modeled in rom-coms is ultimately a reflection of a human affection that’s modeled after God’s love. To shame that longing is another way our culture shames our longing for God.
Of course, the rom-com genre often perverts this desire for true love. Isn’t It Romantic parodies this perfectly: Natalie, who complains about rom-coms and then wakes up in one, says the world suddenly looks like it’s got an Instagram filter. Her New York City apartment is unrealistically huge, the light is always golden, flowers are everywhere, and she wakes up in full hair and makeup. Handsome men who look like Liam Hemsworth suddenly can’t take their eyes off her, and people on the street are far too friendly. There are two musical numbers with perfect choreography. It’s like “The Matrix for lonely women,” as Natalie puts it.
It’s unrealistic (and perhaps unfair) that life first becomes easy before Natalie opens her eyes to the love that’s already in her life, finally gets in touch with her own feelings, and feels motivated to express her own needs. But the hole in Natalie’s life is not a lack of romance, it’s a lack of love. And that love—the true, deep, abiding kind—is the sole longing at the core of Isn’t It Romantic and almost every other rom-com story.
It takes vulnerability to acknowledge this yearning to be loved. I still struggle with this after every bad date (when I question why I keep trying) and even when I discuss with friends the trials and inconveniences of going to church. In both situations, I’m looking for love (albeit in different forms). But it’s often easier, less squirm-inducing, to make an intellectual argument instead.
Nonsense, says the romance genre. Love is always the end goal.
“All some people see is the big R and dismiss it,” romance writer Nora Roberts told The Guardian in 2011. “Novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationships, making relationships work, why isn’t that something to be respected?”
However, the times may be changing. The New York Times included a romance genre book on its list of 100 notable books from 2018. Netflix brought rom-com movies back last summer. The return of rom-coms means the return of a “genre that’s about delivering joy to the audience,” says Constance Grady in conversation with several other critics for Vox. And two unabashed rom-coms came out this week timed to Valentine’s Day: both Isn’t It Romantic and What Men Want. (These movies are rated PG-13 and R, respectively, and contain sexual material and language.)
Although we might, at least for the moment, be growing more accepting of the romance genre (and also more realistic about the romances we portray), these stories still come up short for all the right reasons. Even the best of romantic love is never enough, and the romance genre itself, at the end of the day, offers entertainment and not a roadmap to real life. Nonetheless, done right, these love stories can bolster our moral imagination and encourage us to seek out love in the real world.
For Christians, they also point us toward a deeper affection for God.
The author Tessa Afshar, for example, says her novels are not part of the “romance genre” but that her biblical narratives are meant to call readers back to a love of God.
“Faith is not won by arguments; faith is won by an experience of love,” she argues on the podcast The Calling. “There is a part of the heart that has been designed to experience being chosen by someone very, very special.”
We see this demonstrated throughout Scripture. The Psalms offer examples of what it means to crave God while struggling with obstacles that persist even in the presence of love. These earnest prayers of David reflect a desire to know and be known by God. The apostle John calls this living in love, for God is love, and “whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4:16). And in the gospels, Christ doesn’t just wait patiently for his followers to believe, he woos them and calls them to himself (Matt. 4:18–22 and Luke 5:1–11).
The link between faith and romance is perhaps most powerfully displayed in the lush, romantic poem Song of Songs, often read as an allegory of love between Christ and the church. As Tish Harrison Warren notes, the church celebrates “a love more substantial and costly than we can imagine, a love that’s unsentimental yet endlessly passionate, a love that defeated sin and death, that woos us, forgives us, and calls us both his friends and his bride.”
As we survey the landscape of rom-coms this spring, then, we might do well to remember their limitations. They often set unrealistic expectations and promote a sheen of effortless perfection rather than the hard work of relationship. But if we let it, the genre just might support and normalize the longing for an ideal soulmate that can only be found in God’s love.
Alicia Cohn is a freelance writer who lives in Denver. She tweets at @aliciacohn.