Film & TV Muse

Rom-coms in the digital age

Francesca Iucci talks about the ever-changing nature of romantic comedies

The era we live in is one of constant technological innovations that affect and change the world of cinema every day. We can watch a film from the 90’s and be aware of its age simply by observing the use of technology in it; the phone big as a brick, the heavy, grey and slow desktop computer with a tiny screen, and the large tube television. And while all of these products have improved more and more over time, the rise of internet usage and social media platforms have impacted our society particularly in the dating scene. Online dating websites and dating apps like Tinder have become extremely popular in the millennial world, and romantic comedies have attempted to show a response to this change in romance.


In order to understand how this evolution has been represented in romantic comedies, we need to go back to 1998, to the release of the all-time classic You’ve Got Mail, directed and co-written by Nora Ephron. The film focuses on the online romance of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) who have no idea that in reality they are business rivals. Their online relationship begins through an ‘over-30s’ chatroom and the two then begin communicating solely through emails. This film can be perceived as one of the first cinematic representation of online dating, a feel-good experience in which the two characters’ attraction to each other is, for the most part, based only on their personalities and conversations.


Must Love Dogs, directed by Gary David Goldberg and released in 2005, moves on to deal with the online dating world in a more precise manner. The two lead characters, Sarah (Diane Lane) and Jake (John Cusack), are both recent divorcees being pressured by their friends and family to start dating again. Because of this, they are introduced to the ‘world’ of perfectmatch.com, a real online dating platform. Through a vicissitude of bad dates and confusions, the couple’s complicated relationship turns into love and the audience is presented with another happy ending. At the end of the film, as the credits roll, Sarah and Jake appear telling the story of how they met, and instead of admitting they came together through online dating, they claim they met in a dog park, the site of their first date. This unexplained embarrassment of admitting to online dating was and, to some extent perhaps still is, embedded in society.


Photo Credit: Warner Bros.


Portraying a similar attitude to online dating is the film Because I Said So, released in 2007 and directed by Michael Lehmann. This romantic comedy explores the mother-daughter relationship but also focuses on the characters’ romantic lives. Daphne (Diane Keaton) is a loving but controlling mother who desires to see her daughter Milly (Mandy Moore) in a stable and healthy relationship like her sisters Maggie (Lauren Graham) and Mae (Piper Perabo). To accelerate this, Daphne decides to write a personal ad online for her daughter and to have ‘interviews’ with the potential men to find the right match. The use of a personal ad instead of a dating website represents the fact that online dating in the early 2000s didn’t have as much of a popularity as it does in today’s society. Furthermore, the other characters’ reaction to Daphne’s ad is characterised by shock mostly because she acts without Milly’s consent, but a kind of rejection of the online dating scene is also present in the film. In fact, Milly overhears Jason’s mother talking on the phone and she acts completely stunned at the fact that his son has managed to find a partner online. This also goes to show the somewhat-popular idea that online dating doesn’t result in actually finding love.


The concept of online dating not leading to love has definitely changed its connotation in today’s world. While perhaps ten years ago the reason behind dating in general, and particularly dating online, was for the most part to find love and a stable relationship, the times have changed. It is now acceptable for both men and women, especially in their 20s and 30s, to refuse being in a committed relationship. Open and casual relationships have become common, and some dating platforms serve the purpose to help people find both serious and casual encounters.


Another look at dating platforms is portrayed in How to Be Single, released in 2016 and directed by Christian Ditter. The film focuses on Alice (Dakota Johnson), who moves to New York to find out who she is when not in a relationship. She moves in with her sister Meg (Leslie Mann), a doctor who refuses to be in a relationship in to focus on her career, and becomes friends with Robin (Rebel Wilson), a co-worker who enjoys partying every night. The film presents us with a multitude of characters with different desires and objectives, and between those is Lucy (Alison Brie), constantly looking for her life partner using various dating websites to amplify her chances. Lucy has some awful dates through these websites and is later dumped by her boyfriend Paul because he desires to be in an open relationship and see other people. By the end of the film, Lucy has found her ‘life partner’ in George (Jason Mantzoukas). The film’s portrayal of single life is refreshing in the decision it makes to accept casual relationships instead of criticising them, especially through Robin’s character. Nevertheless, by having Lucy find love outside of the online dating sphere, the film could be trying to show a belief that is shared by part of society: dating apps and websites have become mostly used for ‘netflix and chill’ rather than committed relationships.

Furthermore, it was announced in May 2017 that Anne Hathaway is producing a new romantic comedy focusing specifically on dating apps, particularly Tinder. Therefore, as the dating scene in contemporary society is constantly changing, so is its representation in romantic comedies. The approach the world of cinema has to these changes varies in each film, but a common attempt to reflect society’s transformation is now present in most pictures.


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