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Posts Tagged ‘romantic comedy’

Regimes of Affect: Love and Class in Mexican Neoliberal Cinema
by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

The recent rise in the study of affect and emotions within different paradigms of cultural studies opens many questions relevant to the study of Mexican and Latin American cinema.[1] It has led to the reconsideration of a series of cultural paradigms, most notably melodrama,[2] as part of networks of aesthetic configuration, audience engagement and political agency. However, the enthusiasm that naturally accompanies an emerging critical paradigm has led to a consistently optimistic understanding of affect and emotion either as a category with strong hermeneutic potential or as a practice that in itself functions as a tool of emancipation or, at least, as a way of reading and thus resisting the tyrannies of the political. In this study, I want to use the case of Mexican cinema to suggest a critique of that optimism, one that raises the question of the historicity of emotion and its relationship to the complex social networks of the contemporary. My primary suggestion is that, while emotions may seem a zero-degree approach to culture, insofar as all humans experience and perform them, the unequal access to the structures of representation and consumption of feelings create distinct regimes of affect that replicate rather than question existing ideological, racial, and class separations. This point echoes the warning raised by Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg in their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, where they state that “this promise of affect and its generative relay into affect theory must also acknowledge, in the not yet of the never-quite-knowing, that there are no ultimate or final guarantees– political, ethical, aesthetic, pedagogic, and otherwise– that capacities to affect and to be affected will yield an actualized next or new that is somehow better than ‘now’” (9-10). I would even push this point further and contend that a considerable part of the cultural infrastructure that manufactures and deploys structures of feeling is bound to ever more globalized and privatized cultural industries. Accordingly, affect and emotion in the contemporary world should be engaged by considering their irrevocable relationship to capitalism in general and neoliberalism in particular.[3]

Mexican cinema provides a good vantage point to explore this idea because of the way in which the neoliberal process led the country’s mediascape to transition from hegemonic post-revolutionary national culture– which successfully appealed citizens and consumers across class lines– to a cultural industry clearly demarcated by class lines.[4] Up to the late 1980s, Mexican media consumers in urban areas were exposed to more or less the same cultural offerings. The primary medium was television, which was fundamentally controlled by Televisa. Its telenovelas ruled the ratings in primetime hours to the tune of 50 to 70 percent of the audience, mostly because of their ability to successfully construct narratives that appealed to the national identity and the cultural specificity of spectators across the social board (Mazziotti 47-51). The consumption of cinema was mostly in decay as a result of disastrous interventionist policies from the State in the 1970s (Mora 150-88), but cinema attendance remained considerable thanks to a government-regulated fixed ticket price. One may add other policies, such as the ban on rock concerts established in the wake of the Avándaro festival in the 1970s and the strict control that Televisa and a group of radio stations exercised in the distribution of popular and pop music (exposure in the Televisa show Siempre en domingo was a prerequisite to commercial success). Because of the dominance of Televisa on the one hand, and of the overwhelming presence of the State in the distribution and exhibition of cinema in the other, Mexican media products had secure control of the tastes and consumption of a wide-ranging national spectatorship.

During the 1990s, this longstanding mediascape was subject to wide transformations due to the implementation of neoliberal economic policies in the cultural realm and the expansion in the commercial offerings of television and cinema. On the one hand, the monopoly of the State in the distribution of cinema came to an end with the gradual privatization of COTSA, the government-owned distribution agency, as well as of many of the production funds created in the 1970s (Saavedra Luna). This favored the emergence of three private exhibition companies that dominate the Mexican market to this date –Cinemex, Cinemark and Cinépolis– and the creation of a Mexican private production sector favored by tax credits and subsidies provided by the State. On the other, audiovisual offerings were diversified by the growth of cable and pay television in the 1990s, which, in turn, broke Televisa’s stronghold in the production of content. This allowed for Mexican audiences to access US media products such as situational comedies and serialized dramas, which became very popular with the middle and upper classes. Taken together, these phenomena resulted in the creation of two distinct media audiences separated by a paywall. The middle and upper classes, able to pay cable subscriptions and movie tickets priced at three times the rate of the Mexican minimum wage,[5] developed a cultural taste focused on romantic comedies, sitcoms, alternative music, and other products resulting from the importation of US cultural products, while the working classes unable to afford such products remained tied to telenovelas, popular music genres such as norteño and cumbia, and other genres available to them at no extra cost. Film sociologists like Ana Rosas Mantecón have spoken of “new processes of urban segregation” and of the undermining of cultural diversity to represent the way in which film exhibition reorganized itself in the wake of these processes, highlighting the correlation between cinema consumption and the urban middle and upper classes. In Consumers and Citizens, his well-known analysis of the impact of neoliberalism in Latin American culture, Néstor García Canclini showed that “the most salient feature of the restructure of markets is the segmentation of publics” (119), which, at the time, he identified with the possible “cultural formation of a democratic citizenship” (122).

In hindsight, it seems that Rosas Mantecón’s diagnosis is more accurate than García Canclini’s. The diversification of audiences in Mexico created separate spheres of cultural consumption drastically segregated by class. For the purposes of my argument here, this economic segregation resulted in the formation of differentiated “structures of feelings,” to use Raymond Williams’ celebrated notion. Williams himself warned of “the complex relation of differentiated structures of feeling to differentiated classes,” which could only be read by recognizing the fact that they are not “reducible to ideologies of these groups or to their formal (in fact complex) class relations” (134). Williams resolves this conundrum by suggesting a methodology aimed at “defining forms and conventions in art and literature as inalienable elements of a social material process” (133). Echoing these ideas, the study of affect and emotion in contemporary Mexican cinema needs to account for the way in which certain films embody the transformations of lived experience and social aspirations brought about by neoliberalism. Historically, melodrama was a cultural form, which allowed Mexican audiences the negotiation of social inequality through narratives that tied emotion and love to social redemption. This is the case, for example, of the Pepe el Toro trilogy (1948-1953), which used melodrama (in films entitled Nosotros los pobres and Ustedes los ricos, emphasizing the issue of class) to narrate the way in which its protagonist painfully overcomes poverty and tragedy in the path to a final redemption. Telenovela became in Mexico another vehicle in which affect and emotion allowed audiences the embodied experience of class overcoming. One can remember here another trilogy, the María series (1992-1994), in which actress Thalía performs three different characters (María Mercedes, María la del Barrio and Marimar, with each name being the title of a respective telenovela) from different varieties of the lower class (a homeless girl, a girl from the slums, and a girl from a coastal town in the interior) who end up marrying a man from the upper class and thus attaining a social status that was consistently denied to them by other characters. Narratives like this helped Mexican culture use love stories to negotiate the fundamental tension between a national culture based on the horizontal camaraderie famously theorized by Benedict Anderson and a visible class divide that represented the failure of the promises of Mexican modernization. The wide appeal that both Pedro Infante vehicles and telenovelas such as Thalía’s María series had resulted not only from the lack of diversity in cultural offerings, but also from the way in which narratives of love and affect galvanized social identities in a way that trumped class difference through melodramatic allegories focused on the formation of the couple (for example, love stories between rich and poor characters).

While this “structure of feeling” remained central to the cultural experience of the Mexican working classes, as attested by the enduring success of telenovelas in the contemporary media landscape, the cultural products made available by neoliberalism generated an alternative narrative of class, one which provided middle and upper class audiences with the fiction of a central role in a new, modern Mexico and which systematically excludes lower classes from its imagination of the social. As I have described elsewhere,[6] I believe that the emergence of the romantic comedy in Mexico is a central example of the consolidation of this new structure of feeling. The earliest representative of the genre in post-1988 cinema, Alfonso Cuarón’s Sólo con tu pareja (1991), already showed elements that radically departed from the hegemonic structure of feeling that ruled Mexican culture in the 1980s. The film depicts the emergence of a love relationship between Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a jingle writer and serial womanizer, and Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez), a flight attendant in the process of learning about her fiancé’s infidelity. The film’s central conceit is constructed upon a prank played on Tomás by a nurse with whom he slept. The nurse switches his blood tests at the hospital and makes him believe he has AIDS. It is until the very end of the film, when he and Clarisa decide to commit suicide together because of their respective problems (the disease and the fiancé’s infidelities) that the nurse comes clean and Tomás and Clarisa decide to be together. The remarkable aspect of this film for my argument is not so much the plot, but its formal decisions: most of the film takes place in indoor spaces, which, in turn, allows the plot to develop in a decidedly middle-class space that puts under erasure the social diversity of the city. A similar choice is exercised a few years later by the most successful Mexican movie of the late 1990s, Sexo, pudor y lágrimas (Antonio Serrano, 1998), a comedy of errors involving two couples and two characters that destabilize them, fully staged in two apartments of the upscale neighborhood of Polanco.[7] David William Foster has commented, apropos of this setting, that the luxury apartments give “access to a panoramic view of the city, with the effect of ‘owning’ or ‘controlling’ the city as an important correlative to the financial status of the apartment’s residents” (40). Both Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, like many Mexican movies that will follow their model through the 2000s, construct their love stories upon the erasure of the social conflict and class diversity that defines contemporary Mexico City.

This type of movie exists and produces a language of affect that pertains exclusively to the middle and upper classes because the class segregation in media consumption practices became formally articulated by the adoption of aesthetic and ideological elements proper to the myth of the middle class in neoliberal Mexico. As MacLaird puts it, “[t]hese films can be as transition films, grounded in PRI-era production practices while also breaking into new thematic territory by looking at sexuality among upper-middle-class couples in the context of Mexico’s changing consumer culture, in contrast to the economic plights of the working class and more traditional representations of Mexican culture” (48). Following this argument, one should note that in the two aforementioned movies, the main characters portray the social ideal that sociologist Richard Florida famously termed the “creative class,” that is, people who attain social status and centrality through “a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit” (8). Florida’s argument when he defined the notion–he has since redesigned the concept in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis–[8] was that these highly educated professionals were at the center of a new structure of economic development. Reading this notion against the grain, one could argue that, in the middle of the neoliberal process, it represented a social ideal that allowed late capitalism’s turn to immaterial labor to be allegorized as a social virtue and it did the same for late capitalism’s erosion of both labor-based forms of the middle class (i.e. unionized labor) and the old professional-managerial class (doctors, lawyers, and the like). This is why the protagonists of Sólo con tu pareja are a publicist and a flight attendant, while the six characters in Sexo, pudor y lágrimas are a writer, a photographer, an advertising executive, a model, a zoologist, and a “free spirit.” The structure of feeling that they construct is based on the aspirations of the middle and upper classes to achieve the promise of individual success brought forward by neoliberalism. It is the type of cultural product that appeals to people educated in Mexican private universities– where being a major in communications and international relations was in vogue in the 1990s.

Movies like Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas belong to a heyday period of the global romantic comedy, where love stories provided narratives of isolation that deflected the anxieties of middle classes threatened by the uncertainties of neoliberalism. One can remember here two parallel films produced at more or less the same time in the United States and Great Britain, respectively. The first one is You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1999), where Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), a bookshop owner, falls in love with Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the owner of a corporate bookstore chain that mirrored the rise of Barnes and Noble at the time. The movie functions on the basis of the tension between the old-fashioned romantic coupling embodied by Kathleen and Joe (through which Ryan and Hanks revisit their celebrated screen coupling in Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993)) and the at times astonishing acceptance of the advance of corporate capitalism upon the ways of lives of the middle class. As Aimée Morrison convincingly argues, “[a]cknowledging the seemingly inexorable advance of global brand capitalism at the expense of local enterprise, You’ve Got Mail aims to carve out a new and compelling arena of personal agency, to foster connection, understanding, compromise, and romantic love in times that do not seem to provide for these fundamental pleasures” (55-56). The other film is Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999), where William Thacker (Hugh Grant), the owner of a small travel bookshop, and Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), a movie star, fall in love. We see in this film a similar conundrum to that of You’ve Got Mail: the representative of a pre-neoliberal “authentic” way of life (bookshop ownership in both cases) ultimately accepts the advancement of US-centered global capitalism, respectively embodied in a CEO and a movie star.[9] One could say that the way in which these two movies normalize the advancement of neoliberalism through the love story is parallel to the way in which romantic comedy operates in Mexico (it is not coincidental that both movies were released months after Sexo, pudor y lágrimas). The difference in Mexico, which makes its romantic comedies even more striking, is that the reflexive work on the problematic elements of global capitalism is not even there. In both Cuarón and Serrano’s movies, neoliberalism is not a problem but a given and accepted fact.

The ability of the Mexican romantic comedy to create a structure of feeling adequate to a middle class that isolates itself from the remainder of society lies in one of its central structural elements. In The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy, Celestino Deleyto points out that the genre “proposes an artistic transformation of the everyday reality of human relationships by constructing a special space outside history (but very close to it)” (30). Deleyto’s analysis consists of affirming that this space allows romantic comedy to isolate its ideologies of love and gender from certain immediate social pressures. However, one could go beyond Deleyto’s analysis and suggest that it is this very ability to semi-isolate its characters from the historical that makes the romantic comedy such an apt genre for the expression of creative class ideologies in neoliberal Mexico. We can take as an example Cansada de besar sapos (Jorge Colón, 2006). In this romantic comedy, protagonist Martha (Ana Serradilla) is a graphic designer who decides to “shop” for a new relationship on dating websites after she learns that her boyfriend is a cheater. While this plot is in itself unremarkable, the movie is quite symptomatic of the close relationship between love and neoliberalism due to key formal choices. First, by making the protagonist a graphic designer, it falls squarely in line with Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas in the elevation of the creative class to the status of object of desire. One can note, for instance, that the “wrong” person for Martha is a businessman, while the man that will ultimately become her object of affection is an actor. But the point is that Martha and her lifestyle are a clear example of Deleyto’s formula of the “space outside history (but very close to it).” The possibility of using a graphic designer as a central character comes from the rise of professions related to flexible and immaterial labor in narratives of social ascendancy and in emerging corners of the neoliberal Mexican economy. The very existence of a publicity industry to accommodate characters like Martha or Sólo con tu pareja’s Tomás, just to mention the ones relevant to the movies discussed here,[10] results from the same expansion of media that allowed the emergence of neoliberal Mexican cinema in the first place. However, it is as important to note how inaccessible that social ideal is, even to people in the traditional middle classes. As economist Enrique Hernández Laos shows, people with degrees in communication sciences and other fields identified with the creative class faced daunting realities of unemployment in the 1990s (and one could safely suspect that it is still the case today), given the fact that the production of professionals in those fields did not match the creation of work opportunities (106). In Deleyto’s language, Martha as a character exists in a place very close to history, insofar as her lifestyle reflects historical transformations of the middle class, but her ability to focus on her love life is made possible by her being in a “space outside of history” that isolates her from the economic insecurity that accompanies the ideal of the creative class in the real world.

The “space outside history” thesis also explains the way in which these movies create middle-class fictions that effectively render the working classes invisible. In Sólo con tu pareja and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, this was achieved by locating most of the action in apartment buildings and indoor spaces. Cuarón’s film goes from Tomás’ apartment building to a cantina to the Latin American tower at the end of the film, and the only time when we actually see the city, it is at night, when the population of the city is not present in the streets. Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, as I mentioned before, takes place mostly in an apartment in one of Mexico City’s most expensive neighborhoods. In Cansada de besar sapos, the procedure is developed further. Early in the movie, we can see that Martha’s apartment is located in Mexico City’s historic center, thanks to a shot that points to a colonial church tower. Her building has a colonial façade, but her apartment is a postmodern loft with designer furniture: the type of creative-class arrangement one might expect from an idealized publicist. The point is that the urban space where the movie takes place (old colonial streets, bohemian cafes) does not correspond with the reality of Mexico City, a place ruled by chaos and with considerable class diversity. As Frederick Aldama puts it when pointing to this startling representational choice, the location “is packed near suffocation with folks from all walks of life, as well as street vendors hawking their wares […] Colón’s camera cleans and Europeanizes the place in its fairy tale depiction of Mexican Yuppie life” (91). Rather than just sidelining social diversity, the “space outside history” fully erases it. The aspirational world of the Mexican romantic comedy is not only one that identifies love with the near impossibility of economic success via the access to the creative class, which is allegorized by the ideal couple formed by a publicist and an actor or by a publicist and a flight attendant. It also frames that ideal in a representational economy of Mexico where the lower classes have no significant role.[11]

The three movies mentioned so far are part of a paradigm of filmmaking that structurally incorporates neoliberal ideologies of success and social advancement, where romantic and economic success result from individual achievement and/or pre-existing privilege. These movies had considerable success, too: Sexo, pudor y lágrimas was, at the time, the highest grossing Mexican film in the national box office, and Cansada de besar sapos had a very successful run in the 2006 Christmas season. This success shows that the core audience of Mexican film (those who are wealthy enough to pay for box office prices, and susceptible to the appropriate genres available in pay TV and the like) identifies at least partly with the regime of affect constructed by such movies. This is not to say that the segregation of structures of feeling is neat, or that the audience is unaware of it. In fact, as the neoliberal economic promise eroded from the weak recovery after the 1994 crisis, commercial Mexican cinema began to question the representational economy of its own regime of affect. Thus, Mexican filmmakers gradually questioned this narrative by producing romantic films addressed at the middle classes, but where social inequality is central to the plot. The most iconic example of this type of work is Amar te duele (Fernando Sariñana, 2002), a “class-clash film”[12] to which I will devote the remainder of this article.

Amar te duele tells the story of Renata (Martha Higareda), a wealthy high-school student, and Ulises (Luis Fernando Peña), an urban popular-class youth with aspirations to become a visual artist, as they fall in love and face the social challenges produced by class divisions in Mexico City. As expected, Renata’s friends and parents strongly oppose the relationship, while Ulises faces his social group’s increasing resentment, as well as accusations of forgetting who he “really” is. The movie’s tension builds around the insurmountable obstacle of social class, leading to a final scene where Renata’s wealthy ex-boyfriend (Alfonso Herrera) accidentally kills her when she tries to leave Mexico City with Ulises. The movie takes place in the neighborhood of Santa Fe, on the western edge of Mexico City, a prime example of the social dynamics of neoliberalism in Mexico. Santa Fe is currently the location of Mexico’s corporate expansion, an area that headquarters the offices of a large array of national and transnational businesses. But it is not only a place of economic expansion: the neighborhoods surrounding Santa Fe constitute some of the poorest zones in Mexico City, which were built there because parts of these areas were in fact landfills. This contrast is an essential part of life in this area of Mexico City: to reach the corporate areas of Santa Fe, one must drive through some of the poor ones, while the sudden emergence of such a concentration of wealth is, for the inhabitants of the old neighborhoods, a stark reminder of their marginalization. Furthermore, Renata and Ulises meet in Santa Fe’s mall, Mexico City’s largest, where working-class youths sometimes spend time regardless of the harassment of private security officers. Framed by this social contrast, Amar te duele is unique within Mexican commercial cinema, a film that successfully appeals to the logic and aesthetics of the romantic comedy while attempting a commentary on the social inequalities brought about by neoliberalism.

The movie’s success follows the blueprint established by Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, right down to its soundtrack in which Natalia Lafourcade, a successful singer-songwriter, performs the title song.[13] The twist here is that, rather than looking for the young professional audience summoned by singer Aleks Syntek in the soundtrack of Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, Amar te duele makes use of Lafourcade’s success with high school and college students by populating the movie with all her hit singles, including Busca un problema and En el 2000 from her 2000 eponymous debut album. In this, Amar te duele is one of the first major manifestations of middle-class youth as a clear marketing target for Mexican cinema.[14] This audience was, in 2001-2002, a clear target for many media enterprises: besides musical acts like Lafourcade, young middle-class people were the subject of telenovelas such as Clase 406, a high school soap running at the time of Amar te duele’s release. The emergence of a high school and college-aged audience is not surprising, given that multiplexes, particularly those located in malls, are a significant component of young people’s social geographies. Timothy Shary has shown that Hollywood’s interest in teenagers is related to the “disposable incomes that they enjoy spending on entertainment” and to the fact that “today’s children become the consumptive parents of tomorrow” (1). Perhaps more importantly, Shary argues that the multiplex was directly responsible for the emergence of landmark youth films, including Grease (1977) and Sixteen Candles (1984), allowing teenagers to become a sought-after demographic insofar as they are important denizens of the social spaces that include multiplexes.

This social phenomenon is equally true in Mexico, where high school students vastly populate malls on weekday afternoons and college students do the same on the weekends. However, it took nearly a decade to translate this social phenomenon into film production, perhaps owing to the filmmakers’ unwillingness to compete with Hollywood action movies. Mexican romantic comedies did not quite appeal to these audiences, given that, from Sólo con tu pareja onwards, their subjects were largely urban professionals in their late twenties and thirties. Amar te duele is amongst the first major attempts to lure this audience, whose profitability had already been demonstrated by Televisa productions like Clase 406 and El juego de la vida, a 2001 soap opera based on the soccer team of a private high school.[15] Interestingly, both of these telenovelas are centered on the life of private school kids, not unlike Renata and her friends, helping them resonate with audiences located in parts of the social scale higher than their core audience, which replicates the segregational logic of structures of feeling outlined above. By luring audiences through Lafourcade’s music and its protagonists’ youthful looks, Amar te duele clearly sought a segment of an audience made visible by those Televisa productions and previously unexploited by film. The main indication of this technique’s success came a few months later, when the movie was selected as “audience favorite” in Mexico’s MTV Movie Awards, a show that grants awards, mostly, through high school and college-age viewers’ votes.

The languages developed by the Mexican romantic comedy clearly frame the film’s aim for the youth market. Ulises’ artistic aspirations are one of the significant elements of Amar te duele in light of my discussion, given that his class location is underscored by his incapacity to become part of the creative class. The film presents Ulises as a talented graffiti artist, an activity that, in Mexico City, is usually criminalized and identified with gang activity. In one of the scenes in which Renata becomes attracted to him, we see Ulises narrating a comic book story he conceived, set in a world where “all men are equal.” In another scene, Ulises and Renata tour an art school where he shadows the instructors. Here, Ulises tells Renata that he has tried to enroll in the school, but cannot afford it. At first sight, this is one of the film’s most important social commentaries: the absolute lack of mobility of a popular class whose labor situation is precarious, as illustrated by the fact that Ulises’ family income comes from a street market stand with unpredictable sales. However, it is also quite telling that Ulises shares the same ideals presented in the romantic comedy’s portrayal of the Mexican middle class. While Ulises wants to go to art school, his ultimate goal is to write comic books, a trade as closely related to the culture of the creative class as advertising (we can remember here that Alicia, the main character of Ladies’ Night, a film mentioned in a prior note, is a comic book artist). He does not lack the technical talent: the graffiti work the film attributes to him is first-class. As Ana León-Távora and Itza Zavala Garrett underscore, one of the tensions in the movie, represented through the trope of adolescence, is the one established between belonging to a social group versus individuality (85). The ultimate failure of the couple’s formation in this film is directly connected to the failure of both of them to assert their individual values vis-á-vis their social class. What is telling is that Ulises’ redemption is considered impossible because he has no access to a realm in which he can use those talents in the context of a profitable economic activity. His incapacity to access art school is as much a sign of the exclusionary nature of the creative class as of its portrayal as a desirable social space.

Ulises and Renata’s relationship works insofar as they are exceptional representatives of their respective social classes. Everybody else in their social worlds expresses a clear conformity with the existing social divisions. Renata’s sister Mariana (Ximena Sariñana) consistently asserts her class position by speaking in English in front of servants so that they don’t understand what she is saying, or by dismissively rejecting Renata’s love for Ulises. Interestingly, Renata’s driver echoes this view: after he picks her up from her first date with Ulises, he tells her that the “young man is not good for her.” Ulises’ social circle is hardly better. The film presents his best friend Genaro (Armando Hernández) as having criminal tendencies, ranging from his dealings with a shady group of people in the neighborhood to his organizing an attack on Renata’s school to get back at her former boyfriend, who had attacked Ulises in a previous scene. In the only encounter between the two groups, Ulises’ friends organize an excursion to Renata’s school to beat up her former boyfriend and her friends in retaliation for their previous attack on Ulises. The fact that this excursion is disproportionally vicious shows that interclass dialogue is not possible in contemporary Mexico:  the scene validates stereotypes of poor people as violent, which are held both by the wealthy characters and by members of the intended audience. By constantly asserting the insurmountable nature of class in Mexico, Amar te duele operates both as social commentary (by allegorizing the social inequality brought about by the social order behind Santa Fe) and as contradiction to the traditional narratives of melodrama and telenovela, in which people from different classes are allowed a happy ending, both romantically and economically. Sariñana’s film allows no space for a redemptive narrative based on the idea of romance overcoming social odds. Even though Renata’s death is dissonant in terms of genre convention, it is quite consistent with the film’s critique of the new social structure. The point to highlight is the way in which Sariñana translates the aims of his social cinema as represented, for instance, in his preceding movies, Hasta morir (1994) and Ciudades oscuras (2002),[16] into a language more attuned to the new commercial realities of cinema. Still, in doing so, a problematic concession becomes apparent: while the film presents Ulises in a sympathetic light, it shows other urban popular youths in a less favorable way. The movie consistently criminalizes Genaro and, in contrast with Ulises’ soft-spoken, sensitive personality, his demeanor is strident. Similarly, the story presents La China (Daniela Torres), Ulises’ former girlfriend, as violent and intolerant to Ulises’ middle-class friends, a mirror of the attitudes shown by Renata’s former boyfriend. Perhaps more tellingly, Ulises’ brother, Borrego (who, like La China, is only identified by a nickname), has Down Syndrome, a plot element that showcases Ulises’ good heart when he takes care of him, while questionably using a genetic disorder as part of the representation of the lower class (a false notion, of course, because Down Syndrome manifests itself across economic and ethnic lines). By framing his drama within the conventions of the neoliberal romantic comedy, Sariñana’s social commentary must reconfigure itself in representations of the working class addressed to the middle classes who have a view of the poor as diseased, criminal, or morally bankrupt.

In the meantime, a final point regarding the film’s work within the conventions of romantic cinema must be made: the importance of space as a site of affect. Renata and Ulises create a bridge between social classes that proves impossible to sustain, and their relationship unfolds in social spaces redefined by their relationship, reminding us of Deleyto’s arguments on romantic comedy spaces. The scene in which Ulises narrates his comic book to Renata takes place under a highway bridge, a space ridden with graffiti and removed from the safeties and comfort of middle-class spaces. This space becomes meaningful when Ulises invests it with his story, which the director represents by splitting the screen in different squares, occupied by Renata, Ulises, and the comic book characters he imagines. The original space is thus erased, allowing for the emergence of a new space fully constructed by Ulises’ dreams and ideas and by his emerging love for Renata.[17] Another use of space stems from Ulises and Renata’s appropriation of class-specific locales. One of their first dates takes place in the Chapultepec Forest, a site typically identified with Mexico City’s working class, while their first interactions occur in the Santa Fe mall, an upper-class commercial venue. The use of photography in the mall scenes is revealing. Whenever Renata and Ulises interact in this space, the image turns black and white and the narrative pace slows down, adding a contemplative and peaceful feeling to those scenes. The sound replicates this sensation by suspending the buzz of daily mall activity with a piece of music that overtakes the action’s background. From the outset of their relationship, Ulises and Renata develop the ability to confer new meanings on city spaces in different ways by projecting their subjective interaction onto the visual aesthetics of certain crucial class-specific scenes. This interaction with space fades towards the end at the bus station where the final scene develops. The violence that would ultimately and irreversibly end their relationship ultimately overtakes this particular site.

In its many uses of space, Amar te duele deploys a crucial convention of romantic comedy, its subjectification through the affective interactions of the protagonists with a different effect. Unlike Sólo con tu pareja or Sexo, pudor y lágrimas, in which the characters’ perspective effaces Mexico City’s social interaction, Ulises and Renata never fully erase the social meanings invested in the spaces of their relationship. In a great analysis of the film’s space, Joanne Hershfield contends that one can analyze what I have called “the space outside history” through Foucault’s notion of heterotopia to understand youth culture in a way that “rejects the fixity of geographic location” (154). I would expand this point by arguing that the heterotopic gesture of youth culture in Amar te duele (which Hershfield identifies with the comic book scene mentioned above) ultimately fails, because there is always in the film a reminder not of geographic, but of social fixity. In a particular scene at the mall, after a date, Renata decides to purchase a t-shirt for Ulises to replace the one that she ruined during the date. The fact that Renata nonchalantly purchases an item of clothing clearly beyond Ulises’ economic reach brings back to the story the class difference between them, after an interaction that seemed, for a moment, to have erased it.  Therefore, even though Ulises and Renata construct their own spaces and move between urban geographies, that heterotopic gesture does not suffice to truly overcome the class difference.[18]

Beyond its appropriation of the urban, youth culture in Amar te duele may be read as a site of critique of the inequalities of neoliberal modernity and as the portrayal of a generational stance against the notions of development advocated in the 1990s.[19] Renata’s family, a clear beneficiary of the neoliberal model of development, represents the lifestyle pursued by the professional upper classes. They live in a mansion clearly isolated from any sense of neighborhood, protected by 24-hour security, designed, like many of Mexico’s upper-class houses, as a bunker against any outside intrusion. When Renata’s father learns of her relationship with Ulises, he plots to send her to Canada, hoping that a trip to a “more developed” nation will help her avoid the “folly” of crossing class lines.[20] While romantic comedies tend to idealize the self-referential cultural space of the middle and upper classes, Amar te duele’s appeal to youth issues provides it with a language to weave a more critical fiction by allowing urban popular classes a space of cinematic representation alongside the wealthier sectors of society. In other words, while most commercial movies engage either the working classes or the upper sectors, Amar te duele stands apart in its representation of both social groups.

The parallel careers of the two main actors are telling in this sense: Higareda, a light-skinned young actress with large appeal to the middle classes, goes on to play wealthy characters in movies such as Niñas mal (Fernando Sariñana, 2007), in the role of the unruly daughter of a powerful conservative politician, and 7 días (Fernando Kalife, 2005), in which she plays a girl that becomes part of a scheme to bring the band U2 to play in Mexico. Most recently, she was the protagonist of Te presento a Laura (Fez Noriega, 2010), yet another romantic comedy which she co-produced. On the other hand, Peña’s most significant roles have mostly been portrayals of urban popular youths, in films such as De la calle (Gerardo Tort, 2001), where he plays a street kid who gets involved in cocaine trade to feed other homeless children.[21] Most recently, Peña has moved out of the middle-class cinema circle from Mexico City and into US-Mexico border trends of social cinema, playing a struggling working-class kid in Mexican-American director Alex Rivera’s sci-fi immigration allegory Sleep Dealer (2008), and a violent Mara gang member seeking redemption in Victorio (Alex Noppel, 2008). As one could expect from these trajectories, Higareda’s films have enjoyed considerably larger box office success than Peña’s. Their parallel careers are emblematic of the ways in which the need to appeal to middle-class audiences has led to a class compartmentalization of cinema that replicates urban social structures of exclusion. It also shows the ways in which commercial cinema, which mostly focuses on middle and upper-class subjects, and so-called social cinema, which tends to represent issues of the urban popular classes, occupy altogether separate paradigms in the new cinema’s economy.

Amar te duele is iconic for being perhaps the only commercially successful movie to cross this divide in formal and narrative terms, and for doing so in a cultural register that, unlike telenovela or the old-regime film melodramas, seeks no appeal whatsoever to working-class audiences. It is decidedly a film marketed to middle and upper classes, although it replicates some conventions (such as the rich-poor relationships) with distinguished histories, but also a film in which self-awareness of the enclosed culture of the upper classes is used as a critique of the new privileged subjectivities of post-1990 romantic comedy, rather than a celebration. Thus, in focusing his film not on the urban professional class benefitted by neoliberalism, but on youths born and raised within the Mexico constructed by it, Sariñana finds a site to critique Mexico’s paradigms of modernity. Still, this critique has limits, and Sariñana himself has been unable to replicate his stance on class issues: Niñas mal and Enemigos íntimos, his following movies, take place fully within the social spaces of the middle and upper classes and ignore the working class altogether.

To conclude this essay, I would like to return to the questions I raised in the first pages in light of my discussion of Amar te duele. The dilemma that this film posits is that, even though it shows considerable self-awareness of neoliberalism’s class divide, it remains a film closely invested in a regime of affect dissociated from working-class audiences. The film’s very title (a wordplay between the title’s literal meaning, “Love Hurts You,” and “Loving you hurts,” which in Spanish would read “Amarte duele”) connects it to recent scholarship on the importance of love for the reading of the contemporary. As sociologist Eva Illouz points out in her recent book Why Love Hurts, “[h]eterosexual romantic love contains the two most important cultural revolutions of the twentieth century: the individualization of lifestyles and the intensification of emotional life projects; and the economization of social relationships, the pervasiveness of economic models to shape the self and its very emotions” (9).[22] While Illouz’s main aim in this particular book is to discuss the creation of new structures of domination of women by men, her insight on heterosexual romantic love is also a powerful tool to understand the way in which love as a cultural discourse reproduces class divides. Her two “cultural revolutions” are indeed relevant to a film like Amar te duele: Ulises’ love for Renata runs parallel to his attempt to “individualize” his lifestyle through comic books, resisting the injunction to work in the family’s small business, a small and precarious clothing shop in a street market; and its main obstacle is precisely the “economization of social relationships,” which is why Renata is punished with a murder inflicted by none other than the class-appropriate boy she was supposed to date in the first place. If, as Illouz argues, social suffering is “mediated by cultural definitions of selfhood” (15), the “hurting” in the film’s title unfolds in Ulises’ case not so much in connection to his love of Renata, but in his inability to achieve the notion of selfhood that would allow him to establish a definitive relationship with her. If anything, Amar te duele is not only a romantic dramedy focused on the impossibility of loving across class lines, it is also a mise-en-scène of the lower class’s inability to conform to the social idea of the creative class as developed by Mexican neoliberalism’s culture.

[1] For a sampling of this rise in the context of Latin American studies, see Moraña and Sánchez Prado. In the specific context of cinema, the most notable contribution to this date is Podalsky, The Politics of Affect and Emotion in Contemporary Latin American Cinema.

[2] See particularly Sadlier, which offers an important reconsideration of melodrama in various quadrants of the region’s cinema.

[3] I should acknowledge here that the definition of affect and emotion in cultural theory are by no means consensual. Some critics use both interchangeably, while others, like Sieworth and Gregg, articulate a wider notion of affect that embodies not only emotions and feelings, but also a Spinozist idea of the body as an entity that affects and is affected. For the purpose of this essay, I will stay on a notion of emotion and affect more narrowly bound to the question of feelings such as love, but it is important to note that this limitation is merely heuristic and not conceptual.

[4] I have developed this argument extensively in my book Screening Neoliberalism: Mexican Cinema 1988-2012. For the sake of space, I will restrict myself in the article to describe the relevant processes of change in Mexican cinema, but interested readers may find in my book more substantial data and analysis regarding these processes. Readers may also consult Misha MacLaird’s excellent book Aesthetics and Politics in the Mexican Film Industry, particularly chapters 1 and 2.

[5] When the first Cinemark complexes opened in Mexico in 1994 and 1995, tickets were priced between 36 and 45 pesos, while the daily mínimum wage ranged between 14 and 16 pesos. In 2013, that gap is not as dramatic, but attending the theater remains a very expensive proposition: a ticket costs somewhere between 50 and 70 pesos, while the mínimum wage stands at 64 pesos a day.

[6] See Sánchez Prado, Screening Neoliberalism, Chapter 2.

[7] As MacLaird documents, the producer of Sexo, pudor y lágrimas was inspired by Sólo con tu pareja and by Cilantro y perejil (Rafael Montero, 1997) when deciding to shoot a romantic comedy (48). It is also useful to remember that Cilantro y perejil, a romantic comedy about a middle-class couple facing potential separation, was the first co-production between the State and Televisa’s film arm, Televicine. The fact that the first collaboration between the two historically dominant entities in film production is a romantic comedy provides telling evidence of the centrality of the genre in the new mediascape.

[8] The updated version of the “creative class argument” is found in the revised and expanded 10th anniversary edition of Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class. I opt instead to cite the original argument because it  better frames the ideals set forward by Mexican cinema. I must clarify here that, for me, the creative class is not necessarily an existing entity –particularly in Mexico, where neoliberal capitalism and immaterial labor have manifested themselves in uneven forms, compared with the United States. Rather, the “creative class” in Mexican cinema is a social ideal that allows the middle class to embrace the narrative of individual achievement as neoliberalism undid the collective protections created by the post-Revolutionary regime. To read about the actual middle class in Mexico during the neoliberal period, see Gilbert, Mexico’s Middle Class in the Neoliberal Era.

[9] For a good reading of Notting Hill in similar terms, see Wegner, who argues that the film allegorizes in the relationship the tension between the global and the local embedded in the advancement of capitalism in a way similar to the theorizations of global capitalism gurus like Thomas Friedman (322-23).

[10] Other examples in mainstream Mexican movies with considerable box office success include the protagonist of Fernando Sariñana’s Todo el poder (2000), a documentary filmmaker, the upper-middle-class protagonist of the second story in Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñarritu, 2000), and the protagonists of the very successful comedy Ladies’ Night (Gabriela Tagliavini, 2003), who are all employees in an advertising firm. The examples are very extensive, and part of my claim here is that this creative class is in fact the protagonist of the affect regime constructed by the type of commercial Mexican cinema addressed to middle and upper classes.

[11] This pattern also exists in drama movies. I have discussed in a different article something that I call the “neoliberal sublime,” present in highly aestheticized films that use temporal disruption to represent failed love relationships. For the purpose of the present discussion, the films I study in that article– Sobreviviente (Jesús Magaña Vázquez, 2003), Eros una vez María (Jesús Magaña Vázquez, 2007) and Amor, dolor y viceversa (Alfonso Pineda Ulloa, 2008)– all construct “spaces outside history” that allow all characters to be middle and upper class and that fully erase the visibility of the lower class. See Sánchez Prado, “El sublime neoliberal.”

[12] I take this term from Timothy Shary, who identifies the genre in American cinema of the 1980s. The contentions that Shary develops about youth cinema in the US in the 1980s foreshadow my analysis here. Shary identifies both youth romance and class-clash romances as central to 1980s film culture. This coincides with post-2000 Mexican cinema because there are parallels in the way in which class difference becomes crucial due to the pitfalls of neoliberalism in both settings, and due to the rise of the multiplex as a central space for film viewing both in 1980s America and in 1990s Mexico.  See Shary, Generation Multiplex for the latter point.

[13] Sexo, pudor y lágrimas is the first post-1988 Mexican movie to use the movie soundtrack proactively as a marketing tool. In that case, the eponymous song, written by Aleks Syntek, allowed the film unprecedented exposure on media such as MTV and radio. In Amarte duele, music is also an important device to demarcate class differene. As Frederick Aldama shows, “In Amarte duele Sariñana and his sound designer use music to distinguish the presence of nacos (a pejorative term used to describe working-class Mexicans), such as Ulises, and the fresas (the wealthy elite), such as Mariana (Ximena Sariñana) and Renata (Martha Higareda). Music here works to emphasize what the film already achieves: dividing different groups of people in artificial and destructive ways” (40-41).

[14] Perhaps the only other major precedent is La primera noche (Alejandro Gamboa, 1998), a Televicine production that sought to capitalize on cinema the success it had attained with telenovelas aimed at the youth market. The film follows Mariana (Mariana Ávila) in her sexual and emotional awakening. While following some of the conventions of the romantic comedy, the movie is not as strongly linked to neoliberal aesthetic as Amarte duele, mostly because it remained tied to the languages developed by the telenovela. The movie, however, was successful enough that two sequels (with similar names but different plots and characters) were released in 2002 and 2006, respectively.

[15] One can remember here that female soccer leagues are hardly a pursuit in Mexico’s private school circuit, and that the appropriation of female soccer is not related to an actual reality (in Mexico, soccer is mostly regarded as a male sport, although some strides have been made to allow women more spaces to play), but to the popularity that female soccer has in US schools.

[16] Hasta morir is focused on a young man trying to escape criminal networks in Tijuana, while Ciudades oscuras is a film about members of Mexico City’s social underground and their chance encounters. Both of these films stand in stark contrast, both representationally and ideologically, with the predominantly middle- and upper-class universe of Sariñana’s more commercially successful works.

[17] For a detailed and very suggestive analysis of the comic book scene, see Hershfield 153-54.

[18] If one brackets the youth topic for a moment, a good contrasting film is Maid in Manhattan (Wayne Wang, 2002), a romantic comedy that narrates the love relationship between Marisa (Jennifer López), a hotel maid, and Christopher (Ralph Fiennes). This relationship is rendered possible because of the initial invisibility of their class difference, given that Christopher mistakes Marisa for a socialite when she is trying on a dress. The initial separation takes place when the misunderstanding is cleared and the final reunion is achieved when her son pleads with Christopher, convincing him (using the telling example of Richard Nixon) that you can lie for a higher purpose. Beyond the film’s political revisionism, it is worth noting that Marisa, like Ulises, is defined by her individual exceptionality, which is shown by presenting her as more professional and enterprising than her fellow maids. The final closure of the relationship is connected to the presumed social climbing of Marisa, via a major promotion to management. Thus, the film shows neoliberalism as a viable path upwards, providing the exact opposite allegory as Amar te duele.

[19] Of course, I am not claiming here that all youth cinema is critical. As Jorge Ramírez Suárez’s (¿Ya lo hiciste sin?) Amar (2009) shows, the topic of youth has recently been domesticated into relatively critical presentations of sexual initiation within the context of the middle class. In other cases, youth has been taken even further than the class critique of Amar te duele. Gerardo Naranjo’s Drama/Mex, for instance, presents a very critical stance on the superficiality of affective engagement in the realm of the privileged upper-class adolescents, while Voy a explotar also represents a teenager whose decision to date an unruly young man is a way to rebel against her powerful politician father. Another example is Horacio Rivera’s Limbo (2009), in which a young boy’s accident gives him a more critical perspective on his middle-class life, which he observes from limbo. Through this conceit, the protagonist, Isao (Fátima Díaz), encounters characters victimized by life in contemporary Mexico. A meaningful issue in this movie is the fact that Isao is gay and that he is played by a young female actress, subverting the coming-of-age masculine discourse of youth cinema. A final relevant example is Fernando Eimbcke’s Temporada de patos (2004), a successful, minimalistic feature that focuses on the tedium and absurdity of middle-class life, as experienced by three youths during a power outage. The film’s black-and-white photography distills the characters’ empty lives and explores the minutiae of their subjectivity, resulting in a subtle critique of over-mediatized youth.

[20] It may be noted here that family crisis is becoming a common topic in more recent cinema. For instance, Rodrigo Ortúzar’s Todo incluido (2009), which, incidentally, features both Ana Serradilla and Martha Higareda, centers on the family of a professional man, played by Jesús Ochoa, as it goes on vacation to an exclusive resort in order to reconstruct its family dynamics. Also, Sariñana’s latest movie, Enemigos íntimos (2008), tells the story of two middle-class people, played by Demián Bichir and his daughter Ximena, whose battle against cancer highlights the decaying structure of their family.

[21] It should be noted here that Joanne Hershfield uses both Amar te duele and De la calle as paradigmatic examples of youth cultures creating heterotopias in the urban space. In both cases, she privileges Peña’s character as the agent of this creation. In the light of my argument here, one could supplement her argument by pointing out that the lower-class individual’s ability to do this is imagined in a way thoroughly consistent with the creative class ideology, in that the characters’ exceptionality is what allows them to achieve something that no one else in their social position can.

[22] Illouz’s previous work, represented in her books Consuming the Romantic Utopia and Cold Intimacies, have been of great influence to my understanding of romance in contemporary Mexican cinema. I find that her work on what she calls “emotional capitalism” is one of the best critical and theoretical tools to study the relation between love and capitalism.

Works cited

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Amores Perros. Dir. Alejandro González Iñarritu. Perfs. Gael García Bernal, Goya Toledo, Emilio Echevarría. 2000. Lions Gate, 2001. DVD.

Cansada de besar sapos. Dir. Jorge Colón. Perfs. Ana Serradilla, José María de Tavira, Ana Layevska. 2006. Buenavista Latino, 2007. DVD.

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De la calle. Dir. Gerardo Tort. Perfs. Luis Fernando Peña, Maya Zapata. 2001. Imcine/ NuVisión, 2002. DVD.

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Hasta morir. Dir. Fernando Sariñana. Perfs. Demián Bichir, Juan Manuel Bernal. 1994. Vanguard Cinema, 2002. DVD.

Hernández Laos, Enrique. “Panoramas del mercado laboral de profesionistas en México.” Economía UNAM 1.2 (2004): 98-109. Web.

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—.  Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. London: Polity, 2007. Print.

—. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Print.

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León Távora, Ana and Itzá Zavala-Garrett. “Romeo the Mexican and Juliet the Gipsy: Shakespeare’s Hispanic Flavor in Amar te duele and Montoyas y Tarantos.” Coming of Age on Film: Stories of Transformation in World Cinema. Eds. Anne Hardcastle, Roberta Morosini, and Kendall Tarte. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. 80-92. Print.

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“’Just Say Yes’: the Romanticisation of Love in Sex and the City” by Beatriz Oria

Welcome to the age of “un-innocence.” No one has breakfast at Tiffany’s, and no one has affairs to remember. Instead, we have breakfast at 7:00 a. m . . . and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. Self-protection and closing the deal are paramount. Cupid has flown the co-op. How the hell did we get into this mess? (“Sex and the City” 1: 1).

Taken from Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (1996), this short passage is featured at the beginning of the pilot episode of its successful eponymous series, thus announcing its ironic tone and detached attitude towards love. It is precisely this self-conscious pride in its cynical view of romance that makes SATC’s[1] contradictions the more paradoxical: the show is fully aware of the impossibility of belief in fairy tale endings at the turn of the millennium, but its narrative premise is largely based on its protagonists’ tireless search for the “One” and the elusive “happily ever after.”

SATC is not alone in this contradiction. Many contemporary romantic popular culture texts aimed at women are caught in this double bind. The recurrence of this pattern prompts a variety of questions. In a moment in which there is an unprecedented number of options at our disposal for the organisation of our intimate lives, why this vehement insistence on pursuing old blueprints for romance? In a time in which women are presumably freed from conventional gender roles, what is still so compelling about the most “traditional” model of heterosexual coupling? What is so fetching about romantic love in a society which systematically scorns clichéd romantic notions? How can our postmodern self-awareness and romantic cynicism be compatible with the desire for a “happily ever after”?

All these questions are routinely tackled by SATC, a show aired between 1998 and 2004, which earned a remarkable popularity and cultural influence at the turn of the millennium. The show appeared on HBO, a subscription-only cable channel free from the pressure of satisfying advertisers and mainstream audiences’ tastes, and the cable network’s brand identity—it was and remains associated with quality, cutting-edge products often featuring sex, violence and profanity (Leverette; McCabe and Akass)—also contributed to SATC’s freedom to address “thorny” subjects, especially in terms of sex. However, despite the centrality and explicitness with which sex is shown and discussed in the series, a closer look reveals that SATC’s real preoccupations are more far-reaching. Rather than focusing primarily on sex, as its title seems to announce, SATC is more prone to dissect the vicissitudes of contemporary romantic relationships, posing such questions as: can women aspire to “have it all”, or should they settle for what they can get before it is too late? How much of oneself is it acceptable to sacrifice in a relationship? Is the One just a harmful myth? What are the deal breakers in contemporary relationships? Have men really accepted the new roles played by women? Deep down, do women just want to be “rescued” by Prince Charming? When it comes to relationships, is it smarter to follow your head or your heart?

Some of these questions have been addressed in the extensive scholarship that exists on the show. Much of this work attends to the treatment of sex on SATC (Markle; Henry; Ross; Comella; Arthurs; Akass and McCabe). Critics have also debated the series’ progressive or conservative attitude in terms of gender, class and race representations (Hanks; Nelson; Siegel; Odendhal; Arthurs, 2003; Merck; Greven; Gerhard; Gill; Baird; Jermyn; Escudero-Alías). Most of all, though, SATC scholarship has wrestled with the show’s stance towards feminism, an issue which provokes a striking degree of disagreement. On the one hand, there are those who, broadly speaking, regard the show as anti-feminist (Raven; Bignell; D’Erasmo; Coren; Roberts; Gill), describing it with terms which range from “feminism lite” (Bunting) to “surprisingly retrograde” (Orenstein). Many other scholars, however, praise what they see as the show’s feminist commitment to empowering female viewers and to supporting a model of female friendship which not only presents singleness as a legitimate way of life for women, but also contributes to the development of an alternative vision of the contemporary family (Wolf; Sayeau; Jermyn; Nelson; Gerhard; Henry; Kohli).

This heated debate on SATC’s status as “feminist” or “antifeminist” may stem from the fact that this series cannot be easily classified as either one. A product of the postfeminist zeitgeist in which it is inscribed, SATC—like postfeminism itself—features highly contradictory (and even antithetical) discourses, which render it a more complex text than some critics are willing to concede.[2] Although the term postfeminism sometimes refers to the backlash that took place against feminist achievements in the 1980s (Faludi; Modleski; Greer), when referring to contemporary media texts the term has come primarily to signify a mixture of feminist and anti-feminist ideas, continuity and rupture, an updating of the movement, and a return to pre-feminist values. This is not surprising, as one of postfeminism’s main objectives is a realignment between feminism and femininity (Brunsdon; McRobbie; Hollows). This “realignment” is commonly perceived as a kind of “schizophrenia” when consuming postfeminist texts, either in written form, like Bridget Jones’s Diary (Fielding) and Marian Keyes’s “chick-lit” novels, or in their visual counterparts (SATC and Ally McBeal on TV and most romantic comedies made today for the big screen). These texts present conflicting attitudes towards traditionally feminist preoccupations such as women’s sexuality, marriage, or the family, reflecting what Angela McRobbie has termed the “double entanglement” of postfeminism, which “comprises the co-existence of neo-conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality, and family life [ . . . ] with processes of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual, and kinship relations” (255-256). Thus, for example, postfeminist heroines may use their empowered positions to choose apparently anti-feminist options. For some, such choices represent the healthy “return” of a kind of femininity repressed by second-wave feminism, which is said to have dismissed the pleasures connected to the most “traditional” values associated to femininity. For others, of course, the same decisions are more plausibly read as the distressing re-packaging of pre-feminist ideas as postfeminist freedoms (Gill 269-270), a step backwards in the feminist struggle cloaked in the rhetoric of liberal market values.

A paradigmatic postfeminist text, SATC lends itself to either reading, even within individual episodes: at one moment, the show is reassuring women of the pleasure of being able to buy one’s own apartment, while the next it is panicking at its protagonists’ singleness (“Four Women and a Funeral” 2: 5). The show’s postfeminist contradictions are particularly visible when we consider the show’s ambivalent take on the issue of romance. Torn between the potentially emancipatory power of love and the limitations that love imposes on the self, the show portrays contemporary women as torn between a longing for intimacy and their wish to preserve their autonomous subjectivity, often framing the latter in contractual, even consumerist terms. Rather than attempt to analyze SATC’s approach to the issue of romance in the series as a whole—ninety-four episodes of ambivalence and conflicted discourses, spread across six different seasons—this essay will focus on a single exemplary episode: “Just Say Yes” (4: 12) Using sociological theories on contemporary individualisation processes (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002) and the tendency towards the romanticisation of love (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2004), I will argue that the show’s apparently cynical view of love actually betrays a deep wish to believe in the possibility of old-fashioned, unrestrained romance. The tension between love as a matter of “closing the deal” and love as Cupid’s return to the co-op, to paraphrase the voice-over quoted above, might well have left the show, in Carrie’s terms, a “mess.” The “mess” is managed, however, through SATC’s deployment and revision of conventions from the romantic comedy genre.

Wrong Ring, Wrong Guy

The central plot of “Just Say Yes” concerns Aidan’s (John Corbett) marriage proposal to Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker). It starts with “ominous” words: “My building is going co-op!” Carrie announces to Aidan as she walks into her apartment. This means that she either has to move, or buy the place, which she cannot afford. Aidan offers to buy both her apartment and the one next door, so that they can tear down the wall and live together. This is Carrie’s and Aidan’s second attempt at their relationship after Carrie’s infidelity with Big (Chris Noth). However, this time everything seems to be going smoothly, so Aidan’s offer is tempting. She does not say “yes,” but this does not stop him from unofficially moving in, leaving his stuff all over the place and upsetting Carrie. In the next scene we see Carrie cleaning up while he is having a shower. While tidying his bag she accidentally finds an engagement ring. She looks at it in astonishment for some seconds, after which she runs to the sink to throw up. This is followed by a quick cut to Charlotte’s (Kristen Davis) reaction to the news: “You’re getting engaged!” she gurgles, excitedly. Evidently, her interpretation of the event is very different from Carrie’s. As usual, the girls have gotten together for lunch and they are discussing the issue.

The episode’s premise hinges on the many possibilities regarding coupling in contemporary America (and elsewhere). Coupled life may be accessed through marriage, through cohabitation or simply through “interpersonal exchanges and cognitive mobilization and affective exchanges,” as Bernadette Bawin-Legros points out (243). However, statistical research carried out by sociologists confirms that people do not regard “living together” as implying the same level of commitment as marriage. The idea of “forever” is still firmly attached to wedlock, as opposed to cohabitation. Thus, there is still a clear boundary in the collective mind distinguishing the life project of those couples who decide to marry and those who remain legally unbound (243). Carrie’s strong reaction to the thought of marriage attests to this assumption, since she seems more or less ready to live under the same roof as Aidan, but not for the firm attachment marriage implies.

In order to convey this idea, the text also brings into play the audience’s familiarity with romantic comedy’s conventions. Fans of the genre know that the marriage proposal usually constitutes the climactic moment in the couple’s narrative, and all the paraphernalia surrounding this moment is perceived as holding a quasi-magical value. Thus, Carrie’s prosaic discovery of her engagement ring—in her boyfriend’s sports bag, among his dirty clothes—and her “atypical” reaction to the prop which has traditionally elicited the greatest amount of tears in the genre is not accidental. Traditional approaches to genre criticism would say that this can be read as a clear subversion of romantic comedy’s conventions. However, according to less taxonomical views, genres are not fixed categories that can be simply subverted, but a fluid set of conventions (Altman; Neale; Deleyto 2009). Genres find themselves in a constant state of flux, constantly in tune with the cultural context in which they are inscribed. With its repeated “challenges” to romantic comedy’s best-known conventions, for example, SATC might be said simply to be reflecting the changing romantic milieu which frames its characters’ love lives: Carrie’s reaction to the discovery of the ring is a sign of the volatile intimate panorama of turn-of-the-century New York City, a context which fosters (in this show, at least) a pathological fear of deep attachments in general, and of marriage in particular. [3]

Alongside this contextual understanding, Carrie’s vomiting at the sight of the ring might also be read as an internal shift within the conventions of romantic comedy. Carrie’s exaggerated reaction is not only “troubling,” but also comic. In romantic comedy, humor often plays a paramount role in the path towards romantic transformation; in the case of SATC, it also plays an important role in its protagonists’ occasional rejection of this transformation. That is, SATC stretches the boundaries of the genre by using humour not only as enabler of romance but, sometimes more importantly, as a tool to surmount the disappointments love repeatedly brings our protagonists. Since SATC’s lead women find themselves in a constant turmoil of relationships, the latter function of humour often proves to be more useful than the one it has traditionally served, at once marking and normalizing the women’s unsuitability for coupled life.

In either case, it is no accident that this scene’s humor—and its emotional conflict—centers on an engagement ring. The ring is a significant prop within romantic comedy’s iconography, and its importance here is foregrounded by the lunchtime discussion after Carrie’s reaction, since what seems at first to be a conversation about Carrie’s decision whether to get married or not ends up revolving entirely around the ring itself. It turns out it is a disappointment: “It was a pear-shaped diamond with a gold band,” which apparently is a bad thing. Carrie justifies her dislike for the ring because “it is not her”—that is, she takes Aidan’s mistaken choice as a sign that he does not really know her and they are not meant for each other: “How can I marry a guy who doesn’t know which ring is me?” she demands. The conversation thus reveals the importance that Carrie bestows on material objects, which points towards her association between (luxury) consumer goods and happiness and romance. It is the ring that makes her throw up—presumably because she does not like it—making her think the marriage is doomed to failure because of its unsuitability. Tellingly, she will be happy to accept Aidan’s proposal later on in the episode, when she is presented with a “good” ring. Of course, this connection between consumption and happiness does not only concern Carrie; it extends to the other characters, who also endorse the show’s consumerist spirit, extending the equation of ring and person first made by Carrie (for whom the right ring “is me”) to Aidan as well. “Wrong ring, wrong guy,” Samantha (Kim Cattrall) thus declares, underscoring the series’ strong link between consumer goods and relationships.

When It’s Right, You Know

With all the ring talk, Carrie’s conversation with her friends does not help her solve her actual dilemma: whether or not to marry Aidan. Once alone at home, she starts to think about something Charlotte said: “When it’s right, you know.” This is a commonplace that fans of romantic comedy are familiar with: love takes over you when it comes, leaving no doubt about its truthfulness. However, faithful to SATC’s mission to interrogate every single romantic cliché, Carrie wonders:

Do you really know when it’s right? And how do you know? Are there signs? Fireworks? Is it right when it feels comfortable or is that a sign that there aren’t any fireworks? Is hesitation a sign that it’s not right or a sign that you’re not ready? In matters of love, how do you know when it’s right?

To know when it is “right” is another way of phrasing a concern that has been repeatedly addressed in the show: the concept of the “One” or the soul mate. The roots of this idea might be traced back as far as Aristophanes’s famous account of love in Plato‘s Symposium, but it has grown pervasive in late-20th / early 21st-century American popular culture: for example, a 2001 national Gallup Poll carried out in the US showed that 94 percent of surveyed people (single women and men between twenty and twenty-nine) were seeking a soul mate to marry and 87 percent were confident they would find it (Trimberger, 2005: 1). Their confidence is remarkable: this idealizing account of love as a quasi-demiurgic process implies that we will recognise the “one”; that we will be recognised in return; and that the relationship between “soul mates” will be flawlessly harmonious, a completion of each self by the other. No wonder, then, that the idea of “soul mates” depends on supernatural discourse, the discourse of miracles, rather than on the liberal discourse of “closing the deal” or consumer choice. Thomas Moore, for example, thus says that a soul mate is “someone to whom we feel profoundly connected, as though the communicating that takes place between us were not the product of intentional efforts, but rather a divine grace” (xvii).

The problems with this “divine grace” version of love are manifold: what if we never meet our twin soul, or meet him / her and are not recognised as “the One”? If total harmonious fusion proves impossible—if “the One” leaves us, say as a consequence of some misunderstanding, or if we have to inject our “intentional efforts” (Moore, 1994: xvii) into the relationship to make it succeed—does that mean we were mistaken? Will we never, now, be “complete”? The “soul mate” model of love puts extraordinary pressure on the individual’s actual romantic relationships, potentially spoiling them as they fall short of this ideal; at the same time, this model implies that “only through coupled love can one be truly fulfilled” (Trimberger 4), thus devaluing one’s network of friends and other non-romantic partnerships.

Given the popularity of this myth of love, and the ambivalence it might provoke, it is no wonder that the writers of SATC were fond of the topic. In “The Agony and the ‘Ex’-tacy” (4: 1)—an episode which ponders the question: “Soul mates – reality or torture device?”—the protagonists discuss the different aspects of this myth. Charlotte believes in it blindly, while the rest are skeptical:

– Miranda: Soul mates only exist in the Hallmark aisle of Duane Reade Drugs.

– Charlotte: I disagree. I believe there’s one perfect person out there to complete you.

– Miranda: And, if you don’t find him, what? you’re incomplete? It’s so dangerous!

– Carrie: Alright, first of all, the idea that there’s only one out there? I mean, why don’t I just shoot myself right now? I like to think people have more than one soul mate.

– Samantha: I agree! I’ve had hundreds!

– Carrie: Yeah, and if you miss one, along comes another, like cabs.

– Charlotte: No, that is not how it works.

( . . . )

– Samantha: The bad thing about the one perfect soul mate is that it’s so unattainable. You’re being set up to fail.

– Miranda: Exactly, and you feel bad about yourself!

– Samantha: Yeah, it makes the gap between the Holy Grail and the assholes even bigger.

This short dialogue touches on three main doubts about the twin soul ideology: whether the twin soul actually exists, whether there might be more than one “One,” and whether the ideology itself might be a harmful construction. Notably, however, the exchange also contains hints of another, contrasting ideology of love: one based on consumer choice among multiple options. “If you miss one, another comes along, like cabs,” Carrie quips, and her joke underscores the power that the consumer of love might have in an ideal romantic marketplace, one in which the possibilities of romantic transport are multiple and available to anyone with sufficient funds. Carrie’s relentless self-questioning about Aidan’s suitability—and basically about the suitability of every partner she has—shows her acting like a wary consumer, evaluating each “cab” as it comes into view, but her wariness would surely not be so intense if it were not for the high expectations this kind of myth has created in her. Indeed, we might say that on some level, conscious or unconscious, Carrie is turning twin soul ideology against itself, using it to justify the actual (consumerist) choice she has already made. Carrie’s fondness for the single life, that is to say, is the main reason behind her doubts about Aidan, and all this talk of the One essentially helps her rationalize her unwillingness to marry. She would hardly be alone in this self-justification: in fact, Trimberger connects the pervasiveness of the twin-soul myth with many contemporary women’s single status (17), while other authors warn women that they will have to forsake this myth and “settle for Mr. Good Enough” if they want to settle down (Gottlieb; Lipka).

However we interpret Carrie’s motivations, SATC’s treatment of the topic makes clear that the twin soul ideal forms an important part of the contemporary “resuscitation” of romantic love. Such quasi-religious faith in love as the path towards personal fulfillment has largely replaced other reasons for long-term partnership and/or marriage (Trimberger 1). This is reflected in the episode under analysis, since Carrie’s dilemma about marrying Aidan or not is entirely concerned with whether he is “right”—that is, whether he is the One for her or not—and it glosses over other factors which have traditionally played a paramount role in the decision to get married: economics, friendship, sexual attraction, communal / family approval, and so on, all of which are nascent in its plot. This tendency towards the idealization and romanticisation of love, the preoccupation with that “special someone” able to cater to the individual’s every need, is particularly in tune with romantic comedy’s ethos, since the genre has always been based on the wish to believe in the possibility of the perfect romantic communion. However, we cannot overlook the way that “perfect romantic communion” in this show puts a distinctive twist on this enduring wish. Love here entails a reconciliation or perfect accord between spiritual ideals and their material instantiation, the right guy with the right ring. As Carrie says in the opening episode of this fourth season, “The Agony and the ‘Ex’-tacy,” the soul mate ideal consists in the “belief that someone, somewhere, is holding the key to your heart and your dream house. All you have to do is find them” [my emphasis]. One key for both: otherwise, the search goes on.

Why Hasn’t He Asked Me Yet?

Let us return, now, to “Just Say Yes.” As I mentioned earlier, Carrie discovers Aidan’s ring shortly after he offers to buy both her apartment and the one next door, so that they can tear down the wall and live together: a gesture that would suggest he sees himself as the “someone” who holds the key to her heart and her dream house (or at least her co-op). Carrie’s initial reaction to the offer is lighthearted and flirtatious:

– Carrie: Would that make you my landlord or my roommate?

– Aidan: A little of both.

– Carrie: What would the rent be like?

– Aidan: Like . . . this? (Kissing her)

Behind the flirtation, however, lies a serious problem. If the modern couple is supposed to be a democratic, freely-chosen contract between equals (Giddens 192), where does this agreement leave Carrie? Will she live in the apartment in exchange for sexual and emotional gratification for Aidan? His gesture looks romantic and disinterested, but it actually gives him the upper hand in the relationship. As is always the case in the series, SATC refuses to acknowledge explicitly the important role played by class and economic issues in its romantic dynamics, even as it implicitly returns, again and again, to precisely those factors.

The truth is that Carrie never falls for “poor” men. Even though she has dated men who were not particularly well-off, the three men she has had serious relationships with (Big, Aidan, and Petrovsky) were far above her on the economic and social ladder, and Carrie’s conception of her partners’ suitability seems deeply shaped by their “provider” status. She is not the only woman in the show to behave this way; in fact, the series follows remarkably traditional patterns when it comes to the definition of gender roles within the couple.[4] In theories of democratic love, relationships are presented as negotiated contracts entered by mutual agreement (Giddens 3, 63). However, as Wendy Langford argues, mutual agreement does not automatically imply equality. The democratic contract between the couple does not mean the end of domination; rather, it is “an effective means by which consent of the subordinate is at once secured and made hidden” (12). The fact that Carrie is attracted to wealthier men and seems happy with this situation, that she chooses her wealthy partners, does not diminish the economic inequality that underlies her relationships; it simply conceals it. Carrie’s agreement to be supported by Aidan, paying her rent in kisses, thus does not lessen her economic dependence on him, but it does suggest that kisses are the way that this inequality might be masked, at least for a while, by the discourse of romance. In particular, the soul mate version of love does not stoop to consider such “prosaic” questions as material conditions, thus conveniently overlooking the practical aspects of the union; conversely, the more that material conditions reassert themselves, the less wholeheartedly one can embrace or espouse this romanticised version of love.

Carrie herself seems conscious, on some level, of this tension between love as a contract between equal subjects and love as the “divine grace” that merges true soul mates. Immediately after the scene where Carrie and her friends discuss Aidan’s ring, we see Carrie and Aidan having dinner together at a posh restaurant. She has not yet decided whether to marry him or not, a decision which would be made on the basis of romantic love or twin-soul ideology, of “knowing that it’s right.” Instead, she accepts his proposal of living together, a more rational, contractual domestic arrangement in which it seems that economic and political factors can be acknowledged. “So . . . yes,” she tells Aidan. “I say yes to living together. I think we’re ready for that step. Yes, we still have to work out the money, ‘cause I don’t want a free ride. We’re still individuals, but we’ll be sharing a life and an apartment.” The episode never clarifies what kind of financial arrangement their new life plan is going to follow, but even this brief nod to financial reality shows how an economic understanding of relationships (“we still have to work out the money”) entails a sense that the two members of the couple remain distinct “individuals,” a version of romance that stands in sharp contrast with the idea of “completion” found in twin-soul ideology.

Even as Carrie accepts cohabitation, however, a second sharp contrast undermines the scene. Carrie’s rational, qualified “yes” to living together takes place in a mise-en-scène that invokes neither reason nor egalitarian contracts, but rather the emotional and erotic extravagance of romance. The restaurant in which they are having dinner is elegant, they are dressed in formal clothes: in sum, all the “signs of romance” are “activated” in this scene (Illouz 125-132). In accordance with capitalist society’s scripts of romance and with romantic comedy’s conventions, everything around them indicates—both to Carrie and to the viewer—that this is the moment in which Aidan is going to make his proposal. The scene’s editing increases her and our suspense by having Aidan reach for his pocket in slow-motion. However, our expectations are disrupted when it turns out it is his wallet that he was reaching for, not the ring. Romantic comedy’s mise-en-scène has tricked both Carrie and the viewer, and paradoxically, she feels both relieved and puzzled. “Why hasn’t he asked me yet? What if he realised I’m not the One?” she wonders in a phone call to Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) the following day. It is as though Carrie were untroubled by her own willingness to think rationally and economically about the relationship, but the suggestion that Aidan is likewise thinking about it in any terms other than twin-soul ideology—reaching for his wallet, not a ring—fills her with self-doubt. She is not sure she wants to marry Aidan, but she wants to be asked.

Carrie’s ambivalence and anxiety are typical for her character, but they are not reducible to individual psychology. Rather, they illustrate the difficulties faced by lovers in a particular institutional context: one that we can understand through the individualisation theory of Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002). As the sociologists explain, in wealthy Western industrialised countries previously stable institutions of family, marriage, parenthood, sexuality, and love are no longer fixed or secure, and must therefore be negotiated by individuals on a case by case, couple by couple basis (2004: 3-5). The disappearance of traditional points of reference puts pressure on individuals to supply their own guidelines for living, and the dissolution of traditional blueprints of action forces us to make choices, not in a vacuum, but in a context that is cluttered with competing, often contradictory value systems and life narratives. This freedom of choice appears to open the door to the possibility of happiness, but the constant need to decide every aspect of life also creates anxiety, irritation, and never-ending questions, whose answers provide only “precarious freedoms”:

pacification is achieved temporarily, provisionally; it is permeated with questions that can burst out again at any time. Think, calculate, plan, adjust, negotiate, define, revoke (with everything constantly starting again from the beginning): these are the imperatives of the ‘precarious freedoms’ that are taking hold of life as modernity advances (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 6).

In pre-industrial societies, marriage’s purpose was to contribute to the family’s prosperity (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2004: 79). Today, it is not stability that is sought after, but freedom, love and self-realisation, but there are no clear-cut, uncontested guidelines to follow in order to reach these. The disintegration of traditional certainties and institutions opens a sea of possibilities, condemning us to design our own biography in accordance with the dictates of an ostensibly “true” self that turns out to be as elusive as any soul mate. Indeed, there’s a link between these two searches. In these times of uncertainty, the individual’s romantic life gains unprecedented significance, as s/he turns to love in search of answers, idealising it as a source of security and self-identity. Decisions about love, sex, romance, marriage, even erotic lifestyle are therefore elevated to more-than-practical importance, since only in these decisions can the true self be made securely visible and knowable. In the theorists’ terms, these decisions are “deified,” even as “[e]very day life is being post-religiously ‘theologised’” in what is otherwise an increasingly secular world (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 7).

In this sense, SATC in general and this episode in particular, constitutes a faithful reflection of the contemporary individual’s constant state of self-scrutiny, especially in the romantic realm. It could even be argued that a TV series like SATC is better equipped than cinema to reflect accurately the maze of introspection in which the individual is today immersed. Unlike film, which due to time constraints is usually forced to offer less nuanced readings of their characters’ existential and romantic fates, television can portray the uncertainty and volatility which characterises the contemporary intimate panorama, as well as the psychological unrest produced by individualisation processes. SATC captures this spirit of uncertainty and self-questioning, not just in any given episode, but in its formal structure as a series, since the answers it provides by the end of each episode are merely provisional, the cycle of self-interrogation bound to repeat again and again with a different romantic ideology—twin soul, consumerist, or something else—being embraced and contested by turns.

Maybe You Just Have to Say What’s In Your Heart

The uncertainty, ambivalence, and multiplicity of discourses surrounding contemporary love are summed up quite memorably in the actual proposal scene of “Just Say Yes.” It is late at night, and Aidan has tricked Carrie into walking his dog with him. At one given moment, he kneels down to pick up the dog’s excrement and surprises Carrie by putting a ring box in her hand while she is not looking. She is clearly struck, but her face lights up when she opens the box and sees the ring: it is not the one she had seen the previous day in his sports bag. Overcome by emotion, she accepts his proposal. How are we viewers meant to take this scene?

On the one hand, Aidan’s proposal demonstrates the series’ endorsement of a particular ideal of democratised romance: one in which simplicity and lack of artifice are the hallmarks of true love. Having pulled out the conventional stops of romantic luxury in the earlier dinner scene—the false or feinted proposal, which ended with Aidan reaching for his wallet—the episode now stages a self-conscious intervention in the conventions of romantic comedy by having a marriage proposal, traditionally the genre’s climactic moment, play out in the middle of the street, in pajama-like clothes and while taking the dog out for a pee. The romanticism of the scene is heightened precisely because of its quotidian staging, as well as its unexpectedness; it is as though, in order to create an atmosphere of believable romance in the postmodern era, conventions have to be inverted or reworked. The show thus seems to be in agreement with those who think that the sphere of consumption has “undermined the capacity of people to engage in an authentic experience of romance” (Illouz 112), since in order to reach an authentic moment, Carrie and Aidan have to leave the world of consumption behind. They are not the only couple to do so: some of the most self-consciously “romantic” moments in SATC often take place in non-consumerist situations, as is the case with Miranda’s low-key wedding with Steve and later in the series, Carrie’s preference for dinner at McDonald’s with Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov) to a night in the opera (“The Ick Factor”, 6: 14). “Authentic” love would thus seem to demand a retreat from or rejection of consumerist romantic scenarios, as though freedom from the world of money and things were needed in order certify the truth of the feelings involved.

However, SATC’s apparent embrace of this “non-consumerist” ethos is deceptive, and the romantic utopia proposed by the show remains, just below the surface, powerfully determined by economic factors—or, to be more precise, consumption remains the arena in which the truth of love is proved. When Aidan kneels down, Carrie’s face transmits her unease with what is to come. However, her expression changes completely when she sees the new ring. Nothing in the emotional or interpersonal situation has changed—Aidan is still proposing marriage, as she feared he would–but the material object that embodies and enacts his proposal has changed, such that the first thing Carrie says when she opens the box is “Oh, my God. It’s not . . . It’s such a beautiful ring!” Just as in the brunch scene, then, the real issue here is not the serious consideration of whether to spend her life with Aidan or not, but the virtues of the ring in itself, that is, the ritual of consumption enacted in the marriage proposal. Helped by the endorphin-fueled high of Aidan’s consumerist gesture, Carrie lets herself get carried away and agrees to marry him, rationalising her decision with these words: “Maybe there are no right moments, right guys, right answers. Maybe you just have to say what’s in your heart.” Implicitly admitting that she has not really worked out whether Aidan is her soul mate or not, she lets herself be taken in by the magic of romance anyway—and, the skeptical viewer notes, by the rightness of the ring. Despite the series’ habitual cynicism, in this scene, everything works in order to create a climactic romantic moment. The full power of romantic comedy is summoned with no hint of irony, resorting to one of its most reliable clichés: in matters of love, follow your heart, not your head. To use Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s term, Aidan’s choice of the right, beautiful ring allows Carrie to “theologise” her decision to “just say yes” to marriage.

We are not finished, however, with unpacking the complexity of the scene. It may well be true that Carrie’s momentary impulse to “say yes” to romantic love illustrates the temptation of deracinated, well-off urban lovers—even the most cynical among them—to idealise love as a source of “salvation” because it offers what Beck and Beck-Gernsheim describe as “person-related stability” (2004: 32-33). “The more other reference points have slipped away,” they explain, “the more we direct our craving to give our lives meaning and security towards those we love” (50). In this context, marriage takes a new meaning. It does not just provide a social structure for the individual’s life, it becomes a matter of identity, as we seek ourselves in the other (51). Aidan’s choice of the “right ring” may not prove that he is the “right guy”—the “someone, somewhere” who “is holding the key to your heart and your dream house,” as Carrie mused at the start of season four—but it does suggest that he knows and ratifies Carrie’s identity in the way she (and perhaps the viewer) secretly craves.

Who, though, really chose that “right ring,” enacting this intimate knowledge? Rather than having the happy couple kiss to seal their engagement while the closing credits unfold, this episode ends with a coda devoted, not to Aidan and Carrie, but to Carrie and Samantha. Carrie knows that Samantha dislikes the idea of her marriage and thinks she is not going to take it well. They meet in a bar and she tells her the news. Once again, they talk about the ring, not the engagement in itself, and it turns out Samantha helped Aidan pick the new, “right” ring, just as Miranda had previously helped him pick the “wrong” one. In effect, Carrie’s circle of female friends are shown to be the ones who give her “person-related stability,” functioning simultaneously as a pre-modern social network that must give a suitor their approval and as modern (or postmodern) lovers and love-objects in their own right. Despite her misgivings, that is to say, Samantha gives Carrie her “blessing,” much as a parent would, even as she demonstrates that it’s she, not Aidan, who knows what ring “is” Carrie, and thus who recognises Carrie’s true self. Once Samantha gives Carrie “consent” to Carrie’s marriage, they embrace, and one cannot help but feel that this constitutes the episode’s true happy ending, reminding us that, underneath the apparently “regressive” obsession of the show with the search for Mr. Right, its heart lies with an apolitical version of female sisterhood. By having the girls close the episode rather than the heterosexual couple, the show seems to imply that their relationship is more important, and, certainly, more lasting.


Beneath the glossy, comforting surface of its Hollywood-like happy ending, “Just Say Yes” is thus marked by remarkable tensions and paradoxes, an exemplary instance of the mix of romantic ideals and discourses in SATC as a whole. On the one hand, the episode illustrates SATC’s secret longing to believe in the possibility of true romance—or, as we might now put it, the episode demonstrates that Carrie, too, is subject to the contemporary tendency towards the romanticisation of love brought about by individualisation processes characteristic of modern liberal capitalism. In a world devoid of the old certainties which gave a sense of security to the individual, she—and some of her viewers—take refuge in romantic love as the one context in which market values are suspended, rational choice is set aside, our elusive “true selves” can be known. At the same time, the episode undercuts or unmasks this “theologising” longing, revealing how deeply it remains embedded in a neoconservative nostalgia for financial inequality between the sexes and in the consumer culture that twin-soul ideologies of love purport to escape. In a final twist, the episode offers an alternative context in which affection, consumerism, and a “person-related stability” seem to coexist quite amicably: that is, the world of female friendships, in which the fraught search for the One who will perfectly complete a partial self is replaced by an ineluctably multiple, deliciously imperfect exchange of affirmation, critique, communication, misunderstanding, forgiveness, recognition, and more.

If the episode finally immerses the viewer in the utopian world of romantic comedy, appealing to one of its basic tenets—just do what your heart tells you—it offers two competing sites for that “happily ever after.” The first is in Carrie and Aidan’s romance, but as viewers know, this does not last; they break their engagement only three episodes later, keeping the series in motion. The second, of course, is in the circle of friends who know and appreciate one another as much as they know and appreciate luxury culture: the right shoes, the right dress, the right ring, the right spot for lunch. Focused on women and meant for a female audience, the show might well be said to romanticise, or even “theologise,” female friendship, deploying it in service of consumer culture and various forms of racial and class privilege—but that is the subject of another essay. For now, suffice it to say that if diamonds are a girl’s best friend in the postfeminist fantasy of SATC, that’s because a girl’s best friends are, like diamonds, in this fantasy, forever.[5]

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[1] From now on, Sex and the City will be referred to as SATC.

[2] This complexity is, however, acknowledged by authors such as Amanda Lotz, (2006), Angela Chiang (2007), Astrid Henry (2004), Stephen Gennaro (2007) and Jane Arthurs (2004), who argue that the contradictions exposed in texts like SATC serve the function of interrogating the culture in which they are produced, thus encouraging us to “question the costs as well as the benefits of living in a postfeminist consumer culture” (2004: 142)

[3] SATC’s conflictual approach to marriage is mainly reflected in its protagonists’ different attitudes towards it: Charlotte and Samantha represent diametrically opposed views, while Miranda and, especially, Carrie stand in an ambiguous middle ground. Despite her willingness to marry Big in the SATC film, Carrie seems to reject the idea of marriage throughout the series, as becomes obvious when she gets a rash from trying on a wedding dress (“Change of a Dress”, 4: 15).

[4] The series offers numerous examples of how a well-off economic position is always implicitly presented as men’s prerequisite to be considered for the “title” of Mr. Right. The girls sleep around with all kinds of men, but their serious suitors are always wealthy: that is Charlotte’s case with her two husbands, and Samantha’s with her boss Richard Wright (James Remar). When the men are not richer or occupy a higher social position than the girls, relationships tend to go astray. In the last season, for instance, Carrie dates Jack Berger (Ron Livingston), a writer who seems to meet all her expectations. However, the relationship fails because he is not at the same professional level as she is. Samantha’s relationship with the young waiter Smith (Jason Lewis) is not taken seriously until he becomes a famous model/actor. A similar thing happens with Miranda’s husband-to-be, Steve (David Eigenberg). Their relationship is problematic because he feels inferior to her, which largely motivates their break-up. However, when they come together for the second time, he has been magically “upgraded” by the series from bartender to bar owner, which seems to greenlight the relationship. Nevertheless, the clearest sign of SATC’s soft spot for Darcy-like male characters is Big: very much like Austen’s hero, he is the wealthiest character in the show, and he is consistently presented as Carrie’s knight in shining armour.

[5] Research towards this article was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education, project no. FFI2010-15263, and by the Aragonese Governement (Ref. H12). Thanks are also due to the JPRS’ reviewers and, especially, to Eric Selinger for his careful editing of this essay.


“The Comic, the Serious and the Middle: Desire and Space in Contemporary Film Romantic Comedy” by Celestino Deleyto

Romantic comedy is a genre that promotes and celebrates romantic love. This commonsense description may be more problematic than it seems at first sight. Indeed, the equivalence between romantic love and romantic comedy is not historically tenable. Romantic love as a specific Western concept consolidated itself in the eighteenth century and only became a dominant discourse in the nineteenth century (Giddens 39). By then, romantic comedy had already been in existence for several centuries, since its beginnings in sixteenth-century Italy and its artistic consolidation in Shakespeare’s plays. Even though the two concepts share the adjective “romantic” it is unclear that such an adjective means exactly the same in both cases. In the sixteenth century this new type of comedy incorporated a then radical view of love as a spiritual force, a beneficial feeling capable of making people happy and of becoming the engine of a new social organization. At the same time, however, the new genre partly retained love’s medieval associations with physical passion and its destructive potential (for men). In Shakespeare’s plays, for example, love is both an ideal union of minds and physical desire, except that now desire becomes more positive, something to celebrate rather than fear. But there is as much sexual energy as there is spiritual well-being and social integration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado about Nothing and Twelfth Night. Since then, however, love in the Western world has undergone a process of desexualization that reached its peak in Victorian times (Seidman 7). Even though the twentieth century brought about a resexualization of love and, later, an elevation of sex parallel to the one that occurred in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature (65-66), the popular discourse that separated romantic love from sex, and defined them as predominantly female and male experiences respectively, has remained very much at the center of our ways of thinking about intimate matters. This discourse has survived two waves of feminism, a sexual revolution, the relative normalization of homosexuality and various other vicissitudes during a century that brought about drastic changes in people’s attitude towards love and sex. It has also affected the evolution of romantic comedy and both popular and critical attitudes towards the genre to the extent that romcom has become both in popular and critical discourse a privileged example of a non-sexual attitude towards romantic love.

This discursive separation between love and sex is based on a simplification of the concept of romantic love and a generalized disregard of the complexities and potential of romantic comedy. In an influential study of the genre in the cinema, Tamar Jeffers McDonald rightly places sex at the centre of the history and the conceptualization of romcom and decries those periods and specific movies in which sex is downplayed in favor of a vague spiritual intensity (97). Sexual desire and erotic pleasure were indeed the engine of the structure of Shakespearean comedy and have remained very much at the heart of the meanings articulated by the genre. For Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare created these plays in order to convey some of the excitement and beauty of sexual attraction. Since he could not represent sexual intercourse directly on the Elizabethan stage he replaced it by verbal friction: “Dallying with words is the principal Shakespearean representation of erotic heat” (90). For Greenblatt, the heated arguments between apparent rivals were a transposition onto the stage of what could not be directly shown. The strategy of showing lovers quarrelling has remained a staple of the genre to this day and some of the most memorable moments in its history are constituted by such scenes. In them it is not so much that initial incompatibility leads to final compatibility. Rather, the friction itself represents sexual compatibility: it is a metaphor for it, not a prelude to it. These comic fights are not interesting because they show moments of crisis, dysfunctions and contradictions in interpersonal relationships but because they produce sparks of electricity between those who, in the fictional worlds of the genre, are destined for each other. Fights in romcom are happy occasions, moments to savor and celebrate, experiences to envy. What is important for my argument here, however, is the notion that in romantic comedy, although censorship has not always been an issue, desire, sexual attraction, and sexual heat tend to appear in a displaced manner and hardly ever directly. Explicit sex may be seen occasionally but it is far from a staple of the genre, and obvious eroticism and display of the sexual body finds a more natural home in other generic contexts. In many contemporary instances sex, when it does appear, is more often than not an object of ridicule, something to be laughed or giggled at. Yet, at the same time, the films are very much about the central place occupied by desire in our lives. Since Shakespeare’s times, other strategies have been added to the charged dialogues that have shaped the genre as a prime producer of erotic energy and have allowed it to play a prominent role in cinema’s endless production of desire.

For these reasons, I would like to suggest that romantic comedy is not, as earlier critics have asserted, primarily a genre that celebrates marriage, monogamy and compulsory heterosexuality (for example, Krutnik 138). Rather, what is most characteristic and unique about it is that it offers, through its specific generic configurations, love and sexual desire as endless sources of pleasure and as the most powerful dimension of human experience. The view of romantic love to which it is committed is openly sexual, as much nowadays as it was at the beginning of its history. Like all other genres, romantic comedy exists in history and, as the very old genre that it is, it has experienced important changes. Within the history of cinema, it has not only reflected but also contributed to shaping interpersonal relationships, intimate matters, and sexual protocols in the course of a packed century. More recently, since its commercial boom in the mid-1980s, it has consolidated itself as one of the most industrially viable and successful genres, and, at the same time, as one of the most universally despised by the critics. One of the reasons for this has been excessive attention to the convention of the happy ending (Neale and Krutnik 12-13). According to this dominant view, since all romantic comedies have a happy ending, they all have the same conservative ideology and they are all very similar to one another. There is no denying the importance of romcom’s endings, although it could be argued that these endings are often considerably more complex and more interesting than they are given credit for. More importantly, however, there is much more to romantic comedy than the happy ending: in narrative terms, the middle of the comic narrative is just as important. It is often in the middle that we find variety, contradiction and complexity. It is also in the middle that we are most likely to encounter cultural nuance and historically relevant discourses on intimate matters. Finally, it is also in this middle section that the energy and exhilaration produced by sexual desire is displayed with greatest power and complexity.

All genres and all films employ their own mechanisms to convert experience into fictional worlds. I would like to propose the concept of the comic space as a way of understanding what is special about this genre and, more specifically, how the lovers are encouraged to fulfill their desires. This is not a new concept: it comes close to Northrop Frye’s “green world,” the forest or foreign city to which Shakespearean lovers escape in their quest for a new identity and more mature sexuality. Frye, for whom “green world” comedy and romantic comedy are synonyms, finds this trope central for an understanding of Shakespeare’s and later comedies (1957 and 1965). More recently, Deborah Thomas starts her discussion of the filmic categories of the comedic and the melodramatic with a discussion of space and argues that, unlike melodrama, comedic films present a single space, the social space, which, in the course of the narrative, is transformed into something better. This space is benevolent and sheltering for the couple (14). Thomas is referring to something larger than romantic comedy—a filmic mode that she calls the comedic, although at certain points of her discussion she seems to slip into the more specific territory of romcom. In any case, this sheltering space acquires particular resonance in the case of this genre.

I have described elsewhere the particular details of this comic space, and a brief summary of that longer argument may be useful here. As I argue in The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy, romantic comedy’s fictional worlds are very close to the real world of intimate protocols and therefore immediately recognizable by the spectator. Yet, unlike in our real lives, here lovers are protected in their amatory pursuits and encouraged to shed their inhibitions and oppose the social and psychological obstacles that we all tend to fall prey to in our daily experience. Because we recognize the comic space as very close to our own, we are attracted to a genre that allows us to believe in the unstoppable power of desire, and makes us confident that an alternative regime of feelings, not governed by social law, personal inhibition and constant frustration, is possible (30-38).

A great deal of the creative energy of the filmmakers goes towards the construction of this comic space. In films, we find not only the verbal sparring theorized by Greenblatt but also formal elements related to mise en scène, actor performance, use of the soundtrack and more. Among the most important of these formal elements is humor. Humor may have a variety of functions in romantic comedy but it is very often part of the displaced manner in which sexual desire is transferred onto the screen. This is another striking fact about the genre: in its verbal confrontations, in its frequent gags and jokes, in its apparently frivolous attitudes to intimate matters, it seems to court attacks of superficiality and irrelevance, of failure to tackle important matters very seriously. Yet romantic comedy, like all comedy in general, is deceptive in this respect, too. Intimate matters constitute, for the genre, the core of our humanity and the genre is very earnest in its defense of those privileged human beings who put love and desire before anything else. The fact that it deals with its subject matter through jokes, gags, ridicule, irony, and often general hilarity should not make us forget its seriousness. In this sense, it is a very demanding genre: it requires us to laugh and to take it seriously at the same time—to take laughter and humor seriously (Palmer 1). This paradox is partly the essence of the magic space that romantic comedies deploy in their middle section. In the rest of this article, I would like to explore the workings of this comic space and its displaced representation of sexual desire in two films from the year 2009, The Ugly Truth and (500) Days of Summer.

These two films, while clearly remaining within the realm of romantic comedy, have very different registers. In (500) Days a balance is struck between subdued comic moments and more melodramatic ones in order to depict the ups and downs of a relationship which is ultimately not blessed with the stylistic display of energy that the genre usually reserves for the couples it protects. Humor, whenever it is present, tends to be reserved for secondary characters or to all-too-brief moments of the action. The Ugly Truth integrates its comedy much more thoroughly within the dynamic established from the beginning between the two protagonists. A magic space is constructed around the humor of their exchanges and interactions. This space transmits to the spectator the sexual energy that cements their relationship, and this relationship, in turn, is protected by the comic space. What is instructive about these two instances is how their different uses of the comic space produce different degrees of sexual energy and different approaches to the genre.

Visually and structurally, (500) Days of Summer is a very distinctive film which uses some of the strategies of so-called independent cinema to tell the story of the relationship between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). He falls head over heels in love with her but she is not looking for a meaningful relationship and, although they have a few months together, their affair soon fizzles out. In the course of the film Tom voices a more or less conventional attitude towards love and relationships whereas Summer has a more cynical outlook. When the external narrator says in the prologue that this is not a love story, he is partly equivocating. It may be an imperfect love story, but Tom’s belief in “the one” person, in spite of his disappointment in Summer, remains part of the film’s intimate discourse: as Summer tells him when they meet again at the end of the film, it is not that she did not believe in the special person—rather, Tom wasn’t her special person. However, since the bulk of the film focuses on their relationship, the emphasis is less on the power of desire when it exists than on the frustrations it causes when it is unrequited.

The film’s most distinctive formal characteristic is its scrambled narrative structure. Although the manipulation of chronological linearity is not as radical as it may seem at first sight, the overall effect is a feeling of loss and disenchantment: even the moments of happiness from the early days of the relationship are immediately followed in the film’s timeline by moments of frustration, and awareness of the outcome from the beginning prevents the spectators’ trained hope that they might still end together. Narrative structure, therefore, constantly denies compatibility while conveying a feeling of fragmentation and loneliness. The soundtrack is peppered with numerous pop songs that comment on the various stages of the relationship, but the central theme is a low-key whistled rendition of “Moon River”, which evokes the melancholy atmosphere of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and its elusive protagonist Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Music and narrative structure construct a playful mode in the narration, which is complemented by home-movies footage, faux-documentary black and white sequences, and parodies of European films from the 1950s and 60s. Tom’s job, as a greeting card writer, also explains the frequent drawings that sometimes replace the action, including the main motif, a “naïf” rendition of Angelus Plaza, the protagonist’s favorite spot in downtown Los Angeles.

All of these devices contribute to the construction of the film’s fictional and affective space but none of them help to transform it into a magic space where desire may reign supreme. In fact, they are there to constantly reject such a transformation. As a consequence of this, the strong sense of place we get throughout (500) Days of Summer does not turn downtown LA into a space of romantic comedy. Rather, the city tends to expressionistically reproduce here the wistfulness and longing of the frustrated lover. The one exception to this mood is the musical scene when, after a happy night with Summer, Tom goes back to work the next morning. This musical number is the most exuberant moment in the film, with all the passers-by turning into participants in the communal dance that conveys his momentary but deep exultation. But even this musical fantasy is not a shared moment, as we would expect it to be in the comic space. There is no sign of Summer amongst the dancers, no indication that she might be enjoying a similar fantasy at the same time. When Tom finally gets to the office, not only does the fantasy disappear but the film cuts from a shot of him going into the lift to a similar one, many days later, when Summer has already left him and he feels desperately lonely. Not only is the musical fantasy incomplete but the energy it promises is cut short by the text before we begin to harbor any serious hope.

(500) Days of Summer is not lacking in moments of humor or a comic outlook on human experience. Through its comic perspective the text asks us to accept disappointments in love with humor and equanimity, and also with a certain cool detachment, as pertains to the world of independent cinema in which the movie inscribes itself. However, the film’s very inventive gags and comic moments never contribute to the formation of a comic space; in fact, they tend to undermine it. Consider, for example, the use of split screen at a crucial point in the narrative. Sometime after their break-up, Summer invites Tom to a party at her new apartment. When he arrives, the screen splits in two and two simultaneous actions start to take place, one defined by the title “expectations” on the left and the other by “reality” on the right. As the scene develops, the two actions drift further and further apart, Tom’s dream of a romantic reconciliation contrasting bitterly with the reality of Summer’s polite but offhand attitude towards him, topped by the moment when, with Tom as an unnoticed witness, she shows her engagement ring to another friend. The scene is funny in its visual inventiveness, but its humor, rather than contributing to the protection and liberation of the lovers, revels in the gaping distance between them and underscores the male protagonist’s misery and frustration. Once the split screen disappears, as Tom runs away from the party and finds himself walking alone in the middle of the street, the live action is turned into one of the greeting-card drawings that the film has used before, which, in this case emphasizes the unbearable loneliness of those whose desire is not returned.

(500) Days of Summer proves that for the lovers to be protected by the comic space they must be ready and willing to let themselves be driven by their desire, even if, as happens often, at the beginning of the story they may not yet be aware that they are. In this movie, it is not so much that the text fails to provide the generic context for the fulfillment of desire. Rather, the incompatibility between the two protagonists prevents the comic space from materializing. The text itself, on the other hand, shows obvious potential for the construction of such a space. The sunny appearance of downtown Los Angeles, a place hitherto little exploited by romantic comedy (another recent exception being In Search of a Midnight Kiss, 2007), and, particularly, the two scenes in Angelus Plaza suggest the familiar presence of desire in the Californian air. However, this desire, like the narrative itself, is excessively one-sided: both scenes are central to the romantic structure of the film but they are both equally dominated by Tom’s dreams and hopes, with Summer little more than a reluctant appendage. This diminutive park in the middle of the old and new skyscrapers of the financial district has always been his magic space, but as we learn in the film’s final turn, he has been looking in the wrong direction, missing the woman who is, in fact, his romantic destiny. Within this logic, the film’s final turn is not a gratuitous bid for an undeserved happy ending but the confirmation that the text shares the ethos of the genre and that its magic space only needed to be activated.

Having decided to quit his job and to pursue his initial vocation as an architect, Tom meets another woman, Autumn (Minka Kelly) in the final scene while both of them are interviewing for a position at an architectural firm. She recognizes him because she has seen him before at Angelus Plaza, also her favorite spot in town. Absorbed as he was with Summer all those past months, he never noticed her. Now, however, things may be different and the film ends on a hopeful note. There is some light positive humor in their brief dialogue but what most decisively suggests that something has changed is the distinctiveness of the physical space in which the action takes place: the Bradbury Building, one of the most famous sites in downtown LA and certainly one of the most familiar presences in earlier movies. Best known as the most recognizable location in Blade Runner (1982), it had also featured prominently in many others, including classical films noirs Double Indemnity (1944) and D.O.A. (1950), and the more modern horror Wolf (1994). Because of these and other films, the beautiful late nineteenth-century building has mostly been associated with genres related to the thriller but (500) Days of Summer effortlessly reverses the connotations and immediately turns it into the central element of the protective atmosphere that now envelops these two potential lovers. The scene shows the power of romantic comedy to transform both real places and locations from earlier movies into a distinctive space where desire can flourish.

In (500) Days the comic space only materializes in the final scene, making it coincide with a wary happy ending. In most romantic comedies, however, this comic space is, as has been argued before, firmly in place much earlier and it becomes not only the environment for the lovers to prosper but also the site in which the various intimate discourses and the film’s sexual ideology are articulated. Romantic comedy has always employed the compatibility of the lovers and the obstacles to their union to put forward certain attitudes towards gender relationships, sexual politics, and intimate matters. Both the vicissitudes of desire and the textual ideology are most forcefully displayed in the middle section. This is as much the case of (500) Days as of The Ugly Truth, the second film that I want to explore in this essay. If in the former, downtown LA is the unusual location of a very imperfect love story, in the latter Sacramento is an equally unexploited town for a more successful relationship, although another film of the same year, All About Steve, also takes place in this city.

There are frequent disagreements between the lovers in (500) Days but little friction, which should alert the romcom-savvy spectator that things can never go well between these two. In The Ugly Truth Mike Chadway’s (Gerard Butler) ultra-sexist attitude towards gender relationships, apart from fitting in with the intensification of female objectification and openly anti-feminist diatribes to be found in other contemporary romcoms—especially of the grossout and hommecom variety (see Jeffers McDonald 108-12)—guarantees abundant friction with professionally successful but personally lovelorn Abby (Katherine Heigl). The starting situation, with a “liberated” man who has taken to the wild side and a woman whose dedication to her career has taken its toll on her “femininity,” is almost textbook 1980s New Men-inspired backlash. Much more than in (500) Days, as corresponds to a mainstream Hollywood vehicle, star personae are crucial to the sexual dynamic established between the protagonists. Butler’s ruggedness and gruff demeanor are put at the service of his ridiculously macho showman. Heigl, through the parts played in Knocked Up (2007), 27 Dresses (2008) and this film, has successfully followed up on her popularity in Grey’s Anatomy (2005-) to become a considerable romcom presence. In this film she combines her image of healthy and strong girl-next-doorness with a readiness to submit to post-Cameron Díaz gross-out situations, here most notoriously illustrated by the vibrating underwear episode. She has succeeded in making the combination of post-feminist sophistication, romantic aspirations, and embarrassing physicality that has become a regular convention of twenty-first century romcoms seem natural. It is to the credit of this apparently conventional narrative and of the two actors’ performances that the sparks are almost visible when these two unlikely lovers come together.

A great deal of the humor in the film revolves around their charged exchanges, and while the comic rallies between them generally tend to ridicule Abby’s uptightness and obsession with control and celebrate Mike’s relaxed and confident masculinity, they simultaneously convey the growing attraction between the two, an attraction that will also make him more vulnerable. To these comic dialogues, which gradually begin to reveal the growing affinity between the future lovers, is added the powerful presence of a setting equally made up of real and constructed spaces. This setting comprises the television station where Abby and Mike work, assorted places in Sacramento and a hotel in Los Angeles where they spend an evening and the following night. All of these are part, to a greater or lesser extent, of the comic space, with the LA hotel, and particularly the elevator when they go up to their bedrooms, as the most openly protective corner of this space. But an apparently less relevant but very recurrent setting is equally important for our understanding of the workings of this convention: the garden area in the middle of the block of apartments where both Abby and Colin (Eric Winter), her doctor boyfriend, live. Shots of this space punctuate the narrative and chart the evolution of Abby’s character toward sexual maturity, but at least two important scenes take place here.

In the first of these scenes, the magic quality of the garden, an echo of the Shakespearean “green world,” is emphasized. Always suffused in an artificial yellow light, always seen in the evenings, this space defines the female protagonist as somebody looking for love and amenable to change in her attitude towards intimate matters. As the scene gathers pace, the comic space becomes more prominent, both in terms of the delineation of the nature of desire and of the specific textual attitude towards sex. The cat that is responsible for starting the comic action is a symbol of the animal nature that on the one hand is so lacking in Abby’s life and on the other can be glimpsed, lurking just underneath the surface and waiting to be tapped by the right person. The incident starts with the cat smashing a vase and upsetting the immaculate order in the lifeless apartment as Abby is getting ready for bed. The cat leads Abby to her first, if displaced, confrontation with her own sexuality at the top of the tree where she has followed it. Once there, and while wondering how to get down again, she sees through a conveniently open window her extremely good-looking new neighbor coming out of the shower, surrounded by steam, like an apparition. His beautiful body makes Abby gasp with admiration, not so much because of its sexual attraction as because it complies with her ideas of physical perfection in a man. What really excites her, though, is the fact that he flosses, again in accordance with her very demanding code of personal hygiene. In the meantime, the magic space is in full swing and it is now her turn to display her body, but in a more embarrassing pose, as a branch breaks under the weight of her floss-related excitement, and she ends up hanging upside down from the tree, with her slip round her upper body and her comfortable knickers in full display. Her upturned position suggests that her values and desires are soon going to change drastically, but also the long shot of her body in this ridiculous position anticipates, in comic terms, that she is ready for this change, and that she will eventually become a worthy comic lover, no matter what type of underwear she is donning right now. In this respect, of course, the trajectory from the ample knickers to the black vibrating panties openly reflects the evolution of Abby’s attention to the centrality of sexual desire in her life.

Dutifully reacting to Abby’s screams, Colin comes to the rescue, still only wrapped in his bath towel, and Abby, looking for something to hold on to, pulls the towel off and is suddenly faced with an upside down close-up of his genitals while the spectators have to make do with a brief glance of his bare buttocks. Although, after a second or two, both automatically use their hands to recuperate a minimum of decorum, it is interesting that after the cut an ellipsis takes us to the inside of Colin’s apartment where, in the next shot, Abby is still apparently looking in the direction of his crotch with an expression of girlish excitement but also lack of inhibition. Although a reverse shot discloses that what she is actually looking at is her own foot, as he expertly bandages her ankle, Abby is obviously impressed with what she has previously seen. When telling the story to her friend Joy (Bree Turner) the next morning, the highest compliment she can pay him is that he is “symmetrical” (“you have no idea” [how symmetrical he is]), but the brief comic scene has shown Abby’s romcom potential and also the transitory nature of her present inhibitions. That these inhibitions are closely connected with her post-feminist identity are part of the ideological work of the text but in any case what the committed spectator wants is to see her shed those inhibitions as soon as possible. The impression we get from this scene is that the stage is set for such a change and that the comic space is fully in place to help her through her discovery. The unobtrusive tracking shot with which the scene started almost invisibly has transported us to this magic space in which those values that are incompatible with “true” desire are given a comic bent in order to reveal her adaptability. Colin, who will become the traditional wrong partner (Neale 288-90), is here mostly part of the magic space, as are the colors, the camera movements and certainly Abby’s underwear. As with Tom in the previous film, she still has not learned to look in the right direction but her unconscious readiness to submit to the dictates of desire is both emphasized and protected by the comic space.

The same comic space is in full force in her constant arguments with retrograde, less than symmetrical and most likely no-flossing Mike. Its constant presence and influence on the narrative development allows the spectators to understand that both Abby and Mike, in spite of appearances to the contrary, will become ideal subjects for the genre (unlike Colin, whose professional status, political correctness and physical symmetry are coded as boring and deadly). As usual, the lovers are the last to realize that they are attracted to one another but in this film this comes as a revelation to both of them, as a shock that, as in Shakespeare’s best comedies, will forever change their lives and, gregariously, reinforces the willing spectators’ belief in the supremacy of desire over all earthly things. Conversely, the happy ending is, in this as in many other films, rather deflating. Abby and Mike’s literal reconciliation and final clinch takes place in a hot air balloon, a space more openly magic and “special” than the more realistic locations of the rest of the movie, but the clumsy and too-obvious rear projection employed in this last scene may work, with many spectators, to break the illusion and distance us from the powerful magic atmosphere of the middle section.

The magic space of romantic comedy and its presence in the middle section of many examples of the genre is so powerful and spectators have internalized it to such an extent that it can sometimes produce unexpected effects. In another movie from 2009 also set in Los Angeles, I Love You Man, the magic space is firmly in place even though sexual desire often becomes a secondary part of the action and is generally subservient to male friendships and what Eve Sedgwick calls male homosocial desire. The strong articulation of a magic space in a film which is very much about the relationship between two heterosexual male friends energizes that friendship and gives it an uncanny intensity to which we are unaccustomed in our culture. The conventions conjured up by the film in order to construct this space are the usual ones in romantic comedies, but the relationship that this magic space protects and celebrates is openly not sexual. A text like I Love You Man that celebrates friendship through the same mechanisms that romcom has used for centuries to celebrate desire is still so unusual that it puzzles even as it fascinates. What it proves, in any case, is the lingering power of the comic space in the genre and its endless potential to guarantee the continuing evolution and the unacknowledged variety and complexity of romantic comedy.[1]


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[1] Research towards this article was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (project. nos. HUM2004-00418 and FFI2010-15312). I would also like to thank the two anonymous readers for their comments and suggestions.