Romcoms in Literature and the 3rd Act Syndrome
by Alessia Bellizzi
Over the summer, I was obsessed with doing absolutely nothing. After working myself to the point of burnout, I took it upon myself to treat myself to a summer without obligations. But after two months, I got bored. I listened to all the podcasts, watched all the funny Tik Toks on my timeline, and was left at a loss wondering what to do with the rest of my day. That was, until I one day magically found myself falling down the rabbit hole of Booktok. I was excited by how many romcom recommendations I stumbled upon, and was so excited to pick them up. I fell back in love with reading, thanks to authors such as Christina Lauren, Emily Henry and Helena Hoang. However, I noticed a disappointing trope amongst this genre: every novel I read ended or began with the female protagonist being pressured into marriage. Why is it that books targeted to women are all too quick to reduce us to a bunch of sitting ducks waiting to get swept off our feet by a handsome man? Is that really the only character arc conceivable for a woman?
Let me get something straight–I am a diehard romcom fan. There is nothing more satisfying to me than reading a cute love story or watching a classic 90’s/early 2000’s romcom. Lately, it’s all I’ve been consuming, and I’m starting to reach a scary realisation: that I am quickly approaching the age of most of these main characters…and I don’t like it. The fact that I am ageing doesn’t bother me, it’s the fact that I am nowhere near where these characters are portrayed to be in their lives. The only characterization I came across that I felt was realistic was in Christina Lauren’s Olive in The UnHoneymooners. Olive is in her early thirties, a recent graduate who's having a hard time trying to find a job in her field. And, she hasn’t dated much. Boy is that relatable.
This book was advertised as an enemies-to-lovers with a fun relatability to it. While I definitely related to Olive, the book was by far the best to present the marriage trope because it contained nuance, and did not completely reinforce this age-old stereotype. For those who didn’t read the book, Olive’s twin sister Ami gets married to her college sweetheart Dane (yuck) who ends up being a huge douche canoe because he was seeing other people up until Dane proposed to Ami. When everything hit the fan, Ami confesses to Olive that all those years she had been with Dane, the desire she had to “start her life”, aka have a family with kids, had disappeared.
Personally, I’ve been brought up to believe that a woman should get to live her life alone and figure stuff out before getting into a long commitment. Ami went through a crisis because she succumbed to the pressure to get married without fully thinking it through–she picked the first guy who stuck with her and because of that, she lost herself and goals in the process. While all that is happening to Ami, Olive falls in love with her “enemy” at the end of the book, with the epilogue revealing that they are engaged to be married. Such a fun read. It convinced me not to buy into “following the status quo”, especially the made-up timeline at which you are supposed to reach every life milestone before you’re thirty--everyone goes at their own pace. You need to be able to stand on your own before you expect to be in the right place for the marriage fantasy to happen to you.
Another variation of this trope exists in Emily Henry’s People We Meet on Vacation. Emily Henry’s books are hard to miss on Booktok, they were constantly shoved onto my “For You” page whenever someone mentioned romcoms. I decided to read her least liked novel instead of reading her more favourable ones because I am not like the other girls. This book was interesting, but I can definitely see why it’s her least successful out of the three she has published. Overall, the book was slow, being a very cliché friends-to-lovers where the friends were clearly forced to be lovers by the author. Poppy is a writer, a fun and carefree woman who states she isn’t the marriage type, hates her hometown of Ohio and high school. She escapes her small town hell by moving to New York. Alex is a teacher in Ohio, a responsible guy who knows what he wants (to get married and settle down with five kids). How do these two people fall in love? I mean I get it, “opposites attract”, but they’re almost SO opposite it’s hard to ignore. If Poppy ends up with Alex, she is forced into domesticity in Ohio, something that she says in many chapters she would rather jump off a building than do.
What blew my mind was how long it took for them to realise that they were more than friends. It was almost like Henry forgot where she was trying to go with the book, and tied it up too quickly at the end, which made it hard to feel anything for the characters. The novel ends with them both living in an expensive apartment in New York, while Alex is holding onto a house in Ohio that he inherited from his grandmother. It seems to me that Alex is holding it over Poppy’s head to eventually convince her to move in and start a family. While this book somewhat avoids the marriage trope. I couldn’t help but feel that Poppy’s personality had changed by the end. Did Alex change her mind, or does finding the right person influence you to adjust your life with them in it ? I like to think it’s the second, or else I’ll have to change my Goodreads rating from four stars to two.
My last example is The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, the first book in a series of three about three family members who are diagnosed with autism, which follows their respective journeys navigating dating. Other than The Kiss Quotient being straight up smut, it provides a different portrayal of womanhood unique from most romcoms. Stella Lane, a very successful econometrist living in Palo Alto, has been recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. For some reason, other than her being incredibly successful in her career and not to mention wealthy, Chapter One opens up with a lunch date with her parents basically telling her she needs to find a boyfriend and to get married as soon as possible. Imagine: you completed your masters degree, have a high paying job and you still get asked by your parents about whether or not you're going to get married?! If my parents did that I would simply never spend more than ten minutes with them. I remember reading that thinking, Is no one safe from oppressive female stereotypes?
From the romcoms that I’ve read, there aren’t a lot of women in this genre of literature that have successfully avoided this fate. But let's be honest, it wouldn’t be fun if they didn’t get together in the end, right? I mean it's famously known that in Julia Roberts' hit movie “Pretty Woman”, her character and Richard Geres’ weren't supposed to end up together in the end. The original ending had test reviews hating the movie and that they had to completely rewrite the ending so it would test well with viewers. Sure, other genres have done it: The Hunger Games crafted interesting character growth for Katniss, while keeping her love interest(s) as a side plot. In television, the show FleaBag is a great example of how women can be funny/charming without having the singular goal of marriage. Maybe “Happy Ever After” is just part and parcel of the genre.
While I enjoyed all of these books and they will stay highly rated on my Goodreads, I can’t help but long for the day that romcoms will celebrate women just for being themselves, and not cramming them into the box of feminine stereotypes just because it fits the dominant narrative for romance novels. Until then, I will continue to purchase the latest recommendations for me on Tik Tok and hopefully, my guilty pleasure genre will transform into one that is not so guilty.
***Third Act Syndrome is when for most of a work, the hero or the villain has been reasonably smart in their actions. But if that character acts just as smart in the climax, it would be over in a minute.
Lauren, Christina. The UnHoneymooners. Gallery Books, 2019.
Henry, Emily. People We Meet on Vacation. Berkley Books, 2021.
Hoang, Helen. The Kiss Quotient. Berkley, 2018.