Some might call December holiday season. And it is! But it’s also the season of another cheerful, warming tradition: the romantic comedy. Think about it. What goes better with cozy twinkle lights and a steaming mug of tea than two people falling in love? With Hallmark finding new life with the Christmas rom-com boom—and Netflix getting in on the action—it seems like we’re all yearning for a little something sweet come the holidays. Personally, my current watch list is stocked with Love Actually, The Holiday, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the like, and it will be until the post-holiday blues wear off.
The sudden resurgence of the rom-com genre in both film and book format seems ripe for analysis. Why are these stories so satisfying to us, when we can accurately map out each plot point and know literally from the beginning how they’re going to end? And why do they go through periodic booms? Well, like any genre, rom-com popularity is surely at the whim of trends, which come and go mostly without explanation. But I think there might be something more to it.
The most obvious place to look is, quite simply, the state of our world. With our relatively new access to the incessant, depressing, soul-crushing 24 hour news cycle—giving us access to previously obscure horrors from around the globe in addition to our own backyard—it’s easy to lose faith in just about everything. Whether or not the world is in a worse state than it’s ever been, the fact is we now know how terrible things are (whereas before, we may have only gotten the news in bits and pieces). So what better antidote to real-world horror than candy-coated, perfectly contrived narratives that by necessity end with a happily-ever-after? As Hugh Grant’s character says in the opening scene of Love Actually, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere.” Hugh’s version of Heathrow Airport holds the same kind of heartwarming, best-version-of-humanity qualities that we love in romantic comedies. It’s a world where the good outweighs the bad, where love always wins, where you know exactly how things are going to play out. It is, in a short word, comfort.
The Dot & the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics by Norton Juster is absolutely delightful, featuring a love triangle between a “sensible straight line who was hopelessly in love with a dot”, who was of course hanging out with “a wild and unkempt squiggle”. Accompany your reading with the short animated film on YouTube (and apparently also as a special feature in The Glass Bottom Boat DVD, of which we own 3 copies, so feel free to check that out).
The overall structure of the plot arc is quite predictable, but that’s not where the charm of this wonderful romance lies. Part of it, I’m sure, is just in the fact that it was written in the 60s, so some of the phrasing is a touch quaint reading it now, but I want to say that the charm of it is simply in the fact that this is a mathematical romance. It’s dedicated to Euclid! There are math puns & references everywhere (though some of them smarter than others), and the entire novel(la) is overall a delightful romp. And as some of you know, despite math not being anywhere near my forte, I have a love of it all the same. You don’t really learn anything about shapes or math in any way apart from how to creatively apply lines and shapes, but that’s why it’s a romance in lower mathematics, right?*
I’ve been waffling a bit about whether to write about this or not, because I guess it’s not exactly a leisurely topic, except… I actually do read about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry in my leisure time, and I’m wagering I’m not the only one, so yes, I do believe this is for your leisure!
(I’ll try my best to avoid throwing words like “hegemony” and “heteronormativity” around, in the interests of keeping this leisurely.)
Here’s a brief excerpt from a romance novel:
Michael was mint chocolate chip for her. She could try other flavors, but he’d always be her favorite.
(Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient)
Quick: what race/ethnicity is Michael? How about her?
Did you assume they were both white?* So Michael is Vietnamese and Swedish, and the female character is unspecified (I think – I’m going off a comment on Goodreads) with Asperger’s. And when it’s unspecified, we generally default to thinking of white (cis/able-bodied/straight) as the norm – the female character’s Asperger’s is defined in the novel. So let’s talk about whiteness in the romance fiction industry, below the cut.