What half an hour on Twitter can tell us about Nancy Meyers, ‘Queen of Romcom’

Nancy Meyers, ‘Queen of Romcom’

by Debora Jermyn

As BAFTA prepare to welcome Nancy Meyers later this month (see link), my mind turns to an incident invoking the director last year that has continued to preoccupy me. A BBC journalist called me up. It was shortly to be the 20th anniversary of the UK release of Four Weddings and A Funeral. There was going to be a lot of coverage in the British media marking this milestone. Could the BBC interview me for a story?

I felt like a bit of a fraud and told them that not only had I not seen the film in years, but also, I was that strange thing – a British person who didn’t really like the film. My overwhelming memory was of being a bit annoyed by it. Not to worry, said the journalist. We want to interview you for a story called, ‘Why is the term romcom used so negatively?’

So a phone interview took place, where I spoke about how the pejorative use of the term was imbricated with the assumption of an undiscerning female audience, and of mindless formulaic repetition, which failed to acknowledge the genre’s aptitude for cultural observation, and so on. An accessible and pretty sympathetic story raising some of these issues appeared on the BBC website (see link), where I was cited alongside others also presumably invested in thinking about the romcom as a genre with the capacity to be textured and intelligent (qualities not opposed to being entertaining and amusing): Billy Mernit, the author of Writing the Romantic Comedy (2000); and Ben Palmer and Tess Morris, director and screenwriter of Man Up, the Simon Pegg romcom released earlier this summer.

The story was not groundbreaking by any means. But it was rather refreshing and unusual, I thought, to see an article make an effort to be even-handed in considering the appeal and the possibilities of the much-maligned romcom; to try to unpack where the instant derision of it springs from, rather than just add fuel to it.

Then the journalist tweeted news of her story, with a link to the website. And the exchange that ensued, though brief, was intriguing, as follows…

  • ‘Great article – despite praise for It’s Complicated! 🙂 #beige
  • ‘Nancy Meyers has done a fair bit to damage perception of the genre. Too long, bland’.
  • ‘But Meryl has SUCH an awesome house in that film’
  • ‘The Holiday, for example, is seven hours long. And nothing happens’.
  • ‘…and The Holiday is really a softcore designer-porno about two beautiful homes in love’
  • ‘The only bit I choose to remember from that film is the Jack Black ‘boob graze’’.
  • ‘I remember the general Jack Black “WTF am I doing in this piece of treacle?!” gaze’.

I watched bemused, as what was meant to be a social media plug for a story outlining a more considered approach to the romcom morphed into a forum for bashing Meyers. Even people who seemed ostensibly to be open-minded about the pleasures and the attractions of romcom, and who critiqued its ‘bad press’ – even these people – it soon became clear, relished the opportunity to cut her down to size and pile disdain on her films.

Obviously some of this has to do with the nature of Twitter and its trade in ‘pithy’ rejoinders. But the short exchange actually revealed a number of traits that I have come to see as common in the reception of Meyers as I research a book on her. Her films are too long, dull and all about gloss, about superficialities, we learn – indeed reviewers return repeatedly to how it all looks, and to her overly-opulent houses particularly. In this way a quality that one can well imagine would be remarked on as ‘an eye for detail’ in a male director is used in Meyers’ case to imply she can’t really ‘do’ character or plot. And they are saccharine – in this exchange compared to ‘treacle’ – that is, sickly sweet nonsense. Such food metaphors are again prevalent in the reception of her work and remind us there is no nourishment to be had here – often conjuring up an image of women audiences with no willpower treating themselves to sugary goodies that they should know are no good for them.

But particularly interesting to me is the familiar invoking of her work as a kind of lifestyle porn. Again, this term comes up a good deal in reviews of Meyers’ work – and I find its use striking for the way in which it works as a kind of reminder that the person behind these films is a woman and belittles the female director (and indeed the imagined female consumer). Invoking porn to talk about her work operates as an insidious reminder of gender and gendered roles in film – it speaks of a desire to put her and her female audience in their place, asserting that women should only be, can only be, about certain kinds of spectacle, and certainly not authority, agency or production.

In sum, what this exchange postulated is there is a reason that the contemporary romcom gets a bad rap, there is someone we can blame for all this scorn for the genre – and that is Nancy Meyers.

If we think that this scorn is only directed at her ‘treacly’ body of work, or that we can remove the issue of her gender from the reception of her films, then we are mistaken – it is also about the discomfort prompted by a woman who has the temerity to write, produce and direct hugely popular box-office hits. Meyers tells a story about how as co-writer of Private Benjamin (Zieff, 1980) (for which she was Oscar-nominated) she was barred from being on set without a male colleague. More than 30 years on, the manner in which many commentators critique her work underlines the extent to which the industry is still troubled by the presence of a woman’s work, still desperate to contain the spaces women can move in.

Deborah Jermyn is Reader in Film and Television at the University of Roehampton. She is co-editor of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor (2003) and Falling in Love Again: Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema (2008) and author of Sex and the City (2009). She is currently writing a monograph on Nancy Meyers for Bloomsbury.