Historically, the romantic comedy genre is about the cohabitation of males and females. Rom coms are known for using the Battle of the Sexes trope to mine comedy and conflict, all in the name of finding true love. Within this prototype, heteronormativity and accepted gender roles are both reflected and negotiated. Recently, I watched What Women Want (2000), Kate & Leopold (2001), and Little Black Book (2004). Besides all being romantic comedies, these three aren’t explicitly tied by much, but each film is uniquely obsessed with the idea of the woman’s career and how it fits within the modern woman’s life.
What Women Want and Kate & Leopold, although not without their quirks, are more or less traditional romantic comedies. At their core, they are light films about a central romance that comes to a common conclusion. Importantly, they’re also both successful romantic comedies - What Women Want being the second most financially successful rom com of all time.
But Little Black Book is a strange outlier. It was a flop that, like its titular palm pilot, has long been dormant in the public mind. And unlike What Women Want and Kate & Leopold, the tag “romantic comedy” fits uncomfortably on Little Black Book. Most likely, its inclusion in the genre is largely a product of sexism (and its inextricable relationship with capitalism).
Little Black Book was marketed as a romantic comedy, with a poster almost identical to the Murphy/Kutcher rom com, Just Married. But it doesn’t bear the traditional makeup of the genre. The film follows Brittany Murphy’s Stacy, a producer of a Springer-esque show hosted by Kathy Bates, as she interviews all of her boyfriend’s past girlfriends. This isn’t done as an ethnographic bit of research, but in a fit of insecurity after finding their contacts in Derek’s virtual rolodex. Meanwhile, her partner (played by Ron Livingston) is away on business. He’s only in the film to bookend it. In fact, the film could have been written without the boyfriend ever appearing. In a model similar to High Fidelity, Little Black Book is much more about Stacy’s self-realizations than who she’s talking to or who she’s inquiring about. However, unlike Little Black Book, High Fidelity lives on as a dramedy without rom com marketing tropes shoehorned in. Because High Fidelity is a man’s story, it’s legitimized instead of considered niche.
We don’t have a genre (or subgenre) for films like Little Black Book. I suppose before you have a genre, you need films with which to fill it. We were very recently reminded that movies about women being women alongside other women is not a viable formula for financial success. Films that star women most often fail to appeal to mass audiences unless that woman is in a relationship with a man, behind the victory of a male lead, or at one’s service.
Yes, there are certainly exceptions. For instance, 2013’s The Heat - about two successful and less-than-prim-and-proper female cops - was a box office smash, making $230 million on a $43 million budget. While it helped massively that the film was actually good and garnered barely-above-average reviews, The Heat’s success has to be considered, in part, analogous to a ration of food served in solitary confinement. Withholding from the female audience has become a way to leverage success (as it has toward non-white ethnicities).
Even marketed as a rom com - appealing a female-centered film to a predominantly female audience, Little Black Book was a financial failure. BoxOfficeMojo.com has Little Black Book as the 186th most financially successful rom com of all time, which really just means it did terribly. Nonetheless, romantic comedy was surely the only considered avenue for Little Black Book’s target audience. I don’t think the studio execs wanted to see how a Brittany Murphy vehicle about a palm pilot would’ve done marketed as an Eat Pray Love with a star much dimmer than Julia Roberts.
Although Little Black Book exists uniquely as a movie about a woman’s tale of self-discovery, I can’t say the film does anything spectacularly dexterous or inspired with the premise of self-discovery. But the film’s motivations are a bit of a revelation. Little Black Book eschews romance for professional prowess. At almost every turn, the film invokes the importance of career-minded autonomy. Stacy uses her professional title to snag interviews with Derek’s exes, and her talent to extract information from them. The character is fascinated with Diane Sawyer, an icon of professional female success. She loves the film Working Girl, the poster of which has Murphy’s face transposed upon in a reflection. Little Black Book even makes a lovely intertextual wink at Broadcast News, casting Holly Hunter as fellow TV producer. Her character in Broadcast News is one of cinema’s best articulations of the career-driven woman.
Even though the film more than hints at Stacy’s desire to have a thriving career, its ending comes as a surprise, almost unconcerned how it arrived there. Stacy concedes that Derek is better off with one of his exes, and after some time passes, she’s offered a prestigious job in a swanky skyscraper. Stacy accepts, saying she’s right where she belongs (thriving in a career she loves). Blithely, with her excitement, the film beautifully obscures any trace of bittersweet sadness that she’s no longer with Derek. A lesser film would have Stacy rejecting the job, smash cut to her running after him to salvage the relationship with a passionate kiss.
Cue What Women Want and Kate & Leopold. While these successful romantic comedies may have more to offer in narrative construction, on screen chemistry, star power, and production quality than Little Black Book, their treatment of women and their careers is oddly regressive.
In What Women Want, a film centered around the plight of having a more talented woman as your superior, Mel Gibson concurrently exploits Helen Hunt for his own upward trajectory and swoons her. She falls in love with him despite losing her job (and nice new apartment) as a result of his exploitation of her. This is all without a mention of the emotional damages of being taken advantage of and losing a high-powered, satisfying job.
As was discussed on episode 9 of the OV podcast Rom C’mon, at the end of Kate & Leopold, Kate is offered a significant promotion as senior vice president of an ad agency while also realizing her (new) beau is from the 19th Century. She has two options: take the sought after job that she seems super excited about and has worked hard for, or jump into the time warp and be with her 19th Century boyfriend (whom she’s only just recently met). What particularly irks about this ending is that 1) it denies how self-satisfying Kate’s job must have been to her, and 2) it sends an independent, successful woman to a time when her opportunities will be erased. But she’ll be with The One. The one she met last week.
This move, to leave your job at a mere whisper of romance, was recently well satirized in the pilot of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Even in one of the best rom coms of all time, You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks literally ruins Meg Ryan’s business, the bookshop, her pride and joy, and still gets her in the end. He’s everything she despises, and takes away the job she loves, yet she still wants to hold his hand down New York City sidewalks over the film’s credits.
In many romantic comedies, such as the previous three mentioned, there’s a decades-old binary perpetuated that women can either be single and personally successful and unhappy or sacrifice personal pursuits in order to be truly happy with the man they love. Even more reductive, these films invoke the idea that men don’t want a career woman who will impose her success on his performative bravado and position as head-of-household.
Not only does Little Black Book’s Stacy find happiness when she finds a career, but the film admirably (and brutally) doubles down on the idea that there is a The One for her. After she storms out of her job in a fit of loss and humiliation (losing her boyfriend on daytime television), she runs into her baggy-jeaned, John Lennon-quoting college. She confers that it must be a sign, that the cosmos have been saving them for each other. Enter his pregnant wife. Again, a lesser film would have Stacy devolve into a shell of herself only to be lifted up by a sign of new love. But Little Black Book pushes Stacy’s story in a more interesting, progressive direction: being happy finding a career, independent of needing the love of a man.
It’s also worth noting, although Little Black Book isn’t stringent on this connection, that Stacy grew up with a single mother (after her dad left the family). She spent most of her life under the guidance (and influence) of her mother, who also didn’t need the love of a man nor his help to successfully raise a child.
Little Black Book doesn’t exactly play like a knowing nod to its feminist motivations. It also doesn’t exactly manage them with any real semblance of poignancy or comedy, but it’s heart is in the right place. It makes me think that in a better world, one where the romantic comedy genre’s common denominator isn’t an adherence to patriarchal standards, we could still have lovably bad rom coms.