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Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. Image: IMDb

It’s 12.50 am on a Sunday in 2013. I’m twenty, slightly drunk, and curled up in bed watching Bridget Jones’ Diary for at least the twentieth time. I’ve just ended a relationship and Renée Zellweger’s belting rendition of ‘All By Myself’ has never felt so true.

For many people—myself included—romantic comedies have always been a source of comfort. Look up any list of ‘comforting films’ and you’ll find rom-com classics front-and-centre. Arguably, romantic comedies reached their peak in the nineties and early noughties when writer-directors like Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally) and Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill) dominated the genre, and new releases build upon this success. Most romantic comedies have a simple trope that drive the story: to experience character development and become worthy of love, each character must hit their ‘rock bottom’. Through this, romantic comedies indirectly have become subtle yet powerful explorations of grief, loss and trauma in a space that is accessible, comforting and safe.


In 1990, psychotherapist Maureen Murdock proposed a variation to Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ model for the female protagonist, The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. It acknowledged that women experience a different journey than men; more often an emotional-spiritual journey than a physical one. Where a hero may receive a call to adventure, such as Matthew McConaughey as Ben in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the Heroine begins their journey in a state of imbalance. In Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bridget experiences several stages of Murdock’s framework. She suffers under and ultimately rejects male-dominated publishing house, experiences a trial of errors as she seeks a new career, she mends her relationship with her mother, and rejects the toxic masculine of Daniel (Hugh Grant) to end up with Mark (Colin Firth). Where the Hero’s Journey places the emphasise on defeating a monster, the Heroine’s Journey seeks balance between masculine and feminine.

Romantic comedies indirectly have become subtle yet powerful explorations of grief, loss and trauma in a space that is accessible, comforting and safe.

Like the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey was designed to be moved, morphed and altered to represent the diverse experiences of women.

While no formula is perfect, many romantic comedies have—directly or indirectly—developed plot structures that align with the Heroine’s Journey. The beats can be found across several genre classics and new releases. Films like Judd Apatow’s Bridesmaids (2011) and Trainwreck (2015) begin with the heroine at ‘rock bottom’—whether she perceives it as rock bottom or not. In the Heroine’s Journey, the heroine has embraced the masculine to succeed, and the beginning of the film starts with the start of her downfall. In Trainwreck, Amy (Amy Schumer) is embracing the literal ‘masculine’ in avoiding a committed relationship as her father did, and in Bridesmaids, the ‘masculine’ concept of business ownership has failed Annie (Kristen Wiig). Annie’s grief in losing her bakery business, boyfriend and perceived future is explored through her constant rejection of the ‘feminine’—the offer and continual rejection of female friendship by Helen (Rose Byrne) and Megan (Melissa McCarthy). After yet more self-sabotaging, Annie’s loss is manifested through the painstaking process of creating a simple, ornate cupcake, which she eats alone in her mother’s kitchen.

Together the scenes show both the deep trauma the loss of the bakery has had on Annie’s life and identity, and also the debilitating impact her depression has on her ability to get her life back together. I love this film as a representation of loss and grief in romantic comedy because love-interest Nathan (Chris O’Dowd), while a wonderful partner, isn’t the hero, or even a hero figure; to me, the real hero of Bridesmaids is Melissa McCartney’s character, Megan. It’s easy to see the character as simple comic relief, and McCartney is hilarious in this film, but Megan consistently tries to befriend Annie, empathises with her, and gives her the reality check she needs. Megan is the friend we all need, but particularly, is the hero Annie needs to work through her problems, address her loss and move on.

Like the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey was designed to be moved, morphed and altered to represent the diverse experiences of women.


Almost all of the late Nora Ephron’s work explored loss and trauma in some way. Tom Hanks’ character is mourning the loss of his wife at the beginning of Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and her final film Julie & Julia (2009) is set in New York in 2002. While subtle, my favourite representation of grief and loss in the genre is Kathleen’s (Meg Ryan) relationship with her deceased mother in You’ve Got Mail (1992). Kathleen owns her late mother’s bookshop, which is threatened when a chain bookshop owned by Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), moves into the neighbourhood.

Despite her best efforts, midway through the film, Kathleen is forced to close the shop. ‘The truth is, I’m heartbroken,’ Kathleen narrates over composer George Fenton’s gentle piano. ‘I feel as if a part of me has died and my mother has died all over again. And no one can ever make it right.’ As she closes the door, she pauses and, through shadows of the bookshop, she sees herself as a young girl dancing with her mother. She stays in the memory as long as she dares before closing the door, both on the bookshop and that chapter of her life.

It’s a gut-wrenching scene between two women, written and directed by a woman, that doesn’t forward the romance at all. Quite the opposite—though Kathleen does not realise at the time that her mystery crush is Joe Fox, her monologue plants a seed of worry that she may never forgive Joe for the closure of her store, adding further complexity to their relationship. The scene is also a literal interpretation of the mother/daughter split within The Heroine’s Journey as Kathleen reconciles her past and present experience and looks towards the future. That future, of course, ends well—it is a romantic comedy, after all, and though I don’t know I could have forgiven Joe Fox as easily as Kathleen, romantic comedies have promises they must fulfil, most notably a ‘happily ever after’. While outside of the genre this may be considered trite, I think it’s the promise of happy—and the sense of security it brings—that gives romantic comedies the ability to delve into more difficult emotions. The best romantic comedies acknowledge that just as love and romance is a part of life, so is pain. Neither can have one without the other, and the rejection of this to create complex narratives often means the storyline falls flat or becomes unrealistic.

This concept is what makes Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe (2019) such a compelling premise. Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) experience the sudden death of Marcus’s mother during their late teens. Soon after her death, the couple has terrible sex and the awkwardness of the encounter results in the characters losing touch. Sixteen years later, they meet again and Sasha, now a celebrity chef, is shocked to discover that Marcus still lives in his ‘high school’ years—he plays in the same band, lives in his parents’ house and works for his father’s business.

The best romantic comedies acknowledge that just as love and romance is a part of life, so is pain. Neither can have one without the other

What makes Always Be My Maybe unique is that it not only focuses most of the growth and development on the male protagonist but also highlights the impact of trauma and loss for men—something only occasionally explored through the genre. Films like Silver Linings Playbook, The Big Sick and Forgetting Sarah Marshall also do this, and while the film industry is awash with heteronormative Hero’s Journey arcs, romance and romantic comedies are heavily skewed towards women and do their fair share of representing unrealistic and harmful expectations of men. Films like Always Be My Maybe that support the healthy processing of grief and pain, show realistic (for the genre!) relationships and have a strong sense of compromise between the characters help to further normalise men’s mental health and the representation of healthy relationships.

Romantic comedies are always going to be seen as comfort media; there’s something magical about the colour palette and cinematography of You’ve Got Mail that always makes me feel like I’m drinking coffee in a cosy cafe in New York. But to dismiss them as simple love stories undermine how, when done well, they can be powerful ways to explore complex human experiences and emotions. With films like Always Be My Maybe, I think we’re beginning to see a new wave of romantic comedies that feature diverse stories and complex ideas around identity, culture, and loss and I’m excited to see what the future holds for the genre. Personally, I’d love one protagonist, at some point, to go to therapy—but I’ll take what I can get.