How The Movie & TV Boyfriend Has Changed In The Past 20 Years

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How The Movie & TV Boyfriend Has Changed In The Past 20 Years

When you think of your favorite movie and TV boyfriends from growing up, who comes to mind? For most millennials (and the elderly Gen Z-ers), Zack Siler from She’s All That (1999), Chad Michael Murray in literally anything from 2001 to 2009, Benjamin Barry in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), and Jess Mariano in Gilmore Girls (2000) probably top the list; they were all idealized boyfriends of the early 2000s.

Because, back then, we didn’t have much choice. The male archetype presented to us in romantic comedies (and their promotional media) followed a formula, which has been widely reported on. The male lead must, first and foremost, be conventionally attractive, and then, they must embody at least one or more of these traits:

  • The underdog: Think, Tom Hansen in 500 Days of Summer (2009), Scott Tucker in John Tucker Must Die (2006), and Jake Hardin in Just My Luck (2006)
  • Exhibit behavioral issues but have a heart of gold: Think, Patrick Verona in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Chase Hammond in Drive Me Crazy (1999), and Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries (2009)
  • If the leads are older and out of high school, they should be a successful architect or an ad agency executive: Think, Chris Brander in Just Friends (2005), Benjamin Barry in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), and Adam Schaffer in It’s Complicated (2009)
  • Have an issue with relationships due to his past: Think, Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl (2007), Landon Carter in A Walk to Remember (2002), and Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother (2005)
  • Are painstakingly loyal to their girlfriends: Think, Matt Flamhaff in 13 Going on 30 (2004), Will Thacker in Notting Hill (1999), and Woodchuck Todd in Easy A (2010)

After the male leads check off a few of those boxes, they must then fit into some of these tried and true storylines that the early 2000s rom-coms just loved:

  • The love triangle: Think, Sweet Home Alabama, Just Wright, and Bridget Jones’s Diary
  • The friends-to-lovers arc: Think Love & Basketball (2000), and Brown Sugar (2002)
  • The enemies-to-lovers arc: Think, The Princess Diaries 2 (2004), Clueless (1995); You’ve Got Mail (1998)
  • The fake-relationship-turned-real-relationship: Think, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003); Just Go With It (2011); The Proposal (2009)
Image: Netflix

And we ate it up. Mostly, again, because we weren’t presented with many feminist couples who embodied #relationshipgoals. That, combined with the lack of diversity in these movies and relationships, made the genre ripe for disruption.

The gender inequality, whiteness, and heteronormative narratives of these films did eventually receive criticism; a decade or so after the films’ releases, meme-culture and millennials-with-nostalgia combined, and the critical look-backs began.

It’s been 20 years since that early 2000s batch of rom-coms hit theaters and thankfully, things have changed. Gone are the days of frosted tips, puka shell necklaces, and the jock driving his Jeep Wrangler with the secretly beautiful school nerd next to him. Now, romantic comedies are more self-aware.

Lindsay Stidham, screenwriter and adjunct professor in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts thinks that the prominent tropes of the early 2000s rom-coms sent mixed messages. “I think there were damaging ones like She's All That where the woman had to change for the man,” she tells me. “But we also got 10 Things I Hate About You where the woman has all the agency and the boyfriend isn’t making any choices for her. She never kowtows to him, nor does she want to change anymore.”

10 Things I Hate About You holds up because Kat Stratford, the female protagonist, is a ‘90s feminist. Yes, the movie has a lot of the typical themes found in movies of the era, but in some ways, it broke the ground for where we are today. It jump-started the modern rom-com with its strong female lead who was not traditionally feminine nor popular, but instead authentic and self-assured.

Of romantic comedies in the past four years, we’ve seen this shift take greater shape in their characters and plots.

Take 2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The Netflix original movie featured a male lead who, yes, followed the old formula to an extent – he was popular, oblivious to social and romantic cues, and acted like a jerk sometimes – but he also showed that he’s self-conscious, too, and was more well-rounded than his 2000s boyfriend predecessors.

The female lead in To All The Boys was, for starters, not white, and had a life of her own outside of her romantic relationships (we saw the inner-working of her family life and friendships). Plus, compared to the romantic comedies from 20 years ago, To All The Boys wasn’t an overly-sexualized take on high school and featured age-appropriate cast members.

Image: Netflix

The modern rom-com had finally started to give more depth to the personal lives of women, and Netflix’s Something Great (2019) really hit it out of the park. This film focused on female friendships first, the romantic relationships second. The protagonist's boyfriend was more of a secondary storyline, and the film’s cast and portrayal of non-straight relationships was rich with diversity.

Then, in 2022, we got J. Lo and Owen Wilson’s rom-com Marry Me, which, on its surface, might feel a little old school in its approach to a rom-com, but the main characters aren’t teens or twenty-somethings; they’re fifty-somethings. The fake-relationship-turned-real-relationship trope is present, but the realism in the dialogue, and in the way people actually fight, made this movie feel modern.

“The rom-com is back in a big way, and as a person who writes them, for a while, it was a dirty word. But I think they're still hits for a reason, because there are people being represented," Stidham says. "They're still embracing an expected formula and happy ending [but] everything getting made right now is giving, ‘How do we push the rom-com and how do we still love it?’”

Audiences are ready to embrace what’s next in the rom-com. And if Chad Michael Murray or Freddie Prinze Jr. want to make a comeback in any of them, we’d gladly welcome them back. With a twist, of course.

Image: Miramax

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