In case you haven’t heard, the romcom is back. I read the other day that thirty-six new romantic comedies are coming out this year. To quote Meg Ryan, “Yes, yes, YES!”
In an age of existential despair and geopolitical turmoil, a time when coverage of the Israel-Palestine war is interrupted by the breaking news that Holly Willoughby is quitting This Morning, I’m very much here for the resurgence of the ultimate feel-good genre.
Who doesn’t derive a modicum of comfort from Ryan’s happy ever after in You’ve Got Mail, even if it is with the man who put her out of business? And sure, Pretty Woman may have glamourised prostitution and glorified materialism, but you know you cheered when Julia Roberts got her fairytale ending.
Of course, the romcoms of old couldn’t be made today. Social norms have changed, as have our expectations of romance. The new crop of romcoms not only offers a greater diversity of characters and viewpoints, but it reflects the issues of our time.
And yet, when it comes to the most pressing issue facing humanity, the genre comes up short. In all the fake dating and love triangles, the enemies-to-lovers and makeover tropes, in plots that are supposedly more grounded in the real world than their predecessors, how many times have you heard a protagonist go, “So how about those rising sea levels, huh?”.
It’s not just Hollywood that is reluctant to broach the subject of climate change. In publishing, man-made global warming is largely confined to the sub-genre of “cli fi” – in which authors alert readers to the catastrophic dangers of climate change through nightmarish visions of the future. I started both Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Lancaster’s The Wall, both excellent and arguably, essential reading, but I couldn’t finish either. Frankly, they scared the hell out of me.
They did get me wondering, though, about the effectiveness of dystopian climate fiction. Rather than galvanise readers into action, which presumably, is the noble goal here, such bleak storytelling could be having the opposite effect. I’m fairly motivated in my environmentalism, but even I struggle with a sense of paralysis from all the apocalyptic rhetoric out there. I’ve been guilty of doom-mongering myself. Of sucking the joy out of the room at a dinner party with a poorly-timed, “This burrata is delicious. By the way, did you know a bin lorry-load of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute?”
A long-held belief among the climate community is that people lack information, which is why they’re not acting. But increasingly, the reverse is true. We have too much information, most of it negative. It seems to be the more we know, the more hopeless we feel and the less motivated to engage.
Here’s the thing I’ve come to realise. If you want to bring people on board, if you want them to join you in the fight for a liveable future, you need to give them a vision of a world worth saving, characters to root for. You need to give them hope. And nothing does hope like romantic comedies.
As the biggest-selling genre in fiction, romcoms have the potential to shift the dial in the right direction and encourage more of us to take meaningful action. Yet few romcom authors acknowledge the reality of climate change in their work. I should know. I read a ton of romcoms over the summer and amid themes of gender inequality and ghosting, there wasn’t so much as a mention of a reusable cup.
Granted, New York under water or LA burning to the ground isn’t the most romantic setting for that all-important meet-cute, but you don’t need to envisage the end of the world to address the ecological crisis. Because the destruction of our planet isn’t a future problem. It’s happening now. It’s crazy-hot summers and water rationing. It’s burning forests and beercan rings around sea turtles’ necks. And while all this is going on, there are still first kisses and phone calls that last until dawn, great sex and bad sex and everything in between. There’s, “Why hasn’t she got back to me? There are two blue ticks beside my message. I know she’s seen it!” There’s love that ends and love that defies time.
Forget death and taxes as the only certainties in life. Love and climate change, these are the realities that shape the world we live in now. Writing that addresses one and not the other isn’t truthful. And if there’s no truth in the stories we tell, then what are we telling them for?
Alix O’Neill is an Irish freelance journalist and author of The Troubles With Us: One Belfast Girl On Boys, Bombs and Finding Her Way, published by 4th Estate. She lives in southwest France with her husband and two young sons.
CALL TO ACTION: Fight back against the crackdown on climate protests across Europe. Write to your local MP to urge them to lobby the government to respect the right to assembly