If You Wanna Be My Lover…

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I love finding other people who’ve seen The Sweetest Thing, especially if I’m just getting to know them. If realizing that you love the same movie is an instant connection, realizing that you love the same critically panned romantic comedy is an instant kinship. Especially one that includes:

  • Changing room sex with a guy wearing an elephant costume
  • A grandpa in a “Who Farted?” t-shirt
  • A shopping montage in a small-town boutique featuring some amazing hats
  • Parker Posey having a pre-wedding meltdown
  • A cock ring getting stuck in Selma Blair’s tonsils

The entire movie is so much fun – Christina (Cameron Diaz), Courtney (Christina Applegate), and Jane (Selma Blair) are three single gals in San Francisco. One night, Christina meets Peter (Thomas Jane) at a club and they have some great banter, and maybe it’s something, but then Peter’s brother Roger (Jason Bateman) drags him away. Christina’s left with the sense that Peter could be the one, knows that he’s going to a wedding that weekend, and knows where that wedding is – so she and Courtney embark on a road trip to go after him. By the end of the movie, everybody’s learned that sometimes you need to open yourself up to the possibility of getting hurt in order to find true happiness with another person. Which, honestly, is pretty solid advice.

But outside of The Sweetest Thing’s shock-value gags, outside of its capers and shenanigans, there’s a deeper reason I’ll always have a special place for it in my heart: it’s a major Hollywood romantic comedy that showcases genuine friendships between women. I unabashedly love schlocky romantic comedies in the same way I love Oreos or anything else moment-­to-­moment enjoyable, but watching them usually requires me to suspend any knowledge of how real women actually interact with one another. This one doesn’t.

The Sweetest Thing came out during the initial renaissance of post-Ephron rom-coms, a simpler time between 2001 and 2003 when every woman under the age of 30 had an endless supply of sleeveless turtlenecks and Matthew McConaughey was just another set of abs. Around this time, the “working girl really just needs to find love” trope hit the new millennium with movies that were charming, entertaining, and only expected the viewer to scrutinize the relationship between the film’s central couple. As such, the romantic leads’ banter and chemistry was almost strictly confined between the two of them. Outside of the central relationship, the air got thinner and things became a little more utilitarian.

It’s probably best not to think about all this too hard, but here’s what happens when you do…

There’s The Heroine. She’s A-list actress beautiful. Despite this, she tends to have problems with love because she’s too focused on her career. Her friends can sometimes remind her that she’s too focused on her career. Her friends can also do other things: They can highlight class solidarity and establish The Heroine as the underdog against her upper-crust romantic rival; they can arrange a group outing and then bail at the last minute so The Heroine and her love interest can have an unexpected first date; they can emphasize how far The Heroine has strayed from her hometown roots by being relentlessly chic New Yorkers; they can help demonstrate how The Heroine is sweet, relatable, and One Of The Girls even though she also loves beer, basketball, and ribs. (Or her friends can simply not exist to begin with, reinforcing the notion that The Heroine is way too focused on her career and needs a duke from 1876 who’s fallen through a temporal wormhole leading to present-day New York to show her the true meaning of romance.) Examples are taken from Maid In Manhattan, The Wedding Planner, Sweet Home Alabama, How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, and Kate And Leopold, respectively—no single movie contains all of these scenarios, though if such a movie did exist I would consider it a personal failure to not have already seen that movie multiple times.

None of this affects how enjoyable these movies are to watch, of course, because a romantic comedy operates under the same premise as any other fantasy universe – as long as that universe and its rules are clearly established, the viewer’s knowledge of their own reality will eventually cede to what the story requires. This also applies to things like discovering family heirlooms just when a person needs to believe in love again, or constantly falling asleep with makeup on yet never getting a zit. It’s such a seamless process that one of the only ways to really notice how poorly most rom-coms treat female friendship is to place them right next to one that unabashedly revels in it.

The Sweetest Thing is that rom-com. Despite the quest for love being the ostensible centerpiece of the plot, friendship is what gets the most screen time and those relationships are clearly the most important. Courtney and Jane aren’t just there to provide a sounding board for Christina’s romantic woes. These women have a rapport, a history, a deep-­seated love and respect for each other. And this is rare!

Because generally, when someone fills the role of “the best friend” in a rom-­com, it means they’re only there to be found exaggeratedly sluttier, exaggeratedly prudish, less pretty, less romantically adept, or generally less interesting than The Heroine. A best friend has to lack the girl-­next-­door spunkiness that would make them worthy of their own central plot, which is why being “the best friend” in the romantic comedy universe has come to be mostly an insult. It insinuates that you’re destined to stand outside the arena of love, offering advice to people actually playing the game but never participating yourself, at least not in a way that anyone might care about. Best friends are not portrayed as real people, because they don’t need to be in order for the romantic comedy universe to function properly. They don’t need to be real people in order for true love to conquer all.

And a rom-com is first and foremost there to provide that kind of sweeping wish fulfillment. It’s intended to leave viewers with the reassurance that everything is going to work out. That’s the basis of the genre’s entire appeal, its raison d’être; a rom-com being synonymous with a “feel-good” movie isn’t exactly a coincidence, if you want to look at it in terms of Netflix categories.

Rom-com wish fulfillment primarily operates on the premise that romantic love is head and shoulders above any other kind. Friendships, particularly female ones, are just paltry compensation. Rom-com wish fulfillment is steeped in the idea that something in you will be fundamentally redeemed by romantic love, because something’s wrong with you if it doesn’t. It’s manifest of a desire to escape a morass of the unloved, to essentially be reassured that you really are interesting and pretty and likeable enough to be the protagonist of your own life. That desire is easy to recognize as bullshit when it’s laid out in a sentence and read with the full presence of your conscious mind; it’s significantly more difficult in the bathroom mirror during the small hours of a Wednesday morning when your eyes are squinty from lack of sleep, the artificial light is doing a roll call of every single one of your flaws, and it suddenly becomes an objective fact that nobody could ever fall in love with you.

Cultural devaluation of female friendships as lesser or shallow is nothing new, and neither is the idea that women can only gain personal worth through their romantic relationships with men. When Aristotle extolled “virtuous friendship” in Nicomachean Ethics, it was intended as a given that the friendship in question is between two men; the women of 350 BCE weren’t considered capable of such a noble sentiment, because their limited social and political agency rendered their friendships meaningless. Aristotle would probably be gratified to know that as far ahead as 1960, C.S. Lewis would still be dismissing female friendship as “endless prattling” and a contributor to the “modern disparagement of [male] friendship” in The Four Loves, thus doing his part to uphold the deeply entrenched historical pretext for decrying friendships between women as secondary to duties towards one’s husband, family, and home. This pretext, by default, led to the equally entrenched idealization of a (heterosexual) romantic relationship as the zenith of personal fulfillment for women. Today, the insult of telling a woman that she’ll ultimately wind up alone draws its power from this still-pervasive belief that a woman without a central we’re-making-out-in-the-rain relationship is somehow a failure, regardless of whatever else she might have in her life. Rom-coms didn’t create this belief. They’re simply its most modern reiteration.

Unless a conscious effort is made to unlearn that mode of thinking, living in proximity to the cultural dominion of romantic love becomes an internal race against the clock of a woman’s perceived fuckability in terms of whether or not society-at-large might believe that she’s alone by choice and not because she’s fundamentally undesirable – which brings us right back to rom-com wish fulfillment. The rules of the genre’s fantasy universe dictate that the Heroine of a rom-com will not run out that clock. At the end of the movie, she will be freed of the worry that she might one day lose the possibility of having inarguable value; she will look in the bathroom mirror in the small hours of a Wednesday morning and know that someone was able to fall in love with her, because that is the absolute most she could possibly want.

Every scene in The Sweetest Thing—Courtney decorating a sleeping Christina’s face with toothpaste, Jane half-abashedly disclosing her new guy’s dick situation to her friends, Christina and Courtney singing along to a throwback from college in their laundry day underwear after grappling with an exploding rest stop urinal—is a rejection of that premise. Christina and Peter get together in the end, of course, and she definitely has all the requisite Realizations About Love, but that doesn’t come at the expense of her friends being relegated to perfunctory wooden characters. This particular iteration of wish fulfillment doesn’t involve being saved from a lifetime of emptiness by The One—because Courtney, Christina, and Jane already have one another and any talk about romance or finding Mr. Right is approached with the assumption that their friendship is a necessary constant. It’s wish fulfillment for women who don’t need to be convinced of their worth, and it’s so nice to enter a facet of the rom-com universe that’s been amended to include the sheer amount of joy and, yes, personal fulfillment that comes from loving and being there for your girls.

Also, there’s a musical number called “The Penis Song”:

Your penis packs a wallop
Your penis brings a load
And when it makes deliveries
It needs its own zip code!
(Nine! Double zero! Penis!)

Copy that out in script and put it in your next Valentine’s Day card. You’re welcome