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Book reviews

Controlled coupling

In the more recent American romcoms, contemporary mating joins Defence drawing rooms and California bars in a hermetically sealed bubble of status, wealth and stability.

October 31, 2009

The New Yorker said District 9 was a thought-provoking film. But when you’re a journalist covering Pakistani politics and 150 people have died in terrorist attacks in less than two weeks, there are days you’d rather not have your thoughts provoked. That’s when I weighed the limited remaining options at my neighbourhood piracy factory and decided instead on my version of a pointless cinematic experience: the chick flick.

I am not, to put it mildly, a fan of romantic comedies. I find them neither relatable nor entertaining, and I don’t usually consider them stress busters because their inanity only increases my blood pressure. But these were desperate times, and my goal was to find something that didn't involve thought, exploding cars or bloody chainsaws.

That left all of two options. The Ugly Truth presented a decidedly not-ugly duo of Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, flashing pageant-worthy smile and devilish grin respectively, slick in very grown up clothes but holding up what seemed like cardboard cutouts of hearts — she by her brain and he by his crotch, so as not to be too subtle with the stereotypes. The other candidate offered a boringly attired Jennifer Aniston holding the hand of a sloppy Steve Zahn on an uninspiring DVD cover that warned Management was “a touching comedy.” I purchased both the rock and the hard place.

But for all my apprehensions, I wasn’t expecting — naively, perhaps, but I have limited exposure to the genre — StarPlus-worthy dramas about women giving up the men they really want so they can land well-off, handsome, dependable husbands instead. Heigl’s character has a single-minded focus on getting hitched and a checklist of 10 attributes that need to come together in one perfect man, who will be “smart . . . handsome but doesn’t know it . . . successful but in a job that means something.” What this seemingly innocuous wish translates into is an orthopaedic surgeon so clean-cut his hair might have been gelled into place by God. Here is a hot American blonde, executive producer of a television show and living on her own in California, running background checks on her dates in the same way a Pakistani mother might commission her web of personal contacts to grill a prospective suitor’s spring break buddies, the boy who sat next to him in Class III, and the doctor who took his appendix out.

Management pretends that it is a “different” romcom, one that doesn’t shy away from dreary sex in a laundry room in small-town Middle America and a heroine who isn’t desperate to get married yesterday. She is only desperate to get married when an appropriately wealthy prospect comes along, ditching a man she is developing feelings for to shack up with a retired rock star, his mansion, and a life of lounging by the poolside. This earnest little movie pretends to upturn stereotypes but winds up snuggling back into their bankable arms, which is perhaps more annoying than the The Ugly Truth's shameless perpetuation of them.

In the end, to be fair, both women end up following their hearts, but there is a reason endings like these make the feel-good dollars roll in — passion feels good. In Hollywood circa 2009, however, the path to this discovery is strewn with respectability. Wanting a man for the chemistry they have with him is a lesson its heroines pay heavy prices to learn, channelling everything that is wrong with the marriage auction conducted in a certain class of Pakistani drawing room — which makes it all the more disturbing that, in a country where women are far more liberated sexually and economically, the arrangement of their marriages is still dominated by safety and suitability. Because that is what these are: arranged marriages, inflicted on women by themselves, to avoid creating pleasurable or unpleasurable ripples on the surfaces of their tightly controlled modern lives.

These are not the women of Bridget Jones’ Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill (all set in England, by the way) who answer the calls of their conflicted guts and have the courage to fall for cads and good-for-nothings and men who can’t afford their own houses or wake up on time. In the more recent American romcoms, contemporary mating joins Defence drawing rooms and California bars in a hermetically sealed bubble of status, wealth and stability.

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of the Herald

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