It’s summer, and we all know what that means: silly romantic comedies. But I’ve been noticing something interesting about this particular genre, and I’m beginning to think it’s telling us something about how gender roles are changing.
Think back to every romantic comedy that’s come out in the past 10 years. Notice something about the gender divide? I noticed it too. And now, just like when someone tells me to look for the color red, I see it everywhere.
I’m talking about the Slacker/Striver trend in contemporary pop culture. How many sitcoms, romantic movies and magazines are portraying Slacker Guy? You know who he is: the 30-something slob who lives in his parent’s basement, or in a two-bedroom with five other guys, and plays video games all day. He didn’t go for a law degree; instead he took a self-designed major in New Media Studies. Or maybe he got a degree in IT, but it does him no good in this economy, so he started a band and walks dogs for a living. Whatever his case is, he’s a sloppy dresser, can’t cook for himself or keep house, drinks too much and has a juvenile sense of humor.
But somehow, girls love him.
Not all the girls, mind you. Just Striver Girl: the one who did get that law degree, works 80 hours a week, hasn’t had a date since college and can’t let anyone get through a sentence without correcting their grammar. Striver Girl is the beauty hidden under black-rimmed glasses, a seductress in a pantsuit, and somehow Slacker Guy is the only one who can bring her romantic side out.
These two characters are rigidly defined: she’s the straight man, he’s the comic genius. She’s got average intelligence but earned her achievements through hard work and sheer willpower ever since high school. He, on the other hand, has a genius IQ but rarely applies himself. Her house looks like a page out of Beautiful Home magazine; his resembles a frat house. She has her manicurist on speed dial; he barely remembers ever going to a doctor. But somehow a romance starts that changes the two for the better, and they end up making the other whole.
I find the prevailing trend of the slacker/striver romance intriguing. It seems as if it’s the pop-culture version of the fairy-tale formula. There’s still a damsel in distress, and she still needs a prince to save her. Only this time, it’s not from an evil stepmother or a ravenous wolf; he’s got to save her from herself. And it goes both ways: She’s got to save him as well. Their relationship is defined by how they can change the other: She needs him so she can loosen up and learn to have fun; he needs her so he can grow up and be a real man.
Think back to the romantic comedies before this trend. They were completely different. More like the traditional fairy tale, women needed men so they could advance in their lives. Well, it seems that women’s advancements far exceeded their roles, and now they’re suffering for it. In the slacker/striver motif, the woman is rigid, controlling, uptight and unable to love. It takes the flawed, adolescent love of some video game enthusiast to bring out the womanly side of her; and every time it works like a charm.
So what does this trend mean? Is it reflecting real life in any way?
This is where I started to find it interesting. I originally thought, since these films are largely made and produced by men, that it reflected an underlying fear that women are taking over. Just like the movies of the 1980s that were dominated by the fear that machines were taking over, this trend would prove to be largely unfounded and never realized. But I discovered something very different.
Turns out, according to the latest research, that the slacker/striver dynamic is alive and well in real life, not just in film. Although women still don’t earn as much as men for the same work, they are making their income a higher priority than men are. This, coupled with the recent job-loss statistics, reveal that the majority of jobs lost were traditionally male-dominated industries. This may be why women are aiming to earn more than before.
This trend isn’t just limited to work; education, too, is seeing big changes. Women now outnumber men in higher education, edging them out in obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In fact, the scarcity of men on college campuses has led women to pursue their careers earlier on, with the focus on earning more at a younger age.
This doesn’t mean, however, that women have opted for career over marriage and family. It just means that women are opting for marriages and families later on, once they have established their careers. One study reveals that here, too, women outnumber men in making a successful marriage an important goal in life. This certainly explains why the slacker/striver romance even involves a romance in the first place. Without that need to build a family, Slacker Guy would never, ever appeal to Striver Girl. Lucky for them, it’s a formula proven successful, as every couple of months, a new slacker/striver romantic comedy hits theaters and sells tickets.
So what does this trend mean for ordinary people, outside of the Hollywood rom-com formula? Is the slacker/striver a reality? Are women really earning more than men? And are women really as uptight and unable to love as these films portray? Is every 30-something guy an adolescent slob with a heart of gold?
For myself, I don’t know either of these people. None of my girl friends are so ambitious that they can’t relax, and none of my guy friends are that juvenile. But the trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I suppose I should just stay quiet and enjoy the film. Pass the popcorn!