To some people, Valentine’s Day encourages the notion that there is a blueprint for experiencing love—a pink greeting card, an appreciation post on Instagram, or a prix-fixe dinner. I find this notion stifling. To me, the holiday should instead provide an opportunity to rethink the rote role of romantic love in our culture. And for that, I’ve frequently turned to two classic romantic comedies that—in their treatment of age—are more complicated and progressive than critics sometimes give them credit for.
Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, both directed by Nancy Meyers, center on older people enjoying the dating scene. They star women over 50, a group long rendered invisible in rom-coms, showing not only that they can have an exciting love life, but also that this life can be desirable. Both Erica (played by Diane Keaton), of Something’s Gotta Give, and Jane (Meryl Steep), from It’s Complicated, are divorced, with loving families, satisfying jobs, and amorous entanglements. They pursue men and are pursued in return—both have two men competing for their attention. Rom-coms typically suggest that thrilling courtship is for people in their 20s and 30s. They imply that, once coupled, partners will follow a largely linear path from romance to marriage to children and a house. The dating pool might be tumultuous in early adulthood, but eventually that stage will be a distant memory. In these films by Meyers, though, both protagonists delight in their divorced lives—an implicit critique of marriage’s promise of finality.
For Erica and Jane, the happy ending is not necessarily another wedding or more kids—they’ve already had those. These movies ask what other futures might exist. They invite us to consider whether the person we are sexually involved with should be the most important one in our lives, for instance, or whether it is necessary to live with your romantic partner when you have a home of your own. In It’s Complicated, for example, Jane is remodeling her house and asks her architects to remove the his-and-her sinks from her bathroom. They respond by asking whether she’s sure she will not want a “his” sink “in the future.” The scene critiques how Jane’s world is literally built with the assumption that she will be part of a heterosexual couple—as well as the relief she receives from reforming her surroundings as she pleases.
Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated are not perfect. These films might reimagine what romance can be for older divorcées, but for other people, this vision of romantic life is just as exclusionary as that in standard rom-coms. In many ways, the two films affirm the traditional Hollywood message that true love is available only for the white, straight, and wealthy. Though they cast the lives of older women in an aspirational light, the movies in part rely on Erica’s and Jane’s wealth, especially their extraordinary kitchens, to do so. Writing about today’s marketplace of desirability, Jia Tolentino highlights that “sexual value continues to accrue to abled over disabled, cis over trans, thin over fat, tall over short, white over nonwhite, rich over poor.” Meyers might question society’s romantic bias for the young over the old, but her films seldom acknowledge some of its other ghastly prejudices.
At the same time, It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give are compelling precisely because of their specific focus—older women—which demonstrates the value of more diverse storytellers. In 2021, women made up 17 percent of the directors who worked on the 250 highest-grossing feature films in the U.S., and in 2003, when Something’s Gotta Give came out, the number was a mere 6 percent. Pop culture has historically trivialized stories for women by women, yet rom-coms—like soap operas and romance novels—take women’s concerns and sources of joy seriously.
Romantic comedies are not mere guilty pleasures. They can be scripts that guide our love lives—and how we navigate those norms helps determine how we spend our time on Earth. Though Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated are about older people, they provide women in their 20s and—as in my case—30s with alternative ways of thinking about what we want from our relationships and our futures. It’s Complicated ends with Jane potentially getting back together with one of the men she had been involved with. Something’s Gotta Give shows Erica leaving the handsome young doctor who promises stability—played by Keanu Reeves, no less—and giving philandering Harry (Jack Nicholson) another chance.
No life path is inevitable for these women, a lesson I value as I receive junk mail advertising engagement rings, scroll through the never-ending series of proposal photos on Instagram, and attend more and more baby showers. Maybe I want to get married and have kids. Maybe I want to date without aiming to settle down. Or maybe I want to live independently from my romantic partner, with a friend or a sister instead. Part of the fun in romances—and rom-coms—is that they don’t always unfold the same way.