the sister genre to the ’90s Dad Thriller
Note: I first posted this on my brand new Substack publication, which you can most definitely subscribe to if you feel so inclined. I don’t know yet what exactly I’m going to do here vs. over there, if I’m going to write different things for each, etc. We shall see. But for now, enjoy!
Working Girl is the sassy sister film to Die Hard
I’m just a little obsessed with Read Max’s post on ‘90s Dad Thrillers. The theory is air-tight and instantly evocative of the exact genre of movies it describes before it even gives examples. I love it. And since I first read the post, I’ve been thinking that there must be an equivalent mom-focused sassy sister genre. We’ll call it the ‘90s Mom Romcom.
You’ll usually be able to tell if you’re watching a Mom Romcom because, like the Dad Thriller, it will often star certain actors (Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, or Sandra Bullock, most commonly) as likeable (or if they’re unlikeable it’s in a cute, quirky way) heroines who are unlucky or unsatisfied in love, or Too Focused on Their Career for Their Own Good™, or just all around down on their luck.
Whatever their Big Problem, it will be fixed by the end of the movie with a grand gesture from the hero (who might be played by Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant) with either a romantic orchestral score or a Louis Armstrong song in the background. Their relationship will have included a meet-cute, a bit of light bickering, and maaaaybe a closed-door sex scene if we’re feeling adult, but remember, this is for suburban moms! We need a PG rating! Okay, PG-13 at most.
It will be written by Nora Ephron and directed by one of the Marshall siblings, if you’re lucky.
Mom Romcoms of the ‘90s often drew on a certain nostalgia, an inspiration from the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s. You can easily see a kinship between movies like The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby, with Mom Romcoms like Sleepless in Seattle or While You Were Sleeping. You’ve Got Mail is even a soft remake of the 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner.
Mom Romcoms also often romanticized the Old Guard in media, with heroines and heroes frequently working for newspapers, magazines, and broadcast TV, if not in another prestigious career field like law, entertainment, or business. Very few Mom Romcom heroines are working class, and if they are, their romantic aspirations are decidedly not (see: Pretty Woman; Maid in Manhattan).
These movies usually aimed for a timeless quality in the costuming, set design, and even the music, so they may not feel as dated as a ‘90s movie should aesthetically, though they often have attitudes toward sex and gender that are uncomfortably out-of-date.
Oh, and, with a few very rare exceptions, they were almost exclusively about middle- and upper-class white people. One of the main couple might have a Black friend, who existed solely as a sounding board/advice machine for the white main character. But other than that, these movies looked like GAP ads (‘90s GAP ads, when all the models were white, of course).
It’s important to note that not all romcoms from the 1990s are ‘90s Mom Romcoms. Most frequently, these non-Mom romcoms will fall into the categories of Teen Romcoms (10 Things I Hate About You; Clueless), or the more rare Romcoms Disguised as Dad Movies (Jerry Maguire; As Good As it Gets). More on those later.
Let’s take a look at the beginning, the Beginning of the Mom Romcom.
The Beginning of the Mom Romcom
Read Max dates the beginning of the ‘90s Dad Thriller to the film Die Hard, which despite being a ‘90s Dad Thriller, actually came out in 1988. Fittingly, the beginning of the ‘90s Mom Romcom also dates to 1988 with, in the words of Gene Belcher, Die Hard’s sassy sister film, Working Girl.
Some may think that we should consider the first ‘90s Mom Romcom to be 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, as it’s the first to have the undeniable hallmarks of a Mom Romcom. It even stars the Queen of Mom Romcoms, Meg Ryan. When Harry Met Sally is indeed foundational to the ethos of the Mom Romcom, but I’d like to argue that Working Girl laid a bit of that groundwork as well.
When Harry Met Sally is indeed foundational to the ethos of the Mom Romcom, but I’d like to argue that Working Girl laid a bit of that groundwork as well.
The stars—Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, and Harrison Ford—would not go on to star in more Mom Romcoms (though Ford did star in the 1995 remake of Sabrina, which I would consider adjacent to the Mom Romcom, and became a mainstay of the ‘90s Dad Thriller). Working Girl also has an R rating, mostly for a couple of pretty explicit sex scenes, which would become taboo by the end of the ‘90s Mom Romcom era (though sexual explicitness would return to romcoms in another form with the Apatow and Apatow-esque not-quite-romcoms of the mid-2000s). And, its marketing seemed to place a lot of emphasis on its director (Mike Nichols! He directed The Graduate!), which wasn’t necessarily a significant aspect of most Mom Romcoms of the ‘90s.
But looking at the structure of Working Girl as a narrative, we can start to see the form of the Mom Romcom taking shape. Our heroine, Tess, has big career aspirations and isn’t necessarily looking for love. The field she’d trying to make it in? Advertising.
Mom Romcom heroines often have careers in media or business-related fields, and are so devoted to their jobs that they either Don’t Have Time for Love™, or they tend to ignore their current romantic partner, who is probably a nice guy, but a bit of a bore (see: Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle and Greg Kinnear in You’ve Got Mail, both of whom Meg Ryan leaves for Tom Hanks).
Tess gets her break into her chosen field with a job as a secretary for Katharine, a top ad executive. Katharine is kind of a proto-Regina George; she gaslights, gatekeeps, and girlbosses with the best of them. Tess initially despairs of rising through the ranks with such an obstacle in the way. But then, through a series of accidents, coincidences, and a case of mistaken identity, she gets a chance to show the world what she can really do.
Of course, along the way, her path is a bit complicated by Han Solo, who has a very important businessy job (mergers and acquisitions? idk) and says and does a lot of things that should be HR violations. But Tess finds him charming (I mean, it is Harrison Ford at his Harrison Ford-iest) and they end up falling in love AND making a genius business deal. Tess gets to have it all.
About that Happily Ever After…
This brings us to what many would call an essential element of any romcom, Mom Romcom or otherwise: there has to be a romantically fulfilling conclusion, i.e., the couple we’re rooting for has to end up together at the end. This requirement would exclude two of the 25 films I analyzed for the above graphs: My Best Friend’s Wedding and Shakespeare in Love.
The latter I was on the fence about including anyway, so I’m fine with not counting it as a true Mom Romcom. But I would like to (briefly [hopefully]) make the case for My Best Friend’s Wedding being included. I have compiled my evidence into a bulleted list, see below.
Reasons My Best Friend’s Wedding is a ‘90s Mom Romcom
- it stars Julia Roberts, who was also the star of iconic Mom Romcoms Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride
- her character is a food critic, a very Mom Romcom heroine job
- her love interest is a charismatic sports journalist who doesn’t want to “sell out” by working for his fiancée’s dad, I mean, are you kidding me??
- the plot includes several romcom tropes, such as:
- best friends with an “if we’re not married by this time” pact (a mainstay of friends-to-lovers)
- a fake engagement to make the love interest jealous
- a romantic rival for the love interest’s affections who is perfect in every way and a foil to the heroine
- a dramatic chase scene and reconciliation at a transportation hub that also holds romantic significance
- and in what I believe to be the most convincing piece of evidence, its iconic “Say a Little Prayer” scene was parodied in Date Movie
I rest my case, your honor.
Iconic Mom Romcom stars + pairings
Roberts was not as prolific in the Mom Romcom space as Meg Ryan, but she does have a respectable five entries into the canon (if you’re counting My Best Friend’s Wedding) to Ryan’s seven. Ryan was notably paired with Tom Hanks for three of them. Here’s a breakdown of the stars you’ll see most often in ‘90s Mom Romcoms, as well as a few repeat Mom Romcom couples.
Meg Ryan + Tom Hanks
- Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
- Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
- You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Other Meg Ryan ‘90s Mom Romcoms
- When Harry Met Sally (1989)
- I.Q. (1994)
- French Kiss (1995)
- Kate & Leopold (2001*)
Meg Ryan movies that are romcoms, but are not ‘90s Mom Romcoms
- Addicted to Love (1997)—rated R way too late into the era
- Anastasia (1997)—for children
Julia Roberts + Richard Gere
- Pretty Woman (1990)
- Runaway Bride (1999)
Also Julia Roberts
- My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
- Notting Hill (1999)
- America’s Sweethearts (2001*)
Hugh Grant ‘90s Mom Romcoms
- Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
- Sense and Sensibility (1995)
- Notting Hill (1999)
- Mickey Blue Eyes (1999)
- Two Weeks Notice (2002*)
Hugh Grant’s “for consideration” filmography
- Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001*)—rated R, plus he’s not the hero?
- About A Boy (2002*)—not quite a romcom, but I would allow it if anyone felt strongly
- Love, Actually (2003*)—rated R, and this is really one of the first ‘00s Mom Romcoms
Sandra Bullock ‘90s Mom Romcoms
- Love Potion No. 9 (1992)
- While You Were Sleeping (1995)
- Hope Floats (1998)
- Two Weeks Notice (2002*)
Sandra Bullock’s “for consideration” filmography
- Practical Magic (1998)—this wants to be a romcom so bad
- Forces of Nature (1999)—SPOILER: she does not end up with Ben Affleck
- Miss Congeniality (2000*)—this is the one of these three I’d be most likely to be persuaded belongs in the Mom Romcom canon
Drew Barrymore ‘90s Mom Romcoms
- Ever After (1998)
- Home Fries (1998)
- The Wedding Singer (1998)
- Never Been Kissed (1999)
Jennifer Lopez ‘90s Mom Romcoms
- The Wedding Planner (2001*)
- Maid in Manhattan (2002*)
Jennifer Lopez’s “for consideration” filmography
- Out of Sight (1998)—technically a crime comedy, but it has a bit of romance and George Clooney, who moms love
*Films from 2000, 2001, and 2002 have been included here because scholars generally agree that the ‘90s began in 1988 and ended in 2002.
A few more ‘90s Mom Romcoms
- Groundhog Day (1993)
- It Could Happen to You (1994)
- One Fine Day (1996)
- Fools Rush In (1997)
- How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)
- The Best Man (1999)
A note about Historical Mom Romcoms
A film being set in a historical time period does not automatically exclude it from the Mom Romcom canon, especially if that movie is based on a beloved work of literature, like a Shakespeare comedy, a Jane Austen novel, or a fairy tale, and/or stars Emma Thompson.
The following are historical ‘90s Mom Romcoms:
- Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
- Sense and Sensibility (1995)
- Emma (1996)
- Ever After (1998)
- Shakespeare in Love (1998)—though debatable, as previously discussed
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)
Movies that are not Mom Romcoms
As I previously mentioned, not every romcom from the ‘90s is a ‘90s Mom Romcom. The factors that go into determining if a movie is a ‘90s Mom Romcom depend mostly on target audience. If the movie is made for teens, moms might still enjoy it, but it will not be a Mom Romcom. The genre of ‘90s Teen Romcoms honestly deserves its own post, but here is a sample list:
- Clueless (1995)
- Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
- 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
- Drive Me Crazy (1999)
- She’s All That (1999)
- Get Over It (2001)
Similarly, there was a small crop of movies in the ‘90s and early ‘00s that were clearly designed to be romcoms that suburban moms would be able to convince their husbands to go see with them, because they were also about sports, or had Jack Nicholson, or something. This type of movie was rare, because while a mom might be convinced to see a Dad Thriller with her husband, men are much more reluctant to watch movies that may be even remotely perceived as feminine—better add some explosions, just in case. However, a few do exist:
- Speed (1994)—this is a romcom and I will die on this hill
- Jerry Maguire (1996)
- As Good As It Gets (1997)
- Good Will Hunting (1997)
- The Mummy (1999)—see note for Speed
The End of the ‘90s Mom Romcom and the current state of romcoms
I feel like I’ve seen a lot of discussion about how “Hollywood doesn’t make romcoms anymore,” or about how the romcoms of recent years are fundamentally different from the romcoms of the ‘90s. That fundamental difference is intrinsically tied to the drastic changes in the entertainment industry and in our society and culture over the past couple decades.
Mom Romcoms of the ‘90s spoke to specific anxieties, questions, and desires held by suburban, middle class, (mostly) white women between the ages of 25 and 60, and those concerns look really different now than they did 30 years ago. The ethos of this genre represented a shift in cultural attitudes around women, and especially mothers, in the workforce; according to Department of Labor statistics, “the percentage of married women who hold a job and whose youngest child is between ages six and eighteen rose from 49.2% in 1970 to 74.7% in 1990.” And by the early 2000s women represented just under half the U.S. workforce.
The heroines of these films often have aspirational careers, perhaps reminding their viewers of their own career ambitions that they either gave up to have children, or that simply stalled for other reasons. The broader romance genre has always been about wish fulfilment in a certain sense, and consumers of the ‘90s Mom Romcom perhaps weren’t necessarily looking for a romantic escapist fantasy, but one in which their professional lives were more satisfying.
There are no politics in a ‘90s Mom Romcom, no class- or race-consciousness, and no economic struggle, except when it serves as part of a character’s back story or a plot device, and is forgotten or eliminated by the time you hear Louis Armstrong singing “La Vie en Rose” for the big romantic climax. And you know what? Maybe that’s okay. Maybe a romantic comedy film can just be escapist.
As for the final notable film entry into the ‘90s Mom Romcom canon, that honor would fall to 2002’s Two Weeks Notice (which should be styled Two Weeks’ Notice, just ask Lynne Truss). The stars, Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, are members of the ‘90s Mom Romcom Homecoming Court, and they play an idealistic lawyer and an out-of-touch billionaire, respectively. Bullock’s character expresses attitudes about social and economic class that may hint at the film’s political awareness, but this is portrayed as just one of her “quirks” and often played for laughs. Plus she marries a billionaire, so.
So why did the ‘90s-style Mom Romcom go away? A few reasons: the rise of the blockbuster and social media, the decline of the mythos of the “movie star,” and Judd Apatow. I’m only partially kidding about that last one. Romcoms were still being made in the 2000s, but many of them weren’t being marketed exclusively to women anymore. Plus the draw of a movie star didn’t have the same bankability as it did in the ‘90s, and we all know it’s all about those sweet, sweet box office numbers.
It’s interesting to note that three of the biggest romcoms of 2022 starred iconic ‘90s Mom Romcom actresses—Jennifer Lopez in Marry Me, Sandra Bullock in The Lost City, and Julia Roberts in Ticket to Paradise. In fact, Bullock and Lopez have both managed to make several romcoms in the 21st century, though the sensibilities of these newer films reflect different cultural attitudes than the ‘90s Mom Romcom in its heyday.
And the more recent romcoms we’ve seen starring younger actors, like 2018’s Set it Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, 2019’s Always Be My Maybe, and 2020’s The Lovebirds and Desperados, all have heroes and heroines more relatable to a 21st century audience. They also have notably much more racially inclusive casts, and more egalitarian portrayals of gender. We’re even seeing mainstream queer romcoms, such as Fire Island (2022), Bros (2022), and Happiest Season (2020), which was virtually unheard-of as recently as a decade ago.
Many of these new romcoms’ storylines also, while still keeping the romance central, don’t set up romantic fulfillment as a magical fix-all.
The romcom might not be what it used to be, but that might not be bad? And it’s definitely still alive. My mom loved Set it Up.