From classics like “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” to new films, like “Desperados” and “Someone Great,” getting older is still seen as a bad thing. And that has to change.
About a month ago, I found myself, as many of us have throughout this quarantine, looking for a fun romantic comedy to watch with my Friday night. I hit play on Desperados, a newly released Netflix rom com starring Nasim Pedrad and LaMorne Morris.
I was no more than a half hour into the film when I heard Nasim Pedrad’s character, Wesley, lament to her two besties: “I thought by the time I was 30, I’d be married with like, this dope career and a couple of kids.”
Immediately, I rolled my eyes. All I could think was, “How are we still doing this?”
At a time when droves of women are putting their careers first and having kids later, pop culture is still perpetuating the myth that a woman needs to settle down by 30, or else she’s doing something wrong.
It’s time to abandon the notion that ‘happily ever after’ is only possible at a certain age.
But really, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Since the dawn of time — or least since the 1980s — romantic comedies have mostly shown disdain and contempt for the concept of a woman getting older, or more specifically, turning 30 without her life together — whatever that really means. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been generally uncomfortable with the concept of aging, of reaching the big 3-0 without a man, a cool job, a gorgeous apartment, and generally without having things “figured out.”
Of course, this inability to allow women to age comes from (gestures vaguely) society, but rom coms help to reinforce this stigma rather than rebuke it. Throughout my childhood, the Ephron trilogy — When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail — was constantly on a loop in my household, along with other rom com greats, like While You Were Sleeping, My Best Friend’s Wedding andSliding Doors, and even lesser-knowns, like The Object of My Affection and Kissing Jessica Stein. Oftentimes, in order to convince the audience to root for the heroine, she has to be tragic in some way, an underdog, and what is more tragic than being single at 30?
Take When Harry Met Sally, for example. Even the Rosetta Stone of rom coms isn’t exempt from lines like, “You’re 31 and the clock is ticking.” And while there is a counterpoint to this in the film — “The clock doesn’t really start to tick until you’re 36” — the point remains the same. Sleepless in Seattle takes it a step further: One of Meg Ryan’s co-workers asserts that women over 40 are more likely to be “killed by a terrorist” than they are to find a husband. The women in the room try to correct him and say that’s not true but, alas, they themselves do not seem convinced.
As luck would have it, I came of age right when rom coms were reaching their peak. This meant that there was no shortage of films my friends and I could watch, and watch we did. Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Wedding Planner, 27 Dresses — even Something Borrowed. These movies were littered with lines like, “You’re 30, you can’t afford to be picky.” And, of course, Bridget Jones’s behavior wouldn’t be viewed as messy or erratic if she were, say, 25 instead of 32.
But there is one movie over the years that I’ve latched on to, one that, for once, doesn’t treat turning 30 as a death sentence, but rather, as something aspirational — or even, God forbid — something to look forward to.
That movie, of course, is 13 Going on 30.
13 Going on 30, (or as some know it, the female Big), finds our heroine Jenna Rink miserable on her 13th birthday, desperately wishing to be “Thirty, flirting, and thriving.” After reading a spread in Poise magazine titled, “Why the 30s Are the Best Years of Your Life,” she wants to be like the women on the cover, to skip ahead through her awkward teen years and through her tumultuous 20s, to a time when she’s a confident, fully realized version of herself. It’s significant that she wants to be 30, and not 26. There is value that comes with age and experience, and the film recognizes that. Plus, the movie never at any point asserts Jenna needs to get the guy or nail the big presentation just because 31 is around the corner.
“13 Going on 30″COLUMBIA PICTURES
On another level, 13 Going on 30 subverts the concept of what checking off all these boxes really means. Sure, on paper, Jenna’s 30-year-old self is set: A great job, a hot boyfriend, Madonna on speed dial. But we soon discover what she had to sacrifice in order to get there. It puts a much-needed crack in the veneer of “having it all,” because — let’s face it — no one really does.
For me, the movie is a salve amongst the anti-30 rhetoric that can be found in most rom coms, something I held steadfast to as my own birthday approached. And I know I’m not the only one who did so, given the sheer number of women who caption their 30th birthday Instagram posts with “30, flirty, and thriving.” In fact, a friend of mine, going so far back as 27, constantly expressed her eagerness to turn 30, just for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invoke that perfect phrase.
These days, we find ourselves in the midst of another rom com renaissance — and thankfully, with movies like The Big Sick, Crazy Rich Asians and The Lovebirds, it’s more inclusive than the last one (and rightfully so). I, a lifelong rom com fan, am of course here for it. However, even though we’re telling different types of stories than we’ve seen before, there is one narrative that persists in some: Once you turn 30, your life is over.
And it’s not only Desperados. In Someone Great, Jenny, the main character, is faced with a major, life-changing breakup at 29, then promptly alludes to turning 30 and then probably dying. Not only does this feel like punching down, but it also feels woefully dated. As society advances, so too must rom coms. Can we abandon the notion that anything at all needs to happen by the time you’re 30? Or that this arbitrary deadline means anything, except one more candle to put on your birthday cake?
As society advances, so too must rom coms.
I turned 30 last September, and let me tell you something: It’s fine. I have no reason to think, as 13 Going on 30 suggests, that these can’t be the best years of my life. And that’s exactly what my friends who reached the mark before me also said. But their voices were frequently drowned out by the Katherine Heigl vehicles I’ve spent the last 15 years watching on repeat.
People regularly ask me why I feel so passionately about the romantic comedy genre; and to them I say, throughout my life, it’s been one of the few times I’ve consistently seen the inner lives of women being taken seriously on screen — our relationships, our friendships, our obstacles. And while every rom com needs a certain amount of wish fulfillment in order to succeed, be it the happily ever after with the right guy or girl, the gorgeous apartment, or even the gorgeous tropical island as a backdrop, it’s time to abandon the notion that “happily ever after” is only possible at a certain age.
Lana Schwartz is a writer who was born and raised in New York City, where she continues to live and watch rom coms today. Her writing has been published on TheNew Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Toast, The Hairpin, Reductress, and more. Follow her on Twitter @_lanabelle.