A couple of weeks ago, on the advice of a colleague, I air-popped some popcorn, squeezed onto the sofa between squabbling children and clicked a “Play” icon, summoning that afternoon’s movie: “Enchanted,” a 2007 Disney release. It stars Amy Adams as Giselle, a fairy-tale princess stranded in contemporary New York. Patrick Dempsey plays Robert, the divorce lawyer whose heart she manually defrosts. “Enchanted” has catchy songs, poufy dresses, a chipmunk sidekick. It is, in most meaningful ways, delightful.
But “Enchanted” also has maybe my least favorite romantic-comedy trope, the tightly wound fiancée. Before Dempsey’s Robert can kiss the girl, he has to uncouple from Idina Menzel’s Nancy. We know that she and Robert can never be together. Because unlike Giselle, the unemployed, recently animated naïf flouncing around Robert’s prewar apartment, Nancy, a successful fashion designer, wants things. She wants dates and commitment and real flowers, not the ones Robert usually sends via e-card. (What? It was 2007, e-cards were a thing.)
Inconvenient fiancées and husbands, mistresses and boytoys are of course staples of a genre that depends, as reliably as a steeplechase, on obstacles. If the hero and the heroine — or the hero and the hero or the heroine and the heroine, and has anyone made a throuple movie yet? — are going to get together, other partners need jettisoning. It makes viewers feel better when we can dismiss these partners as too dumb, too stifling, or as in the case of Bill Pullman’s Walter in “Sleepless in Seattle,” too hyperallergic and blah.
I was joking about this on Twitter last week (forgive me, it’s a pandemic, I don’t get out much) and other people added their maligned rom-com characters — the ditsy second wife, the bland boyfriend. But the high-strung fiancée has my sympathies. It’s not personal. Well, not exactly. I don’t recall a boyfriend abandoning me for someone younger or more whimsical.
Then again my stringing is not exactly low. The older and more married I get, and the more I think about marriage as a practice women are taught to desire that still disproportionately benefits men, I wonder what’s so terrible about a woman who makes her expectations explicit from the start. Female characters like these tend to equal the hero — socially, professionally — and they don’t pretend powerlessness or an absence of desire.
Think of Baroness Schraeder, acted, delectably, by Eleanor Parker in “The Sound of Music.” Poised, expertly coiffed and not especially good with children, she convinces Captain von Trapp to propose. Then she watches as he jilts her for Julie Andrews’s Maria, a 19-year-old wannabe nun who runs around wearing drapes. How do you solve a problem like Maria? (A movie with lyrics like “Your life, little girl, is an empty page/ That men will want to write on” was always going to have weird ideas about women.)
A few nights ago I streamed “Working Girl,” a rom-com set on and around late ’80s Wall Street and a longtime favorite for reasons even beyond Joan Cusack’s Kabuki eye makeup. This time, I watched it for Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine, a WASPy, waspish mergers-and-acquisitions whiz, eventually deserted by Harrison Ford’s executive for Melanie Griffith’s tremulous secretary, Tess. A secretary who also happens to be a finance genius. But still.
Yes, Katharine takes credit for her secretary’s ideas; her work ethic is deeply impeachable. But this is a woman who breaks her leg skiing and — negligee-clad — throws a bang-up party in her hospital room. The screenwriter originally conceived Katharine as a male character and it shows, in her self-possession and audacity. She isn’t breathy or klutzy or achingly vulnerable, and I think we’re supposed to hate her for it. What if we worshiped her instead? When Tess succeeds, it’s in part because she borrows Katharine’s confidence as well as her badass wardrobe. Justice for Katharine. And her lingerie game.
Katharine reminds me of other thrown-over women, like Kelly Preston’s Avery Bishop, the hard scoop to Renée Zellweger’s soft-serve heroine, who tells Jerry Maguire, “There is a sensitivity thing that some people have, I don’t have it.” Or poor Duckface (Anna Chancellor) of “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” who explains to Hugh Grant’s Charles exactly what’s wrong with him, interests him only when unavailable and then loses him, at the altar, to Andie MacDowell’s airy Carrie.
Undergirding these characters, almost all of them created by men, is a troubling male fantasy, that the ideal woman will depend on a man almost entirely, but ask nothing from him and that women who do ask are too much trouble. Who decided that women who know what they want and ask for it are monsters and that men who don’t know and don’t ask are simps? Clichés like these efface the complications of real relationships. Sometimes we leave nice people. Sometimes nice people leave us. And maybe assertive, uptight women don’t even need a man to live happily ever after. But if they want one, they should get him.
In fairness, Nancy in “Enchanted” gets her own happy ending. Giselle reunites with her former true love, Prince Edward (James Marsden). But Edward cools on her when she starts asking for high-maintenance, real-world stuff, like a date. Later, after Giselle and Robert run off together, Edward meets Nancy. Too overwhelmed to make any demands, she follows him to fairyland and they marry immediately, before they can really get to know each other or discuss their parenting philosophies. Because that’s true love. Can’t wait to see how they divide housework.
“Enchanted” is available to rent or buy on Amazon, FandangoNow, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube; “The Sound of Music” is available to stream on Disney Plus or to rent or buy on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube; and “Working Girl” is available to stream on HBO Now, or rent or buy on FandangoNow, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.