Phi’s Alpha/Beta post on Jane Austen reminds me of something else I’ve touched on in the past but want to bring up again.

I have a real pet peeve about some romantic comedies (or just comedies with some romance thrown in there cause every movie has got to have it) that can be contorted to fit within the alpha/beta paradigm: Girl is with good, safe guy. Girl meets (or becomes reacquainted with) roguish guy with a rough exterior but a good heart. Guy eventually wins over girl. Audience cheers. Trumwill fumes.

The fact that the first guy is outwardly stable and makes an effort to be pleasant and forthright and honest apparently counts for nothing. The fact that the buttmunch who is a jerk throughout significant stretches of the movie has a glimmer of a good sign to him is super-duper meaningful. The fact that the first guy lacks charisma is evidence that he is unworthy of her. The fact that the other guy lacks class is evidence of… nothing. The calico that toys with the dead mouse is a monster, but the puma whose tail looks like it’s sorta wagging is kind of cute, isn’t it? I’m never good at coming up with examples off-the-fly, but a few examples are below the fold at the end of the post.

What’s a bit interesting in retrospect, though, is how anxious I am to see myself in the position of the fellow getting dumped. In the years since I developed this distaste for this cinematic convention, I’ve discovered that things are a bit more complicated than that. I have been the unhealthy distraction as often as I’ve been the safe harbor being left for exciting waters. I’ve been the guy left for instead of the guy left from. But in those early says, I mostly saw myself in the guy being left because that was what my role in life was at the time. The jerk wins the girl. The nice guy gets the shaft. Whatever I may have in common with the lovable rogue and whatever I may lack in common with the nice guy getting dumped, it was the latter who was my soul-brother.

Reality Bites. The ultimate example. Winona Ryder is caught between the good and honorable Ben Stiller, with a good job and such a kind demeanor that when she causes him to have an accident he dates her rather than sues her, and on the other hand you have the pretentious, unemployed little snot Ethan Hawke. This example is so egregious that Roger Ebert dedicates the better part of his review (one of his best ever) of the movie knocking it down on this basis.

Liar, Liar. Jim Carrey’s jerkliness is rather central to the movie. Cary Elwes (whatever happened to him) is the earnest-but-clueless boyfriend of Maura Tierney, Carrey’s ex-wife. Carrey makes the decision at the tail end of the movie to actually be the sort of husband and father that he never, ever had been in the past (and not any more of a man than Elwes) and so naturally he wins her over. The movie goes to such great pains to make Elwes’s awkwardness cringe-inducing to reinforce the point that he is not as right for her as the reformed rogue that, had Tierney had any sense with, she never would have borne a child from in the first place.

Sweet Home Alabama. Reese Witherspoon is a southern escapee to New York City where she meets this super-duper great guy, Patrick Dempsey. The movie is about her return to Alabama wherein she becomes reaquainted with roguish old flame Josh Lucus. No doubt about how this ends, though at least this movie had the grace to make us feel sorry for Dempsey.

You Have Mail. You have Meg Ryan with Greg Kinear, who by most accounts is a stable and nice fellow. Then you have Tom Hanks, who is a cut-throat businessman actively trying to drive the little guy (or girl, in this case Ryan) out of business. Whatever your views of the marketplace, the movie’s position is that the Barnes & Nobles of the world driving out the bookshops around the corner is an unfortunate (if inevitable) state of affairs. Don’t worry, they don’t let this lament get in the way of Ryan and Hanks doing what Ryan and Hanks always do whenever they’re in a movie together. It’s okay, though, cause it’s made clear that Kinear doesn’t mind getting dumped.

Sleepless in Seattle. Another Hanks/Ryan example, but really it only gets halfway there. Hanks’s character is a good enough fellow, though he has not done a single thing in the movie to win Ryan’s love. This is in contrast to Bill Pullman, who stood by her all that time but who, alas, commits the sin of having bad allergies.

Category: Coffeehouse, Theater

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10 Responses to The Calico’s Lament

  1. a_c says:

    I don’t think hating the convention necessarily means that you see yourself in the position of the character getting dumped, any more than, say, feeling sorry for the anonymous stormtroopers means that you’re a loyal servant of the Galactic Empire. In many cases it’s a simple question of perceived justice, which doesn’t rely on tribal affiliation.

  2. Webmaster says:

    The ugly thing from these movies is twofold:

    #1 – the guy being left is inevitably portrayed as (1) a schmuck and (2) unworthy of the girl. This goes against the grain because what SHOULD be good, appealing traits that women SAY they want, are what isn’t really wanted.

    #2 – the “moral of the story” is that the jerks win. Every time.

    The one movie I wouldn’t want to analyze this way is Liar, Liar. First of all, there’s apparently more backstory than we know (it’s made pretty clear that that Carrey’s character became the despicable ass he is during the years prior to the movie as he focused more and more on his career, rather than always having been so). Second of all, because it includes Zany Premise #4952 for most of its gags, certain things are sacrificed to set the gags up.

    Cary Elwes’ character needs to be there to be a threat to Carrey’s character, part of the metaphorical kick in the pants. It’s unfortunate they made him out to be what he is rather than a more predatorial/annoying “why is this bozo going after the girl” individual, but that’s that.

    Oddly enough, LL is now available for free watching on hulu.

  3. Peter says:

    I am reminded of the current thread at A Notorious Sex-Related Blog, which discusses the Chris Brown/Rihanna incident. Skip through all the polemics and there’s the undeniable point that some women are drawn even to men who physically abuse them. Even possibly Rihanna, who is in no way financially dependent on Brown. Rumor has it that she won’t press charge and may want him back.

    Obviously, most women who aren’t themselves screwed up don’t go to this extreme. Yet it also seems fairly clear that women by and large prefer men with a take-charge attitude, especially men who can take charge without coming off as dictatorial. The reverse is true as well; men who are mild and non-dominant find it hard to earn women’s respect even if they are stable provider types. I’m not a big believer in evo-bio or evo-psych, but I have to concede that a few hundred thousand years of human history is difficult to overcome.

  4. trumwill says:


    That may not necessarily be so, but I think that it was so in my case.

  5. trumwill says:


    I think the moral of the story is a bit more nefarious than that. It’s that with the love of the right woman, a jerk really isn’t a jerk after all. He’s sweet beneath that rough demeanor, provided that he has the love of the right woman. To pay attention to how generously and benignly a man acts is superficial. You need to really get to know the guy underneath and not pay attention to such superficial things.

    As for Liar, Liar, it’s not a really big knock against the movie. I enjoyed it a great deal despite the use of the convention. Heck, I even enjoyed Reality Bites in its own way. Sweet Home Alabama less so because even aside from the convention I really, really didn’t like Witherspoon’s regression at the end. That’s actually the subject of another post.

    Having the guy be a real jerk/predator is itself something of a tiring convention. I realize that by saying this that I am putting writers into a bit of a corner as far as romcoms are concerned. But if you’re going to break from this convention, at least have the decency to make it a complicated situation rather than a “rah-rah, the guy got the girl!”. To their credit, Sweet Home Alabama and Sleepless in Seattle both did this.

  6. trumwill says:


    Non-assertive men do just fine under the right circumstances. Artist-types are generally non-assertive, for example. Assertiveness helps at least in part because they’re more likely to make the move and put themselves out there. They’re harder to get to know. The real enemy isn’t being non-assertive. It’s being dull. Assertiveness and rapscallionism are antidotes to being dull, but they’re far from the only ones. Sometimes guys waste their time on women that for one reason or another don’t find them interesting (sometimes the only reason that he finds her interesting is her appearance) or they spend inordinate amounts of time on things that are interesting to very few people when they might be better served socially by finding more conventional interests.

  7. Barry says:

    The popular example that jumped to my mind first was Jack/Kate/Sawyer from LOST. Classic example of girl who falls for good guy doctor hero Jack, but also loves bad boy con man Sawyer. Hilarity ensues.

    They’ve tended to make Jack more of a jerk as the series has progressed while humanizing Sawyer, forgetting that Jack saves lives and thinks about others, while Sawyer is a crook and a killer, and thinks mostly about himself. But Kate lurrrrves him, the big lug.

  8. Brandon Berg says:

    I’d argue that the opposite trope—the one where the sensitive new-age beta wins out over the jerky alpha—is equally harmful, because it provides a terrible role model for boys who are confused and trying to figure out how to succeed romantically.

  9. Kirk says:

    Three points:

    1) The “Bridget Jones” movies went the other way, with the dull lawyer guy getting the girl.

    2) I don’t understand why a guy who’s married is writing posts like yours. Isn’t this all behind you now?

    (Being a bitter single guy, I resent happily marrieds intruding on my turf. You’re like a white dude complaining about racism. Please, knock it off.)

    3) As for romantic comedies I’ve hated, nothing rivals my contempt for “Knocked Up.” There’s just something about that movie that grinds my gears.

  10. trumwill says:

    Barry, I hadn’t even thought of Lost. Then again, I always thought that Jack was a sanctimonious prick. I guess the whole “saving lives” bit compensates for that…

    Kirk, if Knocked Up had a nice guy in, I’d probably have added that to my list. Talk about worthless guys getting the girl. But I did like the movie. As for the subject matter of my posts, the beauty of being in a relationship is that you can approach these subjects philosophically and without fear of negative repercussions. I was single when I first started blogging. Back then I almost never wrote about relationships. Kind of funny, no?

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