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By Emma Ben Ayoun, writer
Harold Ramis’ 1992 film Groundhog Day is one of relatively few romantic comedies that have truly endured the test of time, remaining a beloved classic (for many, at least as much of a cultural landmark as the rather insubstantial holiday for which it is named) for over 20 years, in large part because of Bill Murray’s charming performance. Upon re-watching Groundhog Day, however, its central love story, between Murray’s cranky Phil Connors and Andie MacDowell’s lovely Rita, becomes quite troubling. In order to get Rita to fall in love with him, Phil, who is caught in an endless loop of repetition (waking up each morning to find that it is once again Groundhog Day), must get to know her perfectly: learning all of her tastes, dreams, desires and slowly transforming himself into her romantic ideal.
But this transformation is, for all its good intentions, on entirely unequal terms: it requires that Rita not know how Phil came to be so perfect. In living the same day over and over, Phil accumulates knowledge that nobody around him can have—both of the day itself (he becomes acutely aware of when things will fall down, what people will say, where they will be, etc.) and of Rita, who reappears to him each day as blank and unknowing as the day before. The otherwise forgettable 50 First Dates (2004) tells the story of a man, Henry Roth (Adam Sandler), in love with a woman, Lucy (Drew Barrymore) who, as a result of a car accident, lives on a 24-hour amnesiac cycle, experiencing the same day over and over again. 50 First Dates lacks all the humor and style of Groundhog Day, but perhaps its complete lack of irony and subtlety allow the truly disturbing gender relations promoted by these films to become more explicit: in this view of heterosexual romance, a woman’s sexual viability is contingent on her knowing nothing, remembering nothing, and having no sense of the future. The fantasy of male omnipotence marches on.
Groundhog Day was released the same year Rebecca Walker coined the term “third-wave feminism” to describe a movement in feminist thought towards a post-structuralist view of gender and sexuality—a movement with an eye towards dismantling existing power structures rather than simply fighting to make those structures inclusive to women. The 1980s in America had seen a massive increase in women’s share of the labor force; while writers and academics like Walker were becoming increasingly critical of capitalism’s possibilities for feminism, popular culture seemed to herald this shift as a purely positive one. Indeed, the equation of financial independence with gender equality and social emancipation has persisted in American culture in the two decades since—whether in the form of Destiny’s Child reminding us that “I bought it” in “Independent Woman” or Sheryl Sandberg’s enormously popular Lean In (which, fascinatingly, was just optioned by Sony Pictures). The paradox at the root of this equation is on full display in Groundhog Day. Rita is Phil Connors’ boss, a fact about which he is clearly resentful at the start of the film; but she is, in spite of her position of power (as well as the fact that she is shown to be kinder, more intelligent, more cultured and more beautiful than Phil), ultimately unable to resist his advances. She may keep her job, but she cannot shed her womanhood, and with it her status as a sexual object. Phil still wins. In Phil we see an increasingly anxious patriarchy in a capitalist, post-women’s-lib America: traditional economic and gender structures left unquestioned as the fabric of the work force is radically reformed. The need to remind these economically powerful women of their inferior status in the (hetero)sexual sphere lies at the heart of this romantic comedy and countless others. And if they will not be reminded, then we must remove their brains.
In Bound to Bond: Gender, Genre, and the Hollywood Romantic Comedy, Mark D. Rubinfeld identifies the plot structures typical of romantic comedy. Groundhog Day, using Rubinfeld’s classification system, involves a “coldhearted redemption plot”: a “bitter hero who is incapable of love” is redeemed by the kindness of a woman (Rubinfeld 15). On the surface, it seems to suggest that there is a power in feminine care and love capable of quelling masculine arrogance and dominance. However, the memory-loss plot undermines that by suggesting, instead, that that arrogance find its “perfect match” in a loving and mindless woman, whose function is still one of male-problem-solver, rather than equally desiring subject. Phil’s redemption relies on Rita’s subjugation, on his accrual of knowledge as an acquisition of power over her, a lead on her to which she will never catch up. Media and film critic James Bowman, writing about 50 First Dates, suggests that “Lucy is living every woman’s dream. She can never be taken for granted or ignored because her young man has to new-woo her every day” (Bowman 3). This rather horrible statement (Lucy is forever stunted in her emotional and mental growth, since she has her memory erased every night when she falls asleep) is enormously telling in its assumptions about gender and heterosexual fantasies—it presumes a masculine fantasy of pursuit and a feminine fantasy of being pursued, as though these two are mutually exclusive. Lucy, like Rita, is made completely vulnerable to deception, manipulation, and ownership. This sounds more like a nightmare than a dream to me. Consider films about male memory loss: Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—films filled with a nightmarish panic, the (appropriate) fear of the de-stabilized self.
Romance can be read as a delicate tug-of-war between knowing and not-knowing: recognizing oneself in another, feeling known, understood, accepted—these are all integral to love; and at the same time, the intrigue of the unknown other and the joys of performing, making oneself mysterious, are integral to seduction. In films like Groundhog Day and 50 First Dates, however, the reciprocity of understanding and mystery is replaced with a complete asymmetry between the sexes, in which a man comes to be the site of all knowledge and his female love-object is slowly drained of it, loses her knowledge of herself, the world, and her lover—becoming both mirror and vessel, reflecting the male protagonist and absorbing only the knowledge he will impart to her, allowing him to enact the role of knowing seducer forever.
One of the most cherished and enjoyable aspects of the romantic comedy genre is its creation of a world in which absolutely everything is subordinate to love. All kinds of behaviors which would be utterly horrifying in real life—lying, cheating, manipulating, stalking—are permissible in this world; the only consequence that matters is the union of the central couple. In that sense, then, a film like Groundhog Day, which uses a time-loop device to construct its narrative, throws the fantastic nature of romantic comedy into starker relief—demystifies it, makes it clear that this romance is not situated in the audience’s world. But at the same time, key component of the way that the amnesia-love-plot promotes its message of insurmountable sexual difference lies in the use of this external component as a structuring force for romance. Groundhog Day’s Phil and 50 First Dates’ Henry both find themselves in circumstances that lie beyond their control; therefore they cannot be faulted if they just happen to use these circumstances to their advantage—since they are in love. This blamelessness is less pleasant when it is then transferred onto an understanding of gender: the assumption that gender and gendered behavior are somehow “inevitable,” essential, have their origins outside of us—these are arguments that excuse not only passivity in the face of a misogynistic world but acts of misogyny themselves—attitudes from “boys will be boys” to “she was asking for it,” in more colloquial terms. In these films, love, within the context of such extreme circumstances, becomes a convenient justification for the complete exploitation of a vast imbalance of power. Love narratives frequently invoke fate, but what is fate for one person may be doom for another.
Groundhog Day and 50 First Dates both end with strikingly similar imagery: in the former, Phil carries Rita out into a snow-covered morning (it is, finally, February 3rd, the sincerity of Phil’s love having seemingly broken the cycle) and in the latter, Lucy awakens, confused, on a boat in the Arctic, where she watches a video made by Henry explaining her entire past to her and essentially informing her that she loves him. Phil and Henry have found love by becoming leaders, teachers, captors. Their happy endings are rich with images of containment and blankness—men leading (their) women into a vast and clean world, somehow “removed” from the social world (with all its threatening potential), a world rendered pure not through love but instead through the erasure of a woman’s being, a shift in her from independence to complete dependence. One of the joys of watching films lies in knowing what the characters do not—the thrilling back-and-forth cuts of suspense sequences, the perfectly timed setups of slapstick comedy, the camera’s ability to pass through walls, behind closed doors, above and around the world it shows us. In the world of amnesiac romance, however, we share this extra knowledge with a character inside the narrative—and are complicit in his laughter, for the joke is on her, and her alone.
50 First Dates. Dir. Peter Segal. Sony Pictures, 2004.
Bowman, James. “Memory and the Movies.” The New Atlantis, No. 85, Spring 2004.
Groundhog Day. Dir. Harold Ramis. Columbia Pictures, 1993.
Rubinfeld, Mark D. Bound to Bond: Gender, Genre, and the Hollywood Romantic Comedy. New York: Praeger, 2001.