2. Romantic Comedies
2.3. Romantic Comedies in Change of Time
3.3. Social Function
3.4. The Origin of Stereotypes about France
3.5. How the Americans see the French.
4. Cinematic Examples
4.1. Lawrence Kasdan’s French Kiss
4.1.2. Stereotypes about the French
4.1.3. Stereotypes about the Americans
4.1.4. Depiction of Paris / France.
4.2. Billy Chrystal’s Forget Paris.
4.2.2. Stereotypes about the French.
4.2.3. Stereotypes about the Americans
4.2.4. Depiction of Paris
4.3. Jeff Schaffer’s EuroTrip
4.3.2. Stereotypes about the Europeans
4.3.3. Stereotypes about the Americans
6. Works Cited
Paris has always been a popular setting for American romantic comedies: Vincente Minelli’s musical film An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly, enchanted the American audience in 1951. In Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954), Audrey Hepburn’s character returns from France as a beautiful young woman, who obviously got enriched by Paris’s culture and lifestyle. The comedy Irma La Douce (1963), also directed by Billy Wilder, is entirely set in the bohemian Paris of the 1960s. More recently, Lawrence Kasdan’s French Kiss (1995) and Billy Chrystal’s Forget Paris (1995) provided the American audience with love stories set, or initiated, in France and thus supported the romantic image of the country. Chapter 2 of this term paper will focus on the genre romantic comedy, its main characteristics and origins. Furthermore, the success of romantic comedies will be investigated and linked to ever-changing cultural factors.
In romantic comedies, it seems nearly impossible for film-makers to completely avoid depicting stereotypes about the French and their country. In fact, comedies set in Paris or France intentionally exaggerate these stereotypes. Usually the American characters in these comedies are also depicted stereotypically. By underlining the intercultural differences between the two nationalities comic effect is created, which constitutes one of the main characteristics of a comedy. But what exactly are stereotypes and why do they emerge in the first place? And, more precisely, what are the origins of American stereotypes about France and the French? Why is Paris still considered to be the perfect place to fall in love? Chapter 3 will try to answer these questions in order to provide an insight into the concept of stereotyping.
Since the setting of Paris (and France respectively) and the genre romantic comedy seem to be a perfect match, chapter 4 of this term paper will be concerned with three American romantic comedies set in France: Lawrence Kasdan’s French Kiss and Billy Chrystal’s Forget Paris (both 1995), and a comedy from the current decade, namely Jeff Schaffer’s EuroTrip (2004) . Here, a short summary of each film will be provided, as well as an analysis of the various intercultural stereotypes. Furthermore, there will be a closer look on the depiction of Paris and what is directly and indirectly associated with the city.
2. Romantic Comedies
The romantic comedy is a sub-genre of the comedy and tends to always follow the same structure: Two (typically sympathetic) people meet, fall in love with each other sooner or later, but do not really get together until the end of the movie (Gerhart http://server4.medienkomm.uni-halle.de/filmsound/kap4-1.htm). Usually there is an obstacle which needs to be overcome, such as intervention by the lovers’ parents, a jealous ex-partner, or social, cultural, or racial differences between the lovers. Once the couple-to-be has somehow managed to smooth out the difficulties, the happy ending is inevitable and mandatory: they know that they belong together no matter what might be the circumstances. This “strong degree of closure at the end” is typical for classical Hollywood cinema in general, as Bordwell and Thompson observe: “We usually learn the fate of each character, the answer to each mystery, and the outcome of each conflict” (77).
Having its seeds in the time of the silent movie, the early romantic comedy constituted a mixture of romance and comedy of manners and made its first appearances in the early 1930s (Belton 185). In contrast to slapstick comedies, which almost exclusively featured male characters, an actress was of essential importance in romantic comedies, since “the central dramatic action involved the comic […] vicissitudes of a heterosexual love affair” (Belton 185). Romantic comedies were unsuccessful or rather non-existent in the America of the 1970s and early 1980s (Belton 197). Due to the “new openness about sex” resulting from the sexual revolution of the 1960s other types of comedy came to the fore, predominantly “the decidedly non-romantic animal comedy” (Belton 197). The preference of depicting sex instead of romance and affairs rather than “traditional […] heterosexual relationships” changed again in the 1990s: filmmakers started combining “old fashioned romance with the erotic openness that is a legacy of the 1960s” (Belton 198).
2.3. Romantic Comedies in Change of Time
As Bordwell and Thompson argue, every genre strongly relies on cultural factors and therefore “fluctuate[s] in popularity” (99). So do romantic comedies: even though one might assume that romance never goes out of fashion, the aftermath of the sexual revolution in America proved the opposite (as already explained in 2.2.). Johnson furthermore considers romantic comedies to be “very observant about the humor and mores of their time”: every generation has its own definition of appropriate gender roles and therefore the way men and women come up to each other in terms of romance is in constant change. “[This] can be perceived in the popular romantic comedies of each generation” (Johnson http://www.storyispromise.com/wromance.htm). Although it is impossible to go back to the days before the sexual revolution, romantic comedies like Forget Paris use intertextuality as a means of reminding the audience of a Hollywood classic and thus “[rework] its romantic relationship from the 1990s perspective of innocence lost” (Belton 198).
Genres in general are frequently considered to be like “ritualized dramas resembling holiday celebrations”: Just as Christmas is hard to imagine without a Christmas tree, romantic comedies are automatically associated with a happy ending; they “reaffirm cultural values with little variation” (Bordwell and Thompson 99). One can thus argue that there is a certain pleasure that one takes in watching romantic comedies and more precisely in the happy ending finally uniting two lovers, mainly because romantic love belongs to “our most cherished values” (Bordwell and Thompson 99).
As Stangor defines, “stereotypes are beliefs about the characteristics of groups of individuals […] and stereotyping is the application of these stereotypes when we interact with people from a given social group” (1). A person being prejudiced about someone has already made a judgement before having made any experience him- or herself; as opposed to stereotypes, “prejudice has an emotional component as well” (Stangor 8). Both stereotypes and prejudice result from the process of social categorisation, which means that people are more likely to view another person as belonging to a certain category (such as woman, black, or French) than to appreciate that person as an individual character (Stangor 2).
Most Americans would probably agree that, by and large, French people like to smoke, seem arrogant and have a great sense of fashion. The opposite way around, the majority of the French would assume that Americans are superficial, successful businessmen, and love fast food. Even if some of these characteristics might have a little truth in them, stereotypes tend to be “overgeneralized or exaggerated”, as Stangor states (7). Even if an American has never even met a Frenchman in his life, he probably would not hesitate to verbalize his stereotypes about the French. Needless to say, this also applies the other way around.
Since it is certainly true that stereotypes do not necessarily develop from one’s own experience with members of a social category, it is obvious that children absorb their parents’ and friends’ opinion from the very beginning of their lives. Also, the media plays an important role (Stangor 10). Therefore, films are very likely to help children build up stereotypes: if a 6-year-old American watches French Kiss, he might keep in mind that French people smoke, are criminal and live on winegrowing. Although it is only Luc’s fictional character that inhabits all of these features, the child would probably perceive other Frenchmen as similar to Luc. This “tendency to see members of the same group as more similar (or homogeneous) to each other than they really are” is known as perceived out-group homogeneity (Stangor 12). Stangor further explains that this phenomenon seems to occur especially when people (in this case, Americans) do not “have as much contact with out-group members” (in this case, French) (12).
“One of the fundamental characteristics of stereotypes is that they are difficult to change once they become established” (Stangor 13). Although it has been over 60 years since the end of World War II, there are still many people who actually believe the Germans to be Nazis (this becomes obvious in EuroTrip). Furthermore, although the American society might have changed a lot over the last 100 years, the phrase “Land of Unlimited Possibilities” and the concept of the “American Dream” are still deeply rooted in many people’s minds, just as they were in the immigrants’ minds many decades ago. Stangor explains that “if individuation doesn’t occur, then the group stereotype cannot be changed” (13). This means that if an American, who already has certain stereotypes about the French, does not actually meet a French person who can prove the opposite, his generalised opinion will not alter, since “the most common approach to changing stereotypes is to provide individuals with information that their stereotypes are false” (Stangor 15).
3.3. Social Function
Stereotypes are so much a part of daily life that it is hard to imagine individuals or even societies living without them. Although some people might claim that they are free of stereotypes, various studies of social psychologists would prove the opposite. Studies have shown “that social categorisation occurs easily and frequently, and [suggest] that people are not even aware they are doing it” (Stangor 3). One of the main reasons for doing so is the assumption that categorizing people into groups will be helpful in order to assess a person’s character (Stangor 4). Provided that the information one suspects to be true is indeed correct, “using our stereotypes to size up another person might simply make our life easier” (Stangor 4).
3.4. The origin of stereotypes about France
Whenever there is a new romantic comedy set, or partly set, in France, the audience can already imagine what will happen to the main characters: They either fall in love, experience sexual liberation or undergo a general change, influenced by French culture and lifestyle. Paris thus seems to never lose its reputation as the city of art, love, and passion, where Americans go in order to find themselves, make up their minds about something or just be impressed by the multitude of historical places. The reasons for these stereotypes, which are widely spread among the American audience, can be found by taking history into account: As Heller explains, the United States have always idealized monogamous heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable sexual relationship Americans were supposed to establish; “extravagant notions of romantic love […] and sexual passion” were widely condemned as sinful by the American WASP society and frequently associated with Europe (146). “The free-thinking city of Paris was believed to provide the antidote to such cultural sterility and so it became in American modernist iconography, the European capitol where artists, writers, socialites, and intellectuals typically went to learn about good living […]” (Heller 146). American expatriation to Paris reached its climax in the 1920s: Yearning for cultural depth and sexual liberty many American freethinkers, members of the so-called Lost Generation, left their home country in order to spend time in Europe and most commonly in Paris; among the most famous expatriates of that period were Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein.