I’m trying to expand some thoughts I expressed in the comments of this old entry. I watch a fair amount of romantic comedies (I wouldn’t be surprised if I watch more than any of my co-utilitarians), especially the male-aimed kind (of the Kevin Smith/Judd Apatow schools) but also the female-aimed kind. A trend that has proliferated in the last several years is what some have termed “the slacker-striver romance,” where the slacker is always the man and the striver is the woman (I don’t know any LGBT instances of this trend, but I’d be fascinated to hear about them). It ranges from ridiculous male-wish-fulfillment (Knocked Up) to preposterous female-wish-fulfillment (in Failure to Launch, the guy lives with his parents, yes, but also just happens to be a wealthy yacht salesman played by Matthew McConaughey). You could even see WALL-E as a version of this (they both have important jobs that they are good at, but which has to learn to loosen up and have fun? Which is more human?).
I guess part of this comes from a real-life North American phenomenon of extended adolescence, but I think the trend’s biggest cultural precursor are nebbish-vindication stories, which many people trace back to Woody Allen. The geeky introvert, with embarrassingly big ethnic features, usually smarter than everyone around him but appreciated by no one, lusts after the perfect, successful, well-adjusted beautiful WASP. He gets her in the end, even though they have nothing in common, usually because he is a “nice guy,” unlike her brutish handsome WASP boyfriend (how exactly he is “nice” can be little more than notional… sometimes being nebbishy is enough to establish him as the one who should win, and he doesn’t ever have to do anything altruistic). In stories where he doesn’t get the girl, she is a symbol of everything that is bad and shallow about the world which constantly dumps on the poor nebbish.
This can be dismissed as obvious wish-fulfillment/power fantasy stuff, but it’s so pervasive that I can’t help but feel it influences real-world human relations in a significant way. I was exposed to probably more than my fair share of it, growing up consuming especially geeky culture (comic books, science fiction), and thinking that if I grew up pretty, I would be some downtrodden nerd’s salvation. Never, of course, that some otherworldly hunk was gonna reward my introversion and self-pity. I got started small, on Charlie Brown and Opus the penguin, and all the cruel, cruel hot girls who apparently had other interests beside them. I knew that if I only went for guys I found attractive, I was shallow and blind (whereas, if a guy only goes for hot chicks, well, that’s just evolution, don’t you know).
The counter-parable that’s been most in my head, as I think about this, is, ironically (and as also noted by Jon Hastings) another Judd Apatow joint. Freaks and Geeks was a one-season mid-nineties (I think. I just watched the season all at once this summer) show about a sister and brother and their respective circles of friends. Their high school experiences (she’s in grade eleven, I think, he’s in grade nine or maybe even eight) are parallel storylines in most episodes. At different times over the course of the season, they each enact nebbish-vindication narratives, but the show stays with each story long enough to see it fall apart. The sister gives in to peer pressure and dates the sweet loser in her circle of friends even though she’s not attracted to him. She ends up dumping him painfully a couple of episodes after, because she’s still not attracted to him, she’s a lot more intelligent than he is, and you know, he’s kind of a loser. He’s hurt badly, she feels guilty, and they unsuccessfully try to stay friends for the rest of the show.
The little brother is an ideal sympathetic nebbish: he is smart, studious, a big sci-fi geek, and actually sensitive and courteous to others. He of course lusts after the head cheerleader, she of course dates brutish jocks and thinks of him as just a friend, and we presumably are supposed to be rooting for her to notice the great guy right in front of her eyes. The unrequited bit carries on for most of the season, until she sees the light about three episodes before the end. Then it quickly goes south because, duh, they have nothing in common. It’s great.
You can see a couple of the seeds of the squickier Judd Apatow tropes in the show, like about how dating girls is totally less fun than hanging out with your buds. But like a lot of other people who half-like Apatow stuff, I’m still waiting for the best parts of Freaks and Geeks to show up in his movies.