There’s a moment in the upcoming Netflix film Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, about 40 minutes in, that will feel very familiar if you’ve ever seen an early Channing Tatum movie. In the scene, Sierra (Shannon Purser) is cat-fishing popular athlete Jamey (Noah Centineo) on the phone. Their conversation’s going well—it’s cute, there’s giggling—when Jamey starts lamenting that he doesn’t consider himself a “jock.” “I love football because every game is like a story,” he says with complete sincerity. “For a few hours, there are villains and there are heroes. Every pass is a triumph; every tackle is a tragedy.”
This dialogue makes Jamey an archetype we know all too well in pop-culture: the Sensitive Jock, an athlete who’s more than just a hunky, shallow lunkhead. Think Chad Michael Murray in A Cinderella Story or the aforementioned Tatum in She’s the Man. Maybe he reads poetry or likes theater or isn’t into the bitchy head cheerleader. In Jamey’s case, he likes astronomy. Or, in teen movie parlance, he’s also a nerd. (A nerd with a six-pack, obviously, because an unbreakable caveat of the Sensitive Jock is he’s also ripped.)
It’s not a coincidence you haven’t seen the Sensitive Jock in movies as much as you used to. That’s because our entertainment—for many reasons—has by and large abandoned the romantic comedy, a genre that dominated theaters for decades and serves as the primary home for these types of guys. In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter officially declared the romantic comedy is dead, noting studios are prioritizing films that can be “sequelized” and translate overseas (i.e.: big-budget superhero blockbusters or anything with “Jurassic” in the title).
Vulture refuted this claim in 2017, arguing that romantic comedies aren’t dead—they’re just changing. They’re on television (Insecure, Younger) or indies with more progressive stories (The To-Do List, How to Be Single). So in some respects, yes, the classic romantic comedy—ones where women are reduced to male-obsessed beings—is dead. And good riddance.
But Netflix is doing something radical: It’s bringing back the rom-com in all the right ways. During the past year, the streaming giant has released seven original movies that have the glossy sheen of a 2003 romantic comedy, minus the offensive tropes. You’ve probably watched a few already: Us and Them, The Kissing Booth (which features a Sensitive Jock!), Set It Up, Alex Strangelove, Ali’s Wedding, Catching Feelings, or The Week Of.
These movies aren’t perfect—The Kissing Booth, in particular, has caught some criticism—but as a whole, they’re more nuanced than their ancestors. And they still feel like romantic comedies. They’re shamelessly over-the-top: swelling with love, bombast, cheesy music, and even cheesier lines. In Set It Up there’s an actual meet cute. The dialogue in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser would’ve easily worked in a Molly Ringwald movie from 1985, as would the plot twist at the end of The Kissing Booth or the dad-on-dad shenanigans from The Week Of. At their core, these movies are capital R-C Romantic Comedies. The difference, though, is that they’re more inclusive in their DNA, which makes them even more enjoyable to watch.
“We’re in such dark times right now. People want movies that feel good.” — Lindsey Beer, screenwriter, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser
Netflix’s rom-com renaissance isn’t an accident: More than 80 million user accounts have streamed a romance film in the last year, according to data provided by the streaming service. That’s nearly two-thirds of Netflix’s global audience, so executives at the helm are just creating content they know their audience wants. “It’s pretty simple: We want to make more of what our members want to watch. And we’ve seen that our members around the world are watching a lot of rom-coms,” a representative for Netflix told Glamour in an email.
“A lot” is a bit of an understatement. According to Netflix, one in three people who watched The Kissing Booth streamed it a second time, which is 30 percent higher than Netflix’s average re-watch rate. Plus, the cast members’ social media followings have grown exponentially. Before The Kissing Booth premiered, Joey King (Elle) had 600,000 followers on Instagram; she now has 4.8 million. Jacob Elordi (Noah) had 15,000 and now has 4.4 million, and Joel Courtney (Lee) went from 300,000 to 1.9 million. So not only are these movies sticking, their lead actors are turning into bonafide superstars—much like what happened to rom-com queen Julia Roberts in the nineties.
The streaming numbers and Instagram followers are just two indicators of our rom-com hunger, though. Lindsey Beer, the writer of Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, thinks something deeper is at play. “We’re in such dark times right now. People want movies that feel good,” she tells us.
Susan Johnson, who directed To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Jenny Han’s hit novel (due out in August), expressed a similar sentiment. “I think the last few years have been all about the negative side of growing up: bullying, how tough it is, acceptance, gender issues, and sexual orientation issues,” she says. “Sometimes it’s nice just to drop into something that makes you happy.”
That’s very true: Netflix’s new slate of romantic films will make viewers quite happy, but they’re not escapist fluff. The central female characters are diverse, complicated, and interested in love—this is a romance movie, after all—but they’re interested in other things too. Sierra Burgess, for example, is a literary whiz who by accident starts thinking about boys. Beer was excited to present a character like her in a romantic comedy—and push the genre forward in the process.
“We’ve been introducing more female characters lately. We’ve gone through the Katniss Hunger Games warrior model, and we’ve seen Wonder Woman,” she says. “I think the natural branch-out from that is: What are these different flavors of women that we can portray as characters? I think that the next [phase] is: Well, we can also show women who are in more girly roles than some of the other roles we’ve seen now and show there’s no one right way to be a modern woman.”
“We’re always aching to see a wide variety of things, and this is something we haven’t seen for a while,” she adds. “I was really excited to write a character that was down to a much more human level. By virtue of being herself, and fighting for the ability to be yourself, that feels heroic to me.”
“Heroic” is a crucial word to describe Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and the rest of Netflix’s new rom-coms. The female characters have love interests, but they don’t need saving. They demand respect. These movies aren’t frivolous “guilty pleasures”—a sexist phrase often used to describe fluffy “chick flicks”—but on par with any film that explores the human condition, regardless of genre.
“I think [calling romantic comedies ‘guilty pleasures’] is silly and narrow-minded,” Beer says. “I don’t understand why positive-emotion films are often thought of as less serious than things where people are being blown up. I think that a well-written rom-com—just like all the John Hughes ones [and] When Harry Met Sally were—don’t have to be silly guilty pleasures.”
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before hits Netflix August 17, and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser debuts not long after on September 7. The platform will also premiere two more romantic films this summer: Like Father (August 3), starring Kristen Bell and Seth Rogen, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (August 10) with Lily James. If you’re keeping track, that’s nearly a dozen rom-coms Netflix is releasing over the span of just a few months.
These movies are all different in terms of tone, plot, and cast, but they have one commonality: love—and not in the clichéd way. Love in these movies takes many diverse forms, which is what both Beer and Johnson hope the revamped genre do in the future.
“[I want romantic comedies] to be more inclusive and look like the world,” Johnson says. “I think love should be multicultural. I would like to see more romantic comedies—there are several out right now—that are [about] a gay couple or a mixed-race couple. I think all of those stories should come out, and I hope there’s a time where [there] can be romantic comedies about people who are really different—opposites attracting—and it’s not about the fact they’re black and white or lesbian or gay. That it’s just a story about love.”
Beer shares a similar outlook.”I hope [the rom-com genre] continues to promote messages of love being important and love being OK and for both men and women to want love—I feel like we’ve started to shy away from that—but also encourages themes of independence and loving yourself and not loving somebody else at [the] expense of yourself. There’s a lot of positive messages that can be communicated through rom-coms, and I hope the genre continues to move the needle forward.”
Christopher Rosa is the entertainment staff writer for Glamour.