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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

Rom-Com or Classical Novel? It Turns Out, They’re Not So Different

While modern romantic comedies may appear worlds apart from the lofty heights of classical literature, the enduring allure of delving into gender norms and love across mediums and generations never ceases to surprise.
Jane Austen, one of the most revered novelists from the 18th century, has had many of her works adapted into modern-setting — including ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ (Photo Credit: Eymery, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Circumstances force them apart. Despite the conflict, however, romance prevails. Cut to a big romantic gesture, and the one who screwed it all up professes their love, with swelling music playing in the background.

This age-old series of events riddles the screens of idealistic romance films and aspirational literary tales of love.

Similarly, one may witness this: A beautiful, wealthy girl loves to play matchmaker. Convinced she has this profound skill, she sets up her new friend with a man while simultaneously rejecting love herself. As time progresses, however, the beautiful girl realizes her true love for someone she had in her life all along. 

This (abridged) plot description describes the 1995 teen comedy movie, Clueless

And it describes Jane Austen’s 1816 classic novel, Emma

While austenites and rom-com enthusiasts often come from vastly different generations, in many ways, their interests overlap. 

“I’m a huge fan of the classics — the language isn’t actually hard to understand when you really immerse yourself in the writing. To me, the love stories that these books tell have resonated with the modern media I consume a lot too,” said Amanda Gao ’25.

Literary critics and avid readers alike have been engaged with novels and plays like Much Ado About Nothing and The Scarlet Letter — filled with prose that pushes the narrative to acknowledge the power of young women — for centuries.

As a result, some might point a finger at the genre, and wonder if it has gone out of style.

Since the golden era of Shakespeare’s Globe or the Regency era, the women’s movement has undergone radical change. Whether it’s third-wave feminism or the #MeToo movement, the world has continued to reform.

Enter a retelling of these classics. 

Where there once was Much Ado About Nothing, now there is Anyone But You, now set amid a queer wedding.

The Scarlet Letter is a must-read classic; Easy A puts a new spin on Hawthorne’s novel, placing it in a high school setting.

Film and books often intertwine from adaptation to adaptation, but the influence of these prominent literary works on film allows similar themes to emerge alongside updated settings and depictions. Simultaneously, both mediums mirror the way readers look at their protagonists.

Isn’t that always the way?” Easy A’s protagonist Olive Penderghast asks, “The books you read in class always seem to have some connection to whatever angsty adolescent drama is going on?” 

As Olive says, the parallel between the stories of novelists like Hawthorne and the contemporary background of girlhood resonates with striking familiarity.

The Strong Female Protagonist 

Overarchingly, the strong female protagonist is featured across many of these texts as well as modern romantic comedies. However, they live in a society where they’re forced to defy the odds — the world at large exists in, primarily, a bubble of patriarchy. In a system constructed to value male superiority, women and gender minorities are often on the other side of harmful stereotypes.

“All I could think was, ‘Great, now I’m a tramp! I’ll have to get a lower back tattoo and pierce something not on my face,’” said Olive in response to her school’s rumors about her proclivities.

Olive Penderghast in Easy A draws inspiration from Hester Prynne in the well-known historical fiction novel, The Scarlet Letter. The fictive Ojai North High School basked in the whispers of Olive’s apparent promiscuity with various boys in and out of the school. When the rumors from the school turned sour, Olive took control of her narrative by standing up for the truth and challenging social judgments, owning her new image. 

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester received similar ostracism from her community. Instead of the rowdy teenagers in Olive’s world, however, the people of her world were New England Puritans in the 17th century. After committing the sin of adultery, Hester bore the letter ‘A’ as punishment, to the dismay of her fellow Massachusetts Bay Colony residents who shun her for much of the novel.

While from drastically different times, the consensus is sound: women who defy the norm are easily subject to the mocking of their peers. Specifically, these are peers who feed into the scrutinization of women.

However, despite being one’s standard rom-com, Easy A delivers on giving nuance to the characterization of Hester. In fact, Olive directly references its source material through Olive’s high school English class. 

Olive discussed her rebellious conduct with her teacher through the lens of their current reading: “I’m really attempting to understand this puritanical ostracism [Nathaniel] Hawthorne wrote about… [Hester Prynne] bore herself in humble punishment… which are two concepts I’m not comfortable with.”

In this manner, Easy A provides an update to the narrative of Hester Prynne. While Hester was a questionable feminist, within the confines of Puritan society, Olive is proudly a nonconformist figure in her modern world. 

Hester is forced to wear the Scarlet Letter as a symbol of shame, later shedding it as a form of liberation. 

Olive wears it with a sense of clear irony from the start — she sews the red ‘A’ onto her clothing herself, serving as both an unmistakable historical and literary reference as well as a symbol of her defiance. At the end of the film, she embraces her strength and femininity, sets the record straight on her own terms, and champions the grit of her independence. 

Moving back in time, when it comes to adapting the classics, rom-com filmmakers frequently turn to the works of William Shakespeare — the prolific Elizabethan playwright — to create their modern adaptations. 

Take Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You and Kate Minola in The Taming of the Shrew. One is a proud, guitar-playing, nonconforming feminist stuck in her Seattle high school. The other is an ill-tempered Renaissance woman unwilling to be wed off.

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, written in the 16th century, reflects the rigid gender norms of its time, an aspect that its modern adaption 10 Things I Hate About You plays on. 

Building on the blueprint text, in 10 Things I Hate About You, Kat challenges and expands the archetype of the ‘shrew.’ Kat is not a mere pawn in a patriarchal game; she’s poised and intelligent, owning her perceived spiteful image. “I don’t like to do what people expect,” said Kat in the film, “Why should I live up to other people’s expectations instead of my own?”

Looking closer at Shakespeare comes another adaptation: Much Ado About Nothing, published in 1623, and Anyone But You released in 2023.  

The Perspective on Love

It’s 16th century Messina – on the picturesque, remote city on the island of Sicily, an escape from the fierce war raging outside the borders.

In the bustling world of modern romance, William Shakespeare’s timeless comedy, Much Ado About Nothing continues to captivate audiences with its witty banter, tangled love affairs, and enduring themes of love’s triumph over adversity.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into falling in love. 

This print of Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing depicts Act 4 Scene 1, where the two confess their love for each other for the first time. (Photo Credit: Robert Cribb, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Anyone But You, Bea and Ben are tricked into falling in love through a windswept destination wedding, embracing unserious affection between the protagonists. 

At the heart of the play and the film lies the spirited verbal sparring between the pairs of love, whose initial disdain for each other gradually gives way to genuine affection. Their journey from adversaries to lovers resonates with modern audiences, reflecting the celebration of both the enemies-to-lovers trope and the overcoming of the miscommunication trope.  

In many ways, the love story between the play and the film directly parallel each other in one’s typical storyline. “They hate each other, there is a misunderstanding, then their story ends in happiness,” said Bronx Science English teacher Mr. Licardo.

What if this iteration of the three-act structure was changed? What if the gender roles weren’t so rigid?

Breaking the Heteronormative

While love can be considered a universal emotion to humanity, queer love has often been overlooked in mainstream media and literature. However, what the modern adaptation can do is change the heteronormative status quo: which is exactly what Fire Island does to Pride and Prejudice.

Many associate Pride and Prejudice with its primary love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy Fitzwilliam and secondary romance between Jane Bennet, Elizabeth’s sister, and Charles Bingley. One might admire it for the humorous dynamic between the Bennet sisters and their parents, or even the novel’s quaint rural England setting. 

Fire Island, while directly inspired by Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, has none of these exact qualities. The primary love stories are between Noah and Will based on Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and Charlie and Howie, based on Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley. The Bennet family is transformed to represent a group of gay men and their mother figure, Erin. The village setting changes to the vacation spot of Fire Island, New York, known for its gay villages.

While seemingly two different stories Pride and Prejudice and Fire Island give readers and viewers a masterclass in discovering the pitfalls of miscommunication and aspirational romance. 

By reimagining a classic tale with a queer context, Fire Island reassesses the conventional notions of love and relationships. Joel Kim Booster’s screenplay subverts heteronormative assumptions, exploring the well-known themes of longing and affection in relationships through a visible, vibrant queer lens. “Love takes multiple forms: across gender and across class… this movie incorporates those themes really well,” said Dara King ’25.

The film diverges from conventional retellings of Pride and Prejudice by shifting its focus towards the themes of friendship and family inherent in the original text, steering away from the traditional romantic comedy format. 

The friendship between Noah and Howie is based on that of Elizabeth and Jane. In a society where queer people are often socially ostracized by their birth family, the common reality of a found family remains an integral aspect of many queer journeys. While  Noah and Howie are not biologically related, the parallel of their connection to a sisterhood prioritizes the queer experience through the concept of chosen family.

Fire Island functions as an homage to Austen’s themes — throughout its unique retelling of the classic, it continues to celebrate the jubilation of queer identity and provide visibility for the queer community and diversity within it. 

The Standards of Beauty

Picture the scene: a girl with glasses sits in front of her mirror. Then, with the help of some savvy friends, she takes off the glasses. Suddenly, the awkward girl is transformed into a future prom queen, reveling in her newfound beauty. The common ‘makeover trope’ feels like a staple to an array of teen chick flicks, yet it isn’t a new phenomenon. 

In the play Pygmalion by playwright George Bernard Shaw, aristocrats Henry Higgins and Colonel Hugh Pickering task Eliza Doolittle to overcome her lack of ‘civility’ with an introduction to genteel culture.

“Their roles are part of the patriarchy. They put a stamp on her as if to say ‘This is my child.’ There’s an idea that Higgins has to remake [Eliza], that he can single-handedly remake her,” said Mr. Licardo. 

Nonetheless, Shaw chooses to end the play with pushback against the entire philosophy of Higgens and Pickering. “I won’t care for anybody that doesn’t care for me,” Eliza remarks to Higgens in the final act of Pygmalion. Eliza’s sense of self-respect emboldens a divergence from the cliché, defying the makeover’s superficiality and taking back her power.

Featuring actress Lynn Fontanne as Eliza in the Theatre Guild production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, this photograph depicts Eliza prior to her encounter with Higgins and Pickering. (Photo Credit: Theatre Guild, photograph by Vandamm Studio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the world of Pygmalion and the modern age, people like Higgens and Pickering like to reinforce their dominance by objectifying a seemingly harmless girl. This parallel begs the question: to what extent are modern-day women confined to metrics of attractiveness as they were 100 years ago? 

The 1999 film She’s All That also relies on the makeover of an artsy girl into the ideal version of popularity and grace. 

Laney Boggs to the popular clique in her high school is the archetype of the nerdy, unattractive outcast.

Zack Siler, one’s typical jock, needs to transform her into a prom queen. With the help of his sister Mack, he takes on the bet.

This narrative is evidently an adaptation of Pygmalion in this manner, with Zack’s initial challenge embodying that of the game of Higgens and Pickering. 

Unlike the pair of aristocrats, however, his outlook changes. Unlike the world of gentility in Pygmalion, Laney doesn’t seem to be confined to such strict social norms that her worth is solely connected to her beauty.

“May I present the new, not improved, but different, Laney Boggs,” said Mack when unveiling Laney’s new look. While She’s All That does play into the common ‘makeover trope,’ the film doesn’t shy away from the notion of female solidarity. Rather, it departs from framing Laney’s identity through her looks, bringing nuance to the prevailing cliché.

This skin-deep narrative is also challenged by Emma and its adaptation Clueless

“A heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” said Jane Austen about Emma Woodhouse in Emma. Rich and intelligent, yet often flippant and selfish, Emma’s self-assured approach to her life at the beginning of the novel positions herself as a character lacking a moral compass.

Her modern adaptation’s counterpart, Cher Horowitz, doesn’t initially fare much better. The epitome of Beverly Hills teenage chic, she graces the screen with designer clothes as your typical spoiled, popular girl.

Both girls try to reform their friends into their standard of superiority through enhanced social circles and beauty, affirming their power within the imagined narrative. This makeover for both these women is a testament to Emma and Cher’s seemingly careless manipulation of those seen as inferior.

The real makeover, however, lies in the transformation of both these girls’ ethos. Emma’s release of her extreme vanity mirrors Cher’s realization of her true ‘cluelessness’ and reflection of superficial priorities.

Jane Austen’s repertoire of works brings a new light to women in literature, a legacy that films like Clueless build on. There is great strength in twisting the makeover trope, an unconventional diversion that supports the role of Emma and Cher as strong protagonists with strong character arcs. They are allowed to keep their femininity and integral aspects of their personality while embodying the innate beauty of character growth.

In this manner, one might argue that the definition of beauty is continuously developing and that the foundational themes of femininity from the classics both infuse and are updated by their film successors. 

Looking past the 1990s and into the 21st century, however, the standard has evolved past just books and film and into another type of entertainment: social media. 

One may scroll their apps and see a flurry of carefully curated images and filters: a perfect shot of your friend at a vibrant party; a windswept, sun-kissed selfie of a conventionally attractive stranger on a tropical vacation; a scenic photoshoot of a fit model after a lush hike. 

“I would follow all the celebrities my friends did and it started to make me look at them differently. I would look at where they were and what they were wearing and compare it to my life. I started to feel inadequate about the way I dressed and looked,” said Laura C. to The New York Times.

The landscape of fitness influencers and models online can inadvertently perpetuate unrealistic beauty ideals, fostering an environment where comparisons are inevitable. Like the film equivalent of the ‘makeover trope,’ the pressure to conform to certain aesthetic norms takes shape in multiple forms, often prevailing in desensitizing young people around the world. 

The Female Gaze

Despite the prevalence of these issues in the social fabric of society, many of these novels and films still are cornerstone pieces of consumption for young women and gender minorities because of their subversive themes that try to combat unhealthy conformity or defy the toxicity of the patriarchy.  

Many of these powerful messages within modern rom-coms are put into the uninspiring category of just a ‘teen movie.’ Nonetheless, the primarily teenage girl demographic continues to consume interesting stories in more modern ways, getting joy from literacy and film, despite the lack of ‘sophistication,’ living fantasies through the eyes of those on the screen. 

It’s the intersection of classical novels and rom-coms that allows girls to idealize their futures and enjoy the unserious, idealizing their own emerging identity. “High school kids are reading all these books, being told what it’s supposed to mean, but I think they want to see what it means to them,” said American filmmaker Will Gluck to BBC. As Gluck underscores, these films serve as gateways for profound literature and as points of connection.

As girls around the world embrace these stories with fervor, they not only find solace in the trials and triumphs of fictional protagonists but also gain valuable insights into their own journey of self-discovery.

Amid societal expectations and cultural norms, it is these forms of literacy and film that empower young women to embrace their uniqueness and celebrate the beauty of their emerging identities.

“I’m a huge fan of the classical romance books — the language isn’t hard to understand when you really immerse yourself in the writing. To me, the love stories that these books tell have resonated with the modern media I consume a lot too,” said Amanda Gao ’25.

About the Contributor
Tammy Lam, Staff Reporter
Tammy Lam is an Arts & Entertainment Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ She believes that journalistic writing is important for enabling truths that reach audiences, so a diversity of voices in society can be heard. She finds journalism photography to be an immersive vector to capture the complexities of the real world while exploring emotional depths that go beyond words in an article. Tammy’s favorite hobbies outside of school include drawing, listening to indie music, browsing bookstores, and watching horror movies. In the future, she sees herself pursuing careers in the humanities with the hope of finding a greater understanding of the world at large.