Romantic Comedy Structure & Tropes: Part 2 / by Heather Taylor

A Comparison of Secretary and When Harry Met Sally

Another similarity between the two films is the presence of the best friend. There are three reasons for the best friend in romantic comedies. They serve to add humour, to move the plot along and to give an insight to the protagonists’ inner thoughts in order to reveal their character as well as their insecurities and in some cases musings on the focus of their love. 

As a traditional romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally gives both Harry and Sally a friend, Jess and Marie respectively, which serve all three of the above purposes. Secretary also has a representative best friend. Melanie Halsall states in her article “The Best Friend in the Romantic Comedy” that “if the best friend is absent from the film, there has to be the addition of another device, such as a narration, to allow us an insight into the motivations of the characters. ”Secretary uses a combination of narration and Lee’s boyfriend, Peter, as best friend. Of course, he then plays a duel role in this case as not only does he provide insight into Lee and moves the plot forward but also serves to show that the relationship between Mr. Grey and Lee is real love compared to what she has with Peter.

This relationship leads to another romantic comedy trope which is found in the unsuitable relationship that the protagonists have apart from each other. This often serves as a catalyst for the progression of their relationship. It also serves to highlight how suitable the protagonists are for each other. In Secretary, Lee embarks on a liaison with her friend Peter as her attempt to have a normal relationship. Their first kiss, witnessed by Mr. Grey, sparks the beginning of Mr.Grey’s criticism of Lee which eventually leads to their sadomasochistic relationship that Lee comes to crave. Peter, on the other hand, can’t fulfill her sexual or emotional needs as he requires a conventional relationship. Near the end of the film, when Lee is being fitted into Peter’s mother’s wedding dress, she realizes that she loves Mr. Grey and runs to him to declare that fact. 

In comparison, When Harry Met Sally uses the ending of unsuitable relationships as a catalyst into their friendship, the one that Harry claimed could never exist in the first place. This moment occurs approximately 30 minutes into the film which is also when the same type of catalytic moment occurs in Secretary. 

Further to this, When Harry Met Sally uses the finding of new loves by the protagonists’ prospective exes to push Harry and Sally into new areas of their relationship. When Harry sees his ex-wife at the department store, it drives him to needle Sally about her inability to move on from Joe, her ex-fiancé, and how she is emotionless and Sally retorts that his way of dealing is no better as he seems to be sleeping with the entire female population of New York as a form of revenge. Though Harry then apologizes, this exchange turns their light friendship into something deeper. When Sally hears Joe’s, engagement, she falls into the arms of Harry which leads to them having sex, which inextricably changes their relationship forever.