Romantic Comedy Structure & Tropes: Part 3 / by Heather Taylor

A Comparison of Secretary and When Harry Met Sally

In all romantic comedies, there is what can be considered the “will they, won’t they moment.” This is the moment where the audience sees and feels the chemistry between the protagonists long before they admit it to each other. This creates a major turning point in the film. Being true to form, this moment occurs approximately 45 minutes or half way through both films in question. In When Harry Met Sally, the two are dancing cheek to cheek – he smells her hair, she presses in closer and they separate as if to kiss. They deny themselves this moment but as an audience we are able to understand they have fallen for each other. In Secretary, this moment occurs as Mr. Grey hears her sniff and he pauses, unsure if he should chastise her and she in turn waits for his rebuke. As an audience, we feel the heightened sexual tension that this creates which is then followed by Mr. Grey finally stepping over the line of employer/ employee to spank her for the first time which is how they show affection and love in their relationship.
In romantic comedies, “the heroes and heroines…often confront difficult moral dilemmas. ” These dilemmas can go against either their personal beliefs or those of society. In both films, these dilemmas lead to a falling-out between the protagonists that occurs at the beginning of the third act. In the case of When Harry Met Sally, Harry’s belief is that sex ruins friendships and that’s why men and women can’t be friends. Sally and Harry’s friendship springs up despite of this so after they sleep together, Harry wants to erase that moment and keep their relationship as it was. To Sally, it has changed and she is tired of being a consolation prize so there is a huge rift between them. In Secretary, Mr. Grey believes he should conform to society’s idea of male and female relationships even though it’s not what he needs. After masturbating on Lee, he finds a spot of semen on his trousers and the reality of what is happening between them becomes apparent. He immediately destroys all of her framed letters and fires Lee believing that by getting rid of her, he would rid himself his unusual sexual needs. This then spirals Lee into a search for a replacement for Mr. Grey and drives the potential couple further apart. In both films, these moments are the darkest for both protagonists.

This trope is typical of romantic comedies as it leads to a further trope of this genre where the protagonists “have to make some sort of personal sacrifice in order to prove themselves and finally win the one they love.” Alone on New Years Eve, Harry passes the place where Sally first dropped him off when they arrived in New York twelve years earlier. Remembering the moments between them, Harry realizes that he indeed loves Sally and his beliefs about the ideas of love and friendship shift. In Secretary, Mr. Grey, untrusting of Lee’s love for him and having asked her to prove it by remaining at his desk with her hands firmly placed on top, reads about Lee in the paper when she becomes a local celebrity as she is still waiting for him after three days. This gives him the insight that her declaration of love is true and their type of relationship is what works between them. This being the case, Mr. Grey knows he must go against the societal norm to finally have true love. Both then have the “run to the airport moment” that occurs in lead up to the climax of most romantic comedies. Harry runs through the streets of New York in hopes to find Sally to declare his love to her while Mr. Grey drives to his office and from amongst reporters, community and family members, whisks Lee away.

To round off the comparison between these two films, the fairytale ending can not be overlooked. When Harry Met Sally shows the first kiss of the new lovers and then gives a final interview between the two as they talk about their marriage and their happiness together.Secretary gives us the moments of Mr. Grey lovingly taking care of Lee, their marriage and unorthodox honeymoon and finally their settle into suburban lifestyle where their sadomasochist relationship still occurs behind closed doors. Both films show that though the protagonists went through adversity and misunderstandings, love prevails for them and an audience can assume that these characters will live happily ever after which is one of the most recognizable romantic comedy troupes of all.

As shown, Secretary has all the elements of a romantic comedy as compared to When Harry Met Sally, a seminal film of this genre. Due to the unorthodox relationship that occurs between the protagonists, however, most people will be unable to see it as such. In this case, social politics overshadows what could be considered a standard love story. Only by looking beyond societal norms can an audience appreciate the humour, passion and tenderness of a film no less worthy of the title of romantic comedy.