Deciding on a career in the real world is hard enough, but for those who live in the fictional realm of romantic comedies, the prospects are even slimmer. Because rom-coms aim to transport swooning, optimistic viewers to a gentle fantasyland for a couple hours, the films’ lead characters tend to have glamorous gigs. It’s not likely that a bus dispatcher is going to have a serendipitous meet-cute, and Nora Ephron would never have filmed in the Applebee’s kitchen. As a result, certain professions end up over-represented in the genre’s distorted slice of life. Baking, for instance, presents a romantic-comedy screenwriter with an ideal mix of literal sweetness and down-to-earth plausibility—plus, it fits with rom-coms’ penchant for traditional gender roles. Bakers, by Hollywood’s reckoning, toil all day with powdered sugar and chocolate, never gain a pound, and have a knack for solving problems with cupcakes. Yes, there are about 633,000 bakers working in America today, but the job’s prevalence in romantic comedies remains a sweet anomaly. While Kristen Wiig’s failed bakery set an aptly bittersweet backdrop for Bridesmaids, Heather Locklear’s “stressed single mom who just happens to make novelty cakes” pushes The Perfect Man that much further toward ridiculousness. Other notable bakery broads include Keri Russell’s unhappy, pregnant pie maker in Waitress, Juliette Binoche’s sultry chocolatier in Chocolat, and Meryl Streep and Katherine Heigl’s successful small-business owners in It’s Complicated and Life As We Know It, respectively.
No profession so perfectly encapsulates the classic rom-com’s disdain for reality than architect—an occupation that currently boasts the highest unemployment rate for its graduates, in a field that isn’t very big in the first place (with just over 100,000 identifying architects, according to the Department Of Labor). Architecture has been particularly devastated by the current recession because its success is tied to the housing market: Even experienced architects face high unemployment. But you’d never know that from watching glossy romantic comedies set in spacious loft offices with drafting tables and sketchpads. Lonely male architects star in The Lake House (Keanu Reeves), The Last Kiss (Zach Braff), Three To Tango (Matthew Perry), Sleepless In Seattle (Tom Hanks), My Super Ex-Girlfriend (Luke Wilson), Love Actually (Liam Neeson), Just Like Heaven (Mark Ruffalo), and It’s Complicated (Steve Martin)—apparently, architecture is a good cipher for “sensitive, but not girly.” Few of those men ever worry about the job market—though Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in (500) Days Of Summer goes so far as to quit his crappy job to pursue his passion, with at least a nod toward the difficulty of landing a career in the field. One Fine Day features the rare female architect, played by harried single mother Michelle Pfeiffer. But, as one of the overarching themes of the movie is that Pfeiffer’s character is too independent and controlling, perhaps her job is supposed to cast her in a more masculine light.
3. Gallery owner/Curator
According to Mindy Kaling, the gallery owner—which she calls the female equivalent of the architect—is the perfect impressive-yet-non-threatening job for a female heroine. It implies affluence and intelligence, but also an artistic soul. While Bravo even jumped on the trend with a reality show centered on these so-called Gallery Girls, in actuality there are only a few thousand galleries in the country. Nevertheless, Sex And The City spent several seasons (and two movies) kind-of focusing on Charlotte’s work as an art dealer and later a museum docent. An art career provides vague justification for Michelle Monaghan’s character to journey to Scotland—and fall in love with the wrong guy—in Made Of Honor. When In Rome opens with Kristen Bell as an uptight gallery curator working at the Guggenheim, while Love Actually reverses gender norms and features a male gallery employee played by Andrew Lincoln.
Remember newspapers? We don’t. But with just over 50,000 remaining “correspondent” positions left in America—a number that is expected to decline by 13 percent by 2022—in a field whose median income is a dismal $37,090 per year, journalism is the romantic comedy’s most egregious pipe dream. Even when the numbers are jiggered to include decrepit operations like The A.V. Club, the number of working writers and editors in America amounts to less than 200,000 employed. That may amount to 0.067 percent of the population, but it comes out to about 100 percent of Nora Ephron films. Professional writers star as the neurotic female leads in almost all of her films—Meg Ryan in Sleepless In Seattle, Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail (at the end, anyway). Female writers and critics of a thousand stripes show up in My Best Friend’s Wedding (Julia Roberts; food critic), Never Been Kissed (Drew Barrymore; columnist), Going The Distance (Barrymore again; editorial intern), Confessions Of A Shopaholic (Isla Fisher; personal finance writer), Sex And The City (Sarah Jessica Parker; sex columnist), and Someone Like You (Ashley Judd; pseudonymous romance columnist). There are a few male journalists, too: In Bride Wars, Bryan Greenberg is a “magazine journalist”; in Valentine’s Day, Jamie Foxx is a sports reporter; and in One Fine Day, which seems to have made it a point to gender-swap roles, George Clooney plays a political columnist. Writers everywhere! It’s almost as if writers like to write about themselves in idealistic romantic pairings with handsome men or women.
5. Magazine editor
Though it might seem like there are an awful lot of magazines out there, there are precious few editor jobs available at the glamorous sports, music, or women’s fashion rags so often featured in romantic comedies. In Brown Sugar, for example, Sanaa Lathan plays the editor-in-chief of XXL, a hip-hop magazine that now only publishes six times a year. Two different films—How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and 13 Going On 30—give their lead female characters (Kate Hudson and Jennifer Garner, respectively) gigs as high-powered, career-minded editors at women’s magazines who learn through love, life, and a time-machine closet that easy access to quality sex tips and a stocked accessory closet doesn’t automatically equate to a great love life. On the flip side of that coin is Justin Timberlake’s GQ editor in Friends With Benefits, who takes the job of his dreams but, through a series of dumb decisions, almost loses the love of his life. Now that’s a story that’ll sell magazines!
Politics might not be an obvious backdrop for a frothy rom-com—after all, sleaze rather than sweetness seems to rule the profession’s romantic dalliances. Still, the idea of stodgy lawmakers and heads of state having their hearts melted by love does create plenty of cinematic tension. Regal senatorial hopeful Ralph Fiennes is love-struck by hotel maid Jennifer Lopez (who’s initially mistaken for a glamorous celebrity) in Maid In Manhattan, while Hugh Grant’s nervous prime minister in Love, Actually has his feelings for a staffer exposed with a very public kiss at a school play. In other movies, shrewd political-type maneuvers lead to romance. In Chasing Liberty, the president’s insistence on protecting freedom-craving daughter Mandy Moore leads to her forbidden crush on a cute Secret Service agent (who’s undercover as an adventure buddy), while goofy presidential impersonator Kevin Kline’s unexpected ascendancy to head honcho in Dave means he also inherited first lady Sigourney Weaver, whom he eventually wins over.
The only surprise about musicians and rom-coms is that there aren’t more movies featuring these notoriously sensitive souls. In Music And Lyrics, Hugh Grant’s comeback-trail pop star finds a writing muse in clever wordsmith Drew Barrymore, who eventually helps him recover his lyrical chops while stealing his heart. Barrymore’s quirky, innocent waitress character in The Wedding Singer falls for a mulletacious Adam Sandler and his repertoire of ’80s hits, while both budding starlet Lea Michele and established superstar Jon Bon Jovi (playing a parallel version of himself) find love in the ensemble bonanza New Year’s Eve. Still, Love Actually’s musician-centered moment might be the sweetest one: The veteran crooner played by Bill Nighy earns his Christmas No. 1 with “Love Is All Around,” and only wants to celebrate with his long-suffering manager because “you turned out to be the fucking love of my life—and despite all my complaining, we have had a wonderful life.”
8. Bookstore owner
While brick-and-mortar bookstores were certainly more prevalent in the ’90s than they are today, the number of rom-com bookstore owners still feels exaggerated. Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising, because a connection to a bookstore immediately establishes a protagonist as intellectual and well read, but in a charming, quaint kind of way. While the trope dates back at least to Audrey Hepburn’s mousy bookstore employee in Funny Face, plenty of more contemporary rom-com characters have taken up the career as well. You’ve Got Mail doubled down on the profession: Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox owns a chain of mega-bookstores while Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly runs an independent store called The Shop Around The Corner—setting up an antagonistic dynamic that can only be conquered by anonymous email correspondence. Similarly, in Notting Hill, Hugh Grant’s everyman is juxtaposed against Julia Roberts’ movie star partly by the fact that he owns an independent travel bookshop.
9. Television producer
Television producer is yet another high-powered job with just enough of an artistic component to allow female characters to be career-driven but non-threatening. On the other hand, given there’s a distinct lack of women in behind-the-scenes positions in television in the real world, it’s kind of nice to see these ladies thriving in the rom-com world. In The Switch, Jennifer Aniston’s character’s career is a mere footnote to a surprisingly compelling story about parenthood and friendship. In both Knocked Up and The Ugly Truth, Katherine Heigl plays characters whose television careers—on-screen talent for E! and a morning-show producer, respectively—are somewhat central to the plot. Morning Glory, meanwhile, actually downplays romance to focus on workplace shenanigans as Rachel McAdams tries to fix a sinking morning show with the help of an ornery Harrison Ford. And while she’s stereotypically hapless when it comes to dating, she’s thankfully allowed to be competent in her job.
10. Staffer at an organic food or lifestyle company
While new, Earth-friendly companies are popping up every day, it’s still an anomaly for someone to be employed by a company that makes, say, specialty spice blends or organic clothing worn by hikers. Those are the kind of companies that suggest opulence, a life of leisure, and that a character is truly passionate about change for both themselves and for everyone else. At least, that’s the case for three of the women in He’s Just Not That Into You, who work (barely) at the New Colony Spice company in an office festooned with worldly accessories and (presumably) co-workers sitting on yoga balls. All three women are looking for perfect love, and like spice traders centuries before them, they’re willing to go to the ends of the Earth to find it. The same goes for Katherine Heigl’s character, Jane, in 27 Dresses, assistant to globetrotting George (Ed Burns), CEO of REI-like company Urban Everest. Things are a little different for Kevin Smith’s bumbling but philosophical character in Catch And Release, though his career as the guy who finds inspirational quotes for Celestial Seasonings boxes puts him firmly in the rom-com career canon.
11. Wedding announcement writer
27 Dresses pulls another classic rom-com job for its male lead, James Marsden: wedding announcement writer. Marsden’s character, Kevin Doyle, pens the “Commitments” column for the New York Journal, though he’d rather be writing meaty exposés about the wedding industry’s exploitative practices. It’s the perfect job for a rom-com setup, though, as it puts him in constant contact with Katherine Heigl’s Jane and suggests that, despite his cynicism, he’s open to love. Other examples include midriff-baring Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) in Rumor Has It…, who writes wedding announcements and obituaries for The New York Times before getting into some high jinks and putting her own impending nuptials in jeopardy.