The Great Rom-Com Double Standard: It’s OK for Men to Cheat, but Not Women

Zac Efron and Imogen Poots in 'That Awkward Moment' (Photo: Focus Features)
Zac Efron and Imogen Poots in 'That Awkward Moment' (Photo: Focus Features)

It's not like we should put too much stock in the realism of romantic comedies. After all, we know magazine reporters don't have 3,000-square-feet apartments in New York, that it's impossible to get through the security line at the airport in order race to the gate before she gets on that plane to London, and no, our soul mate is most definitely NOT that person right under our nose.

But existing within fictional worlds shouldn't absolve these movies of unscrupulous messages, and there's a particularly icky one that seems to surface again and again in romantic movies:

It's OK for men to cheat on women — they'll eventually (if reluctantly) be forgiven, or maybe never even found out, and the relationship can still reach that happy ending. But if a woman cheats on a man, forget it. It's over.

Typically we see one or the other of these scenarios play out. But in "That Awkward Moment," which opened this past weekend and plays like a "Sex and the City" for twentysomething dudes, the filmmakers do us the generous favor of illuminating this double standard by showing both sides of the coin in a single movie.

(Warning: Spoilers on "That Awkward Moment" and more movies abound.)

Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) is heartbroken to find out his wife's been cheating on him. They split, but then end up secretly hooking up throughout the movie. For a moment, it looks like the trope at hand is being bucked — until Mikey finds that his wife is still cheating with the same guy, thus the relationship is thereby dunzo.

Jason (Zac Efron), meanwhile, who along with Daniel (Miles Teller) makes a pact to stay single in support of Mikey (sweet bros), falls head over heels for the free-spirited Ellie (Imogen Poots). This doesn't stop him from making late-night booty calls to Alana (Addison Timlin). Oh yeah, he also stands Ellie up at her father's funeral. Do they still end up together at the end, though, since this is a romantic comedy and they're the two prettiest people in the movie? You can bet your oversized teddy bear they do.

It happens again and again.

Everyone around Julia Roberts, including her own dad (Robert Duvall), advises her to "forgive and forget" her cheating husband (Dennis Quaid) throughout the entirety of "Something to Talk About." As her friend Kyra Sedgwick puts it, " You married a guy whose nickname in college was Hound Dog. What did you expect was going to happen?" Yeah, Julia, you should've known!

In "He's Just Not Into You," Justin Long continues to be promiscuous despite the fact that clearly he's meant to be with Ginnifer Goodwin (and that, as the movie states, he's "turning into her")… but then what else should we expect from a movie called "He's Just Not That Into You."

There was that downer of a rom-com drama in 2006 called "The Last Kiss" (a remake of a 2001 Italian movie), where Zach Braff cheats on his PREGNANT wife (Jacinda Barrett) with a younger woman (Rachel Bilson); well, actually, initially he resists the full temptation of sex on two separate occasions. Once he's found out, he then returns to seal the deal with Bilson. He spends the rest of the movie moping and begging for forgiveness from his wife (did I mention she's PREGNANT?) while camping outside the house for days on end. Spoiler alert: She finally lets him in.

[Related: Is 'Forget Paris' the Most Realistic Romantic Comedy?]

In the otherwise enjoyable 1995 rom-com "Circle of Friends," Chris O'Donnell first has to hook up with the best friend of Minnie Driver (who acknowledges that "she looks like a rhinoceros") before… well, we'll just let Wikipedia take it from here: Jack (O'Donnell) finally goes to visit Benny (Driver) to try to win her back. She is unwilling to let him off so easily, and tells him it will take quite a bit of time for him to gain her trust again. He demonstrates his patience and humility, devoting himself to his studies as well. Benny finally relents, accepting his love and proposal of marriage.

Mr. Rom-Com himself, Hugh Grant, plays strip chess with another woman (and we all know what strip chess leads to…) before Sandra Bullock interrupts in "Two Weeks Notice."

In "The Cutting Edge," ex-hockey stud D.B. Sweeney does a horizontal routine with another skater before they end up together (I understand the "toe pick" thing is annoying, but come on, dude.)

(Oftentimes this double standard is blurried by the fact that the two love interests may not yet be officially "an item" yet. That's not the point. The point is it's always the guy who can double dip and still find true love, and very, very rarely the woman… unless, you know, she's engaged to that d-bag he needs to steal her away from.)

Even that holy bastion of light, "Love Actually," commits the double sin: It has Colin Firth's writer so brokenhearted by catching his girlfriend cheating that he flees the country, and ultimately finds love with someone else. Emma Thompson, meanwhile, will end up staying with Alan Rickman after having her heart shredded to pieces by his apparent infidelity.

The men cheated on in comedies (including some of the better ones in years) like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Old School," "Definitely, Maybe," "Overnight Delivery," and "Office Space," do of course not end up with their unfaithful wives/girlfriends. The latter two include the now-clichéd "she was cheating the whole time" reveal.

It happens on TV, too: Just look at recent events on "Parenthood": Joel (Sam Jaeger) was caught playing hanky-panky with another woman back in Season 1. His wife, Julia (Erica Christensen), has since forgiven him. Julia got kissed by another man this season, and Joel is so livid he just packed his bags and scrammed.

It's also OK, by romantic comedy standards, if the guy cheats on the woman with the heroine he'll ultimately end up with: see Mark Ruffalo's infidelity in "13 Going on 30" that will lead to happily-ever-after with Jennifer Garner; Matthew McConaughey almost cheats on his fiancée with J.Lo in "The Wedding Planner"; of course the long-married Dudley Moore and Mary Steenburgen end up an item in the fittingly titled "Romantic Comedy"; and Harrison Ford burns Sigourney Weaver to wind up with Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl." This type of infidelity, by the way, is usually justified by casting the cheat/breakup victim as a total be-yotch.

[Related: The 50 Greatest Actors Alive: No. 49 Sigourney Weaver]

(The rare comedy that flips this whole argument on its head: the underrated "Five-Year Engagement," in which a drunken Jason Segel has the opportunity to cheat, and not only doesn't… but ultimately forgives fiancée Emily Blunt for her indiscretions.)

Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) does cheat on Big (Chris Noth) in that god-awful sequel "Sex and the City 2" and they do still remain married. Of course in this case "cheating" is defined by a quick kiss with an ex.

It's also insinuated that Steve Carell and Julianne Moore will reunite at the end of "Crazy, Stupid, Love." after she cheated on him; but then of course he spent their separation learning the ways of The Gos and bedding woman after woman… so they're even?

The romantic comedy, of course, is hardly the only genre guilty.

In Woody Allen's "Match Point," Jonathan Rhys-Meyers ultimately stays with his sugar mama-wife Emily Mortimer after carrying on with Scarlett Johansson's femme fatale. Though I suppose cheating on his wife is a relatively minimal offense in this twisty thriller considering, you know, HE KILLS PEOPLE, too.

When the woman (Diane Lane) cheats in "Unfaithful," we all know what happens to her lover (he gets killed bad).

And of course there are exceptions. One film that comes to mind, that's also a drama, is "Indecent Proposal." But the exception gets an asterisk mark considering the husband (Woody Allen) signed off on his wife's (Demi Moore) shacking up with another man (Robert Redford) for the cool sum of $1 million. (How romantic that they still end up together, right?)

Men-cheaters are very rarely the main characters in a comedy, but the skeezeballs used to prop up the leads: Craig Ferguson makes Luke Wilson look better in "Old School"; in "Wedding Crashers," Bradley Cooper is the vile pig who makes the likely STD carrier/man-whore Owen Wilson look like a valiant prince by comparison.

One obvious reason why it's the men getting off easy so often in movies is that it's men who are writing the vast majority of them.

According to a Business Insider report from June, women accounted for a mere 14 percent of spec script sales from 1991-2000. If you think it must've gotten better since then, you're wrong: It dropped to 13 percent from 2001-10, and a measly 9 percent between 2011-12.

And then of course there's the simple fact the screen representation of infidelity essentially just mirrors society's perception and acceptance of it, which is a discussion that extends far beyond the realm of this movie writer's wheelhouse.

Still, you'd at least think movies with these fantasylands full of huge apartments and affordable weddings that cater mostly to female viewers would be a little more respectful of their audience.

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