Are Romantic Comedies Bad for You?

Seeing and discussing romantic comedies with The Philadelphia Story reminded me of a study I read that discussed the impact of recent romantic comedies on society’s perception of romance and relationships. The study, titled Contradictory Messages: A Content Analysis of Hollywood-Produced Romantic Comedy Feature Films (Johnson & Holmes, 2009), looked at what common traits and behaviors romcoms use to portray love and how this influences adolescent ideas about relationships. Several studies have already established a connection between people who consume lots of “romance media” with unrealistically ideal expectations for relationships (Segrin & Nabi, 2002), and other studies have proven that adolescents use media depictions of unknown social situations to develop their own views of how such situations should progress (Bandura, 1986, 1994), so looking at the messages romantic media is sending reveals much about common relationship problems in today’s society.

The researchers highlighted several main traits of romantic comedies that cause problems in relationships. First, surprisingly only half of the films showed or heavily implied any kind of sexual behaviors beyond a first kiss. Non-sexual behaviors, such as hand-holding, hugging, and cuddling, were present in almost every film, but nothing more was shown. This can lead to a perceived disconnect between sexual behavior and romantic relationships. Additionally, the man initiated the overwhelming majority (75%) of any physical behavior, reinforcing the concept that initiating or progressing a relationship is solely the duty of the man (to say nothing of LGBT couples). The second group of traits, compliments, also cemented the highly gendered roles society expects men and women to play in relationships. Men gave 80% of the compliments, 95% of the gifts, and 82% of the miscellaneous “favors” in the depicted relationships. Many of these gifts and gestures were exaggeratedly romantic gestures, such as buying an entire room worth of roses or singing a self-composed song of love in Times Square. Obviously, this sets real-life expectations in all of the wrong places, implanting the idea that these kinds of actions are the true determine of the extent of love.

Romantic comedies do nothing to offset this very material view of love. Of all the observed conversations about open feelings and intentions, a measly 6% discussed trust, and of those, 75% were about how the couple did not trust each other. That means, of all conversations about feelings, approximately 1% of discussions in romantic comedies demonstrate that crucial element trust. To support this distrust, characters lying to their partner outweigh truthful conversations about actions by a factor of 15 to 1. Additionally, early relationships are portrayed as very fragile, with most relationships breaking up after the first fight. The ideas implicated here are obvious: you don’t have to trust each other and good couples never disagree.

Between the lack of honest communication, lack of trust, and emphasis on material goods and deed as representative of relationships, it’s little wonder that so many people are facing relationship crisis in modern society. With a 50% and rising divorce rate in America, few relationships are standing the test of time. The media we absorb definitely plays a part in our relationship expectations. While romantic comedies may not be entirely responsible, it is vital to be aware of the ideals they push so viewers can separate the movie from real life and avoid subconsciously subscribing to the messages they send.

*All cited studies can be found through PSU Libraries website, free to students.


2 thoughts on “Are Romantic Comedies Bad for You?

  1. Kaley Chicoine Post author

    I’d definitely recommend looking into the studies, specifically the Johnson and Holmes one I focused on as well as the Sergin and Nabi (called “Does Television Viewing Cultivate Unrealistic Expectations About Marriage?”). Cultivation Theory also has a lot of supporting research too, but that focuses more on perceptions of violence and television viewing. But, to the point: there’s a very substantial body of research supporting the idea that the media we consumes shapes our expectations of society. A few concrete examples of this: ask someone to define a blonde, and most people will describe an airheaded woman with blonde hair (even though there is absolutely no correlation between hair color and intelligence), or how rapists are strangers driving windowless vans (most sexual assault is committed by someone the victim knows). We learned this through media depictions. We learn about aspects of society that are foreign to us through movies, books, and art, so the depictions of society in these mediums shapes our perceptions. This is not to say that the effect is one-way; media is very reflective of the society in which it was made, but it simultaneously reinforces the pieces of that society that it chooses to portray, creating a feedback loop that cements these ideas in the minds of the consumers (everyone). Being aware of the difference between successful relationships portrayed in media and how successful relationships actually progress not only helps one avoid real-life relationship problems, but also points out the rather ridiculous roles and expectations pushed upon us by society as a whole.

  2. Dan Hofman

    Those are some really interesting studies you cite. I may have to look into them myself. I wonder though how much we are influenced by media and how much media is influenced by us. I think it is very possible that the average person perceives relationships the way the average romantic comedy portrays them and that romantic comedies today exist as a reflection of these notions most people already held. Relationships have been around much longer than movies, and if we went back to the 19th century, we would probably find much different societal views on relationships, and they would be even more different if we went back further in time due to different societal expectations of gender roles back then. I guess my point is, I see art as more of a reflection of contemporary society, rather than art being an influence on society. If there is something wrong with the way movies portray relationships, the origin of the problem probably lies somewhere outside movies. But I know it isn’t that black and white, and movies probably help to ingrain ideas and spread them faster and assimilate them into culture even if they are not the inception of those ideas.

Leave a Reply