The harmful effects of unrealistic rom-coms
You laugh. You cry. You drool at the dreamy actors and actresses. If you’re me, you enjoy the company of Ben and Jerry, two of the most dependable men I know, and then you wish the heart-warming romantic comedy you spent the last two hours watching could one day be a reality. I’ve seen them all, from old-school classics like Some Like It Hot, When Harry Met Sally and Pretty in Pink to more recent flicks like No Strings Attached and Crazy, Stupid Love.
I used to think of these movies as the perfect world that I could aspire to, the gold standard for all my future relationships. I mean, what is more romantic then Julia Roberts in Notting Hill saying, “Don’t forget. I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy… asking him to love her”? If that doesn’t make you melt, I don’t know what will!
But even romantic comedies that set the bar for our own relationships are not so straightforward anymore.
The love ideal has drastically evolved throughout the generations, from the type of romantic and sexual love we seek out to the representation of various types of relationships within this utopia.
According to Time magazine, in 2008 researchers at Heriot Watt University’s Family and Personal Relationships Laboratory in Edinburgh, which studies best practices in relationship counseling, completed a study of 40 Hollywood romantic comedies released between 1995-2005. They found that problems typically reported by couples in relationship counseling reflect misconceptions about love and romance as depicted in Hollywood films.
As part of their research, Dr. Bjarne Holmes’ team had around 130 student volunteers (a small study confined to one region) watch the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, while another group of the same size watched a David Lynch drama. Viewers of the romantic comedy were found to be more likely to believe in fate and destiny.
Dr. Gregory Eells, Associate Director at Gannett Health Services and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell University, said that relationship issues are the third primary reason students seek counseling nationally. Though rom-coms themselves are light-hearted, psychological damage occurs when people, including this younger college generation, mistake these fictional relationships for reality. He describes rom-com plot lines as the classic “people-in-the-hole” scenario.
“People start out, they are somewhat attracted to each other. There is some problem, something comes between them, meaning they fall into a hole, and then they solve it and they get back together and live happily ever after. And that’s not how real relationships work,” Eells said.
Eells believes real relationships are about commitment and about staying together through difficulties. He went on to say that feelings are important, but relationship success is based on hard work and strength through suffering.
Cory Brown, associate professor for the class “Love and Sex” at Ithaca College, said there are deeper issues to examine in these idealistic romantic comedies.
“Love is stressful, but we look to romantic comedies for some kind of stress relief. But they may be another form of the delusion. It’s a catch-22,” Brown said.
Brown describes this delusion as anything from physical appearances, to the unrealistic and propagandistic tendencies of popular film that are, in his opinion, creating a dystopia of sorts. Brown said movies can be harmful because they impose viewpoints and stereotypes without requiring personal reflection. People assume the validity of whatever statements are being made or whatever relationships are being portrayed.
“It can’t not do that— it’s up on a big screen with beautiful people, much bigger than life is the essence of their beauty— it distorts our contribution to reality, by omitting our participation in it,” Brown said.
“We love it while we observe it, but afterwards we feel cheap, having been manipulated and ignored. We are not a part of the beauty, the film is saying to us, and we feel that when we walk out of the theater.”
But have rom-coms always had this great of an impact on the type of love we seek? Rom-coms of the past focus on the dating process with a more chivalrous, leave-it-to-the-imagination approach. Recent blockbuster films like Wedding Crashers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up have shifted their focus to the more physical aspects of relationships. Even Valentine’s Day ends the movie with those three words everyone wants to hear: “Let’s get naked.” Rom-com storylines don’t just stop with subtle innuendos and a kiss goodnight after the first date, but more often tell the tale of a wild and hot one-night stand evolving into more.
“I think one of the challenges of the more typical, raunchy films is that they may focus on one component of actual relationships, which is sexuality. Which is the easiest, simplest part,” Eells said. “I mean, it (sex) is pretty basic. Every living organism does it. It doesn’t capture the complexity of actual relationships.”
In this way, sex is turned into a recreational experience, but most people’s experience with sex is much deeper than that — an experience underplayed in our pop culture.
Also underplayed in our culture are relationships outside of heterosexuality. Brown believes rom-coms utilize positive oppression, meaning they emphasize a particular accepted form of behavior and normalize it, resulting in an implicit repression of marginal behaviors.
“When you emphasize heterosexuality as the normal, you are in effect repressing all other types of sexualities. So I would say the movies are doing that,” Brown said.
Eells said he has noticed films that acknowledge lesbian or gay relationships tend to acknowledge more of the complexities that go into those relationships, automatically taking them out of the genre of comedy.
Maybe it is this exclusivity that makes some people hate rom-coms so strongly. Or maybe it’s the cheesy, cliché writing that’s too cutesy to ever be close to reality. “You had me at hello” from Jerry McGuire (which I love) or “I’m warning you, if you take one step closer I’m never letting you go,” from No Strings Attached. Who actually says shit like that?
“No one is that quick, that witty, that funny, that happy all the time,” Eells said.
Some may not want to spend $11 at the movie theaters to see a mainstream, shallow version of love. Rom-coms are hetero-normative and idealistic. They perpetuate the idea of finding the perfect man or woman, but as Eells said, no one is perfect. True love is recognizing and accepting someone’s faults.
Brown, Eells and Lisa Shield, transformational dating and relationship coach, agree relationships don’t always live up to our ideal. Shield said it is important to remember that most romantic comedies give us hope and something to aspire to, but they aren’t about relationships. They are mostly about falling in love.
“In the end, romantic comedies help us laugh at human behavior and not take things so seriously,” Shield said. “If having a sense of humor about all of this isn’t hopeful, I don’t know what is. The real challenge is what happens after they fall in love. That’s the part they never show.”
Meagan McGinnes is a sophomore journalism major who wants Rachel McAdams to play her in the rom-com of her life. Email her at mmcginn1[at]ithaca[dot]edu.