Romantic comedies can shape expectations of what love is really like

Published: Thursday, May 24 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

(L-r) STEVE CARELL as Cal and JULIANNE MOORE as Emily in Warner Bros. Pictures' comedy " Crazy, Stupid, Love" a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Warner Bros.

Rachel is leaving the concert, teary-eyed. Dex has just confessed that he can't stop thinking about her, even though he's engaged to be married to Rachel's best friend. Rachel loves him. She's loved him for years. But she's walking away from him. She pauses in the street, then suddenly turns to see Dex coming toward her. With car lights behind and around them, they kiss. "I do feel the same way," says Rachel.

This scene, from "Something Borrowed," a romantic comedy released this time last year, has all the staple qualities of its predecessors: attractive stars, forbidden love, a wedding and occasionally dangerous public displays of affection. And while this particular film made little impression at the 2011 box office, its themes are of increasing interest to scholars studying the effect of mass media on consumers.

Researchers investigating the content of films, especially romantic comedies, are finding that love as depicted has very little to do with real life. Marriage is often portrayed as entirely distinct from romance.

And while movies are not intended or expected to be entirely realistic, scholars of communication theorize that exposure to media like romantic comedies, especially for young people, can shape expectations about both romance and marriage, shifting adolescent perceptions about what love is like, and how to show it.

The magic of media

Studying the way love is portrayed in the media is still an infant field, according to Debra Merskin, professor of journalism and communication at the University of Oregon and the co-author of "Critical Thinking about Sex, Love and Romance in Mass Media." The absence of research on the subject puzzles her. "(Relationships are) one of the most important and long-term things that happen in our lives and that affect us. But they aren't talked about except in tabloids," she said.

But the small body of existing research is based around the theory that media consumers, whether we know it or not, are affected by what we watch.

Scholars have coined two versions of this idea. One, social cognitive theory, according to a 2009 study by Kimberly R. Johnson and Bjarne M. Holmes, "suggests individuals may actively observe media portrayals of behaviors in romantic relationships for insight into how they themselves could behave in their own relationships."

A parallel theory suggests that even if viewers aren't necessarily taking notes in front of the movies they watch, what they see over a long period of time will still shape what they perceive as normal, thanks to oft-repeated themes and images in the land of movie love.

"Media can shape our attitudes," said Sarah Coyne, professor of family life at Brigham Young University. "It totally makes sense if we're seeing all these unrealistic (romances) … what we feel is acceptable in a relationship and what we want our own relationship to be like" will be affected, she said.

And while research suggests adolescents and young people are most likely to be swayed by media portrayals than older people, the trends are more pervasive than viewers often assume. "Most people would say they aren't affected (by media), other people are," said Merskin. "It's called third person effect. 'I'm not affected, but I know someone who is.' It's a little bit hard to get away from it."

Candy-coated courtship

Using the theories that media consumers are, in fact, affected by what they watch, Johnson and Holmes set out in several studies to determine what kind of lessons viewers were learning when they sat down to enjoy a romantic comedy, the classic staple of date nights and sleepovers.

The researchers analyzed the relationships found in 40 popular, widely released romantic comedies over the course of 10 years. They coded and analyzed all the romance-related content in the movies, from "serenading" to "risking safety for love" to characters seeming "lost in the moment."

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