Romantic comedies can shape expectations of what love is really like

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

What they found, in essence, is that couples in romantic comedies show behavior that is typical to both the beginning stages of a relationship and the later ones, even if they have only known each other or been involved for a short amount of time. Movie lovers get to have their cake and eat it, too: be infatuated one moment and declare their love the next. It takes Julia Roberts and Richard Gere a total of one week to 'drop the L-word' to each other in "Runaway Bride." They are shortly married.

"I think that it's absolutely true that the movies certainly overestimate the immediacy in which love develops," said Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College and author of "Marriage, a History." She noted that today, couples often know each other much longer, and that young people in particular "make more of a distinction between infatuation and love."

But Holmes and Johnson found that public displays of affection — Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan kissing in the middle of New York's Riverside Park in the final scene of "You've Got Mail" — happened often in many of the movies analyzed, which could indicate to young viewers that PDA is "an important behavioral feature of relationships," wrote the study's authors.

These and other findings highlight the differences between movies and life: Being in love does not demand a kiss in a park. Just because couples haven't declared their love after a week doesn't mean their relationship is doomed. But that doesn't make the gestures or moments any less desirable to viewers.

That movies promote unrealistic expectations "I think is spot-on," said Coyne. "I do know a lot of individuals who say, 'I can't watch chick flicks, because it makes me feel bad about my own relationship.'"

But the sunshine and rainbows in the land of movie love are often accompanied by thunderstorms, the researchers found. Romantic relationships end heatedly and often, according to content analysis, usually after a fight. The study's authors concluded that adolescents storing up knowledge for future romances could then define arguing as anathema to a successful relationship.

Because of the accompanying drama, Holmes and Johnson found that "relationships (in romantic comedies) were shown to be at once highly desirable and highly undesirable." For every earnest John Cusack serenading with a boombox over his head, there's a philandering Hugh Grant.

Mundane marriage

"Marriage has always been portrayed as the downside of weddings," wrote Lois Smith Brady, New York Times Vows columnist, last week. "Weddings are glamorous and usually involve weight loss; marriage is dull and involves weight gain. Every bride and bridegroom is beautiful; every husband and wife is exhausted. At a wedding everything is new. And later, is anything new?"

Not according to the movies. Because of the nature of the genre, romantic comedies tend to focus on romances that are on their way to being established — if the movie has a wedding, it comes at the end. But married couples also populate the romantic comedy universe, albeit tangentially, and their depiction can affect young people's perception of the institution as a whole.

Holmes and Johnson's content analysis uncovered a wide gap between a movie's main couple and its married counterparts: Where the stars are caring, their wedded friends nag each other. And while affection between the star-crossed lovers takes up considerable screen time, physical contact between married people is rare. "Such a representation may leave adolescent viewers to see marriage and romance as disparate entities and with affection between married couples as an exception instead of the norm," the authors wrote.

Shifting trends

Because of traditional romantic comedy structure, a wedding — as columnist Brady said — is portrayed as the peak, rather than the starting point, of a relationship.

But as marriage itself can experience tectonic cultural shifts, some movies, just as mainstream and popcorn-friendly, are highlighting relationships that extend beyond the honeymoon phase.

Brady, reflecting on her 20 years recording the love stories of blissful engaged couples, wrote that she has seen a shift in the way people understand marriage. "It's like farming, once considered drudgery and hard work, but now seen as a soulful utopian adventure."

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