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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."

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."

Coontz agreed. "Friendship is so much more important to marriage than it used to be," she said. Educated couples who juggle breadwinning and childcare duties are doing well. Egalitarianism in marriage is on the rise and proving successful.

Today, Coontz said, the tensions in marriages arise "between work and family and between (couples') own relationship and their relationship with their kids."

"Now we've moved into the thing of marriage (in which) you're going to have to work on it," echoed Merskin. "The tendency is more around child care and the condition of children in these marriages, because both men and women have more options."

The movies, according to the experts, seem to be reacting to society's trends only slowly. But a few recent films are investing more in married couples, and performing well with audiences.

"Crazy, Stupid, Love," which was released last summer and according to the website Box Office Mojo, grossed more than $84 million domestically, focuses primarily on the deterioration and then rejuvenation of a long-married couple, who learn from their children and rekindle a romance gone neglected.

"What to Expect When You're Expecting," released on May 18 and currently the fifth most-popular movie at the box office, introduces five couples grappling with the prospect of impending parenthood. Four out of five are already romantically established.

Spoiler alert: They stick it out.

Email: lmarostica@desnews.com

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