Like many formerly starry-eyed movie lovers who have grown cynical, I did the majority of my romantic comedy viewing while still at a fairly young, impressionable age. I was in high school, for example, when Pretty Woman hit the big screen. Like many in my demographic, I was struck by Julia Roberts’ charisma and beauty, Richard Gere’s suave leading man performance, and the ease with which one could transition from being a common hooker on Hollywood Boulevard to attending quaint polo matches in wide-brimmed hats with one’s upper-crust paramour.
A few years later, as my nascent romantic life was still tentatively unfolding, I saw Sleepless in Seattle. From this I learned that if you’re a sad-sack widower who has walled yourself off from life, it’s best to have produced a precocious son who will stop at nothing to deliver you your soul mate through his aggressive Step-Parent Recruitment Program.
Of course, there was also Back to The Future, not strictly a rom-com but with a strong romantic subplot. From this film I absorbed the confusing message that if you go back in time to fix your mom up with your dad, you’d also be wise to duck the Oedipal drama perpetrated by your hot-to-trot mom, or you’ll end up being your own dad (which is really no good, because without an autonomous son, a dad has no one to arrange dates for him atop the Empire State Building).
So I watched these movies, I enjoyed their blissed-out airport kisses and throat-catching soundtracks; I ate some yummy popcorn. I’ll still catch a rom-com or two on cable from time to time, but mostly I’ve moved on to movies with less predictable tales to tell. It was a phase, and I outgrew it. No harm done. Right?
Maybe not, according to a study conducted by theFamily and Personal Relationships Laboratory at Heriot Watt Univeristy in Edinburgh, Scotland.
This study, portions of which were published in The Telegraph, maintains that the unrealistic plots, improbable happy endings, and “faux philosophies” about fate embraced by romantic comedies can be damaging to real-life relationships.
According to The Telegraph article, the Heriot-Watt researchers studied 40 top box office films released between 1995 and 2005, looking for common themes. They then asked hundreds of people to fill out a questionnaire, asking them about their expectations and beliefs regarding relationships.
The psychologists found that fans of films such as You’ve Got Mail, The Wedding Planner and While You Were Sleeping depict characters who often fail to communicate with their partners effectively, with many holding the view that “if someone is meant to be with you, then they should know what you want without you needing to tell them.”
Lead researcher Dr Bjarne Holmes said the study found a correlation between the warped romantic expectations often seen in relationship counseling and the ideals presented in romantic comedies. Among these ideals are that sex should always be perfect and that emotional needs should be wordlessly intuited and anticipated between “soul mates”. “We now have some emerging evidence that suggests popular media play a role in perpetuating these ideas in people’s minds,” Dr. Holmes said.
Another stubborn, and possibly damaging seed planted by the rom-com genre is the idea of “the one” – in other words, we each have but one “soul mate” in the world, a magical emotional twin whom we are predestined to meet. Once we meet this person (provided that we manage to achieve that feat in a population of 6.7 billion people), they will immediately and inherently understand us, be able to peer into our souls, and will embrace us lovingly, no matter our flaws. It won’t take years of work and compromise and patience and (gasp) arguments for us to gain a richer understanding of one another. It’ll just happen, just as magically as the swell of music that will be cued the moment our eyes meet. Music that, of course, only the love struck can hear.
By not portraying the daily frustrations and struggles of real relationships, the study maintains, romantic comedies have the potential to mislead people about what to expect in their partnerships. “Investing time and energy are not themes that are popular in Hollywood films,” Dr. Holmes said.
Curiously, there’s been backlash in response to the study, apparently from fierce defenders of the genre. The main argument I’ve read goes something like this: “Sure, romantic comedies aren’t realistic. They aren’t supposed to be. They’re for entertainment.”
Well, OK, maybe so—but so is the dreaded sex and violence depicted on the big screen. You know: the stuff that censorship types (particularly Americans) are so quick to decry, to blame for the corruption of the youth. Why is it that romantic comedies are seen as “harmless entertainment”, whereas violence and sex are viewed as encrypted instruction manuals for mayhem and licentiousness? If we’re to believe that watching senseless violence or gratuitous sex will lead young people to go out and commit heinous crimes, then doesn’t it follow that senseless romance and egregious “soul-mating” might lead those same young people to commit heinous relationships?
The damages wrought by the ever-elusive ideal of “happily ever after” might sound trivial in comparison to those of violence or promiscuity prompted by dangerous messages in our movies and TV shows, but I think we’ve all met at least one person who really has been emotionally scarred, crippled, or heartbroken by ridiculous expectations of love. I still know people who believe that in true love, every day is supposed to be a wonderfully romantic adventure (most of these people are single). I know people who have passed up close, caring relationships because they weren’t positive that person was their “soul mate”.And of course, most of us know couples in which one complains of the other’s lack of romantic expressiveness. I personally think there are more than enough victims of silver screen romance to mount a viable class action lawsuit.
Yet unlike sex and violence, everyone continues to be in love with love; the romantic ideal continues to be held up as positive example, regardless of the trail of doomed attempts left broken in its wake. Despite all evidence, people simply laugh at the idea that romantic comedies could truly damage their psyches or negatively affect their abilities to appreciate their own real relationships. And in the month of February, you know, with that month-long in-your-face ‘celebration’ of Valentine’s Day, when rom-coms will proliferate faster than STDs, people will line up yet again for more sugar-coated brainwashing.
Most of this mawkish pap will linger in our minds for about as long as our Valentine’s chocolates linger in our stomachs (our hips, now – that’s a different story). However, from each annual crop of rom-coms, there’s usually at least one bad seed that seems likely to bear the bitter fruit of romantic delusion. The following are some of the more damagingly outlandish cinematic experiences I can recall:
Failure To Launch, 2006: From this movie I learned that if you still live with your parents at age 35, that’s okay, because your parents will probably hire a woman who specializes in seducing thirtysomething men out of their parents’ homes. This woman will look a whole lot like Sarah Jessica Parker, and somewhere in between wining and dining her on someone else’s sailboat and her pretending to have her dog put to sleep in order to draw you out emotionally, she will actually fall in love with you. In the meantime, no need to make your bed; mom’s got it covered.
Shallow Hal, 2001: If you’re a completely superficial jerk who is no great shakes in the looks department yourself, you can still find true love with someone who’s classically perfect-looking. What will happen, most likely, is you’ll run into self-help guru Tony Robbins in an elevator. He’ll hypnotize you into seeing people’s inner beauty, which will be somehow projected like a hologram over their fat, flawed selves. In this way, you will fall in love with a woman who seems to be gorgeous but is actually morbidly obese! You might encounter some trouble from your jealous best friend, who secretly has a vestigial tail and is loathsome to women. But eventually, love will conquer all. And guess what? That’s actually Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat-suit! Lucky you!
While You Were Sleeping , (1995): Hey, all you lonely, orphaned train fare collectors who look like Sandra Bullock – if you decide to get some overtime by working on Christmas day, you’re in for quite an adventure! You know that handsome commuter you see every day, “Peter”? He’s going to get mugged and pushed onto the train tracks so you can rescue him. But don’t worry; he’ll still slip into a plot-advancing coma. Through a series of wacky misunderstandings, his family will assume you are his fiancé, and of course, you won’t correct them. In the meantime, you’ll fall in love with Peter’s mercurial brother “Jack”, just before Peter wakes up. There’s going to be a lot of amnesia, wedding chapel confessions, family rifts and finally, an engagement ring slid through a toll window. Aww—a ticket to ride, indeed!
P.S. I Love You (2007): This one I haven’t actually seen, but from what I’m told, the gist is that if your dreamy Irish husband really loves you enough, he will continue to remember your birthday even after he’s dead. These annual birthday letters, which he’ll have craftily arranged to be delivered to you from beyond the grave, will guide you through the grieving process and help you find your true vocation as a shoe designer. As an added perk, they’ll also help hook you up with a dreamy Irish singer who reminds you a whole lot of your dreamy Irish husband. In a slightly disturbing but perfectly symmetrical twist, it will be strongly implied that your single mom is also going to get busy with his single dad. P.S. That’s disgusting.
If you love someone, really love someone – or just think you might want to love someone—keep them away from rom-coms during the entire month of February. Because unlike goose-pimply kisses and swoon-worthy eye contact, psychological damage, it seems, is forever.