In a study to be published in the next issue of Communication Quarterly, psychologists Kimberly Johnson and Bjarne Holmes of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh analyzed 40 top-grossing romantic comedies released between 1995 and 2005. Not surprisingly, they found that the films “typically focused on relationships in their early stages.”
And yet, they found, the characters often behaved in ways “suggestive of deeper feelings that ordinarily develop over time, and as such are usually absent early on.”
Specifically, characters “performed actions purely to promote partners’ well-being, placed great importance on partners, expressed deep feelings of love, and provided emotional support — features more typically associated with later stages” of a relationship.
The authors contend this sort of unrealistic portrayal “could have potentially significant consequences for adolescent viewers’ relationship perceptions. By coming to believe that characteristics of relationships that ordinarily take time to develop should be present early on, adolescents may misjudge the quality of their own relationships,” they write.
These films — Notting Hill, While You Were Sleeping and You’ve Got Mail were among those studied by Johnson and Holmes — tend to depict relationships as “progressing quickly into something emotionally meaningful and significant,” the authors note. “Adolescents using these films as a model on which to base their own behaviors, expecting that in doing so, their relationships will progress in kind, are likely to be left disappointed.”
The study received a lot of press in the U.K., including an eloquent rebuttal from a romance novelist. Jojo Moyes, writing in the Daily Mail, concluded that the researchers “have failed to grasp the most common reason for watching or reading romance: escapism.”
The question then becomes: Can adolescents distinguish between escapist, wish-fulfillment fare and realistic depictions of what Ira Gershwin called “the bumpy road to love?” That will require further study.
But it is worth noting that several recent films have taken a more mature approach to romance. Both Sideways and Forgetting Sarah Marshall suggest that a fulfilling relationship is impossible until you’ve dealt with your own psychological baggage — a worthwhile reminder for audiences of any age.