Romantic comedies affect beliefs about relationships less strongly than expected

April 12, 2013

Romantic-comedy films are not a major source for developing unrealistic expectations about relationships among young adults, finds a new study to be published online this week in the National Communication Association's journal Communication Monographs.

A survey of 335 undergraduate students in the Midwest of the USA found no significant relationship between reporting watching romantic comedies often and belief in the ideals "love conquers all," "one and only" love (soul mate) and "love at first sight."

"These findings discredit the popular assumption that exposure to romantic comedies is a major source leading to unrealistic relational expectations among young people," said the study's principal investigator, Veronica Hefner, Ph.D., assistant professor of at Chapman University, Orange, Calif.

Hefner conducted the online questionnaire survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with Barbara J. Wilson, Ph.D., the university's executive vice provost for faculty and academic affairs. The authors did find, however, that those viewers of romantic comedies who reported watching with the motivation to learn about relationships were slightly more likely to endorse romantic ideals overall and, in particular, the belief in "idealization of partner." Idealizing one's partner includes believing that the partner should be flawless or will be completely accepting, loving, and understanding, according to Hefner.

Compared with exposure to romantic comedies, a stronger influence on viewers' beliefs about relationships was the reason that young people watch these popular movies, Hefner said.

"College students who reported watching romantic comedies to learn about love and relationships were more likely to endorse idealistic romantic beliefs than those who watch for other reasons," she said. "What really matters is not what you watch, but why you watch."

Again, these students were more likely to believe in idealizing their partners than in romantic beliefs such as love at first sight, but Hefner pointed out that this idealization could have a positive social influence. Some studies have shown that viewing one's partner as wonderful and perfect was beneficial for a romantic relationship and was linked to higher levels of satisfaction in the relationship.

Nearly half of the survey respondents reported they were currently in a relationship. Students ranged in age from 18 to 26 years. Of the 335 respondents, 71 percent were female and 29 percent were male.

The researchers found no differences in responses about romantic beliefs between men and women who responded to the survey. The lack of a sex difference in the findings disputes another popular belief, Hefner said—"that women are the ones who are most idealistic and most influenced by romantic comedies."

In fact, the researchers found that male characters in popular romantic comedies express romantic ideals more often than women do. In this separate study, published in the same article, they performed a content analysis of the 52 top-grossing films between 1998 and 2008, including 2008's "27 Dresses" and the top-grossing "rom-com" of that period, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Of the 52 movies analyzed, 98 percent reportedly featured a romantic ideal expression, whereas 75 percent of the films featured a romantic ideal takeaway message. Ideal expressions were any statements related to one of the four ideals. Takeaway messages were the overall impressions of the films.

"Of the ideal statements expressed in these films, the most common were related to soul mates," Hefner said, "whereas the most common takeaway ideal theme was the notion that love conquers all."

Despite this prevalence of idealism, however, the most commonly expressed statements in these movies overall were actually realistic in nature. These practical expressions or challenges to the ideals, such as "relationships take hard work," were twice as common in these films as were the idealistic comments.

Still, Hefner said, "the bottom line is that the interactions and statements found in these films are not idealistic at all. However, the larger themes of the movies are idealistic. It seems that the couples go through realistic challenges and difficult obstacles, but resolve their differences with ideal conclusions."

Explore further: Are 'hookups' replacing romantic relationships on college campuses?

More information: Hefner, V. and Wilson, B. From Love at First Sight to Soul Mate: The Influence of Romantic Ideals in Popular Films on Young People's Beliefs About Relationships, Communication Monographs . DOI: 10.1080/03637751.2013.776697

Related Stories

Are 'hookups' replacing romantic relationships on college campuses?

November 8, 2012
"Hooking up" has become such a trend on college campuses that some believe these casual, no-strings-attached sexual encounters may be replacing traditional romantic relationships. However, a new study by researchers with ...

New study examines on/off relationships and 'sex with an ex' among teenagers and young adults

January 22, 2013
A new study finds that nearly half of older teenagers and young adults break up and get back together with previous dating partners and over half of this group have sex as part of the reconciliation process. This study was ...

Female money doesn't buy male happiness

July 17, 2012
Macho men whose partners earn more than they do have worse romantic relationships, in part because the difference in income is a strain for them, according to a new study by Patrick Coughlin and Jay Wade from Fordham University ...

Recommended for you

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

New study suggests that reduced insurance coverage for mental health treatment increases costs for the seriously ill

July 19, 2017
Higher out-of-pocket costs for mental health care could have the unintended consequence of increasing the use of acute and involuntary mental health care among those suffering from the most debilitating disorders, a Harvard ...

Old antibiotic could form new depression treatment

July 19, 2017
An antibiotic used mostly to treat acne has been found to improve the quality of life for people with major depression, in a world-first clinical trial conducted at Deakin University.

Wonder why those happy memories fade? You're programmed that way

July 19, 2017
We'll always have Paris." Or will we?


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.