Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy fights to get girl back, and then, against all odds, they live happily ever after. The classic framework for romantic comedies is so simple, yet it tugs at our hearts every time. Why is it that this particular genre, which has become a mainstay in modern-day storytelling, is so enticing? When people watch these movies, they believe them. With no special effects, no tricky camera play, and no elaborate plot line, audiences are swept away and fully invested in the fantasy that romantic comedies’ predictable story lines sell time and time again.
In fact, these movies may sell their message so well, that when the lights come on and the theater empties, their audiences take it with them. I set out to find how much the rom com world influences real-world expectations, and the results were somewhat surprising. I picked out 16 fairly recent romantic comedies and asked 20 people to rate them on how realistic they were. Subjects were instructed to rate a movie with a 1 if they thought the scenario in that movie would never happen, a 5 if they could definitely see it happening, and 2,3,and 4 for anything in between. I also followed up with the question, “when you are watching these movies, do you feel like something like that could happen to you?”
Do we believe in movie magic?
The results showed that for the most part, rom com watchers felt that these movies were pretty unrealistic. The highest rated movie, When Harry Met Sally, came in with an average of a 3.7 rating. Along Came Polly, Wedding Crashers, and Bridget Jones’s Diary were the only other flicks to average higher than a 3 rating. Most others hovered around a 2, while Pretty Woman and Maid in Manhattan barely peaked a 1 rating.
One interesting result I found from this study was it didn’t make a difference to movie scores whether a survey taker was male or female. However, when it came to the follow-up question, men were much more likely to respond in the affirmative. “Maybe I think it would happen,” one guy said. Another confidently answered, “I think it might, I don’t expect it to happen.” No female gave so much leeway to the romantic flicks.
It seems the better-than-life rom com world is the main appeal to movie watchers. My sister Julie explained, ‘”I don’t watch those movies because they’re realistic. I watch them because they’re fun. They’re light-hearted…And the guys are really hot.”
One friend of mine, Lyndsay, who loves watching rom coms, surprised me when she rated 10 of the 16 movies with a 1. She explained, “I’m a hopeless romantic, but I’m not stupid. I realize that doesn’t really happen.” Her outlook was actually very common. While some people straight-up scoffed at the idea that anyone would believe the premise behind those movies, many others seemed to reluctantly acknowledge that the movies were unrealistic.
Out of the 21 people polled, 6 rated the movies on average higher than a 3, and two guys seemed to have a completely different outlook. They viewed the movies as typically more realistic and seemed to view the world through more of a rose-colored lens. On average, Robert rated the movies a 3.3, while most people’s average rating was lower than 2.5. He repeatedly commented, “Oh yeah! That stuff happens all freakin’ the time!” After he finished evaluating the list he explained his rationale. “I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff happen. These ideas for movies have to come from somewhere.”
We all want the fairy tale
Just because most people recognize that these movies are primarily fiction, doesn’t mean that they aren’t affected by the rom com messages. Another subject, Victoria, who proudly identified herself as a hopeless romantic rated the movies notably higher than Lyndsay did, but said no way did she think something like that would happen to her in real life. “That’s part of the reason I don’t watch romantic movies unless I get suckered into it. Because I know that it’ll make me sad,” she confessed with a laugh, “I want that!” Her feelings were shared with other guys and girls too.
“When I was younger, I think that I thought it could happen more,” a different participant said thoughtfully, “but now, just knowing how things work…” She shook her head. “I mean, people don’t talk like that.”
Another realist explained how romantic comedies fit into her life. “I watch movies like these because I know stuff like this doesn’t happen in real life. So it’s like…how I get my romance fix,” she said and then quickly added, “But I’m not someone who is a gushy fall in love person.” While she may not be a romantic she did say that she would want a romantic comedy scenario to play out in her life. “Every girl does.”
Julie explained how she didn’t necessarily expect her love story to be like one in a movie, but that maybe those movies fueled her desire for a good story. “I mean, everyone wants a good meeting story.”
Girls aren’t the only ones. I remember watching a movie with a guy friend of mine once who was going nuts about this one romantic scene in a movie when a guy and a girl met in a cooking class. He went on about how that was what he wanted to happen to him and why doesn’t that happen to him?
One tough guy reluctantly admitted he’d seen most of the movies on the list and rated them higher on average than other poll takers. When asked if he felt like it could happen to him, he paused for a second before he answered, “maybe not that it could happen….but that it would be nice.”
The (maybe not so) ugly truth
I asked a practicing clinical psychologist for his take on how romantic comedies influence people’s reality. He didn’t have any strong convictions against the genre as a whole, but he explained how they skewed portrayals of actual relationships. “In my line of work, or in life, I see the more cynical part of the situation. I tend to be cynical about romantic comedies because they tend to focus on the fun, beginning parts of a relationship,” he said. “The credits roll just before the first real fight.” He went on to say that challenges and conflicts a couple would face after that fun story aren’t part of the movie, and that by placing the emphasis on only one part of relationships, Hollywood collectively paints an unreal picture of a working relationship.
However, this doctor doesn’t see all aspects of romantic comedies unbelievable. The exciting part of the relationship where someone puts everything on the line to win a love is a portion of the rom coms that he can buy into. “I’ve seen more of that part of it. Ya, I think sometimes that is a highly symbolic move (in a relationship),” he reflected. “I like it when people take risks that make it seem like they value risk over stability.”
Robert explained that this was why he thought romantic comedy scenarios were somewhat likely. He talked about how he had been in a situation that could have very easily ended up with him running in last-minute to break up a wedding. It didn’t, but it was a close call. “I think that’s the problem this day in age. People don’t take a chance on love. You just need to go for it.”
So, while maybe our whole lives aren’t accurately portrayed by romantic comedies, perhaps we have some movie-worthy moments. And, just maybe, we could have more.
Julie talked about how girls love all the sweet things guys do and say in movies and about how they could work in reality. “I think guys, if they were smart, would watch these movies and take some things from them.” Just one or two small gestures at any point in a relationship could make a huge impact on showing a girl he really cared about her, she mused. Her advice in choosing the gesture was to “let the other person know you are still in love with them. Go out of your way to do something and show it.”
So while maybe these movies aren’t the most accurate mirror of life as it is, they serve their purpose by inspiring us to find the underlying themes of love and courage that drive them. Maybe the same way we see runners in the olympics and are inspired to lace up our own sneakers, these stories can give us confidence to make our own stories. Amongst all the nay-sayers and rom-com critics, Robert’s point of view may be the one we should take a second look at. “You believe something could actually happen, you can make it happen.”