Romantic Comedies… or Emotional Porn?

They sat, fixated on the TV screens hanging from the ceiling over the aisle as people filed out of the plane.  They sat, anxious on the edges of their seats (literally, since their backpacks kept them separated from their seatbacks), nervous about missing the end of the movie.  The flight attendant had started the Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel romantic comedy, Life as We Know It, too late in the flight, threatening the group from their precious flick if they left the already-landed plane.  Sure, they knew how it would end.  They knew it after the first five minutes, but the group stayed on the plane anyway, hoping to catch the final moments. 

So what was it about Life as We Know It that had them so engrossed?  What is it about romantic comedies in general that sends girls into clouds of giggles and tears?  Moreover, is this obsession with chick flicks a healthy addiction?

Think about it.  When you watch a romantic comedy, you see these fairy tale boy-meets-girl stories, starring beautiful actors placed in perfect scenarios, overcoming dramatic odds, and finding true love.  What girl doesn’t want this in her own life?  What girl doesn’t wish the hot guy at the Plex would accidentally bump into her, sending her water bottle flying, only to end up laughing and making charming and witty remarks?  Shouldn't it end in an exchange of numbers that would lead to a perfect date in the North End with a walk through Quincy Market under the stars, having deep and meaningful conversation with this unbelievable connection. 
 
See how it works?
 
This is a completely ridiculous scenario. 
Many girls, however, after watching so many romantic comedies, might develop these unrealistic standards about love and relationships.  “Develop these completely unrealistic standards…”  Does this sound familiar? …Boys?
 
Are these not the very critiques girls give guys on porn?  Think about it - how many times have you heard someone say, “Porn gives boys unreasonable expectations of sex and the female body,” or something of this nature? 
 
This is not to say that romantic comedies are porn.  They clearly are not.   However, one might argue that the two genres of film share one similar effect upon viewers:  they set up unrealistic fantasies that leave viewers wanting what they see on screen.  While porn does this in a physical sense, romantic comedies do it in a more emotional sense.
 
In fact, one might call romantic comedies “emotional porn.”

The Family Research Council’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute published The Effects of Pornography on Individuals, Marriage, Family, and Community, by Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D, which says, “Pornography is a visual representation of sexuality which distorts an individual's concept of the nature of conjugal relations.  This, in turn, alters both sexual attitudes and behavior.” 

Could this same statement be true of romantic comedies?  Could romantic comedies fill our heads with fairy tales that distort our concept of relationships?  Could this alter our attitudes and behaviors towards finding and falling in love?
 
Professor Liza Cuklanz, Ph.D., chair of the Communication department and former director of Women’s Studies weighs in, agreeing that romantic comedies could have this very effect.  So if we fall victim to loving a good Katherine Heigl flick, are we in trouble of subconsciously developing this idealistic view?  Could this affect our future relationships?  Cuklanz determines viewing frequency as an important factor. 
 
“It is likely that media effects are most related to the relative amount of exposure.  It is possible that someone who watches lots of romantic comedies could develop unrealistic expectations.  However, the more important issue is probably the general lack of realistic portrayals of romantic relationships in the broader scope of mass media that is readily available for most young people,” says Cuklanz.
 
With the mention of young people, one cannot help but think about  growing up idolizing the Disney princesses.  Ariel and Eric.  Cinderella and Prince Charming.  Pocahontas and John Smith.  Beauty and the Beast.  We’ve all heard the critiques, so is it true?  Could these idealistic fantasies be planted into our minds long before we ever have our first crush?  Cuklanz thinks this is a possibility.

“Romantic storylines and themes are included in films and other media targeted at very young children.  While it is likely that children do not understand these themes when they are first exposed to them, frequent exposure to romantic narratives is likely on a standard diet of popular mainstream children’s films.  Thus, many children are exposed to, and accept, ideas about romance from fictionalized media products long before their parents would think to discuss such subjects with them,” she says. 
 
So what can we do to protect ourselves from falling victim to these fantasies?  Cuklanz's expert advice to students is to limit their exposure to romantic comedies. She encourages viewing non-traditional representations of gender roles that differ from those found in popular media genres.
 
So next time you hop on NetFlix or head to that old-fashioned video store, keep Professor Cuklanz’s advice in mind and protect yourself from falling victim to emotional porn!

Source:

Liza Cuklanz, Ph.D., chair of the Communication department at Boston College

Family Research Council