Rom-coms, Valentine’s Day, and How We’re Spending a Lot Without Buying Anything

Last week people all over the country celebrated the most romantic and undoubtedly commercialized holiday we know of: Valentine’s Day. From jewelry to Hallmark cards to dinner dates, consumers spend around $17.6 billion on this one day of the year. Of course, also on the profiting side is the film industry. Whereas movies pertaining to other holidays only come once a year, such as Christmas movies, Valentine’s Day movies can be seen all year round. They’re called rom-coms.

The romantic comedy has always been a successful hybrid movie genre, and it’s not hard to see why. With their simple storylines, (highly predictable) twists, (sometimes overdone) comic relief, and (too-good-to-be-true) happy endings, they portray a world we can only dream to live in. Yet how are these exaggerated realities affecting the way we live our lives? Some people believe that romantic comedies have ruined their relationships because they teach audiences to expect too much from their romantic partner. Watching two actors play out the most romantic–and fictional–days of their lives can remind us viewers how grateful we are for the people around us, or give us a reason to adopt another cat. Whether we love Valentine’s day or love to hate it, movies, especially romantic comedies, play a big role in shaping our perceptions of the holiday. Or do they?

According to a 2013 study at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, watching romantic movies does not actually give people unrealistic expectations for their relationships.The study identified four romantic ideals found in rom-coms: love at first sight, one and only soul mate, love conquers all, and idealization of partner. However, only the last had a significant correlation to the frequency of intake of romantic comedy films. Most people do not believe they’re going to find “the one” and their lives will be complete just because a movie says so. And most people do not expect to find a perfect partner who will lie in the middle of the road with them The Notebook style, unless they actively watch romantic comedies for dating and relationship advice. Studies show that people who watch romantic movies in order to learn from them are more likely to idealize their partner and believe in other romantic ideals.

It makes sense: those who go into a movie looking for some kind of message or answer will find what they are looking for. It all depends on intent and the ability to project yourself onto the main character.

Which brings me to another question: whose lives are being portrayed on screen? The film and television trope of the white male lead pursuing the white female lead (or vice versa) is so common that we often don’t stop to think about who’s missing. Where are the racial minorities, the interracial couples, and the same-sex couples? If romantic comedies are portraying the image of the ideal lifestyle and relationship, what does that mean for the viewers who do not fit the white upper-middle class heteronormative profile of the lead characters?

Maybe it’s because we are not all seeing ourselves onscreen that we are not all falling for these ideas of what love and romance are supposed to be. And yet, we’re still spending so much money when we know that what we’re buying is fake: we won’t get perfect endings or perfect partners, and no amount of chocolate or roses is going to get you that perfectly timed promotion or change a person’s entire personality. So why continue this practice? If I were to take a guess, I’d say it’s because for one day, it’s fun to feel like you’re living in a movie. For just one day, cheesy rom-com rules apply: it’s acceptable to recite 19th century love poems, or even write your own. Giant heart bouquets of red roses aren’t too over the top. The extra money for more elegant dinner isn’t too much to spare for one night.

Romantic comedies will continue to allow people a few hours of respite into a perfect world and show us what we want to see. So maybe we’re not as deluded as we previously thought, and we don’t really need romantic movies to tell us how to handle our relationships, but that didn’t stop me from watching The Wedding Singer with my roommates last Friday night.


–Julie Takla ’16