40 Years of Romantic Comedies, 1 Big Change

Over the past few decades, Americans seem to have become less preoccupied with romantic relationships in their daily lives. Almost every time the Census Bureau releases a new report on the percentage of adults who are unmarried, it shows the number growing. The percentage of adults who are not married, do not live with someone and are not in a committed romantic relationship is also increasing. More and more, those lonely singles do not want to “disconnect” from themselves.

Ask Americans what makes their lives meaningful or fulfilling, and the same pattern emerges. Over time, the percentage mentioning a romantic topic (romantic love, romantic partner, dating, marriage or partner) decreased. On the other hand, the percentage of those who mention freedom and independence has increased.

Is this happening, at least in part, because popular culture leads the way in emphasizing many important areas of life other than romance? What about one of the most popular of all popular culture – romantic comedies? In “Big Data, Actually”, an article published in Psychology of popular mediaMedia researchers Melissa M. Moore and Yotam Ophir reported the results of their analysis of 188 of the top-grossing romantic comedies in the American markets over the four decades between 1980 and 2019. They found one big change, which was the exact opposite of changes in people’s lives.

More about romance, less about anything else in life

Using machine learning and careful reading of key scenes in the scripts of the 188 romcoms, the researchers identified 40 themes and then categorized them into two broad themes: romantic relationships and life beyond romantic relationships. The romantic relationship topics included, for example, the feelings of the romantic partners, their relationship status, their breakups and breakups. The topics about the rest of their lives covered their work, friends, daily activities (such as shopping), special events (such as crimes or court hearings), phone calls, business troubles, financial transactions, travel and weather.

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Averaged across all films over the four decades, themes of romantic relationships were prevalent, accounting for 64 percent of the scenes, compared to just 36 percent for everything that happens in the characters’ lives. Perhaps this is not so surprising; After all, the movies were all romantic comedies.

What was more striking was the trend over time. Throughout the four decades, the themes of romantic relationships became even more dominant, while the rest of life occupied less and less of the plot lines. In 1980, the first year analyzed, romantic themes accounted for less than half of the themes. Within a year or two, romantic themes accounted for more than half of the themes and generally increased in dominance over the forty years, reaching a peak of nearly three-quarters around 2013. This means that for most of the past few years, romantic comedies have had relatively more scenes that were about romantic relationships and fewer scenes about each other. the rest

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The researchers also analyzed the trends in the dominance of the 40 more specific topics. They found that the theme that grew most dramatically over time was “conflicting feelings.” As Moore and Ophir explained, “These scenes often involve unbalanced partnerships, with one partner willing to commit while the other hesitates…”. Other examples of the theme of conflicting feelings included discussions of having trouble with sex and being in a bad mood despite having fun. The topic that decreased the most over time was the discussion of body parts.

Although the “conflicting feelings” theme grew the most over time, it was not the most popular theme overall. The theme that occurred most often on average across the 188 films was “Farewells and Things”. This category included “interpersonal failures and despair, including ended relationships, unrequited love, and confessed mistakes.”

What do romcoms tell their viewers?

“Compared to viewers in the 1980s and 1990s,” Moore and Ophir noted, “the modern audience should expect more and higher obstacles for the heroes to overcome,” including physical injuries. Romantic relationships are depicted as increasingly tumultuous, yet audiences may feel encouraged to embrace these relationships anyway.

The authors concluded:

…romcoms ultimately and increasingly reinforce the same message: that no matter what the obstacle, be it betrayal, deception or extreme incompatibility, love and destiny means ignoring, forgiving or accepting these differences even at the expense of friends, family or career.

In real life, more people spend more of their time outside of marriage and romantic relationships, and they find less meaning and fulfillment in these relationships. Over time, they value their independence and freedom more, and they may also value their friends more. Romantic comedies seem to be protesting against these changes. They seem to be telling their audience: yes, romantic relationships are hard. They are getting harder all the time. But that’s okay – love still conquers all! Forget about your friends, family, work and anything else that might interest you; Choose romantic love instead!

The authors called the romcoms’ messages “misleading and harmful,” and are particularly concerned about young viewers who may be particularly influenced. Perhaps the continued popularity of romcoms should also be of concern. But then again, even when viewers find the romcoms entertaining, perhaps the more sophisticated among them roll their eyes. These movies may be fun to watch, but not everyone is going to invite that kind of chaos into their lives.


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