Romantic comedies are a staple of the movie industry. They are utterly predictable and there is already a surfeit of them, yet they just keep coming. It would be nice if they were just mindless entertainment. Then those of us who find them tiresome could just roll our eyes and ignore them. But they are perpetuating a way of thinking about the world that sells us all short.
In an article in Atlantic magazine, Megan Garber described some of the problems with the rom-com (which I’m converting to numbered bullet points):
- “…its assumption of the centrality of romance to feminine life,
- its downplaying of things like family and friends and career and other vehicles for human spiritual fulfillment,
- its conviction that a woman must not be simultaneously attractive and single…”
- Also: “…rom-coms can give their audiences the illusion that stalking behavior – criminal activity – is, yes, romantic.”
These are all good points. Except perhaps for the last one, they are true of far more than the rom-com. They are part of the matrimaniacal thinking that permeates everyday life.
Romance is, as Garber suggests, situated as central to women’s lives. Women are the ones who seem to get fussed over for being single. Yet in systematic studies of stereotyping, single men are judged just as harshly as single women. So maybe, in our cultural narratives, romance is supposed to be important to men’s lives, too.
The valuing of romance, and its role in leading its star-crossed lovers down a path to marriage, is hardly confined to the screens playing rom-coms. The same themes crop up in television shows, works of fiction, and real-life meet-cute stories that are told and retold.
The central role that romance and marriage is supposed to play in our lives is also evident in more somber examples. Imagine that the father of a young daughter is seriously ill. Can you predict what he will say about wanting to live? He will say that he wants to live long enough to walk his daughter down the aisle. The possibility that the daughter may actually have no wifely aspirations is never even considered.
The second problem with the rom-com, “its downplaying of things like family and friends and career and other vehicles for human spiritual fulfillment,” is also a fundamental problem with the stories we tell about single people, and single life, in contemporary society. As I discussed in Singled Out, friends are marginalized as “just friends” and career – especially in single women’s lives – is too often dismissed as what women do with their lives to compensate for not having a spouse. Yet friendship can be a source of great strength in all our lives, and meaningful careers can sustain us both economically and, as Garber suggests, spiritually. Educational accomplishments also belong in this bundle. Our knowledge and our degrees are ours forever, unlike marriages which can dissolve at any point.
As for the third problem, again it is not just in the rom-com that attractive singles are the ones who are destined for romance and marriage. Research on stereotypes shows the same thing: People think single people are less attractive than married or coupled people. But here’s something else research has shown: They are not.
The kinds of matrimaniacal values perpetuated by rom-coms seem to have some serious implications for how women think about potential careers, especially in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). I’ll describe some of the relevant research in a future post.