Are romantic comedies good for you?

American researcher Dr. Paul Zak believes he’s discovered the chemical that makes people happy, good, and ethical. Oxytocin, a chemical produced during breastfeeding and orgasm, but also through other forms of close human connection is, Zak says, ''a social glue that keeps society together.” Zak, author of the new book The Moral Molecule, says that oxytocin, in addition to being present when we bond with other humans, it also makes us more generous and more trusting.

Other things that involve a surge of oxytocin and make us happier: communicating through social media, playing with pets, hugging, charity work, and watching romantic comedies.

This last one caught my eye because, as I’ve written about before here at Daily Life, I spend a lot of time watching romantic comedies. Unlike Mindy Kaling’s character in The Mindy Project, however, I have an ironclad excuse – a professional excuse – to do so. I’m studying them. It’s research.

I’m more than half way through my dissertation now, which means I am neck-deep in my research and that sometimes when I dream about my family, my sister is played by Amy Adams and my mother by Diane Keaton.

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I’ll be the first to say that I’m skeptical about oxytocin research, because it’s so often deployed to reinforce outdated and narrow-minded ideas about a woman’s rightful place in a romantic relationship.  So, I wasn’t really expecting to be transformed into Gandhi in ballet flats simply because I’ve spent the last few years watching Julia Roberts laugh her Julia Roberts laugh and thinking about Jason Segel’s penis.

But according to Zak’s research, I should be feeling pretty happy right now, and overflowing with kindness and trust. Has several years of watching romantic comedies – lots of them, some of them over and over again – made me a better, kinder, and happier person?

Nope.

Because while watching romantic comedies might stimulate my oxytocin production and cause my brain to pump feel-good vibes through my body, those warm and fuzzy feelings are drowned out, most of the time, by other feelings. Cold and fuzzless feelings.

As a feminist, there are plenty of reasons to take issue with romantic comedies. Absurd beauty standards for both genders. The depiction of a long term, heterosexual relationship that will presumably end in marriage as a woman’s ultimate goal. Reinforcement of the idea that being single is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. Sidelining of people of colour and LGBT folks as fun or feisty supporting cast members, but never the main event. And on it goes.

All these things create cold and fuzzless feelings for me, probably canceling out whatever oxytocin is created when Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis finally get together after ninety minutes of witty banter and pantslessness.

But what really bothers me about the genre I’ve chosen to study is the contempt so many people have for it. At parties, when someone asks me what my dissertation is about, the answer so often prompts a raised eyebrow or a rolled eye.  Or both. “Ugh, why would you want to spend three years of your life watching that crap?” Even people who like romantic comedies don’t like to admit it. The other most common response is, “Oh god, I know they’re terrible, but I love them, and I feel so bad about it!” It’s usually accompanied by a sheepish smile. The phrase they often use is “guilty pleasure.”

Are all rom coms “crap?” Absolutely not. Notting Hill is an honest to god great movie. So is When Harry Met Sally…. Good contemporary romantic comedies exist, despite the tendency to write the whole genre off as terrible. It’s fairly clear to me why romantic comedies are dismissed, though: because they’re stories made for and about women. Yes, there are some rom coms that are pure terrible crap – I’m looking at you, The Bounty Hunter – but the genre is like most other cinematic genres, with some great films, some terrible ones, and the rest somewhere in the middle. But it’s one of the only genres that get slapped with a belittling label like “chick flick.”

The widespread disdain for the genre applies to other “girly” mass media products, too, from fashion-focused reality shows to Taylor Swift. I’ll never forget the time that the four boys who lived downstairs from me locked me and my roommates out of their dorm room because they wanted to watch Love Actually in secret. They wanted to watch a romantic comedy without being made to feel guilty or unmanly for it.

So, does watching romantic comedies make you a happier person? Not for me. And probably not for the people whose pleasure gets cancelled out by guilt. But if romantic comedies were better – less formulaic, less sexist, more realistic – well, that would be a way to boost the good vibes. The world would be a happier place if we had more Going the Distances and fewer The Proposals. In the meantime, we should probably stop denigrating girly things simply because they’re girly. That way, I’ll never again have to miss the chance to watch four nineteen-year-old brodudes cry through Love Actually.

Chloe S. Angyal is the Editor of Feministing and a facilitator for The OpEd Project.
Follow her on Twitter.

6 comments so far

  • They can make you feel good while you are watching the movie and the happy ending make you smile, but once the show is finished, u got back to reality and realise life is nothing like a movie and u get bummed out all over again lol

    Commenter
    fi
    Location
    melb
    Date and time
    September 14, 2012, 9:01AM
    • I admit I'm guilty of occasionally pulling the "I know it's bad, but..." line when talking about rom coms, but in my defence the majority of them made after the '90s have been bit crap. Not all of them, but a lot of them. I think it's not so much the fact that they have been labeled women's films so much as a rather large number of them are genuinely not very good. Have you seen New Year's Eve? What utter tripe! But there are some good ones, and I rely on reviews and recommendations to tell me which ones to bother with.
      Oh, also, if you want to see one showing the LGBT community in a positive light, watch Imagine Me & You. As a story it's not revolutionary, but the way it portrays lesbian love as normal and beautiful is actually really sweet.

      Commenter
      Marie
      Date and time
      September 14, 2012, 9:43AM
      • Romantic comedies are positive and way better then watch CSI! not to mention, we also have "guilty please" when we have had sex, but we haven't stopped doing it, although it is such a taboo. So why stop watching romantic comedies. And if they were more realistic they would not be comedies...I love watching romantic comedies and not ashamed of..

        Commenter
        mimi
        Date and time
        September 14, 2012, 10:38AM
        • Spot on mimi...the realistic ones are called dramas or in worse cases psychological thrillers. I think this a bit like saying fairytales are not realistic enough!
          I am a male and love the romcoms proudly. Quite simply, they always put a smile on your face and you know there's gonna be a happy ending...eventually!

          Commenter
          Mighty
          Date and time
          September 14, 2012, 3:41PM
      • Real life romance is complicated, sexy, funny, addictive and full of the unexpected - how exciting is that? And when I hear real people's, real life, romance stories I am transfixed. It's a shame that I don't get that feeling from romantic comedy films - perhaps their need to be a form of escape from real life is the reason for their being watered down plod-fests - which, surely, can't be good for anyone (purely my opinion).

        Commenter
        RMW
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        September 14, 2012, 11:12AM
        • I have always loved romantic comedies... When I was in film school people always said they didn't like them and thought they were crap. But as you say. Life any genre there are good ones and bad ones.

          But the funniest film watching experience was when I was about 17 and we were watching Hitch (will smith etc) and it was the part of the rom com where the couple break up for the first time. And my male friend was so distraught, he was shaking, and said, "what if they don't get together?" it was like he was watching a horror movie.

          Commenter
          Shell
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          September 14, 2012, 12:18PM

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