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.
I’ll be the first to say that I’m skeptical about oxytocin research, because it’s so often deployed to reinforce outdated and narrow-minded ideas about a woman’s rightful place in a romantic relationship.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?
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.