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40 Years of Romantic Comedies, 1 Big Change

Real life and romcoms are headed in opposite directions.

Key points

  • Researchers studied 188 romcom films over four decades, finding romantic relationship themes prevailed, accounting for 64 percent of the scenes.
  • The topic that occurred most often averaged across the films was “breakups and screwups.”
  • Romcoms send a message that no matter the obstacle, love means ignoring, forgiving, or accepting at the expense of family, friends, and career.

Over the past decades, Americans seem to have become less preoccupied with romantic relationships in their everyday lives. Just about every time the Census Bureau releases a new report on the percentage of adults who are not married, it shows that the number has increased. The percentage of adults who are unmarried, not living with someone, and not in a committed romantic relationship has also been growing. Increasingly, those solo single people are not interested in "unsingling" themselves.

Ask Americans what makes their lives meaningful or fulfilling, and the same pattern emerges. Over time, the percentage who mention a romantic theme (romantic love, romantic partner, dating, marriage, or spouse) has decreased. In contrast, the percentage who mention freedom and independence has increased.

Is that happening, at least in part, because popular culture is leading the way in increasingly emphasizing the many important domains of life other than romance? What about one of the most popular of all of the popular culture offerings – romantic comedies? In “Big Data, Actually,” an article published in Psychology of Popular Media, communication scholars Melissa M. Moore and Yotam Ophir reported the results of their analyses of 188 of the top-grossing romantic comedies in American markets for the four decades between 1980 and 2019. They found one big change, which was exactly the opposite of the changes in people’s lives.

More About Romance, Less About Everything Else in Life

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

Averaging across all of the films during the four decades, romantic relationship themes prevailed, accounting for 64 percent of the scenes, compared to just 36 percent for everything else happening in the characters’ lives. Maybe that’s not so surprising; after all, the movies were all romantic comedies.

What was more striking was the trend over time. Across the four decades, romantic relationship themes became even more dominant, while the rest of life took up less and less of the storylines. In 1980, the first year analyzed, romantic themes accounted for fewer 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 across the forty years, reaching a high of nearly three-quarters around 2013. That means that in most recent years, romantic comedies included proportionately more scenes that were about romantic relationships and fewer scenes about everything else.

The researchers also analyzed the trends in the dominance of the 40 more specific topics. They found that the topic that increased most dramatically over time was “conflicting feelings.” As Moore and Ophir explained, “Often these scenes involve unbalanced partnerships, with one partner ready to commit while the other hesitates….” Other examples of the topic of conflicting feelings included discussions of troubles 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 increased the most over time, it was not the most popular theme overall. The topic that occurred most often averaged across the 188 films was “breakups and screwups.” That category involved “interpersonal failures and despair, including relationships ending, unrequited love, and admitted mistakes.”

What Are Romcoms Telling Their Viewers?

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

The authors concluded:

…romcoms ultimately and increasingly reinforce the same messaging: that no matter the obstacle, be it infidelity, deception, or extreme incompatibility, love and destiny mean ignoring, forgiving, or accepting those differences even at the expense of friends, family, or career.

In real life, more people spend more of their time outside marriage and romantic relationships, and they find less meaning and fulfillment in those 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 those changes. They seem to be telling their audiences: Yes, romantic relationships are difficult. They are getting more difficult all the time. But that’s okay – love still conquers all! Forget your friends, family, job, and anything else that may matter to you; choose romantic love instead!

The authors called the messages of romcoms “misleading and detrimental,” and they are especially concerned about young viewers who may be especially impressionable. Perhaps the continued popularity of romcoms should also be concerning. But then again, even as viewers find romcoms entertaining, maybe the more sophisticated among them are rolling their eyes. Those movies may be fun to watch, but not everyone is going to invite that sort of chaos into their own lives.