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Why We Love Rom-Coms and Christmas Movies

The psychology of why we find the romantic comedy genre so appealing.

Key points

  • According to the familiarity principle, being exposed to something repeatedly causes us to feel a sense of comfort.
  • Rom-coms and Christmas movies also offer us "experiential control." Knowing that we can expect a happy ending can be calming.
  • Rom-com books and films also contain a sense of magic, and we willingly suspend our disbelief because they make us feel good.

I sit down to write this after having just finished reading my sixth rom-com of the year. Of course, I could pretend I consumed all these rom-com and Christmas movies as research for this article, but well, whom am I kidding? The only reason I read and watch these pieces of art (and I am not being sarcastic here) is that I entirely enjoy every moment I spend on them.

Why do we love this genre of film/book so much? Here’s what I think:

1. They are comforting. Especially during times like the pandemic, when everything seemed to be crumbling to pieces around us. Nothing could be more comforting than curling up with hot chocolate and a book where all ends well. Sometimes all we need is the warm, fuzzy feeling inside that tells us all’s well with the world, and I cannot think of anything better than a rom-com to do so.

Comfort takes many forms–if sometimes the smell of pumpkin pie brings back childhood memories and a sense of nostalgia, then at other times, what does the trick is escaping into a fictional world where things rarely go wrong.

This is also why many of us enjoy rewatching old favorites so much–the famed “familiarity principle.” Simply being exposed to something repeatedly can cause us to feel a preference towards it just because our brains find it familiar.

2. You get what you expect. A big part of the appeal of the rom-com is that it usually follows a predictable formula. Unlike in life, you know exactly what to expect in a rom-com, and there are no surprises. Sometimes, when you want to turn off your brain and just relax, getting thrown off by a plot twist that is not entirely pleasurable can take away from the experience.

In a paper that discusses “volitional reconsumption,” or people’s tendency to rewatch old favorites, the authors describe what they refer to as “experiential control”–being able to predict that all will be well (be it in a romantic comedy or a fun movie we already know the ending to) can help provide a calming effect, given that we know exactly how we are going to feel at the end of it.

3. They deal with universal emotions. I binge-watched a Korean drama, Crash Landing on You, early in the pandemic, and I was struck by how easily I could identify with the emotions the characters were experiencing, despite having very little in common with them. The series follows a North Korean man and a South Korean woman who fall in love, and they initially seem to have nothing in common with each other either. But slowly, as expected from a good romance, they find their common ground.

4. Representation. While leaving our brains aside and enjoying rom-coms and Christmas movies might work for a while, the tropes soon get tiring, and the kind of people represented in these films and books start looking and sounding very similar. While earlier rom-coms have been criticized (and rightfully so) for lacking representation, more recent films like Always Be My Maybe, Crazy Rich Asians, The Big Sick, and Happiest Season make the rom-com trope work beautifully with characters usually not represented on the big screen.

5. Willing suspension of disbelief. In many rom-coms, and indeed most Christmas movies, there’s an element of magic embedded into the story. For those of us who find it hard to believe in the supernatural when we are older, it is nice to watch the occasional movie that takes us back to our childhoods and simpler times when we believed Santa would actually come down the chimney to leave us presents.

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More from Aditi Subramaniam, Ph.D.
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