Too good to be true: are film's representation of relationships unrealistic?

We all love a relationship in film to work out, but can this glorification of romance be harmful to your love life?

Sophie Austen
12th February 2024
Image Source: IMDb
From classics like Gone with the Wind (1939) and Roman Holiday (1953) to more modern sensations like The Notebook (2004) and When Harry Met Sally (1989), romantic films have been influencing audiences for generations. These iconic films have set the standard for what ‘true love’ is and the behaviours one should expect from a ‘successful’ relationship.

There are many romanticised tropes that have originated from this cinematic genre that have stood the test of time, such as: ‘love at first sight’, passionate kisses in the rain, grand gestures, the notion that men and women can never ‘just’ be friends, and the existence of ‘soulmates’ – to name a few. In the way that action films create unrealistic expectations of the human body’s resilience or horror films create unrealistic expectations of camping, romance films create unrealistic expectations of relationships.

The typical ‘realism’ of romance film settings enables audiences to identify with the cinematic environment and therefore believe that these fanciful narratives could transpire in their own reality. This relatability and the portrayal of this idealised love and these ‘romantic’ behaviours as common-sensical is harmful to real-world relationships due to the paradoxically unrealistic expectations they encourage.

creates an expectation for continual thrill and intense passion in a ‘successful’ relationship when this is simply not reality

Although some films to attempt to present all aspects of a romantic relationship, it is impossible to convey a truly accurate depiction of real human relationships. On-screen relationships will always be somewhat dramatized or idealised, despite efforts that may be made to counter this, as a whole relationship is condensed into a two-hour long highlight reel. The exciting ups-and-downs of a relationship are prioritised, meaning the ‘boring’ mundanity of co-existence is omitted. This creates an expectation for continual thrill and intense passion in a ‘successful’ relationship when this is simply not reality. Depictions of tedious marriages in films tend to be less profitable than romanticised, idealised representations of love. As a result, these perspectives are emphasised at the expense of other significant but less fanciful aspects of a relationship. It is therefore impossible to depict the reality of a romantic relationship accurately or objectively in film, leading to unrealistic expectations being set and consumed by the viewer.  

Cultivation theory, developed by George Gerbner, suggests that repeated exposure to media, such as films, influences perceptions of social reality over time. People’s expectations and behaviours change because of this mass media influence and the messages it disseminates. Viewers repeated and regular exposure ensures not only companies’ profits but the socialisation process they aim to achieve. Media and film thus contribute to the preservation of order through the presentation of conventional influences as ‘the standard’ and therefore, by some means, deserving of emulation. In this way, a social consciousness is cultivated as expectations and understandings of the reality of relationships are set. The conclusions viewers make about their own relationship archetypes and goals are drawn from the mediated condensed ‘standard’ set in film. This widespread adherence to dysfunctional beliefs encouraged by romantic films brings about both personal and societal repercussions.

Despite the whimsical allure of cinematic love stories, it is essential to remember that romantic contentment can be found in the simplicity of shared laughter and the peace found in the mundanity of everyday co-existence.

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