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Are Romantic Themes in Movies and TV Toxic for Single Women?

Watching romantic themes has different implications for single women and men.

Key points

  • Romantic plots that idealize coupling and marriage are ubiquitous in contemporary movies and TV shows.
  • Watching romances on-screen tends to reinforce those who are already involved in a committed relationship.
  • Single women (though not single men) may experience greater anxiety about being single after watching film and TV romances.

Contemporary television, movies, and streaming content are saturated with what I call “matrimania,” the over-the-top valuing and celebrating of weddings, marriage, and romantic coupling. Characters are marched through the predictable plotlines of becoming interested in some romantic prospect, facing obstacles, and then ending up committed to each other or married. Some individual episodes of TV shows feature multiple weddings as if matrimania is some drug to which viewers are becoming habituated and need ever stronger doses to get the same reaction.

What should we make of all those romantic themes and plotlines?

Do they leave viewers feeling good about themselves? Are they just inconsequential fluff? Or are they perpetuating singlism (the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people) and making viewers feel afraid of being single?

I wish I could tell you that the definitive study has been done to answer those questions. It might involve randomly assigning some people to watch lots of those kinds of matrimaniacal shows over long periods of time, while others don’t watch anything romantic but watch other shows instead. Then viewers would report on how they are feeling about themselves, how they would feel about being single, and anything else of interest.

Of course, that sort of study would be somewhere between difficult and impossible to do. Instead, we have another kind of study that provides evidence that is more suggestive than conclusive. Participants report on their own viewing experiences and their romantic relationship status and describe their feelings about being or becoming single.

The study

Using announcements on social media, Elisabeth Timmermans and Lennert Coenen of Belgium and Jan Van den Bulck of the U.S. recruited 821 young adults (between 18 and 25 years old) to complete a standardized questionnaire that was posted online. Their findings were reported in “The Bridget Jones Effect” in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

How much romantic content were participants watching?

Participants indicated the frequency with which they watched four categories of romantic shows, and they were given examples of the kinds of shows that would qualify.

1. Romantic comedy series (How I Met Your Mother, Friends, New Girl, etc.)

2. Romantic drama series (Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.)

3. Romantic comedy films

4. Romantic drama films

Participants also indicated how often they watched TV or streaming content of any nature, not just shows with romantic themes. I don’t know why the authors did not ask participants how often they watched reality dating shows, such as The Bachelor.

Assessing participants’ fear of being single

Participants indicated their gender, sexual orientation (93 percent were heterosexual), and whether they were in a committed romantic relationship (61 percent were). They also answered questions assessing other characteristics, such as their neuroticism and their need to belong. (The researchers took those kinds of factors into account in the analyses they conducted.)

Most relevant were questions measuring their fear of being single. People who have that fear agree with statements such as “If I end up alone in life, I will probably feel like there is something wrong with me,” and “I feel anxious when I think about being single forever.”

Did people who watched more romantic shows feel more afraid of being single?

When Timmermans and her colleagues averaged across all the people in their study, including women and men, and single and coupled people, they found no significant relationship at all between watching more romantic TV shows or movies and feeling afraid of being single.

When they looked separately at four groups—single women, single men, coupled women, and coupled men—they found a statistically meaningful link for only one of those groups, the single women. The more romantic content the single women had viewed, the more fearful they said they were about being single.

Although the researchers did not analyze the content of the shows that the participants watched, their review of other studies uncovered what you would expect. Most often, in the shows with romantic content, predictable themes such as “love conquers all” and couples living “happily ever after” dominate. Characters who are single, particularly if they are women, are often portrayed as anxious, unhappy, incomplete, and unfulfilled.

Single women who watched more of those matrimaniacal shows were especially likely to think that being single would mean that there was something wrong with them and to fear that fate. The results were not statistically meaningful for the other three groups. Interestingly (though in only a suggestive way), the psychological dynamics worked in just the opposite direction for the single men. The more romantic content they saw, the more unafraid of being single they tended to feel.

Remember that the results are just correlations: Single women who watch more romantic content are more likely to feel fearful about being single. We can’t say for sure that watching romantic TV shows and movies caused the single women to fear being single. It is also possible, for example, that single women who are fearful about being single (but not single men) are more likely to be drawn to romantic shows.

Either way, this is a dynamic that does not seem innocuous. Romantic themes are ubiquitous. They show up even in shows that should have little to do with romance, such as TV series or movies about cops or firefighters or attorneys. Even televised sporting events can get interrupted with kiss cams and proposals.

This relentless messaging about the supposed wonders of romantic coupling is making it harder for people to live happily single. Single people who want to be coupled are constantly reminded of what they are supposedly missing. (I say “supposedly” because the “happily ever after” theme is more myth than reality.) People such as the single at heart, who live their best lives by being single, are likely to endure an unnecessarily long process of doubting themselves. They just aren’t seeing anyone like them on the screen. Meanwhile, coupled people get to watch romantic content and feel smug. None of this is OK.