Despite the rise of feminism, a new UGA research study describes how romance films persist in stereotyping women’s roles.
Based on a sample of 250 romance films—from “The Notebook” to “Up in the Air”—that were released between 2000 and 2014, the study found that many of those movies seem to initially question the gender status quo by positioning the female lead as adventurous and independent. But they typically end essentially the same way: with the woman sacrificing her independence to support the male lead and settling down:
“Romance movies haven’t really burst out of the traditional depiction of women,” said James Dowd, lead author of the study and emeritus professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Sociology. “I’m not saying changing romance movies’ plots would necessarily do the trick in changing people’s attitudes and develop a less sexist society. But if the question is can movies change the world? Well, maybe they can in a small way. And this is a good place to start.”
Published in the Journal of Gender Studies, the study measured the degree to which behavior of the central characters in a given film followed traditional gender role expectations. For example, male characters ascribing to gender norms would likely be rational, competitive and focused on work. A female character would be more emotional, cooperative and family-focused.
The researchers found that male characters’ behavior typically scored significantly higher for masculine stereotypes than feminine. The only exception was rationality, which didn’t differ significantly for men and women. But when the researchers separated the romance film into subcategories, romantic comedies versus romantic dramas, male characters in dramas were shown to have a slightly greater degree of rationality than females.
Provocative scholarship and an excellent reminder for thinking critically about entertainment and cultural cues, which can seem much more fluid and progressive than they, in fact, are.