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No, rom-coms don’t make you OK with male stalking

There’s a study that’s getting a lot of media buzz right now. It claimed that women who watch rom-coms are more likely to romanticize male stalking behaviors as a part of normal courtship. Does that sound right to you? It didn’t to me either, so I had to investigate.

On its face, the study does present a shocking finding worthy of all the media buzz it’s been getting, but when you actually look more closely at the study itself you see what a mess it is. I don’t even need to go into any psychological research jargon to explain where the first major problem lies. Just using common logic, it makes it’s claim based on the movies Enough (2002), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Management (2008) — which had an American box office total of $375,916, so I can safely say that nobody actually saw it. Is it too much to ask that the study be done with films from this decade?

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How about we show Bridesmaids (2011) about women freaking out over weddings like men used to in the ’90s? This film illustrates the idea that women are the romantic decision makers (which is true) and is a female driven rom-com that exemplifies a more realistic view of women’s autonomy. Or Enough Said (2013) about what happens when you realize love doesn’t last forever. Better yet, let’s show Ruby Sparks (2012). In this film, a male writer creates his perfect woman only to find that she doesn’t want to be his dream girl, because there isn’t one.

But in this study, the researcher grabbed a few film clips from antiquated films that would never see the light of day today because of their out-of-touch messages (with the exception of There’s Something About Mary, because that film is always funny). She then showed just those clips that supported her argument (the argument being that women are cool with men who stalk them as long as it’s for love). After viewing the selected clips, the group of women were asked questions about how they felt.

In psychology we call that priming. OK, I know I said no psych jargon, but there are a few terms we need to throw around here. Priming is when you manipulate a person or a group of people so that they conclude what you want them to.

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This is also referred to as, “demand characteristics,” which happens when the participant tries to interpret, just by the stimuli (the film clips), what the researchers want from them. If I said, “Imagine a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, $6.4 billion dollar acquisition creator, Obama appointee and Exxon oil board member” you may deduce that I’m trying to get you to think about an older white male who looks a lot like Patrick Stewart, and then you will respond accordingly, unless you realize I’m actually talking about Ursula Burns, an African-American female who has run Xerox since 2009.

The report also shows a lack of understanding about Millennials who, time after time, psychologists have found have a much more female-friendly, forward-thinking and enlightened view of marriage, a more egalitarian view of courting and a very low tolerance for some of the antiquated ideals that their grandparents held, which are the sorts of themes portrayed in movies from the ’90s.

It’s distressing and disappointing as a psychologist to read research like this. It seems to be a case of: I get you to say what I want and then I publish what you’ve said for the narrative that suits my agenda. These types of cherry-picked findings are patently offensive because, in toto, they are not a study, but a magic trick.

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