Rom-coms Shaped my Romantic Ideals, Social Media Tore Them Down

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Rom-coms Shaped my Romantic Ideals, Social Media Tore Them Down

My first love played out like scenes straight from a rom-com. I was 19. We sat underneath the branches of majestic palm trees, sheltered by mirrored skyscrapers. Egged on by the silent sound of crickets with the duplicitous glow of a lazy moon reflected in the lakes surrounding us in our garden of Eden, we swayed to an R&B song playing on his phone. 

Or, at least, that’s how my mind has retained the memory of the experience. We’d found our paradise. My first real relationship and the story that would go on to inform much of my romantic choices to date (pun-intended), could not have unfolded better by rom-com standards. 

We were in university – young, unassuming, and with the world at our fingertips. If youth thinks it’s invincible; we thought we were eternal. But he would turn into the man that would go on to break my heart over and over again and I’d accept it. We’d dance through a sequence of on-again, off-again for the next nine years. 

Not that surprising though, when you take a look at the movies my generation grew up with. In 1922, American reporter and political commentator, Walter Lippman, planted the seed for a theory that would go on to be explored and studied to this day. It was the idea of perceived realism which stipulated that indirect experiences, including media content, impact an individual’s reality. 

In 2014, the results of a study on how media shapes our romantic ideals, as reposted by the University of Michigan, found that our framework for love is shaped by the content we consume. The romantic fodder spoon-fed to us repeatedly through series and films is registered and mimicked in our own behavior. 

The Millennial blueprint for love was, in large part, modeled after the rom-coms of the late 90s and early aughts. We didn’t have Instagram, Facebook was at the budding stages of its development, and TikTok but a distant inception yet to be conceived in the digital ether. 

I am a product of a time where the media we were exposed to indoctrinated us with the notion that “love conquers all.” We were the children of a zeitgeist that glorified conflict; one that conflated romance with toxicity; and one where being forgiving was valued over self-worth. 

You’ll find this pattern in “Save The Last Dance” (the protagonist’s beau is inappropriate with his ex), “She’s All That” (modern-day prince charming dates her to win a bet), and “10 Things I Hate About You” (the heroine’s love interest is paid to pursue her) to name a few. In all these films, the protagonist’s love interest gets a pass for his questionable actions when he shows up with the grand gesture – all past behavior discarded.

Much of the content, including music, fed to that generation stuck to iterations of that baseline narrative. Today, however, it is social media that has become the engineer commandeering our definition of love. 

Scroll through your feed. Amidst the cacophony of ads, latest trends, and news tidbits howling about which part of the world is on fire today, you’ll find the litmus test for successful relationships in the 21st century. 

Think of the succession of happy-couple posts peppering your feed. As we sit in our ketchup-stained sweats, picking crumbs off of our favorite sweater and wondering why our crush hasn’t replied to our texts in days, Paul from Couple #1 has just whisked Alia away for their two-week anniversary to the Maldives, or the Seychelles, or [insert generic paradise island here]. They can both be seen staring at the camera against the backdrop of mountainous swathes of green, and a sky of glorious blue and magenta, the likes of which us plebs have never once seen IRL. 

The next post is a video of Paul surprising Alia with an adopted puppy followed by a shot of them sipping margaritas out of the same glass, at sunset, with two carton straws. Because not only are they #couplegoals, but they are also environmentally-conscious animal rights activists who work non-corporate, and are still able to afford gorgeous holidays – and fit in time for the gym, obviously.

Meanwhile, your Abdullah hasn’t answered for a few hours (because…you know…work); took you to your neighborhood kebab shop for your five-year anniversary (because…the economy), and hasn’t been to the gym consistently in the past two years. 

Now, I’m not hating on Paul and Alia – more power to them. But, regularly being exposed to this glossy, polished version of what a relationship should look like promotes warped romantic expectations and exacerbates our already unrealistic standards for love. 

I am a product of a time where the media we were exposed to indoctrinated us with the notion that “love conquers all.”

The rise of social media, where we mostly see carefully curated content showcasing a user’s best side, has led to an increase in anxiety and depression, and a decrease in the quality of interpersonal relationships. Millennials and Gen-Z have been hailed as the two most anxious generations partly due to their hyperconnectivity with the social comparison aspect that is part and parcel of the digital age being a contributing factor. 

So, how exactly does social media affect our romantic expectations? And how has it fared in its retelling of the epic love story? 

Where films have ingrained in us the naive belief that “love can overcome all obstacles,” social media has taught us that it’s not love unless Abdullah takes you on a luxury vacation to Bali. 

 Social media doesn’t stop at the glossy magazine-cover-quality posts, though. There’s a darker side to the medium. One where the situationship and the talking stage are the currency of today’s romances. One that reaches another segment: those somewhat disillusioned with love, the skeptics, if you will. All of the content in that little district of unadulterated joy is neatly wrapped in a comedy exterior. You’ve probably seen the relatable dumpster fire memes, or the kaleidoscope of reels dissecting our obsession with red flags. This side of Instagram has a bleak, cynical, albeit funny, outlook on romance – it’s also the corner of social media where I live. 

I met a guy recently. I thought I might be interested in him. I wasn’t quite sure if he felt the same way. However, stuck in that buffer zone between being the offspring of the aught’s cultural manifesto and a proud netizen of the current times, I found myself confused with the messaging I was receiving, both from the guy (shocker) and social media.  

The films I grew up with taught me to look at interpersonal relationships through a rose-tinted lens of second chances. People were just people, who screwed up, like everyone else, and deserved the grace of failing every now and again. Social media, however, has tainted me with a somewhat skewed frame of reference in that most of the people out there are toxic; everything is a red flag; and it would serve me better to just sit at home reading my worn-down copy of “It.” We’ve migrated from one extreme to the other.  

As a J. Cole song playing in the background lulled me to sleep, I found myself wondering whether I was too quick to dismiss him. He doesn’t answer my texts quickly enough and he has never even taken a photo of us staring at that magenta-colored sky. We hadn’t known each other for that long, though. Once we’d actually taken the time to have a few conversations, I was pleasantly surprised. But just as quickly disappointed. 

Millennials have been referred to as the generation of instant gratification. Our cohort has been categorized as those in endless pursuit of quick pleasures where we’ve developed a sort of tunnel vision for short-term platitudes. This is in part due to how fast technology has evolved around us. Our actions online are mirrored in our personal lives – fast-paced and quick bite-sized portions of everything. That this impatience extends to our romantic behavior is inevitable. 

The films I grew up with taught me to look at interpersonal relationships through a rose-tinted lens of second chances.

After a lot of internal back and forths, and scouring Instagram for a solution to my predicament, I decided to talk to my friends. The general theme of the advice given to me can be summed up to, “he’s just not that into you” (another ensemble classic that makes excuses for the lazy efforts of half a dozen male characters).

That’s not what bothered me though. It’s that we’ve gotten so used to swiping left IRL.

 It’s almost like we’re depending on quasi-real interactions, both online and offline, at a fast pace with a quick turnover rate. Rather than face-to-face encounters where we actually take our sweet time to find out what makes the other person tick. The latter comes with the risk of heartbreak and disappointment, but so what?

Maybe just take a beat and slow down. Throw out your unrealistic expectations. Get to know the other person; it won’t break you. 

While the trending Reels on Instagram will give you a code of conduct to differentiate between the green flags and red flags out there, they are reductive. They’re mostly made up of the same blanket statements used to define a whole gender and lump them all into one narrow set of do’s and don’ts – mostly dismissing the fact that you’re dealing with a unique human being who has their own set of idiosyncrasies that define them.

The generalized advice doled out by these Instagram love gurus is not necessarily applicable to you or to your love interest. Just because your crush doesn’t react within the Instagram-approved framework for relationships or dating behavior, doesn’t mean that they’re in the wrong. It doesn’t mean you are, either. 

There is no one archetype for the ideal relationship, man, or woman. What success in a relationship looks like for one person won’t always look the same for another. Because we each have our own patterns and behaviors; our own lived experiences and triggers; and our own traumas and baggage. So, our interactions will inevitably look different. 

That dating playbook everyone on social media seems to use as a reference? Throw it out. Find out for yourself what works for you.

While the social media red flag manifesto has some good points, it is not set in stone nor is it definitive of every single person out there, mainly because people aren’t binary and the world isn’t painted in black and white.  

And, honestly, cut each other some slack. We’re all out here, stumbling about in the dark, trying to figure it out. 

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