Finding a Happy Middle

By Emeli Warren, staff writer and publicist | English Major   
Can watching a romantic movie’s representation of a happy ending really be considered emotional pornography?

Although concerns about pornography’s effect on individuals both in and out of relationships represent a controversial topic, there have been recent discussions about a different kind of ‘addictive’ media. This type targets our emotions and sometimes causes a hunger for unrealistic expectations in romance. Some are calling it “emotional porn.”

While popular belief assumes men watch pornography while women watch romantic movies, these generalizations are not reality: Men and women explore both outlets. The term “porn” might seem like an extreme word for situations represented in romantic movies such as “The Notebook” and “Twilight,” but some psychologists argue for this kind of description.

Stephen Lambert, associate professor in the psychology department, is one of them. In discussions about the topic during his abnormal psychology classes, he terms it “emotional voyeurism.”

Lambert said research implies that the emotional high people can get from watching romantic movies actually mirrors the one that can be achieved while watching pornography.

“When we become emotionally aroused by suffering or by the idea of some kind of romance that doesn’t exist, then we are engaging in a type of emotional pornography… observing people’s nakedness,” said Lambert.

Lambert sees little difference in looking at naked models and in obsessing over the perfect mate, backing up his logic with science in terms of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). An fMRI machine can measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

“When a woman is placed in a brain-imaging machine, she can be shown pictures of attractive men she is not romantically attracted to. Then we can show her one guy she’s romantically attracted to, and we can actually see changes in the brain,” said Lambert. “It’s a biological, physiological, and neurological process. We’re feeding those pleasure centers, and they are highly addictive.”

While some people might argue that watching romantic movies cannot be compared to pornography, Lambert said this is because society wants to create separate categories—lusting after a movie star is okay, but going on a porn site is not.

“We’re trying to feed the fantasy because we’re dissatisfied by the people around us,” said Lambert. “Looking at Taylor Lautner would cause a reasonably attractive guy to just look average, while looking at naked models would make even attractive women look trivial and boring.”

Lambert pushes further, saying that by fantasizing about the ideal romance, people ignore the fact that they are surrounded by people they could be dating and enjoying. Instead, they are subconsciously asking how these people measure up.

“These ideal images actually destroy our ability to recognize beauty in the common person and they certainly wreak havoc in relationships,” Lambert said.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” addresses the disappointment she claims will inevitably follow if people continue to hold the bar so high that no one can reach it. During an interview with National Public Radio, Gilbert said, “We expect that our partner will not merely be a decent person, but will also be our soul mate, our best friend, our intellectual companion, our greatest sexual partner and our life’s complete inspiration. Nobody in human history has ever asked this much of a companion.”

Chris Armienti, an alumnus who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, discussed his views on the extreme versions of romance in movies from both positive and negative aspects.

“I definitely think it does affect someone, even if it’s on a very low level of cognitive processing,” said Armienti. “If anything, it can lead to expectations in your next boyfriend or girlfriend.”

Despite the unrealistic expectations, to a certain extent movies might represent a standard of a man that can offer a good example to other men.

“I think there’s a certain aspect that men should be great and willing to do whatever they can for their woman… to be decent and chivalrous,” said Armienti. “However, communication is very important. I think there’s expectations that need to be talked about. In addition, there are expectations that are fair and then there are ones that are over the line. I don’t think guys need to do these ridiculous things all the time.”

Aside from pointing out the influence these movies can have on relationships, Armienti was also sure to bring attention to the effect these movies have on men’s emotions.

“Guys have the same desire [as women] to be loved in return, even if in a different way,” said Armienti. “If they truly love a girl, they want to take care of her. They don’t want them to know they are feeling inadequate.”

Armienti may not have known exactly where to draw the line between pornography and the hunger for romance, but he came to one conclusion: As long as people know their boyfriend or girlfriend cannot, and should not, live up to perfection, then watching movies for the sake of a good love story shouldn’t be harmful.

Nick Waters from Oklahoma started a blog titled “30 Chick Flicks In 30 Days,” curious to see what he could learn about both women and himself from romantic movies. Last year, from Jan. 15 until Feb. 15, he watched a romantic movie every day with his wife and then wrote a post on his blog that was not only a review of the film, but also his daily “takeaway,” or something he learned.

After watching “500 Days of Summer,” Waters wrote, “Physical affection does not signify an emotional connection. Love is what you choose to make of it.” Waters plays on the stereotype of men being more physical than emotional, advising that even these female-oriented movies can offer insight into the way men should look at relationships.

“Being a nice guy isn’t genetic; it’s a choice,” Waters wrote after his last review, specifically about the movie He’s Just Not That Into You. “Have boundaries and honor them. When a person chooses to love, they choose to be vulnerable.”

Whether we have set the bar high because of personal satisfaction or because it is what the media tells us to do, it can still cause dissonance in our relationships. As well, it can make us think that the most important thing to aim for is the happily-ever-after ending. But why do we sometimes sacrifice so much to meet this goal?

“What if I don’t want the happy ending? What if I want the happy middle?” said Emily Suess, senior English major.

Suess questions the way society focuses on an ending, making a great point that can easily be forgotten—it’s an ending. Suess asks why we would want something so perfect to end when there are exciting steps that lead us there. Despite the fact that these steps can be messy, they are the moments that make the end worth working for.

“There’s beauty in the mess,” said Suess.

Whether you would use the term “emotional porn” or not, the representation of relationships in movies can alter our views of those around us—making us hungry for things that are not necessarily real, distracting us from what really matters most.

(Photo by Jon Dickson)

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