Americans' relationship with romantic comedies: It's complicated

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
February 02, 2023, 6:55 PM GMT+0

Some would argue that romantic comedies encompass the best of both worlds when it comes to movies, giving viewers both the feel-good warmth of romance and comedic relief. Despite the fact that the genre — also referred to as "rom-com" — appears to have steadily declined in terms of ticket sales and share of films released over the past decade, many Americans are still fans, a new YouGov poll finds. The results reveal that while rom-coms are not as beloved as pure comedies, they retain a significant following, with roughly seven in 10 people stating they love or like the genre. The poll also explored what elements Americans believe a movie must have to classify as a rom-com, perceptions of critics' ratings of rom-coms, and views on the realism of the genre.

Rating the rom-com

How does romantic comedy compare to other movie genres in terms of how many Americans like it? While fewer say they love or like rom-coms than say the same about comedy overall, rom-coms rank just ahead of romance overall. (American opinion of romance, comedy, and other genres besides romantic comedy was measured in an October 2022 YouGov poll.) Roughly seven in 10 people say they enjoy rom-coms, including 22% who say they love them and 47% who say they like them. Just one in five hate (5%) or dislike (16%) rom-coms.

Though majorities of both genders express a positive opinion of the genre, women (74%) are somewhat more likely than men (62%) to say they love or like rom-coms. Adults under 45 are slightly more likely to say they "love" rom-coms than Americans 45 and older are.

A 2013 analysis in the New York Times found that, compared to other genres, romantic comedies had the biggest disconnect in ratings between the general public and critics — with moviegoers overall much more favorable than critics were. The average rom-com was rated positively by 57% of Rotten Tomatoes users but just 36% of Rotten Tomatoes-approved critics.

Our polling finds that if an audience-critic gap still exists, Americans aren't very perceptive of it. Just 18% of people believe that rom-coms are underrated by professional critics, while 22% believe they're overrated, and 32% believe they're accurately rated. That puts rom-coms in line with many other genres. Unsurprisingly, people who like or love romantic comedies are more likely than those who don't to see it as underrated (22% vs. 11%) and less likely to see it as overrated (17% vs. 40%).

Rom-com classification

What do Americans think classifies a movie as a romantic comedy? As implied by the genre's name, the top two criteria, among over a dozen options offered as mandatory elements, involve romance and comedy. A romantic comedy must be humorous (71% of Americans say this) and have a plot that revolves around a central romantic relationship (69%). Majorities also believe that the couple must encounter obstacles that are surmounted (67%) and a dramatic romantic gesture must occur (55%), resulting in the couple ending up together at the end of the movie (64%). In terms of the movie's tone, majorities believe it should be emotionally honest and sincere (56%) or light-hearted and non-satirical (54%).

There is less agreement on the necessity of other elements polled, such as a contrived "meet cute" (42% say this is required) and an "opposites attract" dynamic between the title characters (49%). People are evenly split on whether the couple must be conventionally attractive: 42% say they must be and 42% say they don't need to be. Around one in three or fewer agree that the movie must appeal primarily to women (32%), have a predictable or cliched narrative (31%), or take place in the present day (24%).

Rom-com realism

One thing romantic comedies are critiqued for is creating unrealistic expectations of romance. When asked whether this is the case, most Americans agree: 54% say the films' portrayals of romance are very or somewhat unrealistic. Fewer — 37% — say they're very or somewhat realistic. While men and women have similar views on the genre's realism, there are differences in opinion depending on whether people like the genre. People who say they love or like romantic comedy are more likely than those who hate or dislike it to say the genre's portrayal of romance is realistic (43% vs. 26%).

People who said romantic comedies are very or somewhat unrealistic about romance were asked whether these portrayals of romance lead people to have unrealistic standards for romance in their real relationships. Half (51%) said they do, while 32% said they do not.

How closely do Americans think their own romantic relationships resemble romantic comedies? Just 14% of people in relationships say their relationship closely resembles ones in rom-coms, and 27% said there is a somewhat close resemblance. Most people — 53% — said their relationship does not very closely or not at all resemble relationships in rom-coms. Just 33% of the people who think their relationship bears little resemblance to rom-coms say they wish there was a stronger resemblance; 56% do not wish this.

When we asked Americans to rate romantic comedies, nearly all of the most liked movies from across the decades have main characters with certain traits in common. Namely, they are young, white, straight, and movie-star attractive. But when it comes to rom-coms being made today, Americans are more likely than not to view the main characters of romantic comedies as representative on each of these dimensions, including age (51% say they're very or somewhat representative vs. 22% who say they're not very or at all representative), race (50% vs. 24%), sexual orientation (50% vs. 23%), and attractiveness (58% vs. 19%).

Related: Americans' favorite romantic comedies

— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This article includes data from three online polls conducted January 9 - 13, January 10 - 16, and January 18 - 23, 2023 — each among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Some questions were asked on just one of these three polls, others on all three. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample on each poll is approximately 4%.

Image: Adobe Stock (Studio Romantic)

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