Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–If you believe a little thinning of Valentine’s Day treacle is in order, a reality check is available in the form of the Stupid Cupid and Realistic Romance Awards, given each Valentine’s Day for media portrayals of sex, love and romance.

Today’s top two awards go to feature films: “Failure to Launch,” which received the overall Stupidest Cupid Award for perpetuating the most myths and stereotypes, while “Date Movie” won the Realistic Romance Grand Prize for spoofing unhealthy romantic messages.

All 26 awards–which go to movies, TV shows, popular songs and major magazines–are the brainchild of Arizona State University communications professor Mary-Lou Galician. She has identified–and numbered in order of supremacy–a dozen romance myths perpetuated by media, not just during the run-up to Valentine’s Day but all year long.

“‘Failure to Launch’ promotes a majority of myths and stereotypes,” says Galician, “not only the film’s dangerous primary theme–the love of a good woman can fix any man (myth No. 7)–but also your perfect partner is pre-destined (No. 1), the objectified model-like beauty who attracts the man (No. 5) with easy and wonderful sex (No. 4), and you’re incomplete (and, in this film, unable to function) without a romantic partner (No. 10).”

This year’s Realistic Romance prize for “Date Movie” marks a departure from past years’ awardees (“40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Legally Blonde” and TV’s “She’s With Me”) in that it spoofed romantic media myths and stereotypes rather than actually presenting prescriptive portrayals of healthy relational strategies. “Although it isn’t a great movie, the parody makes us laugh at the myths and stereotypes in most romantic media,” Galician says, “and that’s a valuable media literacy service.”

Why is Galician focused on unhealthy media myths about romance?

‘Societal Costs Enormous’

“Unrealistic expectations and stereotypes are held by large numbers of women and men,” Galician says. “The societal and personal costs of such dysfunction are enormous, including not merely unhappiness but also serious emotional and physical harm from depression, abuse and violence.”

Last week’s media frenzies make those findings hard to avoid.

Witness the sad ending to the life of reality TV character Anna Nicole Smith, who married an octogenarian billionaire, apparently got entangled with far too many men and leaves her baby daughter the object of an unseemly paternity battle among at least four men.

Look at the TV footage of astronaut Lisa Nowak in a prison jumpsuit and shackles, suspected of planning to kidnap and assault, or worse, the love interest of a man Nowak had her eye on.

Galician has been joined by other scholars, male and female, who have contributed to a book she edited with Debra L. Merskin of the University of Oregon, “Critical Thinking About Sex, Love and Romance in the Mass Media” (Erlbaum, 2007).

Galician’s trademarked romantic “myths” and examples offered by contributors to the book illustrate how women are encouraged to place their lives in the hands of a swashbuckling knight, to check their brains when they open their hearts.

Teen Dating Violence Week

The sensational stories about Smith and Nowak and the release of Galician’s book coincided this month with the launch on Feb. 5 of the second National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week, a sobering counterpoint to the flowers-jewelry-lingerie-perfume theme suffusing the period preceding Valentine’s Day.

The Smith and Nowak stories–with their nonstop coverage blasts–offered almost blinding links to the related problems of teen dating violence, but coverage of the boy-meets-girl downside was David to the Goliath of Valentine’s Day.

By the midpoint of that week, I had found just a dozen news media references to Teen Dating Violence Week, mostly in small-to-medium newspaper and TV markets. One bright spot: a big player, “American’s Most Wanted,” devoted its Feb. 3 show to the topic.

Helpful-hint articles on ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day with that special someone, by comparison, swamped the pages and airwaves.

“In a Valentine rut? Try something innovative,” South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, Feb. 4. “Cupid’s Tip: Banish Boring Be-Mines,” Inland Valley (Calif.) Daily Bulletin, Feb. 4; win a restaurant gift certificate by telling KDBC-TV in El Paso, Texas, how you met “the life of your life” (a la the “Today Show,” viewers decide whose story wins); et cetera.

Most of the Valentine’s Day material in newspapers, on television and at Internet romance sites is positioned in cozy relationship with ads: restaurants, getaways, jewelry, etc. What’s love got to do with it? Not a whole lot.

Grist for Profits

Relationships provide the grist for profits in all media, and not just on Valentine’s Day.

Popular magazines such as Maxim, referred to with a wink as a “lad” magazine, and Cosmopolitan, which bills itself as the magazine for the “fun, fearless female,” promote sex–as distinguished from love–as the key transaction between men and women.

And sitcoms, by prominently portraying bickering as normal and often funny, imply that such behaviors are good for relationships, say Aileen Buslig of Concordia College and Anthony Ocana of North Dakota State.

Many of us can enjoy sweet-nothing lyrics and stories while remembering that they’re fiction, not life. But for some, media depictions of love and attachment mask the challenges of making a loving relationship work day in and day out.

Galician found in a 2004 study that among Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers a relationship between mass media usage and unrealistic romantic expectations for men and women.

With studies like that and the pervasion of profit-driven media skewing our understanding of love and life, there’s a real risk that our society will crank out far more Stupid Cupids than Realistic Romantics and pay the unhappy consequences.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of “Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism,” Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the “Texty” Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of “Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World,” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Mary-Lou Galician, Realistic Romance:
The Thinking Person’s Relationship Remedy:

American Bar Association
National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week:

“Looking for love? Meet these local singles,” Arizona Daily Star, Feb. 4, 2007:

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