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April 30, 2001

Lessons of love: Movie plots reflect real life, says sociologist Marcia Millman

By Jennifer McNulty

The enormous popularity of films like Titanic, The Bridges of Madison County, and Pretty Woman reveals the universal appeal of a good love story. As in real life, though, the stories told in these three blockbusters don't always end happily.

Marcia Millman, a professor of sociology, has looked into the main romantic scenarios in films, novels and real life.
Marcia Millman, a professor of sociology at UCSC, believes that is part of their appeal. In her new book The Seven Stories of Love: And How to Choose Your Happy Ending (New York, NY: William Morrow, 2001), Millman asserts that these films resonate with audiences in part because they reflect plot lines that turn up over and over again in real life: stories of first love, sacrifice, rescue, postponement, and more.

"Many people think Hollywood movies give audiences unrealistic views of love, but I think people love movies because they reflect our own experiences and can help us understand our choices," said Millman.

In The Seven Stories of Love, Millman explores the major romantic scenarios that play out in films, novels, and real life. She identifies seven distinct plots and explains the unconscious elements and origins of each. Based on more than two decades of scholarship on the sociology of love, the book presents plots drawn from art as well as real-life interviews to show how people tend to make choices about their romantic partners without being aware of the factors shaping their actions. The Seven Stories of Love is a highly readable book that bridges the fields of psychology and sociology.

"I wanted to write a book that would illuminate romantic love and help readers have more gratifying relationships," said Millman, whose previous books are about medical errors, money and love, and women's obsession with weight.

"Although I write about seven love plots, readers invariably find that one story resonates more strongly for them." That process of identifying one's own personal story can help readers gain insight into their own patterns of behavior and can help them build their own "happy endings," she added.

"Unfortunately, many of us keep ending up in the same place over and over because we don't understand our original scenario," said Millman.

Romantic scenarios in real life and in fiction, from Pride and Prejudice to Dirty Dancing, are driven by the wish to turn early losses or traumas into victories, said Millman. "Without realizing it, we repeat and relive disguised versions of our childhood scenarios in order to give them a happier ending." While some people grow and resolve their problems through love, others become anxious and depressed and have difficulty achieving satisfying romantic connections because they keep repeating the same defeat instead of overcoming it. By understanding their basic story and learning to exercise control over it instead of helplessly following its course, readers can finally choose the right partner or make an existing love relationship more rewarding.

Millman's seven stories of love are:

1. First Love: This story is about a lover who helps us separate from our parents and establish our own independent identities. This is why adolescent girls flocked to Titanic and Dirty Dancing. Pining for a first love years later is a signal that something is missing in life, and it often accompanies a desire to recapture our youth.

2. Pygmalion: The Mentor and the Protégée: My Fair Lady, the most famous modern Pygmalion story, focuses on the controlling male teacher, but the protégée also has an agenda: A desire to be recognized and nurtured by a parental figure even as she wants to gain his knowledge and power for herself. Can relationships that start out distinctly unequal have a happy ending? It can be difficult if the "teacher's" need for admiration and control conflicts with the "student's" need to grow.

3. Obsessive Love: Millman examines real-life scenarios and several examples from popular culture, including Fatal Attraction, and concludes that an obsessive relationship is doomed unless the one who loves more can shift some emotional energy to other interests and people.

4. The Downstairs Woman and the Upstairs Man: This rags-to-riches plot, familiar to fans of Pretty Woman, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice, features a smart but poor and unconnected woman who reaches beyond her social status to a powerful and influential man. Initially cool to a woman so beneath him, the man ends up defying convention and committing to her. Women drawn to this scenario had fathers who criticized or abused them, making them feel worthless and unprotected. They repeat this story not to suffer but to triumph--to be desired instead of ignored, and to prove that they are the equal of any man.

5. Sacrifice: Guilt Overwhelms Desire: People who live out this plot don't believe they can have what they want without harming another or paying a terrible price. This scenario raises self-esteem through renunciation rather than happiness. Classic examples are Casablanca, The End of the Affair, and The Bridges of Madison County.

6. Rescue: Doing What Your Mother Could Not: The woman who is drawn to rescue scenarios often had a father who was sick, weak, or absent. Although the woman believes her love can help her wounded lover reach his full potential, the key element of this story is the woman's ultimate wish to restore a strong lover/father so he will rescue her back. The story of Beauty and the Beast contains many subtle aspects of the rescue plot.

7. The Courage to Love: Overcoming Postponement and Avoidance: Probably the universal favorite, this love story is about the willingness to take a risk for love--and having the faith things will work out, as fans of Sleepless in Seattle will recall. People who live out this scenario fall in love only after they are forced to confront the reality of time and mortality. The courage to love actually provides a sense of immortality, while people who avoid or postpone love usually discover that their lives have gone by unlived.

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