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research-article2014

JARXXX10.1177/0743558414561296Journal of Adolescent ResearchGreenwood and Long

Article

When Movies Matter:


Emerging Adults Recall
Memorable Movies

Journal of Adolescent Research


126
The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/0743558414561296
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Dara Greenwood1 and Christopher R. Long2

Abstract
The present study utilized retrospective, autobiographical methodology to
investigate the social psychological significance of specific movies, identified
as memorable or meaningful for a sample of emerging adults (N = 83).
Participants identified a movie and responded to a series of open-ended
prompts including why the movie was chosen, the valence and socioemotional context of the viewing experience, and its perceived emotional
impact. Qualitative coding revealed three themes: Life Lessons (inspiration,
social comparison, coping, and negative contemplation), Character Connections
(identification and idealization), and Social Relationships (joy, gratitude, and
loss). Life Lessons were associated with mixed-valence viewing experiences,
significant life events, and ongoing emotional impact. Results highlight the
role of movies in the social and emotional development of emerging adults.
Keywords
emerging adulthood, media, self-image, family relationships

Although movies or, more often, movie clips have long been considered useful vehicles of emotion elicitation in lab settings (e.g., Rottenberg, Ray, &
Gross, 2007), scholarship at the intersection of media and psychology has
1Vassar

College, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA


AR, USA

2Fayetteville,

Corresponding Author:
Dara Greenwood, Department of Psychology, Vassar College, Box 49, 124 Raymond Ave.,
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604, USA.
Email: dagreenwood@vassar.edu

Journal of Adolescent Research

focused more pointedly on the social and emotional that drive more naturalistic movie viewing experiences. The uses and gratifications approach to
media consumption (cf. Rubin, 2009), for example, has documented a variety
of self-reported motivations for consuming media, from a desire to be entertained or pass the time, to enjoying emotional connections to characters (i.e.,
parasocial interaction; Horton & Wohl, 1956), to learning about the social
world. More recent work along these lines moves beyond traditional hedonic
assumptions about why we watch movies, advancing a model of eudaimonic,
or meaning-based, motivations (Oliver & Raney, 2011; Wirth, Hofer, &
Holger, 2012). This work finds that we watch movies because they fulfill a
general need to search for and ponder lifes meaning, truths, and purposes
(Oliver & Raney, 2011, p. 985) in addition to mere distraction or entertainment-based motives. Eudaimonic motivations dovetail with Green and
Brocks (2000) transportation theory, which posits that immersion in fictional
narratives help expand the boundaries of our own lived experience. By cognitively and emotionally transporting into movies, we may rehearse alternate
selves, lives, ideas, and emotions.
Because media, and movies in particular, may enable the development of
new templates not only for broader lived experience but also for hoped for or
feared possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986), they may be particularly
relevant to the developmental tasks of adolescence and emerging adulthood.
As teens navigate seemingly contradictory and extreme shifts in mood, relationships, and identity (Harter, 2012), media models may function to inform
and validate such shifts, for better and worse. Adolescent media consumption
may be developmentally productive, providing mood management or identity exploration and validation (Gauntlett, 2002; Larson, 1995; Steele &
Brown, 1995). However, research has also shown that exposure to and/or
idealization of violent, sexually objectified, or unrealistically attractive media
models may prime, either consciously or unconsciously, more problematic
schemas for self and social behavior (cf. Dubow, Huesmann, & Greenwood,
2006). The present research explores these nuanced possibilities, utilizing a
primarily qualitative approach to understand how memorable movies intersect with the social and emotional development of emerging adults.
Some of the earlier work on adolescent media engagement has taken the
just ask them approach to ascertain how, why, and to what effect teenagers
utilize entertainment media. For example, Steele and Browns (1995) media
practice model was derived from a combination of on-site observations of
adolescent bedrooms and in-depth interviews with teens about selective
media engagement. Their work revealed that teens do not blindly incorporate
media images and messages into their lives, but rather make any number of
self-relevant, calculated decisions that inform selection, interpretation, and

Greenwood and Long

appropriation (or rejection) of particular media ideals. From using music to


maintain a positive mood to being inspired by a poster of a favorite athlete,
teen media use reflects both chronic interests and fleeting states. However,
the model also leaves open the possibility that media-derived exemplars of
success, romance, and conflict resolution may impact teens in ways they may
not always be aware of, via more subtle processes such as priming, framing,
or the cultivation of media norms through repeated and frequent exposure.
Ultimately, Steele and Brown (1995) suggest that the impact of media on
adolescents is based in an ongoing process that is at once constrained and
amplified by what is available in the media and by what adolescents bring to
the media (p. 575).
Markus and Nurius (1986) similarly observed, a decade earlier, that fantasies of possible selvesfuture visions of hoped for or feared selvesare
both informed and limited by the available models in the mass media. This
idea goes some distance toward explaining why young people they surveyed
were more likely to believe that being happy, sexy, and famous are more
likely future outcomes than being poor, sick, or unhappy. More recent examples from Harters (2012) chapter on the developing self showcase, via
cameo vignettes, the extent to which media models continue to figure
prominently across various stages of adolescencefrom the early adolescent
who laments being too short to be as good-looking as someone on TV, to the
middle adolescent who relates her failed efforts to successfully channel
Beyonc when trying to attract male attention, to the late adolescent who
proclaims, Im going to be one of those famous defense lawyers you see on
TV! (p. 706). Such self-serving biases can be adaptive and motivational if
the gap between ones actual and ideal self is potentially traversable, but
media-derived role models may also provide unrealistic and problematic ideals. As Arnett (2007) has cautioned about the interactions among family,
school, peer, and media forms of socialization, the goal of most media is
profit . . . [which] is not necessarily consistent with and in fact may undermine the goal of the other socializers (p. 225).
In some cases, young adults may derive relief and validation from connecting with a self-relevant media figure (e.g., a gay teen struggling to come
out may draw confidence from a favorite singer who has been open about his
or her sexual orientation, Gauntlett, 2002) or may incorporate a favorite
media figure into the self-concept in a way that helps them move closer to an
ideal self (Derrick, Gabriel, & Tippin, 2008). Similarly, research on the pleasures of transporting to a media narrative suggests individuals may experience an expansion of self via identification with a character; viewers may
experience vicarious adventures and transformations (Green, Brock, &
Kaufman, 2004). However, research on wishful identificationa tendency

Journal of Adolescent Research

to idealize media figuresis also associated with more problematic views of


self and others. For example, idealizing thin female media icons is associated
with increased body anxiety among female viewers (Greenwood, 2009;
Harrison, 1997). Media models for romantic relationships may prime stereotypes about mens predatory sex drive or womens objectification (Ward,
2002). And, research on violent media finds that idealizing violent heroes or
video game characters is associated with increased aggressive tendencies
(Greenwood, 2007) and in some extreme cases, copycat homicides (Means
Coleman, 2002). To the extent that hypothetical future selves exert a powerful impact on now selves when it comes to mood and self-esteem (Markus
& Nurius, 1986), and to the extent that movies and movie characters may
provide templates for emerging adults identities, it is critical to understand
how and why young adults draw meaning from particular movie characters
and themes.
Other work focuses more broadly on movie themes and seeks to explain
the appeal of movies that inspire negative emotions such as sadness or fear.
Exposure to stories about hardship or loss may leave viewers feeling less
concerned about their own life problems, which may seem less dire in comparison with those depicted on the screen (Mares & Cantor, 1992). In some
cases, it may also be the rehearsal of negative outcomes that is beneficial to
emotional well-being. Research has found that exposure to darker films
with themes of death or destruction may help individuals cope with death
anxiety as they vicariously overcome mortality threat from a safe distance
(Green et al., 2004). Films that grapple with somber issues are associated
with self-reported experiences of meaningful affect (i.e., introspection,
compassion) and are appreciated by individuals with tendencies toward selfreflection and a need for emotional experiences (Oliver & Raney, 2011).
Along these lines, Klimmt (2011) reflected, If meaningfulness is so important for appreciation of entertainment fare, it would be great to get into individual audience members details. What is the meaning that appears to viewer
X when watching movie Y? How is that meaningful to her/him? (p. 37). The
present study seeks to answer some of these basic, open-ended questions with
a qualitative retrospective analysis of emerging adults memorable movies.

The Present Study


The few studies that have assessed autobiographical memories of movies
have focused on experimenter-designated content. For example, individuals
have been prompted to recall memories of frightening movies in childhood
(Hoekstra, Harris, & Helmick, 1999), memories of sexual content (Cantor,
Mares, & Hyde, 2003), or memories of romantic content (Harris, Hoekstra,

Greenwood and Long

Scott, Sanborn, & Dodds, 2004). This type of research highlights the lingering effects of exposure to particular forms of media and provides empirical
support for why we should continue to take media use seriously in the context
of individuals social and emotional lives. However, what about how people
reflect on movies that they determine to have made a strong impression on
them for any number of reasons? Understanding how people imbue movies
with personal significance can help not only to illuminate the social and emotional power of movies, but can also shed light on the role that movies play in
individuals social and emotional development.
The present investigation builds on prior work by asking emerging adults
to identify a memorable film and describe why that particular film holds special meaning for them. To gain a rich description of viewing choices and
experiences, we provided open-ended prompts that ranged from basic questions about the appeal of the film and characters and the frequency of viewing, to questions about the valence of the viewing experience and the
socio-emotional context of viewing (With whom did they view the movie, if
anyone? Were there any significant life events occurring at the time of first
viewing?). We predict that meaningful movies may be more likely to be
viewed more than once, to the extent that they may provide recurrent or ritualized meaning. We further predict that meaningful movies may activate
mixed-valence experiences versus positive experiences because they may
deal with more somber themes. And, we predict that memorable movies may
be associated with periods of life transition or a significant event. Because the
presence of others may either facilitate or inhibit emotional expression,
depending on the nature of the relationship, we leave open the question of
whether memorable movies are more likely to have been viewed with others
or alone. And, based on research showing that females are more likely than
males to prefer romantic-themed movies (Greenwood, 2010), as well as
report affinity for both male and female characters (Cohen, 2004), we also
aimed to inspect basic gender patterns in the data.
With respect to more qualitative themes, we were particularly interested in
how individuals would relate to the film and characters (e.g., identification,
idealization), the extent to which the film might implicate identity formation
or possible selves, social relationships, and the extent to which the film might
have been used in the service of emotion regulation and coping. We appreciate that downward social comparison processes may be relevant to the latter,
but we also keep in mind that individuals value representations that validate
their own life circumstances. Indeed, research on the uses and gratifications
of music listening (Larson, 1995; Lippman & Greenwood, 2012) suggest that
feeling less alone in ones suffering may be a critical component of why a
particular unit of entertainment media may become personally meaningful.

Journal of Adolescent Research

Methods
Participants
Participants were 83 students at a large mid-western university enrolled in an
introductory communication studies course who received course credit for their
participation. The sample was predominantly female (78%). The mean age of
the sample was 18.99 (SD = 1.51). We did not collect information about participants ethnicity because it was not germane to our research objectives; however, the university from which we drew our sample is predominantly White.

Measures
Participants completed the open-ended questionnaire on a desktop computer
in a private room (This survey was part of a larger study which incorporated
similar questions pertaining to favorite piece of music and favorite television
shows, neither of which is the focus of the current article). The order in which
participants completed the movie section of the survey, relative to the two
other sections, was randomized. The opening prompt was as follows:
Please think about one MOVIE you saw at any point in your life that has been
particularly memorable or meaningful to you. This could be because of what
was going on in your life when you saw the movie, as well as the content or
characters of the movie, or the particular context in which you saw it. The
movie you are thinking of may have affected you positively, negatively, or
some combination of both. Please make an effort to read each question carefully
and respond as accurately as possible.

After identifying the movie, the first question inquired, What was it about
this movie that made it particularly memorable or meaningful to you? The question was deliberately broad, providing participants the opportunity to discuss the
significance of the film in whatever terms were most salient for them. Follow-up
probes (e.g., Were there any significant events occurring in your life around that
time?; Was the experience of viewing it positive, negative, a mixture of both?
Please describe the kinds of positive and/or negative emotions aroused by the
movie in more detail and try to explain why you may have reacted in this way)
were designed to encourage participants to reflect on other potential reasons the
film might have been identified as particularly memorable.
Participants next identified whether there was a specific character or characters that were particularly meaningful or memorable to them, and whether a
particular aspect of the plot might have also stood out in their memories. The
questions then shifted to asking about their personal viewing context: Did you

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watch this movie with someone else (family members, friends, romantic partners)? If so, with whom did you watch it and how do you think that affected
your viewing experience or memory of the experience, if at all? And Were
there any significant events occurring in your life around that time? (e.g., starting at a new school, moving to a new town, parental divorce, etc.). Additional
prompts asked how old they were when they first saw the movie, whether they
believed it had a significant impact on them at the time and also in the present.
Finally, they were asked how many times if any they had seen the film after the
first viewing. Gender and age information was also collected at the very end.

Procedure
Participants were left alone in a room with a desktop computer and allowed
as much time as they needed to complete the survey. Responses were typed
into a Microsoft Word document, and participants could write as much or as
little as they wished. Participants typically took 30 to 45 minutes to complete
the full study.

Results
Which Movies?
Genre of movies was coded by the first author as comedy (e.g., The Princess
Bride, Anchorman), drama (e.g., A Walk to Remember, Cinderella Man), or
mixed (comedy/drama; for example, Garden State, Life is Beautiful). Where
a film was ambiguous to code, the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb) was
consulted for a list of genre designations. Movies were also classified dichotomously as romantic (e.g., My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Titanic) or not, also
in consultation with IMDb.
The modal genre selected was drama (n = 47), followed by comedies (n =
22) and then mixed comedy/drama (n = 14). About a third of the sample
chose romantic-themed films (n = 26). In step with findings from prior
research (Oliver, 1993; Greenwood, 2010), women were significantly more
likely than men to choose romantic-themed films (2 = 4.37, p < .05; only
11% of males chose a romance vs. 37% of females).
A number of movies were chosen by two or three participants: Almost
Famous (n = 2), A Walk to Remember (n = 3), Anchorman (n = 2), Elf (n = 2),
Girl Interrupted (n = 2), Friday Night Lights (n = 2), Life is Beautiful (n = 2),
My Best Friends Wedding (n = 3), Stepmom (n = 2), and Titanic (n = 2).
When quoting specific responses from participants choosing the same movie,
we distinguish them with alphabetical indicators (a, b, c).

Journal of Adolescent Research

Which Characters?
Males were more commonly chosen as memorable characters than females
(52% vs. 34%); 8 participants chose multiple characters (e.g., both romantic
leads, or in the case of Saving Private Ryan, the U.S. Military) and 4 participants did not list a memorable character. Chi-square tests to determine
whether gender of participant was systematically related to gender of character chosen (for those choosing one character) revealed that whereas 48% (n =
26) of women chose female characters, only 12% of men (n = 2) did, 2(1, n
= 71) = 7.17, p < .01.

Age
The mean age at which participants reported viewing the film for the first time
was 13.68 (SD = 4.02), and the range was quite broad (min. = 3.5; max. = 23).
The average time since first viewing was 5.32 years (SD = 4.12).

Frequency of Viewing
The frequency of how many times participants reported having seen the
movie (open-ended format) varied widely: from once to thousands of times.
However, the majority of participants watched their chosen movie more than
once (n = 69, 83%). Of note, 15 participants reported their viewing frequency
in monthly or yearly units (e.g., 2-3 times/year, once/month) suggesting
a ritualized pattern to the repeat exposure.

Valence of Viewing Experience


Over half the sample reported that their viewing experience was primarily
positive (n = 53), just under a third of the sample reported that the experience
was a mix of both positive and negative emotions (n = 24), and a very small
number of participants (n = 3) reported the experience to be exclusively negative (Schindlers List, Rosewood, Girl Interrupted). Three participants were
not coded due to lack of detailed response.

Socio-Emotional Context of Viewing


The majority of participants (n = 60; 72.3%) reported watching the movie
with others versus alone (n = 12). An additional 11 participants reported seeing the movie both alone and with others. Of those who watched with others
at any point (n = 71), 38.6% watched with family members, 31.3% watched

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with friends, 10.8% watched with various individuals in their lives, and the
remaining participants watched with romantic partner (2.4%) or in a classroom context (2.4%).
Approximately one third of the sample (n = 26) reported that a significant
life event was occurring when they first viewed the movie. Of this group, the
majority reported a school (n = 17) or sports (n = 2) related transition; in most
cases this shift was from high school to college, which reflects the most
recent developmental transition for the age group. The remaining participants
reported a significant emotional event (n = 3, for example, having a hard time
in high school) or a relationship event (n = 4, for example, break-up).

Perceived Impact
Over half the sample reported that the movie continues to affect them to this
day (n = 48); two thirds say it affected them at the time of first viewing (n =
57). A chi-square test revealed those who reported on initial perceived impact
were also more likely to report continued impact in the present, 2(1, n = 83)
= 5.83, p < .05.

Thematic Analysis: Viewing Themes


Key, recurrent themes were derived from our research/survey questions, the
theories that informed them, and a close reading across and within participant
responses, in line with thematic analysis techniques (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
This strategy, which acknowledge[s] the ways individuals make meaning of
their experience, and, in turn, the ways the broader social context impinges
on those meanings . . . (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 81), enabled us to develop
a rich descriptive account of the reasons why a particular movie was imbued
with personal significance. Responses were read multiple times by the first
author to generate initial coding categories and were then re-read to classify
responses after a more detailed scheme was devised, in consultation with the
second author. In light of the emergent themes detected, we opted to code
responses in a non-mutually exclusive fashion. Ten participants responses (8
female, 2 male) did not fit into any of the identified categories, in part because
their answers were not detailed enough to code. Thus, they were excluded
from all subsequent analyses (leaving n = 73 for qualitative coding sample).
Participant responses were ultimately characterized by three broad themes:
Life Lessons, Character Connections, and Social Relationships. A majority of
participant responses (n = 47, 64.4%) fell into the Life Lessons category:
Their selected movies were meaningful in part due to eliciting feelings of
inspiration, appreciation for their own life circumstances, strategies for

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Journal of Adolescent Research

coping with hardship, or the opportunity for somber reflection on the darker
side of social life. Next, about half of the sample (n = 36, 49.3%) reported
some form of Character Connection, manifested in perceived similarity to a
character (i.e., identification), and/or because of hoped for similarity (i.e.,
wishful identification or idealization). Finally, 38.4% (n = 28) of participants
reported that the movie in some way facilitated Social Relationships. That is,
the movie experience was associated with connection and intimacy with
close others, whether by facilitating gratitude or joy, or by reminding the
participant of a missed or lost loved one.
About half of the sample (49.4%) fell into only one of the three categories,
31.3% fell into two categories, and only 6 participants (7.2%) fell into all
three. Detailed exploration of each category and emergent subthemes within
each category are described below and are summarized in Table 1.
Life Lessons (n = 47). This category is comprised of individuals who reported
big picture ideas gleaned from the movies that felt relevant to how they
made sense of their own lives. We broke this broader theme into four subthemes: inspiration, social comparison, coping, and negative contemplation.
In three cases, participants clearly reported on more than one of these
subthemes.
Inspiration (n = 17). A majority of participants expressed that the movie
in question made them want to expand their horizons: . . . it made me
feel empowered after watching it . . . It made me feel I could do whatever I
wanted, be whatever I wanted to be (Legally Blonde, female, 19); It made
me feel a little bit invincible and want to play sports and play baseball (A
League of Their Own, female, 19). Other participants gained broad insights
about how to approach life and its challenges: . . . I felt like I had a little
bit of a better understanding about life because of the movie. Like I knew
that it is important to take responsibility for everything and take risks (Garden State, female, 18); . . . it helped me understand all the many things in
the world and how people who used to make wrong decisions can change.
How people really can be a different person if they desired to be (A Walk to
Remember, b, female, 20).
For some participants, the movie themes resonated with and heightened
existing interests or goals: It encouraged my love for rock and roll and
music. It pushed me to meet more people of that type of lifestyle (Almost
Famous, a, female, 19); It made me want to get better at basketball, and
become successful with the sport just like the main female role had done
(Love and Basketball, female, 28); It made me feel like I can take the SATs
well and succeed based on my own work . . . I felt more confident in myself

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Greenwood and Long


Table 1. Emergent Themes and Examples.
Life Lessons
Inspiration

Social comparison
Coping
Negative contemplation
Character Connections
Identification

Idealization

Social Relationships
Joy
Gratitude
Loss

I try to live by some of the memorable quotes


from the movie: Get busy living or get busy dying
and Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of
things. And no good thing ever dies (Shawshank
Redemption, female, 18).
I was blessed to not have lived back when there was
so much racism and hatred. It reminds me every
day how blessed I am (Rosewood, female, 18).
It opened a window to see that things do get better
after a tragedy (The Upside of Anger, female, 19).
It made me question the diamond industry, because
I had received some (Blood Diamond, female, 19).
All of them were teenagers going through
something I have been through before, a breakup, pressure to succeed. It was very relatable . . .
[in one scene], you see [a character] freaking out
because of all the pressure and this reminded me
of myself (The Perfect Score, female, 19).
In my fantasies, I always wanted to have the life
of Meg Ryans character, since she owned a
bookstore and was as literary as I hoped to be
(Youve Got Mail, female, 20).
I watch [Jesus Christ Superstar] exclusively with family
. . . We all loved it . . . and my memory of it is
definitely intertwined with my family (female, 22).
. . . it made me appreciate my family. I thought
about how hard it must be to lose a family
member (Stepmom, a, female, 18).
On the one hand, it made me remember my
mother and the love she had for me, on the other
hand, it was a painful reminder that my mother
wasnt there anymore (John Q, female,18).

because at the end of the movie all of the characters were in a good state and
happy with themselves (The Perfect Score, female, 19). Finally, a few participants derived relationship-specific inspiration from romantically-themed
plots: At the end of the movie, she doesnt get the guy, but she does stand up
and move on. That always inspired me to do the same (My Best Friends
Wedding, b, female, 19).

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Journal of Adolescent Research

Social comparison (n = 11). A number of participants identified a movie


that contained lessons about hardship and injustice that triggered meaningful
comparisons of their own lives. These movies, focused on issues of racism,
drugs, war, and poverty, reminded them to be grateful for their own lot in
life, and/or presented them with a feared possible self that they hoped to
avoid. For example, Obviously it prompted me to never take drugs. I will
never do drugs and feel upset that so many peoples lives are destroyed by
them (Requiem for a Dream, female, 18), and the movie made me feel
grateful for everything that I have, and it also made me appreciate all of the
people who have fought in a way (Pearl Harbor, female, 18). Sometimes
the gratitude was mixed with critical self-judgments, as illustrated by this
comment regarding The Pursuit of Happyness: When I watched this movie,
I felt ashamed of myself. I realized that there are so many people out there
who dont even have the opportunity to study, eat food, live in a house . . .
This movie taught me to be thankful for what I have and not complain . . .
(female, 18).
Other participants considered movie themes as lessons in what not to do:
Playing hard to get is not always the best way, tell someone you love them
before its too late (My Best Friends Wedding, b, female, 19); It made me
want to keep in touch with more people in [sic] the chance that I could lose
someone and regret not having talked to them (A League of Their Own,
female, 19, regarding a scene where one of the players finds out her husband
has died in the war); I realized that I too could experience a similar fate
some day if I didnt come out and let myself love to the capacity I know Im
capable (Brokeback Mountain, male, 20). In each of these cases, participants
saw the movies in question as providing a useful comparative context for
their own lives and goals.
Coping (n = 10). Participants also noted that movies were useful for helping them cope with a difficult life moment or personal problem. For example,
a couple of participants highlighted the movies message of using humor to
cope:
. . . when I was having a difficult time it showed me that despite all the terrible
things that happen in the world there is still love and laughter. I think this was a
particularly good message for me to hear at the time (Life is Beautiful, male, 20).

Other participants noted that the movie restored their sense of optimism in
the face of difficult times: for example, It made me feel that no matter how
bad things can get, they will get better if you can tough it out (Life as a
House, female, 18); It [made] me start to think about not letting anything get

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to me, and whenever I get in trouble I can always have a positive attitude to
work my way out of situations (Field of Dreams, male 18). In each of these
cases, individuals appeared to draw valuable lessons from their chosen movies about how to constructively move forward in the face of challenging
circumstances.
A number of participants imbued the movie they chose with additional
meaning after specific life events transpired, suggesting that the meaning
of the movie continued to unfold and deepen over time. One participant
remarked on how the movie held new meaning for her after a friend died
of cancer: Since my friend has passed away, this movie has made me
think about why we are here. Ive realized that you should live life doing
things that make you and those you love happy because life is extremely
short (Room with a View, female, 18). Repeated viewing functioned as a
strategic attempt to boost ones spirits, as in the case of this participant:
Sometimes I recall that movie or watch it again when I do have hard times
and I try to be inspired again (The Pursuit of Happyness, female, 18).
Another participant draws comfort from her memories of the movie
Garden State:
Sometimes when I get stressed or upset I even think about Large [lead male
role] and how he just had to take a step out of his comfort zone to discover
himself and his emotions. He taught me that sometimes you just have to stop
and scream (female, 18).

Although this approach may, in fact, end up amplifying negative emotions, the participant has the distinct perception that the character is a role
model for cathartic coping.
Finally, one participant reflected on the ambivalent response she has to the
movie Stepmom (b, female, 18), which she first watched with her mother,
who subsequently passed away. On repeated viewings (she watches it every
time I get the chance), she notes that although she experiences a love/hate
relationship with the film because of its personal relevance, she also perceives a therapeutic value to the viewing experience: My mom isnt discussed much in [my] family and watching this movie reminds me of her and
lets me get out my emotions.
Negative contemplation (n = 6). A small number of participants engaged
in brief negative contemplation regarding somber and disturbing themes
(i.e., war, drug use, racism, death) in their chosen moviessome social
and some psychological. For example, of Schindlers List (male, 19), It
made me really think how disgusting people can be. Another participant

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Journal of Adolescent Research

noted that To Kill a Mockingbird (female, 19) helped her look at the issue
of racism differently, whereas another participant reflected on the grim
reality of mental illness with respect to Girl Interrupted (a, female, 18): It
reminded me of things my mom had to go through and how much mental
illness can affect peoples lives.
Characters (n = 36). This category included individuals who reported some
form of connection to the characters in the movie, whether identifying with
the character or idealizing the character as a hoped for future self. In three
additional cases, participants reported both identifying and idealizing with a
character (My Sassy Girl, The Little Mermaid, Youve Got Mail).
Identification (n = 20). Participants who reported resonating with particular characters in their chosen film did so with respect to a particular social
identity (ethnicity, sexual orientation, sports team membership) and/or with
respect to a particular emotional or social circumstance (e.g., going through
a similar struggle, having similar relationships with others). For one participant, the ethnic identity of the characters in question was the point of overlap
for My Big Fat Greek Wedding:
I could relate to many parts of the movie since I am Greek . . . The mother of
the bride definitely stands out in my mind. She was memorable to me because
she was always cooking and it reminded me a lot of my grandma (female, 19).

Sexual identity was also a powerful point of identification for the participant
who identified Brokeback Mountain (male, 20) as the most memorable movie
of his life, I saw this movie after I had just come to terms with being gay, and
watching the emotional experience of the two actors portraying gay men was
extremely personal.
Other participants cited sports team membership as an entry point that
helped them connect with the film or character: When Boobie was healthy
and playing it reminded me of me . . . whenever his teammates would talk
about him . . . it reminded me of the small town that I come from (Friday
Night Lights, a, male, 20); I could relate to the female main role, as her passion was basketball . . . and so was mine (Love and Basketball, female, 28).
Sometimes the perceived similarity was in response to fantastical characters:
She collected things and played a lot on her own, kind of like I did at the
time because I was an only child (The Little Mermaid, female, 20).
More common than social identity overlap, however, was emotional overlap with characters in the movie. Many participants noted that they related to
a given characters psychological obstacles: I have had to struggle with a lot

Greenwood and Long

15

of the same things as the main character (Girl Interrupted, b, female, 19).
And, similarly:
. . . it was relevant to my life because I was unhappy with the people around
me at the time that I saw it, . . . they showed him lying in bed, not being able to
do anything, and I could really relate to this (Life as a House, female 18).

Other participants noted that the movie resonated with a specific relationship in their own lives: . . . the characters in the movie lose their mom to
cancer during Christmas time and the exact same thing happened to me
(Stepmom, b, female, 18). On a more upbeat note, another participant
explained that the friendships depicted in the movie Now and Then (female,
18) were similar to her own because, the movie is about a group of four girls
and the summer they spend together, which reminds me of my group of best
camp friends that I spend every summer with. She went on to note a connection with a particular character in the movie, She reminded me of myself
because I always tried to act older than my age. We all assigned roles to each
other and I was Teeny.
Idealization (n = 13).A number of participants reported wistfulness or
yearning to be like or have a similar experience as a character(s). Romantic longing featured prominently in this category and occurred exclusively
among female participants, who were more likely than male participants to
select romantic-themed movies. One participant will never forget the sex
scene from Titanic (a, female, 19) because it was very romantic and steamy
and I was envious . . . I really wanted to be like Jack and Rose and wished that
I could be older so that I could have a boyfriend like Leonardo DiCaprio.
Another participant said that The Notebook made me want a boyfriend, or
someone to find an intimate relationship with (female, 19). In one case, the
romantic success of a character was conflated with her ideal physical appearance: Liesel was always my favorite character because she was the older,
beautiful daughter who had a boyfriend. I always wanted to be her and look
like her (The Sound of Music, female, 18). Another participant described the
double-edge of her wishful identification with a movie character who . . .
raised my self-esteem a bit because she displayed similar characteristics, but
then I also would think that I experienced some disappointing realities when
I realized I could not look like her (of My Sassy Girl, female, 19).
Other forms of wishful identification took the form of admiration for a
specific characters life or personality: The character of Samwise Gamgee is
meaningful to me because he was always loyal to Frodo, his best friend. His
devotion made me wish that I could be more loyal to my own friends (The

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Journal of Adolescent Research

Lord of the Rings, female, 19), and it kind of made me wish I had the guts to
be a vigilante . . . I wish I had Connor and Murphys strength or courage when
I witness situations I dont agree with or think are wrong (The Boondock
Saints, female, 20). This kind of wishful identification is not always benign;
it can also be linked to more problematic tendencies, such as increased
aggression (Greenwood, 2007). The participant in question was mindful of
this particular double-edge, . . . the fact that they were vigilantes trying to
make society better really impressed me, even though the way they went
about it may not have been the best way.
Social relationships (n = 28). This third and final viewing theme included participants who reported that the movie enabled them to feel closer to significant others in their lives, even if the person with whom they associated the
film was no longer alive. Three subthemes emerged that captured feelings of
joy, gratitude, and loss.
Joy (n = 15). The majority of individuals in this category reported heightened fun and pleasure associated with the movie because of its association
with friends or family, or even sports teams: We went as a football team . . .
we were all laughing and joking around together . . . so it was a good movie
(Friday Night Lights, male, 20). For many participants, the viewing experience helped solidify existing relationships with family; one participant said
watching with family made the viewing experience even better, and wrote
whenever I think of the movie I think about how we all sat down in the living room together (Remember the Titans, male, 19). The participant (female,
19) who reported on My Big Fat Greek Wedding enjoyed the film in part
because she saw it with many of her female relatives: We were all laughing
together in the theater and pointing things out to each other that reminded us
of our own families.
Participants also reported enjoying the movie more with friends with
whom they already shared similar senses of humor among other attitudes.
Two different participants wrote that the joy of watching Anchorman was
heightened because they shared it with close others, as one of them noted:
Every time I watch it I call [my best friend] or text her with movie quotes . . .
she has the same sense of humor as me so that affected my experience because
we would laugh more at the events (female, 19).

Similarly, another participant wrote of her experience watching Forgetting


Sarah Marshall that watching with two girlfriends made viewing the movie more
fun because they were all able to share laughs and tell jokes (female, 20).

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Gratitude (n = 7). Some participants movie selections inspired reflective


or renewed appreciation for existing relationships, given evocative negative outcomes and themes depicted in the films. For example, one participant wrote that the suicide in the movie Girl Interrupted (a, female, 18) was
shocking and a haunting thought that made her grateful that her mother,
who also suffered from mental illness, was still alive. Another participant felt
grateful for a stable home environment while watching Mrs. Doubtfire (b,
female, 18): It made me think about my parents and how thankful I was that
they werent divorced . . . In these cases, the relationships showcases in the
movie appeared to enhance the significance of existing relationships.
Loss (n = 6).The bonding that individuals experienced in the context
of movie viewing sometimes involved a movie they associate with a now
deceased family member: [An Affair to Remember] was the first old movie
that I watched with my sister . . . She has since passed away, and so this
movie holds special meaning for me (female, 18). Similarly, another participant discusses how the movie Forrest Gump functioned as vehicle through
which she would enjoy, and later reflect back on her relationship with her
brother, who died when she was 10:
It was his favorite movie to watch together and I always wanted to hang out
with him so the movie was a good excuse to be with him . . . I always think
about that movie when I think of him because he loved to watch it. It is one of
the good memories I have of him (female, 19).

Another participant said that Shawshank Redemption . . . made me think of


my grandpa (who passed away before I watched it) because it was his favorite
movie (female, 18).

Viewing Themes: Quantitative Comparisons


We next examined whether the coded themes (Life Lessons, Character
Connections, Social Relationships) were systematically related to other key
study variables (viewing frequency, valence of viewing experience, socioemotional context of viewing experience). Recall that for these analyses, the
sample was restricted to the codeable response (n = 73).
Viewing frequency.To determine whether a particular viewing theme was
related to frequency of viewing (seen the movie once vs. more than once),
three chi-squares were performed, per viewing theme. Results showed a significant difference for the Character Connections only, 2(1, n = 73) = 4.36,

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Journal of Adolescent Research

p < .05. Specifically, over half of the participants who reported multiple viewings of their chosen movie also reported on Character Connections (55%)
whereas a quarter of those who watched the movie only once did so (23%).
Viewing valence. Chi-square tests were next performed to determine whether
viewing theme was associated with the affective valence of the viewing experience (positive vs. mixed; excluding the 3 participants who had an exclusively negative experience and the 3 participants whose responses could not
be coded). A significant pattern emerged for Life Lessons only, 2(1, n = 68)
= 7.48, p < .01. Specifically, the majority of participants (86%) who reported
a mixed-valence viewing experience also reported on Life Lessons, whereas
about half (52%) of those who reported on positive viewing experiences also
reported on Life Lessons. In sum, viewing frequency was more strongly associated with Character Connections, whereas viewing valence (mixed) was
more strongly associated with Life Lessons.
Socio-emotional context
Social context. Only 12 participants (15% of codeable sample) reported
watching alone versus with others. Thus, analyses for this variable need to be
interpreted with caution. In fact, no significant differences in expected versus
observed frequencies emerged as a function of context and any of the three
viewing themes.
Significant life event. Chi-square tests were performed to determine whether
each of the viewing themes was systematically related to the presence or
absence of a significant life event that was linked to the initial movie viewing
experience (recall that 33% of the codeable sample reported on such an event).
For Life Lessons only, a significant pattern emerged, 2(1, n = 73) = 8.33,
p < .01. Specifically, the majority of individuals who reported on a significant
life event (88%) also were coded for Life Lessons, whereas those who did not
report on a significant life event were more evenly split (53%).
Emotional impact: Then and now. A final series of six chi-square tests were
conducted to determine whether perceived emotional impact of viewing (yes
or no), either at the original viewing or in the present day, was systematically
linked to presence versus absence of each of the three viewing themes. No
differences emerged as a function of initial perceived impact. However, a
significant pattern was detected for Life Lessons and perceived emotional
impact of the movie in present time, 2(1, n = 73) = 4.45, p < .05. Specifically, the majority of those reporting that the movie continues to impact
them to the present day (73%) also reported on Life Lessons, whereas those

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who did not report on continued emotional impact were more evenly split
with respect to whether they reported on Life Lessons or not (48%).

Discussion
This in-depth psychological assessment of memorable/meaningful movies
reveals the powerful role that films may play in the social and emotional
development of emerging adults. Utilizing both qualitative and quantitative
techniques, we report on basic parameters of movie viewing experiences
such as valence, social context, and frequency, in concert with rich description of psychologically significant schemas that films appeared to activate.
We identified three key viewing themes with accompanying subthemes that
appeared to characterize the majority of the viewing experiences: Life
Lessons, Character Connections, and Social Relationships.
Dramatic movies were more commonly selected than other genres, and
the majority of individuals watched their chosen movie more than once.
Contrary to our prediction, viewing experiences overall were primarily
positive versus mixed valence. However, our findings do fit with recent
work on eudaimonic viewing orientations, in which somber and sad movies activate . . . positive evaluations of central issues not only in ones own
life but also in the lives of depicted characters (Wirth et al., 2012, p. 424).
And, in response to our open-ended research question, individuals did in
fact watch their chosen movies more often in the company of others than
alone. The majority of individuals reported that the movie viewing experience had an emotional impact on their lives at the time of first viewing,
which in turn was significantly linked to the perception of ongoing emotional impact. Although we anticipated that the movies might have been
associated with significant life events, only about a third of the sample
reported that this was the case.
Because we wanted responses to be informed by personal significance
versus life stage, participants were free to recall a movie from any period of
their life to date. Movies were first viewed on average when individuals
were 13.7 years old (between early and middle adolescence; Harter, 2012),
although the range was rather broad (SD = 4.02). Further, all recollections
were filtered through the lens of emerging adulthood. Arnett (2011) has
noted that the developmental concerns of emerging adults are not necessarily qualitatively distinct from younger adolescents, although such concerns
peak in emerging adulthood (p. 257). It is therefore reasonable to imagine
some degree of consistency in the themes that were salient to participants
during their first viewing and in recollection. However, future research
should clarify any important differences between movies that are perceived

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Journal of Adolescent Research

to be currently important versus movies that were particularly memorable at


any stage up to the present.
Certain films may be particularly meaningful because they afford opportunities for self-reflection and self-expansion, which scholars have noted may
provide critical motivations for media engagement (Green et al., 2004; Oliver
& Bartsch, 2010). The most common theme to emerge was that of Life
Lessons, which incorporated the multi-valent subthemes of inspiration, social
comparison, coping, and negative contemplation. Individuals whose
responses fell in this category were more likely than not report on a mixedvalence (both positive and negative) viewing experiences, a significant life
event (such as a school transition), and lasting emotional impact. While a
third of the individuals in this group reported gleaning positive, inspirational
messages from their chosen movie, the majority reported more nuanced emotional experienceswhether appreciating a broader comparative context
with which to interpret their own trials and tribulations, finding solace and
advice in how a particular character handled a self-relevant problem, or
reflecting on a grim reality such as death or racism. Movie viewing may offer
adolescents an opportunity not only to affirm and expand their worldviews,
but to reflect on and cope with more difficult emotional experiences from a
safe distance (Scheff, 1979, as cited in Oatley, 2002). As such, they may be
useful vehicles for social and emotional development.
Particular movies may also broaden individuals social and psychological
horizons in positive ways and provide relatable and/or aspirational possible
selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Character Connections were the next most
frequently mentioned aspects of the viewing experience, and were associated
with repeated viewing. This suggests, on the one hand, that multiple exposures may enable individuals to get to know favorite characters, as the
parasocial relationships literature suggests, but also that a particular interpersonal affinity for a character or characters may lead viewers to seek out additional viewing experiences. In either case, emerging adults recalled favorite
characters as validating mirrors of their own identities and interests, and/or as
role models for how to regulate emotion, find romance, or be a good friend.
Given, as Arnett (2011) has posited, that adolescence and emerging adulthood are marked by a unique combination of identity exploration, instability,
and a belief that any grandiose life goal may yet be attainable, media characters may fit snugly into the developmental needs of this population and as
such have a disproportionate impact on their views of self. More work is
needed to understand the circumstances under which idealization is associated with a benign, healthy trajectory or a more vulnerable, problematic one.
Women were more likely than men to choose romantic-themed movies,
and less likely than men to report a connection to same gender characters, both

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of which are in step with prior work (Oliver, 1993; Cohen, 2004 respectively).
Women, relative to men, were exclusively likely to report romantic yearning
in response to memorable movies. Thus, not only were women likely to tune
into romantic genres, they were also able to report how these movies impacted
their developing romantic schemas. This is important given research that
shows that exposure to romantic or sexual themed media may impact young
adults willingness to engage in sexual behavior (Pardun, Lengle, & Brown,
2005) as well as their romantic ideals (Hefner & Wilson, 2013). In at least two
cases, romantic yearning was coupled with idealizing a female characters
physical appearance, a phenomenon that has been linked to heightened body
anxiety (Greenwood, 2009). These findings suggest that memorable movies
may be both alluring and have adverse affects on self-image. It is worth noting, however, that counter-stereotypical identifications also emerged with
respect to gender. This may reflect the viewers existing attitudes as well as an
oft-cited gender skew (toward male) in both the quantity and quality of appealing characters in popular films. For example, participants who identified with
violent Connor in the Boondock Saints, carefree Ferris in Ferris Buellers Day
Off, and loyal Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings were each female.
Indeed, whereas over half of the female sample chose male characters, only
12% of males chose female characters, in line with prior work (e.g., Hoffner,
1996). Although the above patterns fit with prior research, the small number
of men in the sample requires interpretive caution.
The final emergent viewing theme was Social Relationships; predominant
themes within this category were joy and gratitude, suggesting that individuals experienced a reinforcement of positive perspectives on their existing
relationships in conjunction with film viewing. The ability to appreciate people and events in ones life has been linked to greater emotional health and
resilience (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2007). To the extent that movies facilitate
such appreciation, they may function as an (undervalued) emotion regulation
tool. Interestingly, six individuals in the Social Relationships category linked
their chosen movie to fond memories of a deceased loved one. Prior work by
the authors has also found that other-oriented solitude (feeling lonely,
missing a loved one) predicted increased affinity for favorite characters and
tendency to become transported into media programs (Greenwood & Long,
2009). Taken together, findings suggest that media habits may be motivated
by the desire to feel close to others, both fictional and actual.
Movies that were classified in particular theme categories were sometimes
intuitively relevant to that category (e.g., using Requiem for a Dream as a
benchmark for what not to do in life), but not always. For example, more than
one person identified movies such as Stepmom and Girl Interrupted as particularly meaningful, but reported feeling optimistic or pessimistic depending

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Journal of Adolescent Research

on how the movie themes resonated with their personal experiences. This
observation fits with empirical work on selective perception, suggesting that
what we take away from media experiences is often strongly tied to the attitudes we bring to the viewing experience (Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974). This
also highlights the value of our methodological approach; by just asking
we were able to draw a rich idiosyncratic picture in which movie memories
and preferences tell us as much, if not more, about the viewer than the genres
themselves.

Limitations/Future Directions
A limitation of the present study is the self-report method of data collection,
which relied on individuals abilities to both remember and reflect on their
viewing experiences. However, as Harris, Cady, and Tran (2006) have noted
of conducting autobiographical research on memories of media events: . . .
the variable of interest is how memory affects peoples perceptions of the
media and the world, so the objective accuracy of the memories is of less
concern than the participants reaction to them (p. 74). In our sample, such
perceptions were nuanced and insightful; individuals often reported some
amount of emotional ambivalence that accompanied their viewing experiences. Further, movies that were identified as memorable or meaningful were
likely to have been viewed repeatedly; as such, they represent an important,
self-selected emotional and behavioral repertoire to understand. We believe
this approach provides an important complement to more indirect methods of
assessing media use. The coding of themes by the first author, in discussion
with the second author, is also a limitation, although not without wide precedent (e.g., Hargreaves & Tiggeman, 2006). Whereas additional coders might
have come up with slight shifts in the current scheme, the categories were
deduced in part due to the self-evident nature of the responses, as such, we do
not believe this poses a large threat to the validity of the findings. However,
ongoing follow-up work and replication are needed.
Our decision to identify non-mutually exclusive themed categories constrained our analyses somewhat, but ultimately enabled us to characterize
responses that were multi-dimensional and complex in nature. For example,
the participant who reported on Brokeback Mountain identified with the characters, derived lessons on what not to do in life, and experienced gratitude for
his partner at the time. Each of these were key ingredients that made the
viewing experience meaningful and to have limited the coding to only one
would have painted a less comprehensive picture of movie engagement.
Another key limitation was the predominately female undergraduate sample,
which represents a somewhat homogeneous and specific socio-demographic

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23

group, thus limiting the generalizability of the findings. It would be important to


examine meaningful film preferences across a more diverse sample. Movies
recalled in this particular sample were also likely reflective of films that were
either recent hits, box office smashes in the prior decade (e.g., Titanic), developmentally targeted to a teenage audience (e.g., A Walk to Remember), or targeted
toward young women, who predominated in this sample (e.g., My Best Friends
Wedding). However, we believe this is part and parcel of capturing a naturalistic
snapshot of memorable films.
Ultimately, this research provides evidence of the value of exploring new
ways to think about conducting meaningful media research. By continuing to
ask them in conjunction with more traditional quantitative methods, we
will be better able to assess the multi-dimensional and nuanced role that
media plays in the social and emotional life of adolescents and emerging
adults.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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Author Biographies
Dara Greenwood (PhD, University of Massachusetts) is an associate professor of
psychology at Vassar College. Her work focuses on how individuals psychological
needs and tendencies predict the use and impact of entertainment/social media. She is
also interested in gender roles and sexism.
Christopher R. Long (PhD, University of Massachusetts) is lead data analyst at
Quantiful, LLC. His research interests focus on consumer-brand relationships, media
involvement, and aloneness.

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