How Rom-Coms Undermine Women

American culture has long been confused about the location of the line between love and violence. Hollywood deserves some of the blame for that.

Romantic or creepy? It's unclear. (20th Century Fox)

Here is one of the good things to come out of Donald Trump’s recent hot-mic revelations: The scandal, in its assorted horrors, furthered a much-needed national conversation about the shadowed contours of sexual violence. In response to Trump surrogates’ attempts to dismiss the candidate’s misogynistic comments as “locker-room talk,” media outlets and individual Facebook-opiners alike came forward to insist that, on the contrary, what Trump was describing in Access Hollywood’s recording was in fact a form of assault. Trump’s words, in spite of themselves, ended up bringing a bit of ironic clarity to a culture that is living in the aftermath of patriarchy—during a time in which feminism and Puritanism and sex positivity and sex-shaming and progress and its absence have mingled to make everything, to borrow Facebook’s pleasant euphemism, Complicated.

There’s one more thing, though, that has contributed to all the confusion: the romantic comedy. The common knock against rom-coms—besides their being too often glibly hetero-normative and horrendously lacking in diversity and ironically ambivalent about the women who generally watch them—is that they are fantasies, in the worst way as well as the best. (“I simply regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi,” Mindy Kaling, both a lover and a creator of the genre, has said.) The other complaint you can make about them, though, and one that seems especially apt at the current moment, is that rom-coms, on top of everything else, have a troubling tendency to blur the line between romantic exertion and sexual violence. Many assume a fundamental passivity on the part of women, and, relatedly, a fundamental assertiveness on the part of men. For any romantic coupling at all to take place, they argue implicitly—and, indeed, for the human species to have any hope of propagating itself—men must exert themselves, and women must gratefully accept them. Before Mars and Venus can fall in love, many rom-coms assume, Mars must first make Venus do the falling.

The problem is, though, that Venus isn’t always there, waiting to be wooed; sometimes, she must be actively sought. So Ted, in There’s Something About Mary, hires a PI to track down his crush, and this is presented in the film not as evidence of creepiness, but of a Sensitive Guy being Romantic. Lloyd, in Say Anything, arrives at Diane’s bedroom window—his Love-Boombox thrust stubbornly skyward, pulsing with Peter Gabriel—to woo her with song. (The movie, similarly, frames Lloyd’s “okay, then I will just come to your home” gesture as supremely romantic—so successfully, in fact, that the Romeo-at-Juliet’s-window inspired scene is commonly cited in lists of The Most Romantic Movie Moments of All Time.) Dean, the quintessential Nice Guy Boyfriend in Gilmore Girls, begins his Nice Guy arc by following Rory around Stars Hollow without talking to her or alerting her to his presence—simply because, as he later explains, “you’re nice to look at.”

It’s a theme so common that, as my colleague Julie Beck pointed out, the site TV Tropes has a page dedicated to exploring it—“Stalking Is Love,” the page is called. (The trope has also received that highest of cultural ratifications: an Onion headline. “Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested,” the fake paper reports, in an “it’s funny because it’s true” kind of way.) The trope also got treatment in How I Met Your Mother, a sitcom-length rom-com that found its romantic protagonist, Ted, similarly showing up—several different times—at the window of his beloved. Ted, ever the theorist, invoked Lloyd “You Will Listen to Peter Gabriel and You Will Love It” Dobler in what he dubbed the “Dobler-Dahmer theory” of grand, romantic gestures. Ted’s theory went like this: If the person on the receiving end of the gesture is romantically interested in the gesturer, then—à la Lloyd Dobler, Heartsick Hero—it’s charming. If not, the gesture will come off as creepy and stalkery and threatening and awful (in the manner of Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibalistic serial killer).

The Dobler-Dahmer theory is helpful not just in its acknowledgement of the high-stakes nature of the romantic gesture, but also in its recognition of the agency of the gesturee. The rom-comic plots it invokes don’t simply celebrate stalker-ish behavior on the part of men; they also, on the flip side, often celebrate passive behavior on the part of women. Many of them treat women either as bundles of buzzing, desperate desire—Love Actually, How to Be Single, He’s Just Not That Into You—or, on the other hand, as empty vessels for it.

Take Hitch, the “love doctor” in Hitch, who introduces himself in the movie that treats him as a romantic hero with the following voice-over:

No woman wakes up saying, “God, I hope I don’t get swept off my feet today.” Now, she might say, “This is a really bad time for me.” Or something like, “I just need some space.” Or my personal favorite: “I’m really into my career right now.” You believe that? Neither does she. You know why? Because she’s lying to you, that’s why. You understand me? Lying. It’s not a bad time for her. She doesn’t need any space.

She’s lying to you. Lying. This, in the context of the film, is presented as cheerful and charming, a realtalk-y acknowledgment of the world’s awkward romantic realities. It would never occur to Hitch to doubt its own intentions—“because with no guile, and no game,” the Love Doctor later explains to a client, “there’s no girl.” Watching Hitch today is uncomfortable not just for all the reasons watching a rom-com might typically be uncomfortable—its assumption of the centrality of romance to feminine life, its downplaying of things like family and friends and career and other vehicles for human spiritual fulfillment, its conviction that a woman must not be simultaneously attractive and single—but also because the film studiously extracts a woman’s own desires from its romantic equation. She says she’s not interested; he assumes she’s lying. She says “no”; he replies, “I will make you say yes.”

It’s an attitude suggested even in the many rom-coms that aren’t explicitly stalkery in their premises, but whose plots—and whose sense of what romance is all about—revolve, nonetheless, around gamefied manipulations. Cameron, in 10 Things I Hate About You, fakes a deep knowledge of French so he can become Bianca’s tutor. Wedding Crashers condemns the pick-up artistry of John and Jeremy at its outset, but then rewards their manipulations, in the end, by letting them get their girls. The cue-card guy in Love Actually—his character is so roughly sketched that he is generally and correctly known simply as Cue-Card Guy—shows up at the door of his beloved, while her husband sits watching TV, to confess his love. There he is, at her home, without, the cards say, “hope or expectation,” for the purpose of … what? Confusing her? Making her feel good about herself? Convincing her that she should totally leave his best friend for her? Using her so that he may, himself, get some much-needed romantic closure?

It’s unclear—opacity is the defining characteristic of Cue-Card Guy—but the movie suggests that it is probably the latter of these: “Enough,” Cue-Card Guy says to himself as he’s walking away from her house, “Silent Night” still blaring on his Doblerian boombox, having successfully passed his romantic frustrations on to the woman who is their object. “Enough now.”

It would be one thing were the awkwardness of Cue-Card Guy and his love-sick ilk limited to the screen. But, of course, they are not. Rom-coms are powerful, in part, because they pervade. They, too—like celebrities, like songs, like presidential candidates—have norm-setting capabilities. A study released earlier this year from Julia Lippman, a postdoctoral fellow in communication studies at the University of Michigan, found that rom-coms can give their audiences the illusion that stalking behavior—criminal activity—is, yes, romantic. The gestures of Say Anything and There’s Something About Mary and their fellow films “are often framed as unequivocal signs of true love,” Lippman wrote. “Indeed, they may be seen as reflecting one of the great cultural myths of romantic love: that no matter how big the obstacle, love will conquer all.”

And that myth gets reflected and refracted into a culture that is, in the age of normalized feminism and dissolving patriarchy and lines that are too often “blurred,” trying to figure out for itself the precise distinction between the creepy and the romantic. It’s telling that one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a woman about her looks—that she is “ravishing”—is derived from the same Latin root that gave us “rape.” And hovering in the exhaust of that etymology are rom-comic portrayals of romance as an antagonistic game—a hunt that rewards both aggression and stealth. WikiHow’s 15-step guide, “How to Get a Girl to Fall in Love With You,” assures its readers, “You don’t have to have a good excuse to talk to her, you just have to have some sort of excuse to break the ice.” The Modern Man’s advice on “How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones”? That guy, you can almost guarantee, was a keen viewer of rom-coms. The finance-focused site The Simple Dollar turned to rom-coms to formulate its list of “12 Wildly Romantic Gestures in Movies (That Don’t Cost a Thing)”; the tips it offered for “wowing your loved one this Valentine’s Day without spending a fortune” included some of the most classic “Stalking Is Love” conceits: “Turn Up Outside Her Window”; try some “Benevolent Manipulation”; and, finally, engage in “Relentless Pursuit.”

That might be fine; it might even, depending on the feelings of the “loved one” in question, be romantic! The problem is that, when you are relying on Relentless Pursuit as a way to get what you want, there is no role to be played by the human person on the other end of your desire. The rules of the hunt allow her only to (temporarily) escape or to (permanently) accede. In a world in which “no” means “yes,” the logic goes—and a world, worse, in which the “no” will transform into a “yes” with dogged, directed persistence—the only say the beloved has in the matter is not whether, but simply when, she’ll give in.