When Pop Culture Sells Dangerous Myths About Romance

Entertainment glorifying or excusing predatory male behavior is everywhere—from songs about “blurred lines” to TV shows where rapists marry their victims.

A photo illustration depicting Lloyd Dobler of 'Say Anything,' Chuck Bass of 'Gossip Girl,' and Jesse Lacey of the band Brand New
Tim Mosenfelder / Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty / 20th Century Fox / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Edward Cullen. Chuck Bass. Lloyd Dobler. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That guy from Love Actually with the sign. The lead singers of emo bands with their brooding lyrics. Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth followed a pattern and, like a Magic Eye picture, only with a little distance did the shape of it pop out to me. All of these characters in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires. But these characters’ actions, and those of countless other leading men across the pop-culture landscape, were more likely to be portrayed as charming than scary.

Romance often involves a bit of pursuit—someone has to make a move, after all. And there’s certainly a spectrum of pursuit: Sometimes supposedly romantic gestures in pop culture veer toward the horrendous or illegal; sometimes they’re just a bit creepy or overzealous. But revisiting some of these fictional love stories can leave one with the understanding that intrusive attention is proof of men’s passion, and something women should welcome. In a number of cases, male characters who were acknowledged to have gone too far—by, for example, actually forcing themselves on women—were quickly forgiven, or their actions compartmentalized and forgotten.

I grew up watching movies in which women found it flattering when their pursuers showed up uninvited to hold a boombox under their window, or broke into their bedrooms to watch them sleep, or confessed their feelings via posterboard while their love interest’s husband sat in the next room. So I found it flattering, too. I sang along with The Killers’ “Change Your Mind” (“If the answer is no, can I change your mind?”) and Fall Out Boy’s “7 Minutes in Heaven” (“I keep telling myself I’m not the desperate type, but you’ve got me looking in through blinds”) without a second thought about what the lyrics implied.

Allegations of sexual harassment have been pouring out of the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. But while predatory male behavior has been condoned and covered up behind the scenes, it’s also been glorified on screen and on the page and on the radio. As my colleague Lenika Cruz put it to me: “Rape culture, actually, is all around.” The narratives of a culture help to set its norms. Research has already found that romantic comedies can normalize stalking behavior. It’s not difficult, then, to imagine that toxic love stories can also normalize coercion. That they can make people—women, especially—question when and whether their boundaries have really been violated, when they should be flattered and when they should be afraid.

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It’s worth beginning with the more shocking examples of how pop culture condones and redeems violating behavior: In a number of cases, sexual assault is treated as the start of a love story. On General Hospital, the longest-running soap opera in production, the tale of the “supercouple” Luke and Laura started in an October 1979 episode—when Luke raped Laura at the disco where they both worked. Eventually the show began recalling the incident as a “seduction” rather than a rape, and the two fell for each other. They later married in a record-making 1981 episode watched by 30 million people. The rape was “romanticized to my great regret,” Anthony Geary, the actor who played Luke, has said. But in the same interview he described Luke as “a classically romantic character, a classic anti-hero.” General Hospital portrayed sexual assault not as a definitive shattering of trust, but as a foundation on which a relationship can be built—a model embraced by other shows and films as well.

For example, in the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, the protagonist Rick Deckard at one point forces himself on an android named Rachael. But the moment is portrayed as romantic—it’s even soundtracked with a sexy ’80s saxophone. Casey Cipriani at Slate writes of the film’s 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, that “a big part of the new Blade Runner’s plot relies on the belief that Deckard and Rachael fell in love in the first, [but] their ‘love’ is the result of a coercive sex scene.” Similarly, in the first season of Game of Thrones, the relationship between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo—which is portrayed as a great love, one through which Daenerys eventually comes into her own as a ruler—begins with a wedding night on which the teenage girl cries and tries unsuccessfully to keep Drogo from undressing her. (This is a departure from the book’s depiction of that scene.)

The serial nature of television in particular means many shows suffer from a kind of assault amnesia when it’s no longer convenient for a character who once raped or attempted rape to be seen as a villain. On Gossip Girl, a show that permeated the culture for late-’00s teens like few others, predatory behavior functions as a black mark on a character’s past that’s simply erased when the series wants to change his arc. The trust-fund playboy Chuck Bass rings in the show by trying to force himself on two girls in the very first episode—Serena, and Jenny, a freshman girl. Within episodes, the incidents seem to have faded from the show’s memory. Chuck morphs from an antagonist into a romantic lead.

Well, sort of. Chuck’s behavior over the course of his fan-favorite romance with Blair Waldorf often tipped over from sexy into coercive, or downright emotionally abusive. In Season 1, after the show’s titular blog reveals that Blair slept with both Chuck and another boy, she turns to Chuck for comfort. He responds thusly:

You held a certain fascination when you were beautiful, delicate, and untouched. But now you’re like one of the Arabians my father used to own: rode hard and put away wet. I don’t want you anymore and I can’t see why anyone else would.

That moment isn’t played for romance, but neither is it much of an impediment to the unfolding of their love story. By the end of the season, Chuck is wooing Blair by alluding to her in a toast at his father’s wedding. “In the face of true love you don’t just give up, even if the object of your affection is begging you to,” he says, staring at her. The series ends with Chuck and Blair’s wedding.

Though rape is frequently used as a device to add drama, shows often don’t deal with the fallout for a relationship realistically, or at all. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another fan-favorite character, the vampire Spike, tries to rape Buffy in an attempt to force her to admit she loves him. “I’m going to make you feel it,” he says. As the series continues, Spike’s character remains beloved: He earns a soul (literally—as a vampire he didn’t have one before) and resumes an emotionally intimate, if not clearly sexual, relationship with Buffy.

Even more pervasive than the redeemed rapist is the romantic hero whose efforts at seduction look more like harassment. In the Twilight series, the brooding vampire Edward Cullen not only breaks into his love interest Bella’s house in the first book to watch her sleep, but later on, in the third book, he also disassembles her car engine to keep her from leaving her house. But readers are supposed to see it as a protective gesture: He did it because he loves her, because he wants her to be safe.

Sometimes badgering is packaged as confident flirtation. The love story of Meredith Grey and Derek—Doctor “McDreamy” himself—on the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy begins with workplace harassment. “I’ve been wondering to myself,” Meredith says in an early episode, “why are you so hell-bent on getting me to go out with you? You know you’re my boss. You know it’s against the rules. You know I keep saying no.” McDreamy responds, “Well, it’s fun isn’t it?” (The two go on to marry and have a family together.)

These scenes all add up to give the impression that romance requires a man’s desire, but not necessarily a woman’s. For her, the romance is mined from the fact that she is desired. At the end of the 1989 romantic comedy Say Anything, some time after the protagonist Lloyd Dobler held a boombox under the heroine Diane Court’s window in an attempt to win her back after their breakup, Diane finally comes to tell Lloyd she needs him. “One question,” he says. “Are you here because you need someone or because you need me?” He allows for a moment the possibility that Diane’s desires matter. The music swells, and then: “Forget it,” he says, before he goes in for the kiss. “I don’t care.” Of course he doesn’t.

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In music, too, there’s no shortage of songs that glorify a man’s threatening overtures, from “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (“Say, what’s in this drink?”), to “Every Breath You Take” (“I’ll be watching you”), to “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” (“I hear you saying what you won’t do / But you know we’re probably gon’ do”). And of course, there’s Robin Thicke’s literal anthem for the “Blurred Lines” I’m talking about (“I know you want it ... Just let me liberate you”).

Emo—the genre in which I found most of the romantic anthems of my youth—is a particularly potent brew of romance and violence. While many emo songs are full of longing and daydreams of unrequited affection, their tales of intense pursuit also sometimes accelerate into explicit aggression toward women when things don’t go the narrator’s way. And emo was an overwhelmingly male-dominated genre. “Wear me like a locket around your throat / I’ll weigh you down, I’ll watch you choke / You look so good in blue,” one Fall Out Boy song goes. In “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad,” Brand New’s singer laments, “Even if her plane crashes tonight / She’ll find some way to disappoint me / By not burning in the wreckage / Or drowning at the bottom of the sea.”

But even the love songs that weren’t explicitly violent, the ones that put cartoon hearts in my eyes as I listened to my Walkman on the school bus, told a tale where love meant never having to take no for an answer. “If you only once would let me, only just one time,” the singer of Jimmy Eat World begs in the song “Work.” (“Work and play, they’re never okay, to mix the way we do,” it continues.) The Dashboard Confessional song “As Lovers Go” starts with: “She said ‘I've gotta be honest, you’re wasting your time if you’re fishing around here.’” After this polite rebuff, the singer does not stop his pursuit. “I’ll belong to you, if you just let me through,” he says. “This is easy as lovers go, so don’t complicate it by hesitating.”

Don’t complicate it by hesitating could be the slogan for rape culture. Don’t hesitate in giving men what they want, don’t complicate our love stories by worrying about consent.

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Recent accusations of sexual assault and harassment—including against the actor Ed Westwick, who played Chuck Bass, and Jesse Lacey, the lead singer of Brand New, and so many others—have pushed me to take another look at the love stories that shaped me as I grew up. Obviously, Westwick, who has denied the rape allegations against him, is not the same as Chuck Bass. And misogynistic song lyrics don’t prove that Lacey—who has apologized without admitting to any specific wrongdoing—mistreated young women. But neither can I call these parallels a complete coincidence. Both the products and the people of the entertainment industry have been shaped by a culture of harassment when it comes to women and children. And if the actions of the people in the industry lay shrouded in shadows for a long time, the products have always been there for us to see and hear.

The plots that play out on screen play out in the world, too. Harassers apologize, and are allowed the chance for rehabilitation. Alleged incidents of sexual misconduct in a man’s history are conveniently forgotten when it’s uncomfortable. Our romantic cultural touchstones find parallels in real life, on the grand scale and the small.

Take, for example, the story of an anonymous young woman who described an upsetting date with the comedian Aziz Ansari, during which she said he repeatedly pressured her for sex. In his response, Ansari said the incident “by all indications was completely consensual”; his accuser said she “felt violated.” While observers disagree about how to characterize the encounter, many have recognized it as an example of how differently men and women are taught to view consent. As Anna North wrote in Vox of the Ansari episode: “Boys learn at a young age, from pop culture, their elders, and their peers, that it’s normal to have to convince a woman to have sex, and that repeated small violations of her boundaries are an acceptable way to do so—perhaps even the only way.”

When living out their own romantic narratives, people often, consciously or not, compare them to the love stories they’ve already been told. When tales like these pile up, they can leach into our minds and relationships like radiation. It has been hard to realize, and harder still to admit, how much my own desires sprouted up twisted by the poison they absorbed. The confessional, vulnerable nature of emo songs made me feel like my headphones gave me a direct line to boys’ hearts. They craved the chase, I thought, and then, so did I.

It’s so easy when you’re young to mold yourself in the shape of your fantasies. When I was a teen, my desire to be romantically pursued was so strong that when I spotted a guy I liked ahead of me in the hallways of my high school, rather than catching up to talk, I would pretend not to see him and get ahead of him in the crowd, to see if he would approach me. How much of that was teenage awkwardness and a lack of self-confidence, and how much of it was the conviction that I was more desirable if I appeared to be passive and oblivious? How can you dig the roots of your desires out from the soil they sprouted in without killing them entirely?

My colleague Megan Garber has described our current era as “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.” Our culture is beginning to complicate things, to question the value of romanticizing stories where one person chases another, or wears her down, or drags her along against her will. But recognizing the flaws in these ideas doesn’t make them go away. They still float in the spaces between people; they are the sludge through which we have to swim as we try to see each other clearly.