Romantic comedies are supposed to be escapist—a jaunt into a better, more colorful world where journalists can afford giant New York apartments and no obstacle to love is too great to overcome.
Except that when you think about it, some of the behavior portrayed as romantic in these movies is, objectively, creepy. The Love Actually sign guy was totally out of line, and honestly, Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything was pushing it with his famous jukebox. Even the supposedly “pure” love of cute baby-faced Joseph Gordon Levitt as Cameron in 10 Things I Hate About You involves teaching himself just enough French that he can pose as a tutor and hang out with his beloved. Oh, and hiring a guy to go out with her sister.
The Onion, as always, sums it up well: “Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested.”
Reasonable people know that rom-coms aren’t what love is really like, just as reasonable people know that porn is not what sex is really like. But these movies still create an image of romance that leaks into the atmosphere and may subtly shape people’s perceptions and expectations of love.
One troubling way they may do that is by making stalking behaviors seem like a normal part of romance, according to a new study by Julia Lippman, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of communication studies at the University of Michigan. She had a group of 426 women each watch one of six movies that had been edited down to a half an hour: a romantic comedy where a man pursues a woman and it’s depicted positively (There’s Something About Mary or Management), a movie where a man pursues a woman romantically and it’s depicted as scary (Sleeping with the Enemy or Enough), or a nature documentary (March of the Penguins or Winged Migration) as the control.
After the screening, the women took a survey ranking their agreement with several “stalking myths,” such as, “Many alleged stalking victims are actually people who played hard to get and changed their minds afterwards” or “An individual who goes to the extremes of stalking must really feel passionately for his/her love interest.” Those who saw the scary stalking movies were less likely than the control group or the rom-com viewers to endorse these myths. Women who watched the rom-coms endorsed these myths more if they reported feeling transported by the movie, or thinking that the movie was realistic.
The grand gestures of rom-coms (like hiring a P.I. to track down your high-school prom date, as happens in There’s Something About Mary) “are often framed as unequivocal signs of true love,” Lippman writes. “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.”
The website TV Tropes, which tracks, wiki-style, frequently-used narrative devices—not just on TV, but in all kinds of fiction—has a page for this. It’s aptly titled “Stalking Is Love.”
Lippman files stalking under the broader umbrella of “persistent pursuit,” which can also encompass “more benign and even positively regarded behaviors such as some types of romantic courtship,” she writes.
According to the National Institute of Justice, “stalking is conservatively defined as ‘a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated (two or more occasions) visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear.’”
In rom-coms, and also potentially in life, the continuum of behavior from stalking to unwanted attention to assertive courtship can be hard to read. In one study, people (especially men) who had pursued an unrequited love “tended to overreport receiving signals that their love interest was reciprocating, and to underreport receiving rejections.”
Is flying across the country and showing up at someone’s doorstep unannounced to declare your feelings an unhinged violation, or a brave and vulnerable display of love? (My guess is that it’s easier to tell which is which based on the declarer’s reaction if the declaree says they don’t feel the same way.)
The TV show How I Met Your Mother invokes the Say Anything boom-box scene for its “Dobler-Dahmer theory” of romantic gestures. If the recipient of the grand gesture is interested in the gesturer, the character Ted Mosby explains, then it’s charming (like Lloyd Dobler). If the recipient is not interested, the gesture seems creepy and crazy, and the gesturer is branded a Dahmer (à la Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibal serial killer.)
And indeed, this brand of “no-just-means-try-harder” romantic pursuit is portrayed differently depending on whether we, the audience, are supposed to understand that these characters are meant to be together. Take, for example, Mr. Collins of Pride & Prejudice, one of the worst hint-takers in literary history, and equally squirrely in his film manifestations. His cousin Elizabeth Bennett’s multiple and clear refusals of his marriage proposal do not keep him from repeating it, convinced she’s just playing hard to get. His steamrolling of her makes him seem pathetic and rude—but then, as we all know, he’s not Elizabeth’s soulmate.
But there are those who would agree with Mr. Collins’s assessment “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favor; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time.” A Indian man recently avoided a conviction for stalking in Australia because his lawyer argued that in Bollywood movies, men “are often seen determinedly pursuing their female counterparts until they finally acquiesce to a relationship,” The Guardian reports.
The narrative of slowly wearing someone down over time, be it through stalking or just being friendly and always around, is one that is also inexplicably held up as romantic sometimes.
“The whole ‘nice guy’ trope is a similar thing [to stalking],” Lippman says. “It's like, ‘Oh, if you put in the time, you’re entitled to her.’ What she might want in the situation is really beside the point. Because really she does want you, she just hasn't realized it yet.”
The fact that movies portray these behaviors as romantic doesn’t mean women will fall in love with the first guy who follows them home. It’s more likely to manifest in subtler ways: “Maybe you'd be slightly more likely to think, ‘Oh, he showed up at my workplace with flowers, when I told him I wasn't interested already. I’m probably just overreacting; I’m sure he was just trying to be nice,’” Lippman says.
In another study Lippman did, both men and women who endorsed stalking myths were more likely to report that they’d been the perpetrators of an “unwanted pursuit.” Women—but not men—who endorsed those myths were also more likely to report being the target of such a pursuit. Generally, women are far more likely than men to be stalked (one in six women and one in 19 men experience stalking that makes them “very fearful” at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime), and men are more likely than women to be stalkers (according to a national survey in 1998, 87 percent of stalkers were male).
In spite of this, movies are more likely to portray men’s stalking as charming and women’s as crazy. “There is an unfortunate Double Standard common in the depiction of this trope,” as TV Tropes puts it. “Stalker-type behavior in a man can make him a romantic hero but the same behavior will almost always make a woman dangerous or pathetic.” (Another page on TV Tropes is titled “No Guy Wants to Be Chased.”)
“When men pursue women, the way they’re acting is consistent with dominant gender roles,” Lippman says. “When women pursue men, they’re acting in violation of those roles.”
In love stories, the ends justify the means. The couple ends up together, they kiss, they get married, they ride off into the sunset, whatever. So obviously it all worked out for the best. Even the Love Actually guy (who was stalking his best friend’s wife) got a little smooch for his efforts.
“This is absolutely supported by social cognitive theory,” Lippman says, “where the reinforcements that are at play, these are going to shape how we ultimately view actions and values. We’re going to be more likely to adopt whatever behaviors or values are communicated if they seem to lead to a positive outcome. And what could be a more positive outcome than getting to be with the woman of your dreams?”
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