This Valentine’s Day, maybe hold off on any movies where stalking behaviour is considered endearing. Elle explains.
Girls and women spend a lot of their lives being told that male behaviors that should come off as creepy, unwelcoming, or downright abusive are in fact good, wholesome, and most importantly, flirtatious — and therefore that we shouldn’t be upset when those behaviors happen. “Pigtail pulling” has become synonymous with grade school flirtation, and pop culture is full of instances of people who hate each other/are terrible to each other because they are secretly in true love with each other, and doesn’t that make everything okay?! Not to mention the number of times that two characters are fighting with each other super seriously and then… they totally make out. Then you have all the instances of one character who is obsessed with another character, and follows them to the ends of the Earth to achieve their love. This, of course, is portrayed as a positive male behavior, and crazy stalker behavior for female characters. This often couples with Nice Guy Syndrome, where if the guy is obsessed with the girl/nice to her for long enough, she just has to give him sex, right? And if you just stalk a girl for long enough, and do enough crazy things to win her over, it will prove your True Love, and therefore it isn’t creepy at all.
And holding a stereo above your head totally makes up for not taking “no” for an answer.
With so many “wholesome” and “healthy” depictions of love swirling about our cultural atmosphere, it should come as no surprise that watching movies about creepy stalkers pursuing “true love” makes us more forgiving of actual creepy stalkers. Julia R. Lippman at the University of Michigan had 426 women watch condensed versions of movies that either portrayed men romantically stalking women in a positive light (such as There’s Something About Mary or Management), movies that portrayed men stalking women in a negative light (Enough or Sleeping With the Enemy), or straight-up documentaries (March of the Penguins or Winged Migration). Apparently documentaries about birds are a good control group. After watching the films, the women were asked about their level of agreement with “stalking myths”; statements that ‘“minimise its [stalking] seriousness.”’ AKA, statements that make stalking seem soooooo romantic, 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.”’ Because women don’t really mean it when they say no, and men who continue to push the comfort limits of women and refuse to acknowledge their desires or opinions are just showing their dedication. Edward Cullen isn’t terrifying when he creeps into Bella’s room at night and watches her sleep, he’s romantic.
Unsurprisingly, the women who watched movies where stalking and “grand gestures” were romanticized were more accepting of stalking myths than those who watched the negative movies or nice documentaries about birds. After viewing such films, potentially dangerous or insulting behaviors can be thought of as “normal.” Women, as viewers of media and participants in popular culture, are taught to accept and even admire men who are dogged in their pursuit of romantic partners. As Carolyn Cox points out, it would have also been pretty fascinating to do a similar study of male participants and see how things matched up, but perhaps that is a study for another day. After they make more bird documentaries.
The mindset that normalizes stalking behavior is dangerous for a couple of reasons. First, it teaches women and men that women don’t actually have the right to say “no.” If a woman says “no” to a man, she doesn’t really mean it; she just needs to be stalked into submission until she says “yes.” It teaches women that we must interpret gestures from men, no matter how strange or off-putting, as potentially noble and loving actions. It teaches men that a woman’s desires are secondary to their own, and that as long as men have the will and stamina to pursue a woman, they are entitled to do so. It reinterprets possible warning signs of abuse as something that a woman should want or even expect in her partner.
Hurting and stalking women are not signs of love, and they are certainly not signs of respect. If we want women to feel like their bodily autonomy and choices are respected, maybe we should stop making so many “romantic comedies” where women’s desires play absolutely no part in the outcome.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not giving out good advice for Valentine’s Day, she studies gender in popular culture.