The guys who won't hear "no”: Movies, masculinity and the toxic myth of the romantic stalker

Films like "Love, Actually" and "Say Anything" don't cause violence, but they normalize dangerous behaviors

Published February 7, 2016 8:30PM (EST)

  (20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

When I was young, I remember hearing a number of variations of the same story. You’ve probably heard a version of it, too. It’s the one about the guy who meets the love of his life, but she doesn’t know it yet. The woman is initially uninterested, rebuffing his advances. He’s just not her type. But he isn’t so easily dissuaded. He shows up to her office every single day to ask her out—until she finally says yes. No matter which version you hear (maybe he’s in the Navy or she’s already got a boyfriend), there’s one constant: They always end up married at the end.

These stories of romantic pursuit have been so canonized in our collective psyche that in 2004, we even got an entire movie about them: “The Notebook.” In the film, Noah (Ryan Gosling) meets Allie (Rachel McAdams), an upper-class girl who treats his interest with side-eye. To win her over, Noah climbs a Ferris wheel for her. It works, of course, until her family breaks the pair up. Not only does he then build his ex-girlfriend a house, Noah writes to her every day for a year.

If these scenarios sound suspiciously like stalking to you, they are. And according to a recent study, continuing to romanticize these narratives may be incredibly dangerous. Published in the academic journal “Communication Research,” the University of Michigan’s Julia Lippman looked at how Hollywood movies depict “persistent pursuit.” When the media tells us it’s OK for a man to risk his life—and those of everyone around him—by climbing an amusement park ride to chase a girl who doesn’t want you, audiences are more likely to accept these actions as appropriate, too. After all, we’ve been told this behavior is acceptable all our lives.

If a movie showed the act of being stalked as “scary” (see: “Single White Female”), Lippman found that exposure to such narratives “led participants to endorse fewer stalking-supportive beliefs.” But watching Hollywood romances had the opposite result. Lippman writes, “[T]he romanticized pursuit behaviors commonly featured in the media as a part of normative courtship can lead to an increase in stalking-supportive beliefs.”

The connection between stalking and love is pervasive throughout Hollywood films—from the afore-mentioned Nicholas Sparks adaptation to romantic comedies like “Say Anything,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” and “(500) Days of Summer.”

In a prominent example, the popular British rom-com “Love Actually” famously features a subplot in which Mark (Andrew Lincoln of “The Walking Dead”) lusts after his best friend’s bride-to-be (played by Keira Knightley), despite the fact that he appears to despise her. After she discovers that Mark has been secretly filming her during wedding rehearsals (in masturbatory close-up), Mark shows up at her house with a set of giant cue cards to confess his love via posterboard. Mark is not only a terrible friend, he exhibits most of the common characteristics of a stalker.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the Adam Sandler vehicle “50 First Dates,” Sandler’s character, Henry, meets Lucy (Drew Barrymore), who cannot form new memories due to an accident. As Refinery 29’s Molly Horan writes, Henry responds by using her tragedy to his benefit—“learning her schedule, putting her in new and exciting situations over which he has complete control, marrying her and raising children with her on a boat where she can't escape.

In “About Time,” Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) goes to even greater lengths to woo Mary (Rachel McAdams): Born into a family of time-travelers, Tim uses his magic powers to reverse-engineer a whirlwind romance with Mary. He’s able to become her dream man by routinely fixing his mistakes by going back to erase them from history. Rather than problematizing this situation—or having Tim inform his beloved that he’s tricked her into romantic bliss—the film considers this a completely normal way to get the girl.

A classic Onion article from 1999 parodied these films by showing what would happen if men behaved this way in real life. Showing up at someone’s house blasting loud music outside their house isn’t romantic—and might get you arrested:

“[Denny] Marzano was taken into custody after violating a restraining order filed against him by Kellie Hamilton, 25, an attractive, unmarried kindergarten teacher who is new to the L.A. area. According to Hamilton, Marzano has stalked her for the past two months, spying on her, tapping her phone, serenading her with The Carpenters' ‘Close To You’ at her place of employment, and tricking her into boarding Caribbean-bound jets. … Marzano, who broke his leg last week falling off a ladder leaning against Hamilton's second-story bedroom window, said he was ‘extremely surprised’ that his plan to woo Hamilton had failed.”

This news story isn’t hypothetical. The Tumblr account When Women Refuse documents what actually happens to women when men won’t take no for an answer. That rejection becomes life-threatening. “I refused him repeatedly, and one time he got violent,” one poster writes. “He took a pocket knife out and tried to stab me, but luckily a nearby stranger rescued me.” That man continued to stalk and harass her for three more years.

Late last month, a Pittsburgh woman—29-year-old Janese Talton-Jackson—was shot to death by a man whose advances she rebuffed in a bar. In 2012, two men stopped a female passerby in Jamtara, India, and ordered the young woman to have sex with them. When she turned them down, her pursuers threw acid in her face, disfiguring her for life.

These are shocking stories, and they are hardly unique. There are hundreds like them every year. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, 24 people are abused or raped by their partners every single minute, and that’s just in the United States. The CDC also estimates that 7.5 million people are stalked each year, and women are 2.5 times more likely than men to be followed or receive unwanted attention from strangers or intimate partners in their lifetimes.

It would be absurd to suggest that romantic comedies are solely responsible for stalking and harassment—or our society’s toxic masculinity problem. (Remember when Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday blamed the Isla Vista, California, shooting on the Seth Rogen comedy “Neighbors”?) Instead, they are merely part of the problem. Although Lippman found that rom-coms play a role in normalizing certain behaviors, they are also a reflection of wider ideas about what constitutes appropriate behavior.

From an early age, we’re taught bumper-sticker-ready lessons “never give up” and “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” They offer us necessary lessons about the value of perseverance, but rarely do they illustrate the importance of consent. Rarely are we taught that it’s OK to try your best and not get what you want—because your desires aren’t the only ones that are important. Rarely are we taught that "no" deserves respect.

I can understand why people are drawn to stories like the “Romantic Pursuit” myth: We like success stories in which the little guy overcomes great odds to get what he wants, whether it’s working his way to the top of a Fortune 500 company or finally landing a date with the prettiest girl in the room. By championing these stories, we hope that will we be that underdog.

But while teaching tenacity is good, these myths have a dangerous side effect: They tell us love is something not that we earn but that we deserve simply through hard work. If we persist and do what we are told to do, we must be rewarded for our efforts—often at any cost. I can’t help wondering whether Janese Talton-Jackson’s killer initially pictured their fateful interaction as a story he might tell his grandkids someday.

Rather than continuing to promote a toxic mix of romantic entitlement and “Nice Guy” logic, we need a new narrative. What about this one instead? A young man meets a gorgeous woman in a bar. He asks to buy her a drink and she says, “No, thank you.” He respects her boundaries and moves on to chat with another eligible woman, who enthusiastically accepts his offer of a free beverage. Maybe they do end up together, maybe they don’t, but they both go home feeling good about having an interaction that didn’t involve harassment or manipulating space-time.

They might not make big-budget Hollywood epics about that version of the story—ones featuring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams making out in the rain—but it’s the one we need.

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By Nico Lang


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Dating Film Love Love Actually Movies Say Anything Stalking Video