Romantic Comedies Teach Women That Stalking Is A Compliment

A new study suggests rom coms perpetuate dangerous myths, and make it harder to prosecute stalkers.

01/28/2016 09:43 am ET | Updated Jan 28, 2016
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There’s a long list of reasons to love romantic comedies. The triumph of true love. The frantic run through the airport. The getting-dressed-for-a-big-date montage. There are lots of reasons to hate the genre, too. It’s so white, so heteronormative, so predictable, and so hellbent on convincing us that genetically gifted, gorgeous women are actually homely hags in need of a makeover. And now there’s another reason to be wary: A new study suggests watching romantic comedies makes women more likely to tolerate stalking in real life.

The study, published recently in Communication Research, found that participants who watched movies in which men’s “persistent pursuit” of women was depicted as romantic -- as it so often is in rom coms -- were more likely to subscribe to stalking myths.

Stalking myths are the misconceptions that underpin our conventional wisdom about the crime. They include ideas like "many alleged stalking victims are actually people who played hard to get and changed their minds afterwards," "stalking has no serious, lasting impact on the victim," and the notion that lots of stalking "could be avoided if the alleged victim would have just told his/her stalker clearly that s/he was definitely not interested in a romantic relationship."

And then, there’s the myth that is central to so many romantic comedies: "An individual who goes to the extremes of stalking must really feel passionately for his/her love interest." He stalked you because he just loves you so much. It’s romantic.

Take the scene in "Love, Actually" in which Keira Knightley’s character discovers that her new husband’s best friend has been secretly filming her while simultaneously treating her like garbage -- the former because he claims to love her, the latter as "a self-preservation thing." She’s shocked, but the movie directs us to overlook the total creepiness of the close-up camcorder shots he’s taken and hoarded in his apartment, and to instead empathize with his tortured, unrequited love. Later, when he shows up at Knightley's character's house and wordlessly professes his love while her husband, his best friend, sits unknowingly upstairs, it’s supposed to be the romantic climax of their storyline, and it remains one of the most beloved moments of this modern classic.

Or look at the adorable 13-year-old in "Crazy, Stupid, Love," who adorably tells his babysitter how much he loves her, even when she asks him -- in writing -- to stop. After he cutely publicly humiliates her in front of her classmates (twice), she capitulates and gives him an envelope full of nude photos of herself to tide him over until he’s old enough to date her. So romantic! Maybe he learned that kind of behavior from his dad (Steve Carell), who sneaks into his wife's backyard under cover of darkness after they've separated and mows the lawn? Oh, and while he's doing that, Carell's character creepily watches his wife through the window, unbeknownst to her. Though most rom-com stalking, like most real-life stalking, is of women by men, female characters in romantic comedies also engage in stalking that’s depicted as proof of true love and passion. See Meg Ryan’s character in "Sleepless in Seattle," who abuses her professional resources and flies across the country to creepily lurk outside the house of a guy she heard once on the radio.

Julia Lippman, the University of Michigan professor who conducted the study, found that, when participants watched films in which “persistent pursuit” was depicted as frightening, they became less likely to agree with stalking myths. But, when they watched a romantic comedy -- Lippman used "There’s Something About Mary" -- and they perceived it as realistic, they became more likely to agree with them. Watching romanticized, seemingly realistic portrayals of stalking behavior, in other words, made women more likely to accept stalking behavior as desirable.

Lippman’s participants were all women, which is fitting, given that women comprise a sizable majority of the audience for romantic comedies. It’s also important, because it has implications for the prosecution of stalkers who target women.

"Men are socialized to be persistent and women are socialized to be flattered by it," Lippman told The Huffington Post. "And 9 times out of 10 it’s not a problem and it’s not abuse." About 3.4 million Americans are affected by stalking every year; 78 percent of victims are women, and 87 percent of perpetrators are men. And, Lippman notes, at the outset, it can be hard to spot red flags that signal the unhealthy and dangerous behavior that may follow -- especially if you’ve been desensitized by cultural messaging that tells you persistent pursuit is romantic.

"We’re taught that we should want this from men," Lippman said. "That it means we’re desirable. And who doesn’t want to be desirable?"

But when flattering pursuit becomes frightening stalking, and you want law enforcement to intervene to protect you, that socialization comes back to bite you. Not only do women have to contend with a criminal justice system that has been shaped by stalking myths -- like the fiction that most stalkers are strangers (they aren’t), or that stalking is just a petty nuisance (it’s not) -- they also have to explain why they didn’t spot the future stalker right from the start. "Personnel at every step of the legal process subject the stalking victim to scrutiny," the study notes, "and if she behaves in ways that suggest anything other than her unequivocal rejection of the pursuer, her behavior can be -- and often is -- used as a reason not to prosecute, or to find in favor of the pursuer if the case does go to trial."

When women accept stalking myths, when they’re socialized to perceive abusive behavior as flattering, “it’s a lot harder to prosecute because [police] ask, ‘why didn’t you say no at the outset?’” Lippman told HuffPost. “Because that’s not how relationships work. It’s easy to say in hindsight that it was a red flag, but at the time, it’s like ‘this is a cute how-I-met-your-mother story.’” Those red flags, this study suggests, can be even harder to spot when the movies you watch depict stalking behavior not as stalking behavior, but as normal and desirable courtship.

Perversely, some courts appear to recognize how those depictions shape the expectations of stalkers, but not of their targets. Last year in Australia, a man accused of stalking two women used the "Bollywood defense": he told the court that he "learned from Bollywood movies that relentlessly pursuing women was the only way to woo them." His case was thrown out.

But, the study suggests, the answer isn’t to Ban All Rom Coms. Rather, there’s a causal link between watching portrayals of stalking as frightening, and taking the crime seriously; participants who watched those depictions were less likely to endorse stalking myths than they were before viewing those movies. So, given that reboots are so hot right now, it’s clear that we need a new "Love, Actually." Only this time, Keira Knightley will tell the "Walking Dead" guy to stop being such a creepy stalker and get the hell away from her doorstep.

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