Stalking for Love at the Movies

Stalking For Love is a popular media trope where invasive stalker-like behavior is presented as an endearing or harmless part of romantic courtship. The hero will often go to extraordinary lengths to coerce, trick or otherwise manipulate his way into a woman’s life.

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Full text transcript below

The 1993 comedy Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray has always been a favorite of mine. If you’d asked a younger version of me what the movie was about, I would have said: Groundhog Day is a movie about a cynical selfish man who must relive the same day over and over again, until he learns to care for the people around him and in so doing becomes a better person.

Today, I think I would describe the plot somewhat differently. I’d say: Groundhog Day is a movie about a cynical selfish man who must relive the same day over and over again, until he’s able to learn everything there is to know about his co-worker and, despite her repeated rejections, use that information to eventually make her fall in love with him.

While both plot summaries are technically accurate, what I missed as a younger man was an understanding of how movies often present stalker-like behavior as a harmless or endearing part of romantic courtship. One popular media trope in particular provides the foundation for the plot of Groundhog Day: I call that trope Stalking for Love.

If you’ve spent any time at all going to the movies or watching television, then you’re probably already familiar with this romance formula and how it works.

Our hero is typically a nice guy who doesn’t quite fit the Hollywood ideal of manhood. And who, for a variety of reasons, hasn’t found love. One day, he sees a very special woman and instantly becomes infatuated with her. Time slows down. The music swells. And the camera zooms-in. These audiovisual cues are designed to communicate to us, the audience, that this is “true love.” But wait, there’s just one small problem. She doesn’t return his feelings. Maybe she’s dating someone else. Maybe she’s already rejected him. Maybe she doesn’t even know he exists. Or maybe she’s just not interested.

What’s a nice guy to do when faced with such a dilemma? Well he’s certainly not going to give up. No, he’ll do whatever it takes. This is “true love” after all, or it will be once he convinces this woman to love him back. And so, to that end, our hero proceeds to spy on her, pester her, and otherwise manipulate her until he finally manages to wear down her defenses and she agrees to go out with him.

As a media convention, Stalking for Love can be traced all the way back to classic Hollywood. And it’s a mainstay in both Bollywood and European cinema. Even though Stalking for Love is most commonly associated with romantic comedies, what’s often overlooked is the trope’s prominence in other genres, especially superhero stories.

In these narratives a men’s obsessive, coercive or stalker-like behavior is framed as an expression of a his love and devotion. And even if the woman in question is initially upset or annoyed by his obsessive attention, his actions are inevitably framed as a compliment.

The trend in more recent media is to lampshade romantic stalking. Lampshading is when writers directly acknowledge a media trope or cliche in the dialogue itself. But remember that acknowledgement alone isn’t the same thing as criticism or subversion. So for example in the popular Netflix series Stranger Things, Max calls out Lucas’s stalker-like behavior. But in the end Lucas still “gets the girl” even after he stalks her, tricks her, and traps her alone in a room with him.

Now on one level the popularity of this trope is understandable. Most people want to feel like we’re special, like we’re worthy of romantic attention from someone we like. And most people really want to believe in the idea of “love at first sight.” But while it might be nice to imagine sweeping your crush off their feet, the truth is that much of the behavior we see in these movies could very easily land you in jail.

In the real world stalking isn’t romantic, in fact it’s a crime. And beyond the legal implications, stalking can also have a serious emotional effect on the victims; leading to anxiety, paranoia, depression or even PTSD.

Stalking encompasses a wide range of behaviors including: Following someone, repeated unwelcome communication, showing up at a person’s workplace, residence, or school uninvited, as well as spying on, tracking, or monitoring an individual (either online or offline). This is the type of conduct that we expect from the villain in a horror film, but pop culture media consistently frames each and every one of all these behaviors as something romantic.

Now I should say that occasionally the roles are reversed and we see a woman stalking a man. And we’ll talk about that in a minute, but since men are most often the ones who perpetrate this kind of behavior, I want to focus on what this trope communicates about men, masculinity and love.

The specific circumstances and severity of the stalking behavior will vary from story to story, but the bottom line here is that these male characters all refuse to respect women’s boundaries, women’s personal space, or women’s privacy. They don’t listen to women words and they ignore all signals of disinterest or rejection. In short, they refuse to take “no” for an answer.

The Stalking for Love usually culminates in some sort of grand romantic gesture. These are public spectacles that are designed to demonstrate the depth and intensity of our hero’s feelings for the woman of his dreams.

Now of course, romantic gestures in general aren’t always troubling. If two people are already in a relationship or if their feelings have been openly communicated, then it can be sweet. And depending on the context, it might be ok to humbly (and privately) ask for a second chance, as we saw in the recent rom-com The Big Sick. But that’s not how it typically happens in Hollywood; in most movies, grand romantic gestures are designed to be elaborate ambushes. Ambushes that put women on the spot in a very public way. There’s an undercurrent of coercion running through these schemes because they set up situations where the woman in question will appear callus or heartless if she rejects the guy again after he’s gone through all the effort of pulling off his elaborate stunt.

Since these are movies we’re talking about, filmmakers usually give us a window into the hidden feelings of each character. This means that we, as the audience, have access to information that the male suitor doesn’t. Information that makes us more willing to overlook his intrusive behavior.

So for instance in the classic 1989 teen romance Say Anything, we know that Diane broke up with Lloyd because of pressure from her father. But we also know that she secretly wants him back. That piece of insider information makes this iconic scene seem like a touching gesture. The problem is that Lloyd doesn’t know how she’s feeling. At this point, he only knows two things: first that she explicitly told him she didn’t want to see or talk to him, and second, that she’s ignored his many phone calls after the breakup.

Given those two pieces of information, Lloyd decides it’s a good idea to show up at her father’s house to blast Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes through her bedroom window – a song that has significance because it was the song they listened to when they were having sex for the first time. Imagine an ex-lover pulling a stunt like that after you’ve broken up with them and told them to stay away from you. Nothing about it would be romantic. It would be creepy in the extreme and probably cause for calling the cops.

The now infamous Sign Guy, from Love Actually, professes his love for the woman he’s been obsessively video taping, and who also happens to be the new wife of his best friend. Inexplicably Sign Guy is rewarded for his creepy and deeply inappropriate behavior with a kiss.

Romantic stalking, at its core, isn’t really about love at all. It’s it’s extremely selfish behavior because it’s all about the stalker’s own personal feelings. Any potential discomfort, fear, or embarrassment on the part of the stalker’s target is rarely ever considered.

The Notebook offers an added layer of emotional manipulation to the romantic gesture. Ryan Gosling’s character not only refuses to take “no” for an answer, he threatens to kill himself if his love interest doesn’t agree to a date.

In the critically acclaimed 1989 film Dead Poets Society, Knox Overstreet’s decision to persistently pursue a young woman from a different school (who he doesn’t know and who already has a boyfriend) is framed by the film as his carpe diem moment. When he kisses her while she’s passed out at a party, it’s not depicted as assault; instead his actions are represented as overcoming his self-doubt and learning to live life to the fullest.

Knox’s character arc is part of a pattern in Hollywood coming-of-age stories, a pattern where confidence-building for boys often comes at the expense of women’s boundaries and women’s personal autonomy. Movies have taught us that never giving up is one of the most admirable of all traits, especially for men. While it’s certainly true that determination can be a very positive thing, that’s only the case when it doesn’t ignore the desires of other people or end up violating someone else’s privacy.

Sometimes writers attempt to justify stalking behavior by framing it as necessary to keep women safe from the dangers posed by other men. In these kind of stories protecting women from attacks by strangers is depicted as a selfless gesture, a gesture that proves a man’s love as well as his manhood. Stalking for protection storylines are troubling for a whole host of reasons but chief among them is the fact that regardless of the intention behind it, stalking does not make women feel safer. Counter to what television has lead us to believe, women are far more likely to be assaulted by men they already know than by strangers in dark alleys.

Stalking for Love isn’t framed as something worthy of genuine concern; it’s depicted as just a temporary lapse in judgement fueled by passionate feelings. In some instances, the romantic stalker may confess or apologize once he’s caught, but rarely are there any lasting negative impacts or meaningful forms of atonement. If he comes clean, his transgressions are quickly forgiven. And in most cases his manipulative ploys to spend time with her under false pretenses have already worked their magic and proven he’s Mr. Right.

The message is clear: Anything can be overlooked as long as it’s done in the name of love. And a man’s deception, his lies, his trickery, his manipulation, none of that disqualifies him from a romantic relationship. And even if the two don’t get together in the end, he’s still shown to be a “nice guy.” And he’s often given a conciation prize, maybe it’s a kiss, maybe it’s naked photos, or maybe it’s a different woman.

In reality of course, the willingness to flagrantly violate someone’s space, and someone else’s privacy is a major red flag. It’s behavior connected to deep-seated issues of control and extreme levels of entitlement.

When the gender roles are reversed and it’s a female character stalking a man her actions are typically portrayed as manic or unbalanced, instead of than endearing. This is basically the premise for the TV show Crazy Ex-girlfriend. I mean, it’s right there in the title. Stories in which women stalk men are part of a double standard in Hollywood because straight male characters almost never find unwanted affections charming or romantic.

I’m in no way suggesting that stalking behavior is ok when it’s done by women, it’s absolutely not. But I do think it’s important to note that the social and cultural implications are different when media shows women stalking men. Statistics show that women are more likely to be the victims of stalking and men are more likely to be the perpetrators. That coupled with the fact that women are also far more likely to be the targets of sexual violence or domestic abuse, means that women have good reason to be fearful of men who intrude on their lives.

Media employing the Stalking for Love trope has been shown to have negative effects on people’s attitudes and expectations when it comes courtship, romance, and love in the real world. Movies like those we’ve been discussing in this video serve to reinforce a variety of harmful myths about romance. These including: the idea that women don’t really know what they want, that stalking-like behaviors are justified when love is on the line, and that stalking victims are just “playing hard to get.”

Studies have also found that watching media where stalkers are depicted as dangerous or terrifying has the opposite effect and can decrease people’s belief in myths about romantic stalking.

Contrary to what movies tell us, attraction is not the same things as love. Neither is infatuation or obsession, both of which Hollywood consistently confuses for “true love.” Romantic love is mutual and reciprocal. It’s an exchange between people. And unless your partner develops a form of dementia, romantic love is not something that only one person can feel towards another.

There’s no reason why Hollywood can’t tell love stories where all parties involved treat each other with respect. Even within the realm of mutual respect, there are countless possibilities for quirky or humorous scenarios. The obstacles to romance can come in any number of forms; things like family disapproval, or illness, or geographic location. Just to name a few. There’s no reason why the central conflict in romance media needs to involve stalking behavior. And honestly making people feel unsafe is a terrible terrible way to show you care about them.

If you ask someone out and they’re interested, great. But if they say they’re not interested, it’s not your job to test them on it, or to try to figure out if maybe they’re just “playing hard to get.” And rejection is not an invitation to try to coerce them into changing their minds. Sure, rejection doesn’t feel good, but the respectful thing to do is to gracefully accept “no” for an answer.

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