Movies, TV shows, and media as a whole have a profound impact on how we perceive love, sex, and romance. From the Disney princess movies we watched when we were young to more mature romances like The Notebook our ideas of how courtship and relationships work have been shaped by the media. However, a problematic concept is present in the narrative of many stories. It is the idea that stalking or continuously pursuing someone who has either rejected or shown no interest is somehow romantic. This trope is prevalent in our media and usually involves a nice guy who for any multitude of reasons he hasn’t found love, until he finds the girl of his dreams and becomes desperately infatuated with her.
Unfortunately, the girl usually doesn’t return his feelings, is dating someone else, has already rejected him, or is just not interested in a relationship.
Instead of the girls rejections being seen as something to be respected and a request to stop pursuing her, it is seen as a challenge. The man is determined to get her to love him, so the man continues his advances, he bothers her, spies on her, follows her, and manipulates her into falling in love with him.
A man’s obsessive and stalker like behavior is used as evidence of his love and commitment, rather than a violation of a woman’s boundaries. This idea is further solidified when the man inevitably ‘gets the girl’ in the end of the movie or show, letting the audience know that his efforts succeeded, therefore encouraging this type of behavior in real life.
An example of this behavior is in the widely popular show Stranger Things. When one of the main characters Jonathan Byers is first introduced we see him following and taking pictures of his female love interest Nancy Wheeler without her consent. Some of the pictures include pictures of Nancy undressing in the privacy of her bedroom. However, the story never frames this action as predatory but as the sympathetic and endearing behavior of a lonely outcast, normalizing Jonathan’s behavior. Even when Nancy’s boyfriend at the time Steve Harrington breaks Jonathan’s camera for taking pictures of Nancy we are supposed to sympathize with Jonathan. We are supposed view Steve’s behavior as cruel, rather than a punishment for Jonathan’s creepy behavior. During the second season of Stranger Things, Nancy and Jonathan engage in a romantic relationship and it seems that Nancy has either forgotten about Jonathan’s previous stalking or just doesn’t care. This brings us to one of the main reasons we rarely notice how predatory the stalking for love trope is.
As the audience we understand that the object of the persons affections most likely returns the affections. Thus, we excuse the behavior because in the end the couple gets together.
We see an example of this in the widely praised movie The Notebook. The main character Noah sees Allie in a festival and instantly becomes infatuated with her. Unfortunately, Allie is on a date with another man, so when Noah asks her to go on the ferris wheel with him she rejects him. As the audience we know we are watching a romance movie, therefore we know this is all part of Noah’s pursuit of Allie. But Noah, himself does not know Allie is or will ever be interested in him, which makes the next scene extremely troubling.
Noah hangs from the bar of the ferris wheel in front of Allie and threatens to let go, thus falling to his death, unless Allie agrees to go out with him. This scene is framed to show that Noah is committed to showing Allie how much he wants her but in reality it is just a way of emotionally manipulating Allie to go out with Noah against her will. If someone were to behave like Noah off screen we would view their actions as coercive, but in the context of the movie it is accepted.
Stalking or forcing someone to go on a date with you is never romantic or a way of getting them to return your affections.
Following someone, repeating unwanted advances, showing up at a person’s workplace, residence, or school uninvited, as well as spying on, tracking, or monitoring someone is not about love but the perpetrators own feelings.
If you truly cared about that person you would respect them and take no as an answer. You would not make them uncomfortable, embarrassed, or afraid in your desperate attempt to have them. This behavior originates in the idea that you have any sort of entitlement over a person or that you in any way deserve their affections.
This is the case for both males and females, however, in the media and in real life this behavior is largely perpetrated by men. There are plenty of ways romantic relationships can develop on screen and romantic films as a whole should not be about a man or woman ‘getting’ their love interest but about both parties falling in love with one another without predatory behavior. Tropes such as stalking for love teach audiences that if someone says they are not interested their refusal should be tested. Our media should be telling us that any behavior that does not respect someones boundaries cannot be seen as romantic, because despite what movies such as Twilight would have you believe it is not.