by Hannah Moulton Belec
An eighth-grader barrages his babysitter with romantic overtures in person and via text even after she tells him it makes her uncomfortable.
A high school boy follows a classmate’s every move and sneaks into her room at night to watch her sleep.
Seven brothers kidnap seven women and bring them to a secluded cabin to live as man and wife.
Ah, romance. Oh wait — did you think these scenarios sounded more creepy than lovey-dovey? Illegal, even? Crazy, Stupid, Love.; Twilight; and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are all conventional romances. Yet, stripped of the attractive actors and swelling music, these movies reveal some deeply troubling behavior.
Stalking is sometimes taken seriously — some films show that the law can’t always help and that being stalked is intrusive, terrifying, and likely to escalate to bodily harm. But far more often, this behavior is instead implied to be a normal and even preferred part of courtship. It’s romantic! And it’s shockingly ubiquitous.
Whether stalking is explicitly mentioned and laughed off like in There’s Something about Mary or more obfuscated in something like Vertigo or Eight Days a Week, the message is clear. If someone is following you across the state and watching your every move (The Graduate) or filming you without your consent (American Beauty), it’s probably just because he loves you. And you’re assumed to reciprocate. Which might be a problem if you’re an adult human who wants some agency in whom you date.
While it’s deeply troubling that this trope makes what is actually a very scary issue for women in real life seem silly and insignificant, the stalking-as-romance theme also supports a larger stereotype about how women and men function in love. This picture of romance values men as the pursuers and women as the pursued. The love-struck hero admires the beautiful woman from afar — it’s a classic example of the voyeurism and passivity that feminist film theory is based on. Implied is that the most desirable relationships are the ones in which a woman is prey and a man is predator.
Why is this model of love represented over and over? It’s not always the way relationships happen, and it’s not always desirable (and is even more unrealistic for anyone who isn’t hetero). Some real-life women had the audacity to call a guy up and ask for a date. Some leaned in for the first kiss. For others, it was a mutual seduction. Not all women are with their partners because they’ve been worn down. Is there something unromantic about a woman finding someone she wants and going for it?
Obviously, for some couples, the man-pursues-woman model actually happened. But it’s not happenstance that, over and over, so many couples prefer to characterize their relationship this way. And it’s not a coincidence that art imitates this ideal. Sometimes, that means romanticizing situations that should be alarming (and criminal). And other times, it makes those of us who aren’t passive women feel like our relationships don’t live up to the cultural hype. But surely we can start busting these myths about the ways that women and men should behave in love. And, trust us, the results deserve just as much windswept hair and swelling strings.