A New Study Shows Rom-Coms Can Make Us More Tolerant of Stalking

I put this theory to test on three of my favorite movies, and didn't like what I discovered.
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I put this theory to test on three of my favorite movies, and didn't like what I discovered.

A recent study by Julia R. Lippman of the University of Michigan, entitled I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs About Stalking, has found that women who watch and enjoy romantic comedies are more likely to tolerate stalker-like and aggressive behavior from men. The study had three different groups respond to the same questionnaire about “persistent pursuit.” One group watched a film where this behavior was portrayed in a scary way, a second watched a romantic comedy, and a third watched a nature documentary. People who watched the scary movie or nature documentary were far less willing to accept persistent pursuit as normal behavior than those exposed to romantic comedies.

Apparently this line of thinking is not new. When I brought it up to my girlfriends, two of them said that their husbands had mentioned on separate occasions that if men actually behaved the way they do in romantic comedies, women would run in the other direction—in real life those leading men would quickly be deemed creepy.

But wait a minute, you might say. Romantic comedies are the best! They are harmless! They are happy and full of hope! And I am mostly with you. I have an unabashed love for rom coms—the more ridiculous the better (especially if they involve a makeover). But this study did make me take a step back and look at some of my favorite movies and the type of behavior they are promoting. Honestly, it wasn’t very pretty, much less romantic. (Full disclosure: if you don’t want me to potentially ruin some of your favorite films, or spoil the plots of a movie you haven’t seen, read no more. This Pandora’s box is particularly hard to close once it has been opened.)

Say Anything

One of the most obvious and widely cited examples of persistent pursuit is the movie Say Anything, featuring the iconic scene where John Cusack’s character Lloyd Dobler stands outside Ione Skye’s bedroom window with a boom box over his head after she asks him to leave her alone—repeatedly. 

My mushy side loves this movie. Lloyd and his boom box are following in a long cinematic tradition of standing outside a girl’s bedroom window and throwing rocks to get her attention. So determined! So dedicated! So not okay. If a teenage girl told me that a boy she had been dating but didn’t want to see anymore was following her around wordlessly and refusing to leave, I wouldn’t be impressed or moved, I would be scared for that girl.

The TV show How I Met Your Mother drew attention to this dynamic a few years back by articulating the Dobler-Dahmer Theory, relating situations to either the rom com character or the well-known serial killer. “If both people are into each other, then a big romantic gesture works: Dobler. But if one person isn’t into the other, the same gesture comes off serial-killer crazy: Dahmer.” But even if both parties are “into” each other, shouldn’t the fact that a behavior could EVER be seen as stalker-like be problematic?

Looking back at my own dating experiences, Say Anything doesn’t set very good behavioral examples for men OR women. Stalking is obviously NEVER okay, and nothing a woman does should be seen as inviting it, but I have to admit that when I was younger, I would use the “go away, I don’t want to see you” as a sort of test for guys I was interested in. What I wanted was for them to ignore what I said—to show me how much they actually cared. But when they actually did as I asked, I was let down. I wanted the big gesture that I had been conditioned to expect. I wanted the persistent pursuit over the respecting of my stated wishes. Not a great basis for any relationship.

The Notebook

My next example is, I realize, treading on sacred ground, but I am going to go there anyway. The Notebook. (I know, I’m sorry.) Let’s try very hard to move past the irresistible being that is Ryan Gosling and look at what his character is actually doing. I’m not even talking about the crazy, hang off a Ferris Wheel to get a date move. (Which I think anyone would see as over the top and slightly deranged if it happened in real life.) This goes far deeper than that. So deep that my friend Liz, who is recently engaged and who has always been far more cynical than I am, had to lay it out there for me by making me imagine that she was telling me the story.

Hey, remember that kid M I used to date? I ran into him last week after getting engaged to P. Um, he bought the house that we almost slept in together in like 15 years ago. Is that weird? And then I went over there to go see him, and, uh, he had totally remodeled the house because of some random conversation we had 15 years ago!!! Like, I mentioned that I liked wraparound porches and he built a wraparound porch!! We haven't spoken since then, and he has spent that time carefully creating a creepy dream house for me. Should I leave P and marry M?

Sure enough, listening to her version made me realize that, yes, a guy devoting years of his life to the long-lost dreams and decade-old conversations he had with a former love is a little unhealthy and scary. Luckily it turned out that the love was still alive for them both in The Notebook, but had that not been the case...creepy for sure.

Sure, undying love is the stuff of great drama (he’s a bird if she’s a bird, okay?), but when it comes to real life, that kind of irrational behavior can take on a different tone.

My Best Friend’s Wedding

Finally, why is it that when men in movies engage in stalking behavior, they get the girl in the end, but when women do it, they end up alone? Take My Best Friend’s Wedding, where Julia Roberts’ character makes every grand, crazy gesture known to man to try and stop her best friend from marrying another woman. Guess what? She ends up looking incredibly foolish, and he marries his fiancé anyway. So not only are women supposed to appreciate persistent pursuit because it is seen as a mark of devotion, but we aren’t allowed to participate in it, because, well, patriarchy. (Kidding. Mostly.)

In the end, I don’t think that this study should make us hate romantic comedies. (There are some non-creepy examples out there—My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Roman Holiday, and American President, just to name a couple off the top of my head.) What it should do is make us reexamine that line between fiction and reality, maybe even to the point of reevaluating what we want from a romantic partner. Hopeless romance complete with suspense and a last-ditch grand gesture at the end makes for a great two-hour story, but what's great in real life is being on the same page as someone—finding compatibility, love, and respect with another person who feels the same way, no stalking behavior required. You may even find that it is the non-cinematic, little gestures on a regular basis, like knowing your Shake Shack order by heart or shoveling the snow even when it's your turn that builds the best foundation.