The dark side of rom-coms

Story highlights

  • Julia Lippman: Media exert subtle and not-so-subtle influences on the way we experience the world
  • Society should be asking why we still see persistent pursuit as a romantic ideal, she says

Julia Lippman is a post-doctoral fellow in communication studies at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the ways in which media contribute to or hinder the development of healthy romantic and sexual relationships. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)Have you seen that movie? You know, the one where the guy is interested in a woman, but she isn't interested in him? But he decides to keep pursuing her anyway, a strategy that eventually pays off when the woman realizes that she was meant to be with him all along?

Of course you've seen it. The title might have been different, depending on when you saw it. It might have been "Say Anything." Or "There's Something About Mary." Or "Twilight." Or "Fifty Shades of Grey." In fact, almost anyone reading this has probably seen multiple movies featuring this basic premise. They are just so romantic. That is, of course, if you set aside the small detail that if these male characters' pursuits played out in real life, it would probably lead to a restraining order.
I can already hear the protests about where I am heading with this: "Only a fool would turn to movies for life lessons." Or: "They're just entertainment."
    Julia Lippman
    Actually, they can be much more than that, as decades of media effects research suggests, including some I recently conducted. The reality is that media exert subtle and not-so-subtle influences on the way we experience the world. And while we typically don't like to acknowledge that we personally are affected by media, we seem ready to admit that others are. Media effects researchers have a name for this: the third-person effect.
    This applies to the beloved rom-com just as much as any other kind of movie.
    Some might argue that it's not like these men are stalking these women -- they are just pursuing them because they love them, and they believe the women will come to return their affections. But this counterargument isn't at all compelling, considering that plenty of stalkers believe that, too.
    Although legal definitions of stalking vary, the Stalking Resource Center suggests that stalking can be thought of as "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear." And many of us would probably be a little afraid if a man we had just rejected showed up outside our bedroom window holding a boombox. Or if we learned our prom date from 13 years ago had hired a private investigator to find us.
    But let's avoid the landmine of labeling these silver screen pursuits as stalking and instead consider them "persistent pursuits." And let's think of persistent pursuit as existing on a continuum. On one end of this continuum are the benign, socially sanctioned pursuits that commonly result in happy and healthy relationships. On the other are the malicious pursuits that cause the target to fear for his or her life, and end at the moment that those fears prove well-founded.
    Culturally, we tend to label one end of this spectrum "romantic" and the other "stalking."
    But where exactly is the line that separates the two? How do we know when a pursuit has gone from flattering to scary, from Dobler to Dahmer? And might the media we consume be shaping these assessments?
    It was these questions that led me to investigate if watching movie portrayals of persistent pursuit would affect how seriously people take stalking. My reasoning was that if people watched movies that depicted persistent pursuit in a positive light, they would be more likely to agree with statements like "A person who is willing to go to the extremes of stalking must really be in love," or "Many alleged stalking victims are actually people who played hard to get and 'changed their minds' afterwards."
    In other words, I expected that watching romantic comedies like "There's Something About Mary" or "Management" would lead people to see persistent pursuit in general -- including stalking -- in a more positive light.
    Unfortunately, this prediction proved accurate for a number of participants: those who saw the film as more realistic, and those who reported higher levels of narrative immersion. Put another way, the people who failed to maintain a critical distance were affected by the film.
    Some might be wondering why it matters what people think about stalking.
    Well, for one, people who more strongly agree with these sorts of statements are more likely to report that they have employed persistent pursuit tactics, ranging from "leaving unwanted messages of affection" to "using physical restraint or physical harm" when trying to initiate or prolong a romantic relationship with someone they know is not interested in a relationship with them.
    And consider this: If you were a victim of stalking in search of a sympathetic ear, or a prosecutor picking jurors for a stalking case, you would probably want to steer clear of people you thought believed these things, right?
    Lest you think the odds of these kinds of events occurring is remote, consider a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It estimated that in the preceding 12-month period, 5.1 million women and 2.4 million men in the United States had been the target of stalking that "made them feel very fearful or made them believe they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed."
    Of course, the takeaway here shouldn't be that we need to censor rom-coms, or even that rom-coms are bad. (Although some rom-coms are, by any reasonable standard, dreadful, they still have a right to exist.) Nor should the takeaway be that any romanticized depictions of persistent pursuit should be avoided.
    Rather, the lesson from this should be that we must be critical of the media we consume. We should ask questions like: What makes this romantic? Would there be any problems with these actions if they were to play out in real life? Why are we being encouraged to view a lack of respect for boundaries as not only acceptable, but desirable?
    And above all, as we recover from any Valentine's Day excesses, we should as a culture be asking ourselves this: Why exactly do we still see persistent pursuit as a romantic ideal?