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 exactl