This just in: women have been culturally coded to accept uncomfortable advances from men who have been culturally coded to make said advances.
‘I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You’, a new study by the University of Michigan, has confirmed what many of us have always felt – that creepy, stalkerish behaviour celebrated in romcoms is literally a threat to women’s safety. Through the study, Julia R.Lippman “found that women who watched films featuring persistent romantic pursuit […] were more likely to accept so-called stalking myths than those who watched films depicting frightening male aggression […] or benign nature documentaries.”
What’s basically going on is this – the visual cues women receive, from almost an entire entertainment sub-genre, makes them view persistent invasions of their privacy and an utter negation of their choices, preferences and comfort as normal, desirable even. There is a tradition in TV and film, where men who won’t let up are not portrayed as relentless scumbags who care solely about their personal gratification, but are rewarded by the narrative, when ‘the guy gets the girl.’ Everybody swoons at the thought of Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You, but how many of us remember Cameron James (baby Joseph Gordon-Levitt) plotting and scheming and sneaking into bedrooms? And Ted Stroehmann in There’s Something About Mary, who hired an investigator to track his love interest’s movements? And we can’t forget Edward Cullen – the crème-de-la-creep of teenage romance – who enters Bella’s room uninvited to watch her sleeping. When this is what most ‘love stories’ look like, too many girls accept the unacceptable as a testament to their own worth. If a man is devoting too much time and attention to you, you must be winning at womanhood.
So what if such a pattern is established? Both parties are getting what they want. It can’t actually do any damage, right? Without getting into the intricacies of why it’s never okay for a woman (or anybody, really) to hang on the approval and opinions of others, let’s talk about why this pattern is a problem.
A bizarre incident came to light earlier this month, when an Indian man inspired by the film Darr (in which Shah Rukh Khan plays a psychopath in love) enlisted the help of four others to kidnap a woman, and then postured as her ‘hero’ in order to win her over. The example may seem a bit extreme, but just as the kidnapper took his cues from popular media, so too do many women. Positive depictions of creeps actually attenuate a woman’s instinct and capacity for risk assessment, and when you are incapable of picking up on danger signs, it’s so easy to fall into an arrangement that is bad for you psychologically, emotionally and physically.
But movies don’t celebrate obsessive, possessive behaviour on a whim – they happen to reflect our own attitudes. When we tell young girls that the boy in class who hits her and calls her names actually has a crush on her, we are setting her up for a life of silently endured abuse. Your partner isn’t “taking an interest in your life” when he needs to access all your private accounts online. Your partner isn’t “cute when he’s jealous” when he flies into a rage the minute you talk to/about another man. Your partner isn’t “committed to your relationship” if he insists on following you everywhere and disrespecting your space. Your partner is not “good at taking the lead” when he issues you ultimatums and small threats. And your partner sure as hell isn’t “good to you” if everything he gives you comes with strings attached. I say “he” because creepy men are the focal point of this study, but really this could be literally any relationship with a partner(s) of any orientation(s), and none of it should be tolerated.
There are early signs of abusive behaviour that we’ve been told so often to ignore, but this study shatters a lot of those myths for us. Do poorly made romcoms lead to domestic violence? Obviously that’s an oversimplification of what Lippman and her team have identified through their work. But it is important to be aware of the values that are constantly disseminated to us via multiple channels –the movies we watch, what we hear from parents and peers, or even the way the criminal justice system responds to individual cases of harassment.
Many of us have rallied behind the one billion women who will face sexual violence in their lifetime. Names like Jyoti Singh and Emma Sulkowicz have moulded public (and private) opinion on the same matter. And more and more artists or makers of cultural products are responding appropriately to the demand that they be sensitive and intelligent in their portrayals of not just women (we’re through with arm candy and trophy wives) but people of all gender alignments. Given that cultural products like film are so widely (and sometimes unthinkingly) consumed, the University of Michigan study is giving us the opportunity to deepen our engagement with the issue and strategize better in the days to come.