Stalking is a pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour which is repeated, persistent and intrusive. This unwanted attention can involve something as seemingly innocuous as regularly sending flowers or gifts, to making unwanted or malicious communications. It can escalate to damaging property and even assault. The parameters of this can be vague, but if the behaviour is persistent and clearly unwanted, causing fear, distress or anxiety, then it is stalking and no one should have to live with it. That is, unless you trust what you see in romantic comedies, in which case, not only should you live with it but you should find this all positively delightful.
For decades mainstream films have been framing stalking as a quaint love ritual. Though one would expect this more in classic-era cinema, it actually remains prevalent in modern romantic films as well. Obsessive, unhealthy and sinister behaviour is rendered as noble, whimsical devotion. We are all aware of how pornography can skew our perception of sex, but studies have also shown that exposure to rom-coms that feature men engaging in stalker-like behaviour make women more likely to tolerate obsessiveness from prospective romantic partners. Here are some of the most insidious tropes of stalking as romance.
“Refusing to take no for an answer is one of the more subtle abuses commonly fed to us as romantic.”
What could be more romantic than love at first sight? That fabled moment when your eyes meet and you immediately know that you are meant to be together. When Gene Kelly spots Leslie Caron in a bar in An American in Paris he is instantly smitten and will stop at nothing to win her over despite her repeatedly begging him to leave her alone. Woody Allen, never one to shy away from a disturbing power dynamic, steals, bribes and blackmails to track down the porn star who is his adopted son’s biological mother in Mighty Aphrodite.
Allen then doubles down to pick apart and reassemble this seemingly content woman’s life to resemble one he deems suitable. Worst of all is Andrew Lincoln’s character in Richard Curtis’ soppy portmanteau, Love, Actually, who is so consumed by his obsession with his friend’s wife that he edits together long videos of close ups of her face. When he then shows up at her home in the middle of the night to silently declare his terrifying devotion to her – a woman with whom he has never had a full conversation – she is inexplicably delighted.
Refusing to take no for an answer is one of the more subtle abuses commonly fed to us as romantic. In 10 Things I Hate About You, Patrick (Heath Ledger) refuses to admit defeat when pursuing Julia Stiles and tries to convince her she is crazy when she dares to questions his dubious motives. Simultaneously, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sets his sights on Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) and, when she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, he screams at her about how selfish she is in his car until she relents.
Ten years later in (500) Days of Summer Gordon Levitt’s Tom refused to accept that Zooey Deschanel’s Summer does not want to be in a serious relationship with him despite her holding firm to this from the very beginning.
Stubbornly refusing to accept that a relationship is over is often framed as being symptomatic of a couple being “meant to be” rather than an indication that one of the pair is deeply disturbed. The Notebook swoons over Ryan Gosling sending his ex-girlfriend letters for 365 days in a row that go unanswered, and in the years that follow, makes no friends and decides that the single thing he should do with his life is restore a house “for her”.
John Cusack’s most famous roles in Say Anything and High Fidelity both involve his refusal to stay broken up with, and his propensity for showing up unannounced, at ex-girlfriends’ homes. In both cases they stay steadfast in their commitment to stay away from him until tragic paternal circumstances leave them vulnerable to his charms.
One of the more ill-considered recent examples of this was in autobiographical rom-com The Big Sick. In real life Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon were in a committed relationship when she fell into a coma, but the film has them break up just beforehand and has her ask him to stay away from her. His constant presence during her coma as an unwanted ex-boyfriend is a very different proposition to a beloved partner staying by your side.
It’s dispiriting that, in 2012, spying on your ex was considered an acceptable use of super powers, but this seems to be the message of The Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) stalks Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy. He swings from skyscraper to skyscraper to keep a fastidious eye on her. Ineffectual ’80s rom coms such as The Rachel Papers, St Elmo’s Fire and Can’t Buy Me Love employ this spying behaviour to indicate to the audience that their male protagonists are vulnerable love-sick puppy dogs without any appreciation of the disturbing dynamic it creates.
Fifty Shades of Grey seems particularly enamoured of spying as an expression of devotion, with thinly drawn billionaire Christian Grey using his considerable means to show up uninvited at his target’s work, social events and home.
This practice normally takes the form of a private investigator like in There’s Something About Mary where a hapless Ted (Ben Stiller) is desperate to track down his exceedingly stalkable teenage sweetheart, Mary (Cameron Diaz). In Billy Wilder’s 1957 film, Love In The Afternoon, Gary Cooper’s playboy Frank hires the father of Audrey Hepburn’s Ariane to look into her sexual history to decide whether or not she is a suitable candidate for a fling. As troubling as this may be it is, at least, framed as being troubling behaviour in those films; albeit a justifiable means to a romantic end.
The 2005 Will Smith vehicle Hitch, meanwhile, frames this as a harmless and useful tool when it comes to winning over a romantic target. Kevin James’ character hires Smith’s Hitch to put together a detailed strategy on how to seduce a woman who he is completely in love with despite having only met her in passing. Honourable mention in this category also to the film 27 Dresses in which James Marsden essentially hires himself to investigate and stalk Katherine Heigl.
This is often the second step of the journey of the “noble stalker”. Films mentioned elsewhere – An American in Paris, Can’t Buy Me Love, The Rachel Papers, There’s Something About Mary, High Fidelity, The Notebook and 27 Dresses – all feature a second act devoted to breaking up an existing relationship so our love sick obsessive can get the girl. In reality, this is one of the most prevalent behaviours of stalkers: believing that if they can only free up the object of their affection they will fall straight into their arms.
A film that dances around this misguided belief is 2013’s What If. Daniel Radcliffe plays a lovelorn fop obsessed with Zoe Kazan’s character, with whom he repeatedly assures that he is happy to be just friends. In a moment of self reflection the film then has his best friend tell him how fruitless a pursuit this is, as she has a long term boyfriend with whom she is very happy. Unfortunately, the film then abandons the idea of women being capable of making these decisions for themselves and sends Radcliffe scurrying after her when she visits her boyfriend in Dublin.
The sanctity of the workplace is often violated by stalkers who bombard their targets with unwanted attention in a place they have no choice but to be. This technique is used with maniacal relish by Jason Schwartzman’s overzealous schoolboy and Bill Murray’s lackadaisical industrialist in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. They both pursue vulnerable widow Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) at the school where she teaches with little concern for the potential professional ramifications for her.
Crazy, Stupid, Love takes a slightly different approach by having a nanny stalked by the child in her care. Despite her explaining how inappropriate this behaviour is, he escalates his actions by publicly declaring his love, forcing her to leave her job. The film softens this blow by having her temporarily soften her resolve and, horrifically, send nude photos to a child.
In Scott Pilgrim vs the World, merely having sexual harassment occur between two adults is far less disturbing in comparison. Edgar Wright’s 2010 film sees Michael Cera’s Scott fall instantly in love with delivery girl Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She repeatedly rejects him but rather than respecting her wishes he orders packages to force her to his home where she reluctantly agrees to see him voluntarily.
There is a sub-genre of films where supernatural abilities are used to stalk and manipulate an intended love match. Groundhog Day, The Time Travellers Wife, Last Christmas and About Time all involve exploitative behaviour that is tantamount to grooming. The unfortunate objects of affection have no agency and can not escape the relationships no matter how hard they try. It is every stalker’s fantasy.
Published 23 Apr 2020
By Emma Fraser
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