by Safa Azul
Most Hollywood romance movies have more or less the same formula. It is usually the story of two people, who met under unusual circumstances and after spending time together and going through cliche relationship complications such as an old ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, or a lie that was told in the beginning of the film, eventually the couple fall in love.
To add on to that, it is a common Hollywood romance trope to have the man chase after the woman and oftentimes relentlessly, not being able to take no for an answer. Relentless pursuit in films are often framed as an act of romance, hopelessly devoting oneself to a woman and putting one’s self in situations that are self-troubling is seen as a symbol of intense love, even if it goes against the wishes and boundaries of the woman being pursued.
The line between what is okay and not okay when it comes to romantic pursuit is even blurrier to the audience when the pursuer is a character with the ‘nice guy’ trope. On closer inspection though, they often stalk, spy on, and try to manipulate women in their lives. They refuse to take no for an answer, and they often ignore the basic tenets of consent.
When juxtaposed with the hypermasculine jerk, male characters whose geeky version of masculinity is framed as endearing and pitiful. ‘Nice guy’ characters seem more sensitive and emotive, and this allows them to get away with an array of inexcusable behaviours that in reality would make any woman feel disturbed and/or unsafe.
This is not to say that only the geeks in Hollywood romance movies can be creepy and relentless when it comes to chasing women. As mentioned, the opposite of the ‘nice guy’ i.e. the stereotypical male commitment-phobe is the hegemonic masculine male. These types of male characters can also be guilty of predatory behaviour concerning women and Hollywood still manages to paint them in a light that makes them out to be charming and romantic.
Let us start by defining what stalking is. Stalking is usually defined as a course of conduct (usually defined as two or more incidents) that is intended to spark fear in the victim and that actually does lead the victim or would lead a “reasonable person” to experience fear. Stalking victims may experience a range of negative psychological effects, including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidality. It may be considered as an extreme form of persistent pursuit.
However, in Hollywood romance movies male persistent pursuit commonly appears as an act of romantic courtship which implies that this type of pursuit may symbolise the ideals of Hollywood culture. Although there are not many published analyses on the portrayal of persistent pursuit in film and television, there is reason to believe that the “persistent pursuit is proof of love” trope is held up as a romantic ideal.
In fact, stalking in films have been over-dramatised to a point where it is unrecognisable in romance movies because it does not follow the traditional stalking script. Films with stalking narratives would often be written in a way to make the stalker appear to be more violent and threatening than what real-world statistics indicate, which in turn may reinforce extreme stereotypes about stalkers and their criminal behavior.
The legality of stalking has been academically and socially controversial due to confusion on what really is considered illegal stalking behaviour and what are just normal courtship processes. For example, persistent communication attempts and expressions of desire and commitment. Such overlaps between cultural acts of courtship and actual harassment are a problematic intersection.
On part of the criminal justice system, there has been reluctance in viewing stalking as a severe issue; and when the system eventually does confront it, efforts seem more focused on physical compared to psychological harm, thus leading to the minimization of the terror that stalking causes as well as stalking as a crime. Given that stalking is commonly being portrayed in film and television as a form of ‘‘pursuit,’’ stalking may be closely linked with a number of cultural beliefs, such as ‘‘if at first you don’t succeed, try again,’’ and ‘‘don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,’’.
Consequently, the line between stalking and romantic pursuit becomes heavily blurred, turning cultural understandings of the crime into a problem.
What is given in these films is that whether in a romantic comedy or stalking film, male characters stalk in the hopes of pursuing a romantic relationship with their victim. However, stalking behaviors exhibited by female characters end in a more violent fashion. These gendered portrayals of stalking continue to demonize women who break free from traditional gender norms, thereby reinforcing gender stereotypes and standards. Similar to their male counterparts, female stalkers are motivated by romantic interest and portrayals of female stalkers in film show women to have sudden and violent outbursts against individuals that surround their victim.
What I’m trying to say is, it is clear to me that film and television have an unhealthy portrayal of persistent pursuit in regards to women. Stalking for love is something that has become normalised in the real world partly thanks to romance film narratives implying that women ‘are okay with and may eventually fall in love with you’ after being stalked. Besides that, when stalking is portrayed as a scary and serious crime in film, it is usually overdramatized when compared to real-world cases of stalking.
This provides viewers with an inaccurate perception of toxic persistent pursuit versus normal and acceptable courtship. Most stalker characters are male, and their motivations are always out of love for a woman. However, when female characters are presented as stalkers with the same motivations, they are still demonised for straying away from traditional femininity and submissiveness, and written to be manipulative.
This frustrates me because I feel that these tropes may reinforce the wrong ideas about love in men’s brains. In the real world, having a man obsessively pursue you after you’ve turned him down is the furthest thing from romantic. It makes us women uncomfortable and it just feels disrespectful. Respectful pursuit is what we want, and a true ‘nice guy’ would understand that ‘no’ never means ‘try harder’.