Victoria Roskams explores the darker side of romcoms and the stalker-like reality of their plots.
You know in Love Actually when Andrew Lincoln turns up at newlywed Keira Knightley’s house and, while her husband is in the house, declares his love for her via cutesy placards? Keira, admittedly, must have had an inkling about this guy’s feelings for her after going to collect the wedding video he’d so gallantly deigned to film for the couple, only to discover that he’d managed to film The Keira Show; that is, a wedding service of just the bride’s radiant face. Creepy. Everything becomes even more puzzling when, after the last placard has fallen, and he shrugs his shoulders and takes his leave, in a way that says both ‘oh no, you don’t have to react’ and ‘you definitely do have to react,’ Keira runs after him and grants him the kiss he was hankering after. Why? Her husband was right there! I just hope their curtains were closed.
A baffling scene, but not the only one of its type. Time after time, romantic comedies present us with situations in which a man pursues a woman – often a woman happily married, in a relationship, or who has politely declined this man’s interest – and eventually, for his pains, gets the girl, despite what she may realistically feel about it all.
Take this quote from the film Enough (2002):
“I’m a determined man . . . I am, and always will be, a person who gets what he wants.
And I still want you. You can either accept that, or you can fight it.”
Now, admittedly, Enough is not a romcom, and nor does the character who speaks these terrifying lines eventually end up with the woman (thankfully). But how about this from fantasy affair The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010):
Becky: Were you stalking me?
Dave: Not like, in a threatening way.
Dave makes an important distinction. In romcoms, more than in any other genre, the problem is that there is no ‘threatening way’ to stalk a woman. Anything goes, because if a film shows a woman reacting with fear or horror, it’s no longer a romcom, but a thriller.
So, how can I, a self-effacing, love-deserving, Nice Guy in a romcom, stalk thee, my beloved? Let me count the ways.
I could be John Cusack in Say Anything (1989), and come to your bedroom window with a boombox to declare my love to you, even though we’ve broken up because you told me it wasn’t right and you needed to concentrate on your studies. You’d ignored all my phone calls, but what the hell, we’re meant to be.
I could be Ryan Gosling in The Notebook (2004), write to you every day for a year, and do up a whole house for you even though I’ve seen that you’ve moved on and are happy with another guy. And all this after I got you to date me in the first place by swinging off a ferris wheel. Nothing like putting your life in danger to pressure a gal into a date.
I could be David Schwimmer in Friends, and go to your workplace and bribe your former employer into offering you a raise, before going to the airport to stop you getting on that flight to Paris for a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity you’ve always dreamed of. Oh Rachel, so what if you have aspirations? Why have those when you could have Ross?
I could be Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal (1993) and force you into a relationship by turning up at both of your workplaces (you have two jobs, but surely you’re not too busy to date me!) But when you turn up at my workplace? That’s crazy, how dare you. We end up together anyway, though, because I’m so persistent and it’s meant to be.
I could be David Mitchell in Peep Show, possibly the most strategic stalker of all. I’m not saying anyone watches Peep Show and thinks, great, I want to be just like Mark Corrigan! He definitely comes across as a wally. And yet, he stalks Sophie for months and months, checks through her desk at work, spies on her via the office CCTV, and somehow, somehow, ends up dating her. And he later sets up some evil genius Google Maps GPS stalking system to keep an eye on Dobby while she’s on the other side of the Atlantic.
These examples show a few things about what Julia Lippman, in a recent study, calls ‘stalking myth endorsement’. In each, the man exhibits worryingly persistent behaviour towards a woman who has given him either no encouragement or, more explicitly, discouragement, and yet, in each, he ends up with her. Lippman says: ‘We’re going to be more likely to adopt whatever behaviours or values are communicated if they seem to lead to a positive outcome. And what could be a more positive outcome than getting to be with the woman of your dreams?’ Positive outcome – Mark gets with Sophie, even though she knows about all the stalking.
You might think it’s unlikely that guys, after watching a film where a man blatantly stalks a woman but ends up with her, would want to copy this example, but a recent case shows otherwise. The Guardian reported that an Indian man avoided a conviction for stalking because his lawyer argued that, in Bollywood films, men ‘are often seen determinedly pursuing their female counterparts until they finally acquiesce to a relationship.’
What’s more, these sorts of films tell women that such behaviour is acceptable, and a demonstration of true love. It helps if the stalker is a bit hunky. If the man pursuing us is at least acting like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, it almost helps us believe he looks like Ryan Gosling.
In addition, as Indecent Proposal shows, there’s a double standard. Behaviour that leads to romance and bliss for men leads to shame and ridicule for women. Men can turn up at women’s workplaces in the name of true love, but films are not so kind to the plight of the woman who desperately believes a certain man is for her, and will do anything to have him.
Of course, most of us like to think of ourselves as intelligent enough to detach the realm of the romcom from that of reality. And, like I said about Peep Show, sometimes the effect of the comedy is to show the stalker up as the sad creep he really is. Sometimes, though, we want to believe in the romcom. Lippman describes how gestures which would in most contexts be troubling (or legally considered stalking) can, in film contexts, tap into our big softy natures: ‘these grand, romantic gestures are often framed as unequivocal signs of true love. Indeed, they may be seen as reflecting one of the great cultural myths of romantic love: That no matter how big the obstacle, love will conquer all.”
We just have to keep a level head on our shoulders, not let these ‘grand gestures’ become normalised, and continue to question the strange things that men in films do. In Bridget Jones’ Diary, when Mark and Daniel brawl on the street, causing significant damage to the window of a Greek restaurant, is it really a sign of their love for her? Surely in real life, that kind of egotistical macho muscle display would just end with a court case – not romantic at all.
Illustration by Lille Allen