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Jennifer O'Connell: Creepy, Actually: Romcoms mistake harassment for romance

Is it time we looked with a more critical eye on the stories we tell about falling in love

There is a scene in Love Actually where Keira Knightley's character is happily watching TV with her husband of just a few weeks, when the doorbell rings. She goes downstairs and there is her husband's best friend, putting his finger to his lips, and holding up cards which instruct her to lie to her husband about who's at the door, and culminate in the message "without hope or agenda" that he loves her. "To me, you are perfect," the cards read. Isn't it sweet? Sad? Romantic? Well, no. When you really think about it, it isn't love, actually, so much as creepy, actually.

Or what about the entire plot of There's Something About Mary, which is based on a guy who falls in love with a girl after a single date, and spends the next 13 years obsessed with her, before eventually sending a private detective to stalk her. Over the course of the film, Mary ends up pursued with varying degrees of persistence by five different men. Or 2016's Oscar-winning La La Land, in which Ryan Gosling plays a sneering jazz freak, whose response to a woman saying she hates jazz is to insist on educating her by, as Hadley Freeman in the Guardian pointed out, "taking her to a jazz club on every date thereafter". But it's okay because he's "a romantic".

Or the 2008 Jennifer Aniston movie, Management, in which she is pursued by a night manager at a hotel she's staying in, who keeps turning up uninvited at her door until she relents and has sex with him. Or Hugh Grant's About A Boy, in which he invents a son for himself to win a woman's interest. Or the countless 1980s rom-coms – several of them staring John Cusack – in which a guy turns up at his love interest's open bedroom window while she sleeps?

Change the soundtrack and the lighting, or even just reverse the genders – because, let's face it, female obsession is almost never seen as the winsome and charming basis for a heartwarming date-night flick – and suddenly the storyline doesn't look quite so sweet. A few quick edits, and Management becomes Fatal Attraction.


Romantic pursuit

It's not just movies, either, though an entire genre has been constructed around the notion that stalking is essentially a romantic pursuit. From Dante's obsession with Beatrice, to the biblical passion of Heathcliff for Cathy, to Patrick Kavanagh's Raglan Road to – apologies for the lowering of the tone here – James Blunt's You're Beautiful, culture has always celebrated stories of man's unrequited, obsessive passion for woman, seeing it as stirringly heroic. Big romantic gestures, combined with a lot of persistence, are presented as evidence of his worthiness as a suitor. We're so immersed in this trope that few people even notice that, as Sting explained recently, his most famous "love ballad", and the one most often played at weddings, Every Breath You Take, is actually about stalking.

The #MeToo movement started an important conversation, and triggered a moment of reckoning, for better or worse, about the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behaviour between men and women. It is ironic – or perhaps it’s merely appropriate – that the movement exploded in Hollywood, which has for decades been happily churning out reductive, unhealthy and sometimes plain deranged versions of what romantic relationships ought to look like.

The lessons of romantic comedies can be summarised as follows: perseverance pays off, that there’s no such thing as “too into you”, and the best way to win the affection of someone you care about is to just plain stalk them. Of course, movies are all just a bit of fun, harmless escapism, which we’re more than capable of distinguishing from real life. Or are we? In the aftermath of #MeToo, is it time we looked with a more critical eye on the stories we tell about love, and the myths they perpetuate, and whether these myths are feeding into insidious behaviours?

A recent EU-wide study on violence against women showed that 12 per cent of Irish women and girls over the age of 15 had experienced stalking, with 50 per cent being stalked, physically and online, by a partner or ex.

“Lots of us have experience of being in controlling relationships. And we stayed much longer than our gut told us to, because society – and our friends – kept telling us how romantic all that attention and devotion was,” says psychotherapist and author Stella O’Malley.


Popular culture can give permission to behaviours that would otherwise be seen as socially unacceptable, she says. “Because of these storylines, the real-life obsessive lover feels vindicated that they’re the true lover and that they have permission to overstep boundaries as a result, turning up at someone’s workplace, contacting them constantly, wanting to spend endless time together. When it’s not reciprocated, and even when it is, that kind of behaviour can be very oppressive,” she says.

Stalking-type behaviour slips into a relationship under the radar of romance and passion

As much as we might love the novel, she adds, "the Wuthering Heights version of love is horrible and damaged. If anybody came to me who was suffering what Cathy suffered you'd be telling them to call the guards."

O’Malley cites the example of young teenagers who come to her practice, distressed at having been pressurised into sharing nude photos of themselves online, invariably by an onslaught of huge, romantic declarations. “Almost always, they’ve been persuaded into it by being told they’re so beautiful, he’s so obsessed with her, and so on” until they give in because they think that’s how a relationship should be, she says. Or young women end up in controlling relationships, where they are made to feel “that stalking is a compliment, and that their boyfriend’s jealousy is a reflection of how much they are loved”, because their only experience of love is what they’ve seen on screen.

“Stalking-type behaviour slips into a relationship under the radar of romance and passion,” she says.

Several studies have warned about the prevalence of the “romantic stalker” myth in movies – the Hollywood trope that, as the US expert in security issues and violence prevention, Gavin de Becker, put as long ago as 1999, “Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Many movies teach that if you just stay with it, even if you offend her, even if she says she wants nothing to do with you, even if you’ve treated her like trash (and sometimes because you’ve treated her like trash), you’ll get the girl. [But] the fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special – it means he is troubled.”

Of course, women are more than capable of stalking and harassment too. But generally, popular culture doesn’t treat female stalkers as cute, quirky or heroic.

A 2015 study by the University of Michigan set out to test whether this troublingly persistent trope does actually impact on the attitudes of female viewers, and the boundaries of what they regarded as acceptable behaviour. The study, entitled “I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You”, showed a group of more than 400 women excerpts from either rom-coms, frightening stalker movies, or nature documentaries. Afterwards, it tested them on their attitudes towards stalking, using stalking myths taken from a widely-used scale of 21 statements, such as “Many alleged stalking victims are actually people who played hard-to-get” or “A [stalker] must really feel passionately for his/her love interest”.


The romcoms included There's Something About Mary and Management. When surveyed afterwards, the women who enjoyed these movies were more tolerant of so-called "stalking myths" than the groups who watched nature documentaries, or scary stalking-themed films, such as Sleeping with the Enemy. "The message in these films is that it is common for men to pursue women even when those women initially express a lack of interest, and that doing so will be viewed positively by the woman, make her happy, and lead to a romantic sexual relationship that both like," wrote researcher Julia Lippman.

Exposure to a film that portrayed stalking as romantic “was associated with significantly higher levels of stalking-myth endorsement among those who perceived the films as more realistic or who experienced higher levels of transportation.”

The Dublin-based psychotherapist Siobhan Murray points out that popular culture actually starts setting unhealthy expectations for relationships as far back as early childhood. "Prince Charming combed the kingdom with a glass slipper until he found Cinderella. When you think about it, it's not a very healthy message to give little children – all that storytelling about the helpless damsel in distress and the knight in the shining armour who turns up to rescue her, and how his persistence is the most important thing about him."

Murray recalls how a previous partner pursued her with an unusual degree of persistence at the beginning of their acquaintance, turning up frequently at the bar where she socialised, despite her initial lack of interest. “It should have been a red flag,” she says, but we’re conditioned to think that kind of behaviour is romantic.

She eventually agreed to go out with him, and they started a relationship, which ultimately became controlling. “In my situation, he would never accept that the relationship was over – even long after it had ended, he was still there, physically turning up at the front door.”

The evidence that stalking isn't taken seriously by society is visible too in the way the media reports high-profile stalking and harassment cases

She tells the story “not to throw myself a pity party”, but because she thinks it’s important to highlight that this kind of behaviour is not necessarily desirable, or healthy. In her experiences as a psychotherapist, she has seen it repeated often. “Generally speaking, if either party has that level of intensity to start with, that will continue throughout the relationship and become a very controlling relationship. Intensity and persistence is not love – love is respect for another person and their personal space, and who they are, and what they believe and their values. Love is not following them around, wanting to know where they are and what they’re doing. That’s stalking.”


The evidence that stalking isn’t taken seriously by society is not just prevalent in popular culture – it is visible too in the way the media reports high-profile stalking and harassment cases. When, last month, an intruder broke into Rihanna’s home and stayed there for 12 hours waiting for her to return, the website TMZ ran the story under the disturbing headline, “Rihanna Intruder: I Just Wanted to Have Sex with Her.” Repeating the language he used in his police interviews minimised the horror of the stalker’s intentions – the reality is that, if a stranger breaks into someone’s home, the outcome was never going to be consensual sex.

Closer to home, a man who had stalked broadcaster and journalist Sharon Ní Bheoláin for six months was recently jailed for three years. The evidence in the case made it clear that his interest in the broadcaster was not some form of misplaced admiration or misguided “limerence” – a term coined by the American psychologist Dorothy Tennov to describe the condition of obsessive love – but was violent and threatening in intent.

After a multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction Garda investigation that drew on international law enforcement organisations, Conor O'Hora – with an address at Portmarnock in Dublin – pleaded guilty to harassment and to three counts of possessing child abuse material. In May, Judge Martin Nolan condemned O'Hora's "insidious form of harassment" and "debasing behaviour" and handed down a 4½-year sentence, with the final 18 months suspended.

The media coverage of the trial and sentencing generally reflected the seriousness of the case, and the fact that child abuse images were also found on O'Hora's computer. But when those stalking allegations first came to light in 2014, some of the coverage of it in certain tabloid newspapers seemed to take it anything but seriously. The Irish Mirror was forced to apologise for the "massive error in judgement" in its coverage of Ní Bheoláin's ordeal, after it ran an article that led with commentary on her appearance, accompanied by paparazzi photos of her walking her dog. The article mentioned the stalking and harassment almost in passing.

The Irish Sun, which published the same paparazzi photos, did not apologise, saying the broadcaster was "blowing this out of all proportion". It is understood that Ní Bheoláin subsequently sued both newspapers for invasion of privacy, and the cases were settled out of court.

Digital change

Although existing legislation proved effective in dealing with Ní Bheoláin’s harasser, the pace of digital change has made it difficult to prosecute such crimes when they happen exclusively or largely online, as is often the case.

According to research carried out in the five years up to 2015, one in 10 children in Ireland have experienced bullying online. Women's Aid figures show that 41 per cent of women in abusive relationships have suffered online abuse. And yet, the current legislation was drafted in 1951, when "communication" usually meant a letter.

In 2017, following recommendations by the Law Reform Commission, the then-tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald said she intended to make online harassment and stalking criminal offences. Subsequently, Labour leader Brendan Howlin introduced a Private Member's Bill, The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, which addressed broadly the same issues, and sought to modernise existing harassment laws by broadening the legal definition of communication, to include all electronic, written and spoken word, including iMessages, Whatsapp or Facebook messages, and tweets or social media posts.

According to a spokesman for the Department of Justice, Cabinet approval was recently given to discontinue work on the Government Bill and to support Howlin’s Bill instead, “in order to ensure that legislation can be enacted in this important area as swiftly as possible. Officials from the Department will meet with Deputy Howlin in the coming weeks to work to progress the Bill and ensure it can be safely enacted.”

So our legislators are determined not to minimise stalking and harassment. It’s time our popular culture didn’t either. Yes, movies may just be fun, a bit of escapism, nothing serious. But let’s not forget that for a long time, harassment and abuse of women in the workplace was seen as fun, a bit of flirtation, nothing serious, too.

Just because it’s the norm today, doesn’t mean it can – or should – always be.