A friend of mine¹ posted an article from the Guardian titled Study finds romcoms teach female filmgoers to tolerate ‘stalking myths’. The article is interesting from a practical standpoint but fails to address its powerful implications on the world of cinema. What resonated with me was when Ben Child referenced a major theme in film, to wit the “love conquers all myth”. I think this can be put another way philosophically—the ends justify the means. We are so trained as an American audience to expect that final connection/resolution that there are only two possible outcomes: A. Happily Ever After, or the indie At-Least-They-Can-Suffer-Together Ever After; or B. Almost Getting Murdered By the Stalker/Suitor. These two are by no means exclusive of each other, particularly in the thriller genre, where the leading lady and the leading man may celebrate their survival with a smooch.
As tired and predictable as those outcomes are, they are also satisfying because they conform to our expectations. Many people complained about how Star Wars: The Force Awakens stuck too close to the original Star Wars, but consider how many more people complained that the prequels were not close enough to what they expected from a Star Wars movie. Film noir is one of my favorite genres, but thanks partially to the Hays Code it meant that the villain’s ending would certainly be an unprofitable one. As a literary genre crime noir has a world with right and mostly wrong, where one man abides by his code and gets the world back on track—except Chinatown, but forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown. Chinatown is the exception, since it is a masterpiece, but it is a deeply unsettling masterpiece, in part because the ending does not conform to rules of its genre. So when the audience leaves The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon they feel like their value system has been reaffirmed. For instance, imagine how upset an audience would be if all the toys die in a Toy Story movie.
Briefly, in a romantic comedy the structure is Act 1, Man meets Woman, but there is an obstacle. Act 2, Man and Woman start to fall in love. Act 3, new obstacle that challenges the budding relationship. Act 4, Man and Woman become a couple. For horror the structure is prelude, tangential character dies, then Act 1, meet group of characters, Act 2, characters are threatened by villain, Act 3, villain kills several characters, Act 4, the survivors survive and the villain dies (or does s/he…). A (romantic) thriller is basically a mishmash of romcom-horror. Any deviation from these formulae is naturally unsettling to the viewer, which often elicits a negative response, leading to fewer ticket sales and focus groups objecting to the differences. Thus the studios are financially incentivized to stick with their tropes.
I acknowledge that the good feeling that familiarity and satisfaction presents is pleasant, but there are certain detriments to these tropes. Much has been made of the moralizing in horror films where sexually open women get killed while the virgin survives.² In the horror/thriller dynamic one outcome of stalking is death, or at least having one’s life threatened. While that is pleasantly anti-stalking, think about what the villains look like. When the movie has a handsome stalker, like last year’s The Perfect Guy with Michael Ealy—the detective in Underworld: Awakening—then it at least warns viewers (mostly women) to avoid stalkers. But that is in thrillers. In horror the stalker tends to be ugly. The message from horror is often a puritanical one that both sexualizes women to the audience and condemns them for being sexual creatures, which reinforces the sexism and double standards in our society.
As for romcoms, there are various paths to the anticipated union at the end, and most of them provide similarly damaging messages. Option A is that the man wears down the woman so that she acquiesces to the man, shifting the power dynamic from her having the power of saying no, to him having conquered. Option B is that the man overcomes obstacles to win the woman, which generally devalues her relationship with everyone else. Option C is that the woman learns her lesson, which usually presents the working woman whose life is unsatisfying because she does not have a man, which in turn tells women that their value in society and their happiness derives from their relationship to men (and children). Option D is that the guy (repeatedly) saves the woman, who functionally has no agency. And those do not even address the ends justifying the means of true love validating the inevitable unions. The article provided some excellent examples, like hiring a private investigator, dumping your feelings out in an inappropriate situation, and “hounding…an ex-partner”. Other means are purchasing her through gifts and a lack of respect for her work, toying with someone’s emotions because of a bet, peeping into windows, interrupting weddings³, discounting the emotions of current unsuitable partners, cheating, and lying. The end message is that if characters A & B become AB, then whatever happened before AB was at least acceptable, if not necessary.
Take The Avengers‘ Black Widow and Hawkeye. In the movie they acknowledge that they have killed lots of people. Now they work for the protagonists and as an audience we root for protagonists. They probably committed lots of murders! Like James Bond level murders, but do we seek justice for them through prison? No, and that is kind of messed up.
Throughout this essay I have used both pronouns or the one associated with the gender that predominantly plays a certain role. That is where much of the sexism and stalker acceptance comes from—women are the ones who are the victims in thrillers/horror movies and the targets of affectionate stalking in romcoms. There are exceptions to every rule, but I am confident that my archetypes are accurate.4
This leaves us with a final question, is there another way? Of course there is, but I hold out little hope that they will overtake the massive genre film industry in Hollywood. Some examples come to mind, Dumb and Dumber is more comedy than romance, but it manages to have neither protagonist wind up with a woman. Notting Hill does not have any real negatives like I have discussed above, thus a predictable romcom can be done without feeding the kindly stalker narrative. Maybe the key is to have a non-threatening leading man. Really the only one that branched off was Dumb and Dumber because there was no joyous union, no happy ending. So it can be done in a fun, profitable way. Cinema should show a broad swath of values, not just the 19th century puritanical ones. So long as Hollywood insists on offering very limited roles for actresses I do not see the glamorization of stalking in romantic comedies to end.
¹ Margaret Weirich
² Read any review of It Follows, which does not punish the characters for having sex.
³ Marrying the “wrong person” as a theme is both condescending to the bride(groom) and disrespectful to her/his choices.
4 As a counterpoint, horror films also tend to be the most progressive in terms of female autonomy and survival. But generally those films have one strong female character, not many.