We seem beset lately with academics being funded to study high-profile, fantasist entertainment. We’ve recently been informed that “Disney Princesses” are dangerous to young girls. Now, for older ones, it’s being widely reported that so are the likes of Love, Actually:
The Violence Against Women Act of 2005 defined stalking as “engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to—
(A) fear for his or her safety or the safety of others;
(B) suffer substantial emotional distress.”
At the core of her romantic comedies study, writes University of Michigan academic Julia Lippman, is this:
Stalking myths are false or exaggerated beliefs about stalking that minimise its seriousness, which means that someone who more strongly endorses stalking myths tends to take stalking less seriously.
The problem? She asserts the films she cites push those myths heavily. Her finding is that women who watch “rom-coms” like Mary revealed in a survey afterward that they take stalking too lightly.
It’s hard to know what to say about that: It was her chosen study subject, her chosen parameters, and her conclusion.
From the outside looking in, I will say that it’s been years since I saw Mary (once). The film hit me as ludicrous to the point of cartoonish from almost beginning to end. So a scholar condemning it for its portrayal of stalking strikes me as akin to asking us to treat Hope and Crosby in Road to Morocco as a groundbreaking cultural study of 1940s North Africa, or Abbott and Costello in Ride ‘Em Cowboy as a documentary on life in the American West.
As a novelist, though, academic studies like those are the sorts of things that make you hold your head. After all, romance novels (and similar films) will invariably revolve around (guess what?) romantic troubles, which will naturally include awkward moments, dysfunction and perhaps worse. Most of that will also be rooted in (surprise!) the sexual, including everything from unreturned desire to the occasionally obsessive and even frighteningly deviant.
And if they don’t have such tensions and dilemmas, what’s the point to them? If every couple depicted is required to meet at the malt shop, smile at each other simultaneously and walk out hand in hand sublimely happily ever after, that’s not only dull reading. That banality in itself hardly reflects most relationships’ realities and indeed is in its own way at least as silly as is Mary.
I think on my own novels: they have humor in places, but they are NOT comedies. I’ve got a scene in which it turns out a woman doesn’t want to sleep with a man, when he had honestly mistakenly believed she did. Another involves a stranger “eyeing up” a woman emerging from an elevator. There is also a woman who gets a bit rough with her boyfriend pre-sex, and he responds in kind. In yet another scene, a reference is made to a man repeatedly emailing a woman despite the fact that she is not responding to any of his messages.
Which takes us back to that 2005 definition and law. Far more useful for such an important discussion might be if we parked dopey recent “rom-coms,” for they are undoubtedly just low-hanging fruit. Surely more ingrained in our culture are tales considered classics that we are “raised on,” and how the sexes “interact” in them.
For instance, what is going on with Jay Gatsby’s relentless pursuit of a married Daisy Buchanan and her “giving in?” And when Elizabeth Bennet visits Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley estate after learning he would in all likelihood not be there? Most famous of all, what is Shakespeare’s Romeo doing hiding in the bushes below Juliet’s balcony, watching her secretly, until he announces his presence only after he had overheard her thinking aloud that she approved of him?:
Are those acceptable behaviors, or obsessive and dangerous? Those incidents take place in stories that still other academics consider some of the greatest works in English literature. They have been read, and film versions watched, by generations of girls – including in school – in far greater numbers than some recent “rom-com” films like the silly Mary, and undoubtedly have had a much deeper and more profound socio-cultural impact on all of us.
Real stalking is no joke. But it’s difficult to take a study like that one entirely seriously. Its oddly narrow focus on a few dimwitted films could in itself actually inadvertently serve to diminish the true seriousness and complexity of the issue.
Have a good day, wherever you are in the real world.