Opinion | ‘Stalking for love’ needs to stop

By Sarah Liez, For The Pitt News

In the film adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook,” main character Noah becomes infatuated with a lovely, wealthy, young girl named Allie. When Noah asks her out on a date, he’s met with swift rejection, because she doesn’t want to go out with him and is already on a date with another man. 

In an effort to win her over, Noah later leaps onto her Ferris wheel seat, latching his hands around the top rung. He tells her that he will let go — killing himself — unless she agrees to go out with him. Scared and mildly traumatized, Allie reluctantly agrees.

This example from a popular, beloved romance illustrates the “stalking for love” trope that permeates popular culture. I first encountered this concept when I watched a video titled “Stalking For Love” from the YouTube channel Pop Culture Detective. The creator of the video, Jonathan McIntosh, explains that there’s a common theme in movies and shows where the audience’s male lead will engage in invasive, stalker-like behaviors to win the unrequited love of a desirable woman. 

The audience, as in the case of “The Notebook,” often dismisses these threatening actions as acts of love because, after all, we want to believe in this idea of true love, or we simply want our male hero to succeed. Still, when placed within the context of real life, Noah’s actions were not charming, but rather bizarre, anxiety-inducing and dismissive of Allie’s feelings.

Mass justification of and admiration for “stalking for love” is incredibly problematic. Mainstream media often frames a man’s obsessive, coercive or stalker-like behavior as an expression of his love and devotion. Some of these behaviors include showing up at a person’s workplace, home or school uninvited, repetitive unwelcome communications, and following said woman. This is present in countless films and shows, including “Twilight,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Stranger Things,” “50 First Dates” and “Love Actually,” to name a few.

When we watch these fun, romantic comedies and other shows, they teach us to sympathize with the man committing these invasive actions. However, when you look at these behaviors outside of this media, they appear as they would in reality — disturbing, exploitative and just plain creepy.

Growing up watching men stalk women under the justification of love, people learn to admire a “‘no’ just means try harder” method of pursuit — an idea that yields harmful, objectifying and oppressive impacts upon women. For one, it encourages people to violate women’s boundaries. If you ask someone out and they turn you down, the logical course of action for someone following the stalking for love playbook is not to respect their answer, but to find some alternative way to win them over. One common way is to learn more about said person’s interests and hobbies, often through invasive strategies. 

For example, in the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray plays a cynical, selfish man who must live the same day over and over again until he’s able to learn all he can about his female co-worker and, despite her repeated rejections, use this information to win her over. Murray’s character, day after day, uses this advantage to invade his co-worker’s privacy and deceive her into believing he understands her, thereby slowly but surely figuring out how to make her fall in love with him. Movies such as this encourage men to take advantage of women’s vulnerabilities, and justify it as acts of love.

Another popular example of stalking for love in action is grand, romantic gestures designed to show the intensity of our hero’s feelings. These can be as small as showing up to someone’s house and blasting music from a boombox, or as large as performing a love song on the bleachers during their soccer practice. These spectacles, often invasive and public, are designed to illustrate the man’s devotion for said woman. 

However, these elaborate ambushes often spotlight women in a very public or uncomfortable way, pressuring them into accepting the man’s proposal or else appearing heartless in front of their peers. By illustrating the man’s personal need to win this woman over, and the specific, grandiose steps taken to accomplish this, these actions perpetuate the female as a submissive object to be won rather than a person who can think for herself.

The idea that you can win over a woman who doesn’t want you back by coming up with outlandish confessions of love is harmful to the way we look at relationships between men and women. It is grounded in patriarchal thinking, wherein women are conditioned to owe men their time, energy and affection whether or not they actually want to give it. Simultaneously, men are conditioned to feel entitled to women both sexually and romantically, whether or not women refuse them.

Young men and women both learn that when a woman rejects someone, the best course of action is for the man to repeatedly pester her until he yields a desirable response. This is not realistic or healthy romance, but a desire for women’s submission that highlights male fear of female indifference. Films such as “Say Anything” and “10 Things I Hate About You” create false images of love that glamorize stalking while romanticizing non-consensual, passionate chase, perpetuating women as submissive objects and contributing to toxic rape culture where consent is not seen as necessary in romantic relationships.

In the end, Pop Culture Detective’s “stalking for love” trope glorifies invasive, non-consensual behavior in the pursuit of women. It works to reinforce harmful ideas about heterosexual relationships, such as the ideas that women don’t really know what they want, that stalker-like behaviors are justified when love is on the line and that rejection is really “playing hard to get.”

As this trope pervades society, we learn to excuse these behaviors because we want our male heroes to succeed, and we crave this idealization of young, true love. In reality, stalking for love illustrates how men are socialized to desire access to women on their own terms while women are socialized to comply with male coercion. In order to effectively demolish this thinking, we must call out stalking for love, and the systemic issues within popular culture that it represents, whenever we see it.

Sarah Liez writes primarily about gender issues and social phenomena. Write to her at [email protected]