As first posted on feministbookclub.com
Why do so many of the love stories we love have stalking attached to them? I think our culture is obsessed with obsession.
January was National Stalking Awareness Month, but its never too late to talk about how stalking tropes sneak its way into so many of our love stories.
What is stalking?
For context and clarity, the definition of stalking is “a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for the person’s safety or the safety of others; or suffer substantial emotional distress.”
When we think about stalking, we usually think about people hiding in bushes, following people around in weird trench coats. Or we think of Joe from You (or not, but I’ll talk about that later).
But stalking can include a myriad of tactics. These include unwanted phone calls, texts, or sliding into DMs, leaving unwanted gifts, showing up at random places or approaching family/friends, monitoring whereabouts, threats to safety, and property damage.
I’m bracing myself for people to argue “Well, the women in these books and movies don’t fear for their safety or have substantial emotional distress.”
If you took out a character solely designed to fall in love with this other person, do you think the behavior the “purser” is using would cause you, as a reasonable person, fear or distress? Answer this question as if you didn’t believe the person was attractive.
Benign stalking is still stalking
Stalking in romance can, like almost all things, occur on a spectrum. My parents’ own love story started off because my dad was stalkerish. Nothing says love like looking up the new girl in the employee records to get her phone number and address. My mom did NOT like that, but alas, I am here.
Most of the time in our favorite romance novel or rom-com, we see examples of benign stalking. The first example I think about is the beloved classic Black 90’s romantic drama, Love Jones, where Darius gets Nina’s address from a check she wrote and shows up to her house, which she also didn’t like.
Pressing friends or associates for information on the person, showing up “casually” or intentionally, and/or leaving unwanted gifts are things I’ve seen in many romances. We consume these things and code them in our brains as romantic. This is problematic, especially when we already socialize women/femmes to sacrifice our boundaries for the sake of being “nice”.
This trope is creepy, especially if it was meant to be
One of the most celebrated love stories from my adolescence is Edward and Bella from Twilight. Edward is so cringey. He followed Bella around in people’s thoughts all day! He showed up in random places where she wasn’t expecting him. And breaking into her bedroom to watch her sleep at night was super “romantic”.
Our impressionable millennial minds took all of this in and equated this behavior (that made Bella real uncomfortable at first, mind you) to passion. We wanted someone to love and care about us this deeply. If you didn’t gaslight us, control who we hung out with and where we were, and isolate us from our friends and family, was it really love??
Joe is my favorite to talk about because he is textbook stalking. You is a thriller, not a romance. Everything Joe does is creepy. We are supposed to witness his behavior and feel a sense of fear.
But because everyone wants to sexualize Penn Badgley, we minimize Joe’s behaviors. One of my students, who was 18 at the time, jokingly/not jokingly said she wished she could be one of Joe’s victims because he’s fine attractive. I could go on about how we overly sexualize white men when doing evil things (*cough* the Dahmer show on Netflix *cough*), but I’ll stop at this example… for now.
Whether it’s benign stalking or cringe-level stalking, when we connect these behaviors to love, it makes it more difficult to trust ourselves when we do feel fear in these situations. It makes it more difficult for us to ask for help when other people minimize these behaviors.
I’m not saying you personally won’t find a “secret admirer” leaving notes on your desk romantic. I’m saying to trust your gut if you feel like someone’s behavior doesn’t feel right to you and to believe the person who says that type of behavior makes them uncomfortable. And please, don’t stalk other people!