Frisky Rant: On Hollywood’s Propagation Of The “Romantic Stalker” Trope
I first saw “As Good As It Gets” with an ex-boyfriend who touted it as one of his all-time favorite movies. He defended it as a deeply hopeful romance that touched on strong emotional themes: a hermit misanthrope finds a slice of light and hope in the form of Helen Hunt, and honestly, who doesn’t want that for themselves?
It’s undeniable that my revulsion with this film is linked to how close to home it hit: our relationship was co-dependent and largely built on manipulation and insecurity, so seeing a movie he loved that showed delusion and lack of boundaries as a cornerstone of “romance,” immediately triggered something for me.
Let me preface this by saying: I’m a fan of Jack Nicholson. I enjoy the elasticity of his face and the breadth of character-types he embodies. My intention isn’t to roast a 20-year-old movie and tell people they are “bad” or “good” for enjoying it – I enjoy countless “problematic” plotlines. If we banned every story that had messy or malfunctioning characters, we would be left with, well, nothing of substance. People are flawed; stories, fiction and non-fiction should highlight those flaws in various ways.
However, there is such a thing as a toxic trope, and the “romantic stalker” trope is a dangerous favorite of Hollywood. This male protagonist is some variation of awkward, angry or underestimated. He finds a woman he’s interested in, but she’s not interested, or she’s busy with other things, or she’s already in a relationship, and it’s likely she has straight out said, “No, go away. This isn’t a good idea. Leave me alone.” The male protagonist valiantly knows deep in his soul that all this woman needs is to be convinced, so he won’t take no for an answer and keeps pursuing her, his persistence presented as loyal and devoted, rather than creepy and boundary-crossing.
He could be John Cusack playing the determined Lloyd Dobber in “Say Anything,” who leaves an obscene amount of voicemails on Diane’s phone and routinely just shows up on private property; Melvin (Nicholson) from “As Good As It Gets,” who stalks Helen Hunt in her apartment building and at work after repeatedly being told to leave her alone; or even better, Ted Stroehner from “There’s Something About Mary,” who actually hires a private investigator to track down “Mary” a full 13 years after their failed first date.
Here’s the thing: I love a good stalker movie. There are few tropes more compelling than a meticulously obsessive stalker who manages to invade and ruin the life of a protagonist. Stalking is real, terrifying, and fascinating, and makes for a far more compelling plotline than a functional relationship. My problem with the movies above and their male leads is that they are presented as romantic heroes, but their wooing tactics are straight up invasive and obsessive, and not particularly different from those employed in actual stalker movies, except in these romantic comedies, their target ends up falling for them in the end.
The key difference with Hollywood’s execution of the female stalker type is they are actually treated as stalkers – dangerous, often seductive, but very scarcely is a female stalker presented as a likable underdog who deserves to get the guy (or girl). “Fatal Attraction” gave us the term “bunny boiler”; “Single White Female” permeates the fears of every apartment dweller seeking a Craigslist roommate; “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” plays out every parent’s worst fear when they hire a nanny for their children – and all of these films thrive on the fact that they embrace the manipulative and psychologically narcissistic nature of their stalker protagonist. Yet in many romantic comedies, the male lead’s manipulative, entitled narcissism is treated as endearing and harmless, painting a dangerous picture of consent and seduction.
Bring me movies about stalkers, psychopaths, and emotionally inept people! Produce works with bizarre characters who have no sense of boundaries, that show the humiliating lengths people will go to in order to “get what they want.” But don’t call them romantic comedies. Don’t conflate love with male domination and the scary notion that women don’t know what they want. At best, it’s coddling our warped sensibilities of connection and romance, and at worst, it’s deeply dangerous.