“One Person’s Blackmail is Another Person’s Love Story”: Violation of Boundaries as On-Screen Romance
By Natalie Moore | 11.03.2019
Most women know the feeling. That feeling. You’re sitting on the subway, walking down the street, or eating somewhere alone when you feel someone looking. Maybe you look up to see who. Check who else is around. Maybe you stare a bit deeper into your phone to avoid eye contact. Or maybe you oblige their bid for your attention.
If you’ve chosen to look back downward, then he’ll probably wave a hand in front of your face. Maybe he gestures for you to remove an earbud. Or, if it’s really your lucky day, maybe he follows you down the block, assuring you that he just wants to talk, honey.
If you’re a woman, you have likely become accustomed to carrying a toolkit for these situations. Everyone’s kit is different — for years mine was an imitation-gold gemstone ring which I wore every day on my left ring finger. For others it’s a fake phone call, furiously scrolling through social sites, intently texting a friend, giving away faux digits in a bar, or mentioning the charming, strong (imaginary) boyfriend waiting for you at home.
The burden of utilizing these tools as survival mechanisms can make it feel as though others have decided that they know what we want more than we do. Telling someone no out of the sheer desire to disengage is often not enough — heterosexual men pursuing a woman often don’t accept the “no” without a “why.” This sense of entitlement to our time and energy can be exhausting, frightening, and at worst a very real threat to our wellbeing.
Thanks to the strength of activists like Tarana Burke and #MeToo era assault survivors, women are now publicly holding one another up; listening to and supporting each other in the same way we always have been in private. But, with the often-horrifying crimes of men crossing the line with strangers, employees, coworkers, or intimate partners still coming to light, these survival kits are just as necessary as ever.
While a public understanding of the role unwanted sexual attention plays behind the scenes in Hollywood is relatively new, the entertainment industry’s output of content has been speaking this truth to us for years. Time and time again, harassment, sexual abuse, and coercion have been exercised as plot devices to move romance forward in film and television.
It should come, then, as no surprise that many of the people who have been producing these stories are guilty of such behaviour in real life. And furthermore, that these on-screen “tactics” for aggressively pursuing women have bled out into the public consciousness, convincing audiences that relentless, forceful attempts at sex and seduction are indicative of romance rather than violence.
The hit American sitcom Friends ran for ten seasons from 1994-2004, following the lives of six twenty-something friends navigating careers, love, and life in New York City. Friends inspired a generation of running jokes and pop culture references (“PIVOT!” or “Smelly Cat” might ring a bell). The show provided audiences with a decade-long television experience featuring shared emotional highs and lows. We followed the friends through their transitions into and out of marriages, jobs, and ultimately starting their own families and embarking on their thirties.
As fans of Friends know, one of the show’s most compelling plotlines was the constant, merciless will-they-or-won’t-they of Rachel Green and Ross Geller. Ross (David Schwimmer), the paleontologist brother of notoriously Type-A chef Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), is set up from the show’s pilot as a likely romantic interest for the newly single Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). Throughout the show’s ten seasons, fans gushed over Ross and Rachel, crying along with their fallouts and rejoicing in their reunions.
In retrospect, the saga of Ross and Rachel’s on-again, off-again relationship is less a tale of enduring love, and more realistically a tale of Ross’s relentless, often hostile pursuit of Rachel. Ross’s first audience-witnessed introduction to Rachel comes in the series pilot, when Rachel enters the group’s famous coffee shop headquarters, Central Perk. Wearing a wedding dress, Rachel had just run out of her own ill-fated wedding. Ross is similarly at a low point following his own wife Carol’s coming out as a lesbian and announcing her decision to move out (a subplot which is problematically portrayed as a deliberate slight toward Ross rather than a woman coming late in life into her queer identity). Ross sees Rachel in the wedding dress, and recalling his schoolboy crush on her, decides that Rachel will be his ticket to a new, happier start — with or without her indication of interest.
Ross’s biggest red flag, aside from his day one tone-deaf insistence that Rachel is his soulmate, is the way his character often expresses his feelings of “love” through insults, aggression, and controlling behaviour. In season eight, episode nine, “The One with the Rumor,” it is revealed that high-school Ross had started an “I hate Rachel” club with two other male classmates. The club, which functioned to punish Rachel for not taking an active interest in Ross, cultivated the episode’s titular transphobic “rumor” about her genitalia. Throughout the series, Ross regularly sabotages Rachel’s other relationships, shouts in rage during their arguments, and spies on her interactions with other men at work.
Ross and Rachel are a remarkable example of the phenomenon that frames harassment as romance. However, Ross’s tendency to control and stalk his love interests is hardly original to his character, to the Friends franchise, or to 1990s television. In this modern TV and film era, Rhett Butler’s displays of physical violence in Gone With The Wind (1939) registers as shocking. Nevertheless, male protagonists stalking, coercing, and otherwise violating women’s boundaries are still common narrative devices in romantic comedies. While the outright brutality of this behaviour has been increasingly lightened up and repackaged over time, it persists. The likelihood of a physically abusive man appearing as the romantic hero has (thankfully) decreased with time, but the more subtle manipulative behaviour demonstrated by many of romance’s favourite leading men of recent decades is equally troubling.
Two films which repeatedly resurface in other articles and discussions of this phenomenon are early-aughts classics The Notebook and Love Actually. Both films, released in 2004 and 2003 respectively, are modern staples of the romantic film genre. The Notebook tells the troubled tale of two young lovers in the 1940s American South: rugged, working-class Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and teen heiress Allison "Allie" Hamilton (Rachel McAdams). Despite the questionable dynamics of their relationship, The Notebook persists as one of the most highly regarded romantic films in recent memory. Throughout the film their love appears unbreakable, defying all odds. The couple endures Noah’s enlistment in World War II, Allie’s family’s Shakespearean opposition to a boy like Noah, and Allie’s dementia in old age, through which Noah patiently remains by her side.
This onslaught of tear jerking romance makes it easy to forget to look critically at how Noah and Allie get their start. Teenage Allie is on a double date at a carnival, riding bumper cars when Noah spies her from afar. Noah approaches her and, without introducing himself, asks her to dance. When Allie denies his request, he persists, demanding she explain why not. She looks to the side as her voice wavers, rebuffing him once again: “because I don’t want to.” Allie, who then agrees to ride the ferris wheel with her date, walks away, momentarily scoring an out from the unpleasant interaction. “Did you see he was standing like two inches away from my face?” she says to her girlfriend, the two arm in arm eating cotton candy. “That’s just Noah — I think he likes you!” her friend responds, setting the tone for what the audience is asked to understand as a worthy romantic pursuit.
Then in an unforgettable moment, Noah rushes towards the ferris wheel as it ascends with Allie and her date on board a carriage. Allie screams in protest when Noah jumps onto her car, wedging himself in between the couple. Atop the carnival, he introduces himself and again presses her to entertain his advances. In a clear violation of her boundaries, Noah forces her to learn his name and listen to his request. When the operator brings the ride to a grinding halt, Noah climbs out of his seat and into the frame of the wheel, hanging by two hands above a deadly drop: “Now will you go out with me?” Allie, and this time her date as well (“Hey pal, she just told you [no]...”), attempt to deflect Noah’s request. In what is coded as “romantic” desperation, Noah releases one hand (“Now you’ve left me no choice”), essentially threatening public suicide for Allie’s refusal. A screaming Allie eventually relents and — out of fear — agrees to the date.
In Love Actually, viewers are asked to follow along a series of vignettes dealing with love, loss, and new beginnings, all taking place throughout London near the holiday season. Each story subtly overlaps with one another, through work and familial relations, as well as happenstance. One of the more memorable scenes of this dual Christmas Movie/Rom-Com classic is the one with “the sign guy” — Mark (Andrew Lincoln) arriving at Juliet’s (Keira Knightley) doorstep in the night with a stack of poster papers proclaiming his love.
The Mark and Juliet vignette is, actually, a Juliet and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) story. Mark and Peter are best friends, and Mark recently shot footage of Peter and Juliet’s wedding. When Juliet stops by Mark’s apartment unannounced to see the wedding footage, he repeatedly shies away, bluffing that he lost the tape and shifting uncomfortably with his hands in his pockets. Juliet, who has arrived bearing pie, divulges her true feelings to Mark: “I know you’re Peter’s best friend, and I know you’ve never particularly warmed to me, but I just wanted to say I hope that can change.”
Juliet has been bearing the burden of Mark’s standoffish behaviour, believing that she had made a bad impression on her husband’s closest friend. Her plea for a chance is followed up in short order by her discovery of the wedding tape on a nearby shelf. Under a barrage of protests from Mark, Juliet removes her coat and pops in the VHS tape. What follows is an excruciating minute long glimpse at Mark’s footage. Peter is completely absent from the tape, replaced by unbroken closeups and panning shots of Juliet’s face and body. Juliet sits in stunned silence before responding, “but you never talk to me,” understandably confused as to how someone who has shown her so little human decency could be pining away for her in secret.
Mark and Juliet’s section of the film ends on Christmas Eve when the doorbell rings at Peter and Juliet’s home. Juliet opens the door to reveal Mark, putting his finger to his lips in a “hush” motion and instructing Juliet to keep her husband away by saying carolers are at the door. Juliet stands in the doorway, “Silent Night” chiming in the background, as Mark drops the signs one by one, proclaiming his “love.” This nighttime stalk is rewarded by a brief kiss from Juliet, allowing Mark to disappear into the night with a clear conscience and some consolatory physical affection from his best friend’s partner.
In researching these films I found, rather quickly, a slew of Buzzfeed lists of The Virtues of Love We All Learned from The Notebook, as well as a Cosmopolitan article about how Juliet from Love Actually is a terrible person for “leading Mark on” and wearing “quite skimpy clothing” despite the fact that it is winter in the movie. These specific examples, as well as the films’ lasting appeal amongst global audiences, drive home the theory that blatant displays of men bullying, coercing, insulting, and ignoring women who won’t sleep with them are acceptable methods of courtship. A woman who won’t date you now will eventually change her mind if you just force her to give you one chance. Aggressively dismissing an attractive, taken woman may one day inspire her to kiss you when you pop up at her door in the middle of the night unannounced.
While the plot device of men abusing women into loving them has persisted as long as the entertainment industry itself, the question remains what, if anything, can change the diffuse acceptance of these stories. Though it might seem unfair that the entire burden for stomping out these narratives should fall on women and other marginalized groups, we, and our allies appear to be the greatest hope.
Women-run films and television shows are still unfortunately uncommon in the awards circuit and on the big screen, but they are beginning to emerge more frequently, subtly shaking the foundations of the industry. One notable example is comedian Rachel Bloom’s award-winning series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In it, Bloom steps into the role of the series’ anti-hero Rebecca Bunch, who at the beginning of the series is shown unhappy, stressed out and struggling at her fast-paced, high-level attorney job in New York. On the same day that she is offered a promotion to partner at her firm, Rebecca has an unexpected run-in on the street with her first boyfriend from summer camp, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) who reveals that he is planning to move back home to West Covina, California. Rebecca, in her relatable desire to escape from the quotidian and turn over a new leaf, makes a slightly less relatable decision to chase Josh to a new life; rejecting the prestigious firm’s promotion and starting over at a tiny rinky-dink law office in California.
Throughout the show’s three seasons to date, Rebecca becomes increasingly more involved in Josh’s life, plotting and executing chessboard moves with Josh’s family, girlfriend, and friends in an attempt to reel him closer to her as, she believes, they are meant to be. The show’s familiar theme of “stalking-as-determined-romantic-pursuit” is turned on its head, both with the main character’s gender role reversal as well as the show’s frequent nods to mental illness and past trauma as motivators for Rebecca’s actions. In the show’s first California-based scene, Rebecca is shown dumping all of her antidepressant medications down a sink, believing that California — and Josh — will cure her in a way that medicine could not.
What Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (in my opinion, successfully) attempts to emphasize is that Rebecca’s tendency for stalking and manipulation is never normalized or presented as a good idea. Rebecca is an anti-hero from the start but never does the show attempt to convince the viewer that stalking, manipulation, or not taking “no” for an answer are acceptable behaviours. Rebecca’s repeated crossing of Josh’s boundaries always gets her in more trouble in the long run, and any positive results of her actions are extremely brief and fleeting.
If the core Rebecca and Josh plotline is also not enough to drive the point home, Bloom’s script includes a secondary character named Trent Maddock (Paul Welsh), a former Harvard classmate of Rebecca’s who serves early on as her fake boyfriend in one of her madcap schemes to deceive Josh for her own benefit. Trent, with his slick American Psycho looks and unnerving smile, is later found out to be Rebecca’s own obsessive admirer: “Rebecca Bunch, I have loved you since the moment that I saw you freshman year in the cafeteria,” he reveals to a shocked Rebecca.
Repeatedly throughout the series, Trent pops up almost like a jump-scare in a horror film, and is consistently rebuffed by Rebecca. He is never given the benefit of the doubt, never portrayed as a viable romantic partner, and always (albeit with humour) emphasized to be a threat rather than a loving, caring individual. (“You know what they say: one person's blackmail is another person's love story!”)
While we can’t all create innovative, subversive television series to fight back as Rachel Bloom has, we as the audience do have the buying and viewing power to determine the success of media which depicts abuse as romance. If we chose to give our dollars, reviews, and attention only to stories that are ethical and respectful of women, we can begin to make a difference. In the same way, intentionally speaking up against and abstaining from viewing movies that — whether on screen or behind the scenes — have exploited people’s boundaries also makes a difference. For every person who stops buying tickets to Woody Allen movies, stops streaming that rerun of Twilight, or changes the channel on shows depicting abuse as playful, misogynist media gradually loses its strength.
We have the power to determine how the next generation views the importance of women's autonomy — and we need to exercise it as often as possible. Then someday, maybe, we can put away our survival kits for good.
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