The Problem with Unrequited Love
by Charlotte Moore
Whether he’s stood outside your house with a boombox or a gun, why (in 2019) does no, not mean no?
Cards on the table? My guilty pleasure has always been Love Actually.
For many years, I swooned over the guy that turned up on Keira Knightley's doorstep, clutching placards about how perfect she is. But, I don’t know if it’s the fact I’m getting older, or maybe just more cynical, but, public declarations of love seem more and more unappealing.
As someone that loves film, certain tropes have become familiar. The “manic pixie dream girl” that drags you into a fountain on a rainy night, the nervous teenage protagonist in need of a makeover and, most importantly, the heartbroken man that pursues his love interest at all costs.
Because, for so long, women have been sold the idea that the heartbroken man is entitled to claim his prize. It’s been romanticised and so ingrained in our culture, that we forget that the women who turned him down in the first place had a reason for doing so.
This entitlement is responsible for so much violence against women; it’s no wonder that so many women are forced to stand grinning on the metaphorical doorstep when an uninvited acquaintance turns up to pursue them again.
Who can forget Elliot Rodgers? The self-proclaimed ‘nice guy’, that after being rejected by women who didn’t want to have sex with him, embarked on a mass killing spree. A self-proclaimed ‘Incel’ (an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one), Rodger’s felt completely entitled to a relationship, with no thought or consideration for women's opinions and discouragement. It sounds like a huge leap, to go from doorstep romance to gun violence, but the result is the same. Women’s autonomy will be second to the outrage of a heartbroken man.
It’s not just the film industry that romanticises stalking and other dangerous behaviours. Tabloid media is also quick to leap on the bandwagon. Take the case of Luke Howard, a man who claimed he would sit in a park, playing the piano until his ex-girlfriend returned to him. His stunt was designed to show her, just how much he loved her.
The Bristol Post sang praises over Howard’s ‘romantic dedication’, but despite his eternal key banging threat, she didn’t return. Possibly because he was a bad boyfriend, or maybe because of his petulance and desire to pressure a woman he supposedly loved into returning to him. Howard’s behaviour was in no way romantic - he simply felt entitled to claim his prize.
There’s no doubt that rejection is painful. We can all recall the desolation of unrequited love, but why are we so accepting of men who refuse to accept that the end is really the end?
Even viewing sitcoms with a more female (and cynical gaze), there’s always a relationship that is endlessly pursued on one side only. With currently one of the most popular sitcoms, ‘The Big Bang Theory’, demonstrating this in the worst possible way. Remove the canned laughter and Penny’s comment, ‘He just wore me down,’ feels as unpleasant as it truly is.
This behaviour, one that creeps into living rooms and big screens tells young men that acting this way is not only acceptable, but romantic, and on occasions even humorous.
In fact, academic Julia R Lippman, who specialises in gender violence, cited in her 2015 research project that her findings ‘indicate that media portrayals of gendered aggression can have prosocial effects and that the romanticised pursuit behaviours commonly featured in the media as a part of normative courtship can lead to an increase in stalking-supportive beliefs.’
Basically, when audiences see that lead male characters growth and story-arc is based around the pursuit and persistence (despite discouragement) of women, it implies that this is a positive way to build relationships.
It also highlights that growth, for male characters, is achieved by pressure and public declarations of one-way feelings. That growth as a person is achieved by ignoring what women want.
And, while women in media and film have their own specific challenges as to making strides towards equality. We must acknowledge that we too are complicit in changing the narrative around men’s heartbreak and hurt. Women are more likely to attend these sort of films, and voting with our feet and money is the best solution.
I still hold Richard Curtis’s filmography close to my heart. I rejoice in storylines around love, patience and acceptance. But, reflectively I can’t ignore that the line between ‘getting the girl’ and entitlement are narrowing.
Most importantly, I can finally see this behaviour for what it really is.
Dangerous. And women deserve better.
Charlotte Moore is a Manchester based freelance writer and blogger, contributing to a number of magazines and platforms. You can find her on Instagram @girlonfilm__ or her website (www.girlonfilm.co.uk).