Romantic comedies normalize stalking, study finds

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University of Michigan researcher Julia R. Lippman conducted a study to answer an age-old question: creepy or romantic?

Lippman used positive and negative portrayals of stalking behavior in Hollywood movies to see if women become desensitized to aggressive male behavior based on what they see in films.

In the study, Lippman showed each subject an excerpt from one of six films: There's Something About Mary and Management, which portray romantic pursuits positively; Enough and Sleeping With the Enemy, which have negative portrayals of stalking; or neutral films March of the Penguins and Winged Migration. After the screenings, subjects answered survey questions about stalking myths — and women who watched the first two films tended to be more accepting of such behavior.

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"Stalking myths are false or exaggerated beliefs about stalking that minimize its seriousness, which means that someone who more strongly endorses these tends to take stalking less seriously," Lippman told Canada's Global News. The study was sparked in part by her interest in how society trivializes this behavior, as with the concept of "Facebook stalking."

"At their core, all these films are trading in the 'love conquers all' myth," Lippman said. "Even though, of course, it doesn't. Love is great, but so is respect for other people.This is true even when people tell you things you don't want to hear."

The Guardian recently linked the conflation of stalking and romance in Indian films to actual social and legal perceptions of appropriate male behavior toward women. Consistent representation of men agitating women as they pursue romantic attention normalizes the behavior, teaching audiences that women will eventually relent and respond to such advances.

"The romanticized pursuit behaviors commonly featured in the media as a part of normative courtship can lead to an increase in stalking-supportive beliefs," Lippman wrote in the abstract of her study, adding that this "may have implications for the legal support female stalking victims are able to access."

Her findings are meant to spur a greater cultural understanding of gendered aggression.

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