Imagine this: A man named Ted hires a private detective to track down his prom date from 13 years prior. The detective finds her, falls in love with her, lies to Ted about the object of his affection in an attempt to make him lose interest in her. Meanwhile the PI goes to great, if somewhat, creepy lengths to win her over.
Ted emerges on the scene and deceives his longtime crush. (She didn’t know about him hiring a detective to find her, you see.) His lying is exposed, yet somehow he still gets the girl.
In real life, this could be the beginning of a stalking case. In “There’s Something About Mary” and other rom-coms like it, the message is: Grand gestures will make a woman fall for a man, even if she seems uninterested. No matter how high the obstacles, love conquers all.
But take out the comedy, and some of the most “romantic” movies of the past 30 years are actually super-creepy. If viewers are still laughing, though, does it matter that the story line is a little sick?
A new study says that it does. “I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs About Stalking,” published in the journal Communication Research — finds that movies portraying persistent romantic pursuit of a female character can influence viewers’ beliefs about stalking.
Namely, if a viewer thinks of a romantic comedy as realistic, they’re more likely to agree with stalking myths such as: “Many alleged stalking victims are actually people who played hard to get and changed their minds afterwards” or “An individual who goes to the extremes of stalking must really feel passionately for his or her love interest.”
The study looked at 426 female undergraduates’ responses to romantic comedies (“There’s Something About Mary” and “Management”) and psychological thrillers (“Enough” and “Sleeping With the Enemy”) that feature a man persistently pursuing a woman. When the study participants watched the scary movies, they were less likely to believe myths about stalking, and to see the behavior as dangerous.
But in a comedy, the creepiness somehow looks sweet. The research, run by Julia R. Lippman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, noted that media depictions of men aggressively pursuing a woman who doesn’t seem interested “can in fact have a clear and negative impact, in that they can lead people to see stalking as a less serious crime than they otherwise would.”
Encouraging stalking behavior can have real, damaging consequences. According to the National Center for victims of Crime, one in six women and one in 19 men have experienced stalking.
What would “There’s Something About Mary” look like if it were framed as a thriller rather than a comedy? My colleague Daron Taylor made a faux trailer for the film that gives it a completely different sentiment. Watch it above and you’ll see that the tone of this light and funny comedy suddenly turns dark.