John Cusack holds a boombox over his head outside Ione Skye’s window. Ryan Gosling dangles precariously from a ferris wheel until Rachel McAdams promises to go out with him. The Love Actually guy confesses his love via cue cards to a surprised Keira Knightley.
These are iconic moments from some of the most romantic movies of the past 30 years and are also problematic depictions of the pursuit of love.
What’s often perceived in these films as a heroic man taking charge and pursuing the woman he loves no matter the cost — or what she wants — would in reality be stalking (John Cusack lurking outside the window), coercion (Ryan Gosling threatening to take his own life) and making “grand gestures” (Love Actually guy might actually be a creep for suddenly pouring his heart out to his best friend’s wife).
“A lot of these films essentially normalize stalking and coercive behaviours,” explains Roxanne Runyon, Sexual Violence Prevention and Education coordinator. “If we think about films as teaching us about love and relationships, it sets up unhealthy expectations and normalizes behaviours that are actually very harmful.”
But wait — are we really watching romantic comedies to learn something?
“I do sometimes hear from people that ‘it’s just a movie.’ But I really want to challenge this idea that media exists in another realm that doesn't shape how we understand ourselves, our world and how we relate to other people within it,” she says.
Making those links between the media we consume and our real lives is important. And it’s okay to watch these films as long as you have an understanding of how a scene in a movie may be normalizing unhealthy behaviour.
“For myself, I intentionally create space to turn off that critical lens,” says Roxanne. “I love Groundhog Day, it's one of my favourites, but when it comes to how Bill Murray’s character constantly engages in super problematic, creepy stalking behaviours, I don’t even know where to start!”
How to spot relationship red flags
Jealousy, coercion, emotional abuse and stalking are clearly signs of unhealthy relationships, but they’re not always easy to see. The Red Flag Campaign, on campus between February 11 and 15, is an international initiative to address dating violence.
And while there is nothing wrong with watching and enjoying these films, it’s important, as with anything in media, to view them with a critical lens from time to time and to challenge our perceptions of what is “normal” and “acceptable.”
“For so many of us, films and TV are part of our day-to-day lives,” says Roxanne. “We consume media all of the time, and that really adds to our lives in so many ways. It’s a way to connect with others and engage with different ideas. But it’s important to turn a critical lens on that which we encounter every day.”
This event is part of MacEwan University’s commitment to ending sexual violence. Learn more about the part we all have to play in creating a healthy campus at MacEwan.ca/SexualViolence.