Ladies, be warned: Exposure to romantic comedies may be hazardous to your health. A new study suggests that watching movies that feature persistent male suitors may lead women to take instances of stalking in the real world less seriously.
Julia R. Lipmann, a lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Department of Communications, examined how media exposure—in this case, watching movies—can affect women’s beliefs about stalking. Romantic comedies often showcase male characters who relentlessly pursue former or prospective flames, but occasionally take it too far. Take Ben Stiller in the ’90s rom-com classic There’s Something about Mary. Stiller’s character hires a private investigator to track down Mary, played by Cameron Diaz, thirteen years after they were supposed to go to prom together. He is joined by a roster of other male characters who resort to relentless, deceitful behavior to try win Mary’s hand.
Could seeing that kind of behavior in movies influence women to take the threat of stalking less seriously in real life? Lippman’s results were mixed, but she found some cases in which exposure to that kind of behavior onscreen might impact a woman’s assessment of real-life risk.
Lipmann divided about 400 young, mostly white women into three groups and showed each group a different type of film. A control group watched films that didn’t feature male suitors of any kind, like the animal documentary March of the Penguins. A “rom-com” group watched movies like There’s Something About Mary, in which a young, white male pursues a “former, existing, or desired” female partner, and the behavior is portrayed as romantic. Lastly a “scary movie” group watched films which featured frightening but non-violent stalking behavior by a male protagonist, like Sleeping With the Enemy, in which an abusive husband tracks down his wife after she fakes her own death.
Each movie was condensed into about 30 minutes. After watching, each subject was asked a series of questions about how they perceived the movie, such as whether they found the film funny and whether they thought the pursuer’s actions were appropriate. Participants were also asked about what Lippman calls ”stalking myths,” or harmful ideas about stalking, for example, that a person who goes to such lengths to follow a person must really be in love, or that the victim somehow asked for the behavior.
Lippman learned that women were significantly more likely to agree with the stalking myths if they found the rom-coms they watched highly realistic. Otherwise, just watching romantic comedies didn’t make women more likely to agree with the myths—their assessment of those kinds of statements didn’t differ significantly from the women’s responses in the control group.
Watching the same pursuant behaviors in scary movies made the subjects more likely to disagree with stalking myths, regardless of how realistic they found them. Their endorsement of stalking myths was significantly lower than the responses of women in the rom-com group.
So it seems like watching Stiller doggedly chase after Diaz thirteen years after their failed prom date is a relatively harmless activity—as long as you know that that’s not how real life works.