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Opinion As Valentine's Day approaches, spot the romanticisation of stalking in popular culture

Members of the Active*Consent team take a look at how popular movies can make behaviours like stalking look ‘romantic’.

IN THE LEAD-UP to Valentine’s Day, we will inevitably be bombarded with images of ideal romance. From TV and film to music and celebrity culture, you simply cannot escape the deluge of love – with grand gestures, public proposals and love-conquers-all attitudes.

On the surface, this all seems like a rose-tinted, heart-shaped dream. But when you take a cold, hard look at the behaviours pop culture endorses as “romantic”, one has to ask – is it stalking disguised as romance?

While pop culture has typically taught us that you never give up trying to win over (or win back) the object of your affections, unwanted romantic gestures are a sign of unhealthy behaviour and could be categorised as stalking.

Stalking isn’t always a stranger just following their victim around. Stalking is any repeated behaviour(s) that are fixated, obsessive and unwanted. It could be anything from continuous text messaging to sending inappropriate gifts. The sinister nature of these intentional actions can have a detrimental impact on victims/survivors.

One clear example of stalking in TV is from the popular television series “You”. This show, which is now at the beginning of its fourth season, follows the actions of stalker and killer Joe (Penn Badgeley).

@netflix Joe narrated a fan's video #narratemejoe #younetflix ft: @kaseyf ♬ original sound - Netflix

Chillingly enough, the character of Joe has reached internet-heartthrob status, with users on TikTok creating videos imagining Joe’s internal monologue as he watches them from afar.

‘You love me, you just don’t know it yet’

Oftentimes, pop culture endorses stalking behaviour in the most covert of ways – such as in the “You love me, you just don’t know it yet” subset of romantic comedies.

Typically, the story goes that a non-threatening romantic hero aims to win over (or win back) his true love through the means of some slightly surrealist methods (like time travel, or 24-hour amnesia).

If these films are brought down to their simplest elements, one finds a man manipulating the ‘object of his affection’ into falling for him. This is all in the pursuit of “true love” because in his mind, they are perfect for each other – she just doesn’t know it yet.

In “About Time”, the cute and bumbling Domhnall Gleason uses his ability to travel back in time to re-do his first interaction with Rachel McAdams. Despite a few missteps, he eventually learns enough about her (from their several re-lived interactions and by following her around) to present himself as her ideal man and sweep her off her feet.

In “Groundhog Day”, the curmudgeonly Bill Murray similarly relives the same day repeatedly. In so doing he learns as much as he can about Andie McDowell so he can manipulate her into sleeping with him. Eventually, he falls in love with her, making his efforts to win her over all the more pure and heroic.

The protector

Another way in which popular media can subtly (or not so subtly) endorse stalking behaviour is by depicting the stalker as a “protector”, watching over their (usually female) love interest, unbeknownst to her.

However, much like About Time and Groundhog Day, little or no focus is given to the women who are being followed and watched without their knowledge. Of course, it makes for a great story!

However, we need to remember that young people watching these movies may well look at the superhero protagonists as role models and can grow up believing that following their love interests around in order to “protect them” is how you show love.

Why does it matter?

While calling out the stalker-ish elements in these romantic comedies and superhero films might seem like needless nit-picking, the women in these stories don’t have any agency – they are being followed, monitored and controlled by some guy who, in most cases, they don’t even know.

Not only that, in Groundhog Day and About Time the romantic heroines have the entire trajectory of their lives altered by the hero without their knowledge, consent or input.

What we are left with is a myriad of romantic comedies telling young men that it’s ok to manipulate the women they love, because their intentions are pure.

The main issue is that with everyone being, hopefully, the heroes of their own story – it makes it more difficult to recognise the difference between what pop culture says is romantic, and behaviour that is manipulative, controlling, obsessive or even abusive.

Upcoming legal approaches

Here in Ireland, a stand-alone stalking offence has recently been approved by the government and will be enacted by summer. Stalking is currently being prosecuted under the 1997 Harassment legislation, which is vague and outdated. The new legislation will allow people who are being stalked to apply for civil protection orders.

Although there is some overlap between stalking and harassment behaviours, it is important to note that the intentions behind the two are often different.

It is vital that our laws include language that reflects people’s experiences. Glamourising stalking in rom-coms may seem innocent, but it has a real world impact on how we understand consent, healthy relationships, and abuse in our own lives.

Alexandra Black, Eva O’Byrne, Eve McDowell, and Dr Caroline West are part of the Active* Consent team. Find out more at


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